A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 28 December 2013

Reformation: reflections on a compulsive book hoarder

It is almost 2014 and, to mirror the tradition of the time of year, I’d just like to reflect a moment on the year that was 2013. 2013 will always, now, be known to me as the year I realised I’d become a compulsive book hoarder and decided to do something about it. Like many self-discoveries, this one has been a journey and a journey that has not ended and will not end until I do. I have hoarding compulsions. Compulsions are rarely defeated easily (and if they are it is more probable that they have simply been mis-described, exaggerated).

I have stopped buying books, or rather I have largely stopped buying books. I consider this a considerable improvement. I have given in, now and again. I am starting to recognise the key danger signs: a winsome look from my daughter (a future hoarder if you ever saw one, as the pile of unread ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ books is a testament to); days when I’m feeling stressed or harried and I wander into the bookshop for a moment’s respite amongst the shelves; the death of a favoured author (which is my key excuse...I mean reason...for buying The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, which was really awfully good and a worthwhile buy). I will confess, now, to having bought several books in this past week. It was my birthday recently, and I was given some money with which to buy some books so I finally invested in The Story of the Stone, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. But that’s it. The money is spent. No more.  

I am starting to develop coping mechanisms, the most important of which was rediscovering the library which I remain ashamed to have forgotten. I must, at this point, take a moment to commend the absolute excellence of the Lancashire Library Service, which provides a brilliant service to the community. They have saved me several times from an impulsive purchase. Instead my first port of call is now always the library catalogue and I have been massively impressed at how quickly the Lancashire Library Service responds to a popular new book. Through them I have read most of the Booker nominated novels (those that I hadn’t already purchased before I stopped myself), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (marvellous) and the fantastic Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. The ability to reserve a book, even if I have to wait weeks for it, has been enough to assuage my urge. If there is one thing I have learned this year it is this: use your library. Even if only occasionally. They provide a magnificent service that helps so many people. At a time when they remain under threat, boots through the door will help to preserve them. They have books. They want you to take them.  

Re-reading is something I really want to work on next year. There are many books I would like to read again, and probably a small core of books that I would love to become a part of my being. Having whizzed through The Luminaries and The Goldfinch I would definitely like to read those two again (aided, I should add, by the kindness of a friend who gifted me with my own copies for my birthday). A Tale for The Time Being is another repeat I’d like to make, alongside other more established books in my collection: Lost Paradise and Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, Remainder by Tom McCarthy, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, Jane Eyre to name but a few. I could spend the whole year re-reading but I think I need to balance the re-reads against the unreads so my ‘to-read’ pile continues to shrink. And then there are the books yet to be. As always, my reading ambitions exceed my time and ability.

I haven’t read Proust. I read the first book of Proust and realised that if I stick to my pledge I may never buy another book again. I may simply be too young (not that I get to say that much anymore) or maybe I’m not of the right frame of mind, but I found his meanderingly pointless repetitiveness spectacularly unappealing. It doesn’t really matter now. I have learned so much about my book hoarding proclivities that I don’t think I need the barrier of Proust to prevent me. What I want to do instead is make sure that my buying matters, that it makes a difference. I am a proud subscriber to And Other Stories, a not for profit organisation that publish some amazing books on the back of individual subscriptions and I will continue to support this organisation (and encourage others to do the same) in spite of my commitment to hoard less. I would like to set aside a little money each month and allow myself a single purchase, but instead of buying from Amazon or The Book Depository or one of those other internet behemoths, instead I will head down to my local independent bookshop (Ebb & Flow in Chorley, which carries an excellent albeit small selection of books) and spend my money there. I feel much happier spending a little more but putting money into a local community business. There are so few these days, and my contribution will be small but hopefully valuable. Overall I intend to spend less on books, but make my purchases more considered and more carefully. I think that’s a reasonable goal, for the person who once bought 47 books in one go.

Sunday 15 December 2013

A touch of poetry: Mark Strand

You don’t hear of or see many people reading poetry these days; I guess it’s largely out of fashion. If you look hard enough you might catch the odd person admitting to reading some for school, or university, and then only sheepishly and rarely with an admission of enjoyment. ‘Oh, I read it because I had to,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s boring,’ or ‘I didn’t get it.’ They avoid eye contact, change the subject. I remember, once, telling someone I had an entire book of poetry and they looked at me, a quizzical uncertainty in their eye. ‘A book of poetry?’ they said. ‘Why would you read a whole book of poems?’ When I explained I owned many books of poems, it killed the conversation (thankfully, I should say).

Poetry, for me, occupies the same kind of space as music or art. It is something to be returned to, repeatedly, to be experienced as opposed to consumed. It is something that etches into me gradually, each reading bringing me something new and different. I am not too troubled by lack of understanding, which is not to say that I understand poetry naturally but rather I am willing to wait for understanding, in whatever form it takes, to seep into me gradually, over a course of weeks, months, years or decades. Or perhaps that understanding will remain forever out of my grasp, as is true of so many things. This does not trouble me. I do not need, or especially desire, understanding to enjoy or appreciate something. Perhaps understanding is a bonus, or not. Perhaps understanding kills the mystery. I do not find it strange that people read poetry, it only saddens me, a little, that so many do it so furtively and yet those same people might think nothing of listening to a song over and over until the beat of it sang in their veins and celebrating it.

It is perhaps because repetition, re-reading, is so much at the forefront of my mind these days that I got to thinking about poetry. Poetry, I find, benefits from multiple readings and often from readings that are separated by distances in time. Not just time, but also cognition. I am a different person now, have a different understanding and experience, to the me that read Boris Pasternak, so tentatively, at 18. I have mentioned this before, but there is something useful, marvellous even, in making that re-connection with the earlier versions of yourself. Through this we can learn how we have grown, yet remain the same. The me that reads poetry now is more confident than 18 year old me, but the gulf of understanding has not narrowed that greatly. This is both humbling and encouraging. It means that I still have space to grow, I must still seek and remain open. It means that in all my years of experience, I still have a way to go. I cannot assume that because I am older I know everything I need to know.

It was in this train of thought that I returned to the poetry of Mark Strand. Mark Strand, in case you have never encountered him, was once Poet Laureate of the United States, and writes poems which are landscapes or logical puzzles, which explore the connections between inner and outer self, our relationships with life and death. There is a lot of fun in his poetry, and much uncertainty. Some of his poems are extremely unsettling, and yet most are life-affirming, and over the course of the years (he has been writing for many, many years) there is a range of poetry such as it should suit just about anybody. For me, the focus has been on two collections: Darker and Selected Poems (Carcanet Press), largely because they are the two I own. If you want a taster of Strand’s poetry then the Carcanet Press book is a good place to start. Darker, however, is a collection you can seep yourself into and never have to come out. When I am feeling bleak, or uncertain, it is a collection I return to; I can lose myself in the tricky language, the linguistic puzzles and surprising precision. I can find myself again amongst the ‘Black Maps’, in the mysterious and surprising unravelling of truth within the questions he poses. I can laugh at his silliness, and the wit and wonder he displays in all of his work. My favourite poems, if it is possible to choose just a handful, are Black Maps, The Remains, The Prediction, My Life By Somebody Else. As a sampling, here is an extract of Black Maps:

Black Maps
Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

nor the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath..”.  

A full version of the poem, and a little more info about Strand, are available over at the Poetry Foundation website, which includes a sampling of his poems.

Strand’s poems have a modern, present feel although some of them were written over 40 years ago. There is something comforting about that, something wonderful. Perhaps it is Mark’s own words, from Seven Poems (also in Darker), that explain, better than I ever can, why poems are something to be returned to, over again, regardless of how uncertain they make you feel, how unsettling. Why poems are something which we should allow to become etched into our very bones, reminding us of what we know, which is nothing. Read a poem today, and then tomorrow. And next year when you’ve forgotten it all, read it again.

“I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in."

Mark Strand (Darker, 1976)

Sunday 8 December 2013

Great books to read over Christmas

‘It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas’ as the song goes. I have a few extra days off over Christmas and whenever I have a few extra days I like to spare a little extra thought to the extra reading I can do. Which is extra-good. Extra.

If, like me, you like to read something a bit Christmassy too, and you don’t really want to plough your way through the Bible, it’s good to have a few ideas for great Christmas reads up your sleeve. Here are my recommendations.  

The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens
Well it would be impossible to talk about great Christmas reads and not start here: the basis for many of our modern Christmas traditions. The most well known of Dickens’s Christmas stories is, of course, A Christmas Carol and if you don’t know the story, you must have been living in an alternate universe (and if so, can I swop and, hey, how are you reading this at all?). The Christmas Books, however, is much more than just A Christmas Carol. Why not read one of the other, less famous stories? The Chimes, sweetly paraphrased as ‘a Goblin story of some bells that rang an old year out and a new year in’ or The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Story, for what is Christmas without a good ghost story?     

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
I should admit, at this point, that this is the entire reason for this entry. EVERYONE should read The Dark is Rising, though I should point out that The Dark is Rising is for life, not just for Christmas. Spanning the twelve days of Christmas, The Dark is Rising is the story of a boy, Will, coming of age and discovering his powers. For Will is one of the ‘Old Ones’, a group of people charged with maintaining the ‘light’. But over Christmas, these twelve dark days the dark is rising and the world is in peril and Will must find the six signs that will forge a circle of light before the twelve days are over, or the dark will prevail. It is a story in which the snow is menacing, which is filled with darkness and light, drawing on ancient myths and legends and the long-standing traditions of the darkest time of year (in Western Europe, anyway). It is a truly magical, philosophical and thought provoking read. Go buy it now.

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
This is a great advent calendar of a book which is based around the idea advent calendar. Each day a small boy opens his advent calendar and each day he is given a small piece of a story, the story of Elizabet who is chasing a lamb. Alongside Elizabet are a group of people all heading towards the birth of the Christ-child. It is a story of mystery, and one good to read over the advent period, a piece of the puzzle per day.  

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago
Not entirely Christmassy, but it makes its way here as it is an interesting story about Christ. In this tale, Saramago presents to us Christ the man. A controversial book of its time, if you are a staunch Christian I cannot promise it will not offend. In this story, Saramago imagines for us the idea of Christ the man struggling with his godhood, wanting to be just a man and not a symbol. It is an interesting read. Saramago himself is a bit of an acquired taste, he doesn’t believe in speech marks or making it easy to follow who is speaking or breaking up blocks of text or paragraphs. So it can be a little daunting, but definitely worth the effort.  

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Perhaps it is the ever-presence of snow, or the fact that it is always winter and never Christmas, or perhaps it is the clear parallel between the sacrifice of Aslan and the sacrifice of Jesus, but there is a definite Christmassy feel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And there is magic, and a lamppost, and fauns and talking badgers. And a wicked witch who will turn you to stone if you don’t do what she wants. As will I mwah-ha-ha!

What are your favourite Christmas reads? Share, please share (‘tis the season, as they say).

Sunday 24 November 2013

The great but under-rated writers: Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson
 Tove Jansson is, perhaps, best known for her series of children’s books The Moomintrolls, a wonderful, quirky and eclectic set of stories about a mythical group of creatures who live in a strange kind of bohemian harmony. As a child I missed out on the Moomins, I didn’t encounter them somehow. I remember there was a TV series which I found strange and unsettling so didn’t watch, something about the fuzzy-feltish animation which was lost on me (though how is a mystery – this is awesome: )

Looking back, I wish I’d made more of an effort because the Moomins are brilliant, quirky and kind-spirited which pretty much sums up my experience of Tove Jansson.
Jansson strikes me as one of the great undiscovered treasures of Western European literary history. She is too often associated purely with her Moomins series yet even this should have a higher profile than it does. In my view it stands shoulder to shoulder with the ‘greats’ of children’s literature: Lewis Carroll (actually she’s better than Carroll), C S Lewis, E B White, and in fact a head above in many cases. More people should read her. So I’m telling you now: do it, read Jansson.

Despite her fame with the Moomins, Jansson also wrote a number of books for adults. A few of collections of short stories: The Summer Book and The Winter Book, alongside short but effective novels including The True Deceiver and Fair Play. There is not a bad word amongst them. Her work reminds me, in some respects, of the work of Italo Calvino, who also used short vignettes to express a fascinating depth and philosophy (I’m thinking here of Cosmicomics and the wonderful Mr Palomar). One of the things that particularly appeals to me about Jansson’s work is how it tends to focus on interplay between women, quite effortlessly as though, imagine, women had lives and ideas and an independent existence which didn’t rely upon men to make it real and important. That is not
Tove Jansson & Tuulikki Pietilä
to say that Jansson is a rampant bra-burning feminist, but rather that her work has an independent, self-reliant existences which is something which shouldn’t seem so shocking just because it also involves a woman. I also enjoy how closely her work mirrors her life in a kind of way which could, almost, be perceived as arrogant except that arrogant is absolutely the last word you would ever use to describe her work and rather I think it is more appropriate to say it has authority. The parallels to her own life are unmistakable: Jansson herself spent much of her life living on an island with her female partner Tuulikki Pietilä, similarly in the book Fair Play the story centres around two female artists living together on an island and includes known biographical details like Pietilä’s passion for making Kodak movies. The Summer Book centres around the relationship between the child Sophia and her Grandmother and again taking place on an island, this time it is Jansson’s real-life niece Sophie who serves as inspiration for the stories. My favourite of her novels is The True Deceiver, which is in itself a deceptive book simultaneously wintery and dark, sharp as icicles and blindingly perceptive. Focusing again on a key relationship between two women, both of whom are clever, talented and deceptively brilliant.

There is wisdom in Jansson’s writing, her pervasive philosophy runs like a vein of gold through everything she writes. It takes time to absorb, often hidden deceptively amongst the otherwise sweetly amusing lightly whimsical anecdotes she seems to be almost personally sharing with you. Like this, from the Summer Book:

‘“He is no longer among us,” Verner explained angrily.

“Oh, you mean he is dead,” said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too old or too young, or else they didn’t have time.

or this:

If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, head-long into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them even more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.

It is hard for me to articulate exactly what is so wonderful about Jansson. You simply have to read her. She is a philosopher. She is deep. She is brief and exact. She is deceptive and effortless. She is amusing and wise. She deserves to be read widely and often, her ideas taken into the core and believed. She would make us all better, more wonderful people. In my drive to limit, to restrict, my endlessly questing reading I have often held the excuse that there are newer, more wonderful ideas which simply have to be sought out, and yet I believe that if I only ever read Tove Jansson for the rest of my days my reading life would remain very rich indeed.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Ragnarök The End of the Gods – A S Byatt

In Ragnarök, another of the Canongate myths series, Byatt explores the world of the Norse Gods juxtaposed against the story of a young girl evacuee growing up during World War II. I should say, at this point, that I absolutely love the Norse myths and I have recently finished reading the quite wonderful Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland which is amazing and which I’ll blog about a little bit later, probably. So I was expecting a lot from this book.

The Norse elements of Ragnarök are wonderfully written. Byatt weaves the myths out of nothingness into being with prose that is both light and deep, and which draws heavily on the Nordic tradition using kennings and poetical language that is so well done that it is barely noticeable. One of the great strengths of this short novel is the way in which Byatt brings the world of the Nordic Gods to life, as in this passage about the sea tree Rándrassil:

In the kelp forests grew a monstrous bull-kelp, Rándrassil, the Sea-Tree. It gripped the underwater rock with a tough holdfast, from which rose the step like a whiplash taller than the masts or rooftrees, the stipe. The stipe went up and up from the depths to the surface, glassy still, whipped by the winds, swaying lazy. Where the water met the air the stipe spread into thickets of fronds and streamers, each buoyed up by a pocket of gas, a bladder at its base. The branching fronds, like those of the Tree on land, were threaded with green cells that ate light. Seawater takes in red light; floating dust and debris take in blue, weeds deep down in the dim light are mostly red in colour, whereas those tossing on the surface, or clinging to tide-washed ledges, can be brilliant green or glistening yellow.

The weaving of the Norse myths into the story of a little girl trying to make sense of a world in which bombs are raining down on the earth, which seems to be the end of the world like Ragnarök, makes for a brave and interesting comparison and Byatt also uses the girl as a vehicle to explore the differences and similarities of the Norse myths and the Christian myth. Jesus is likened to Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg who is beautiful and good and true and doomed to die, and in his death the end of the world of the Norse Gods begins. Norse and Christian heaven the girl finds boring. Telling the myths through the eyes of the girl allows for a light and interesting introduction, but for me there was something that didn’t quite work in this weaving. Perhaps it was that the girl herself seemed to have no identity. Throughout the story she is only ever referred to as ‘the thin child’ and we learn little about her other than how she perceives the world through the myths and how it mirrored the world in which she was living. In a way this lack of an identity made the child seem unreal, less real certainly than the Gods about which she was reading.

Overall I found Ragnarök an enjoyable story and where it succeeds is how it introduces the reader to the world of the Norse Gods without being overly academic or heavy. Instead it gives a gentle introduction which left me wanting to know more and in fact I have gone on to read the Crossley-Holland book, as I mentioned, and also have explored some of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda which are the more primary texts laying out the world of the Norse mythologies. I did find the use of the girl as a vehicle a little disappointing; though I could see how making the link between Ragnarök and World War II, how to a child (or an adult for that matter) it may well have seemed that in battle the world was coming to an end, there was something lacking in the way this was explored and I was left wondering if the thin child of the story represented Byatt herself or was simply a prop around which the story had been built.

If you’re interested in learning a little about the Norse myths I would say this is a good place to start, and it is true that A S Byatt writes beautifully and introduces the world of the Norse Gods with a delicate and poetic touch. But if you are interested in knowing more about the stories, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book of Norse Myths gives a more detailed overview and tells the stories more directly and, perhaps, more beautifully than Byatt herself.

Ragnarök The End of the Gods receives a world-ending 8 out of 10 Biis.

Monday 28 October 2013

Ten contemporary female writers everyone should read

Hot on the heels of Eleanor Catton’s recent MAN Booker prize success, I’ve been thinking a lot about great female writers. It’s no secret that the UK press lead up to the prize really ticked me off. With a shortlist of 4 female and 2 male novelists, a disproportionate amount of press time and headlines were given over to debating which of the two men would win, and dismissing the female shortlistees. So when Catton’s win was announced, it was one in the eye for the ‘established’ UK press and their powers of discernment and prediction. Of course, I know that is very unfair on Crace and Tóibín, both of whom would have made worthy winners. But perhaps the established commentators might have a little rethink post prize, and not be so swift to count the ladies out. Interestingly, Catton herself has spoken out against the inherent sexism in the publishing industry, which you can read here.

There are so great female writers out there. It’s a shame that so many people are so quick to dismiss them, to say that what they produce en masse is no good. History is dominated by male writers, predominantly because access to education, to literacy, has been denied to women in most places until relatively recently. In some countries, access to literacy along with other seemingly fundamental human rights, is still denied to women. But in countries where women are routinely educated the idea that women somehow still need to ‘catch up’ to male standards of literature seems bizarre. As though the male writers already carry within them the experience and merit of the work of other men that have gone before, as though the ability to write well is etched into their DNA. That’s just silly. Gender, in the literate West, just doesn’t come into it. Or shouldn’t, anyway. 

That being said, of course I am now going to tell you why you should be adding some contemporary female writers to your reading list. I don’t think it’s wrong to say this. There is a tendency in the world of literature to accept that women can be successful (e.g. J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James) but not good, and if you want to read good quality fiction you really need to turn to the men. But that’s not really true. There is a range of fiction being produced and the idea that all the men are at the quality end of the scale, and the women at the production line end is a fallacy. Because they are so many writers that are really very good, and a good proportion of these are women. I think you should know about a few. So, without further ado, here is my list of ten contemporary female writers that you really, really ought to read.

In no particular order.

Hilary Mantel
Twice winner of the MAN Booker Prize with her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, examining the Tudor era through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. What’s brilliant about Mantel’s novels, here, are how present and real she makes the characters seem, and how she spins Cromwell out of virtually nothing. Yes, anyone who knows the history knows how it’s going to end, but I, for one, can’t wait to read the final part of the trilogy.

Aside from Wolf Hall, Mantel has a fascinating back catalogue of equally excellent fiction of a diverse range. Pick one up today. I dare you.

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse, there’s no other word for it. Her books are dense, beautifully written, complex and intelligent. My first encounter with Kingsolver was when I received a review copy of The Lacuna, the story of a homosexual boy who finds himself working in the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera. What ensues is a stunningly complex novel combining historical events and a very lonely, human perspective. Simply wonderful. The Poisonwood Bible is equally stunning, with a quite different perspective. If you enjoy books that make you think, Kingsolver is definitely for you.

Jeannette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is, perhaps, most famous for her ‘coming out’ story Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Needless to say, Oranges is not the only Winterson. Winterson is a tour de force, a writer who writes with freedom. She is funny, crude. She is adventurous. Her stories are rich and stunning, often short but with diamond clarity. When I was reading the Canongate myths series, Winterson’s novel ‘Weight’ a story of Atlas and Heracles was one of the stand-out pieces. Jammed with ideas, beautifully conveyed it is a story I could read again and again.

Helen DeWitt
I’ve blogged about the marvellous Lightning Rods, one of the two amazing books DeWitt has produced. The other, The Last Samurai, is even more awesome. It is singularly funny, clever (enormously clever), odd, crazy, linguistically fascinating and brilliant. A story of an almost unnaturally intelligent boy searching for a father, or a father figure, and finding it, strangely, in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. A brief explanation which doesn’t prepare you for its brilliance. Who says women can’t write books based around ideas? Read it. Read it now.

Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a real virtuoso in experimental fiction. Don’t expect a traditional narrative, but do expect to be drawn in by her expressively poetic language and fascinating sense of perspective. If you like neatly sewn up stories which leave you with nothing to figure out for yourself, Smith is not for you. I find her wonderful. I recommend There But For The, a story of a man who goes to a dinner party and locks himself in the bedroom and won’t come out, or Like which is a story of two halves which fit together and don’t. Intrigued? You should be.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is famed for the scale of her output, an almost production line-like quantity. But don’t think that just because she’s prolific, this means she’s rubbish. It is definitely not the case. With a tendency to lean towards feminist works, Oates doesn’t shy from the difficult story, having tackled the life of Marilynn Monroe with Blonde and small town America gang rape, in the sadly prescient Rape: A Love Story. Unflinching, and yet startlingly poetic, Oates is an admirable writer whose work stands toe to toe with America’s greats (but somehow never gets mentioned. Why, I wonder?).

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s output is small, a mere three books, but what she has produced is powerful. Housekeeping I have reviewed on this site; it is a stunningly brief and tenuous novel which remains with you, like a beautifully disturbing dream. Home is a poignant story of a prodigal son, a story of disappointment and unfulfilled potential, the ways in which we draw sadness upon each other without even trying. Gilead, a love story from a dying man to his son showing the kind of reverence for the world that would make religion palatable to even the staunchest atheist. Three novels I’m proud to have on my shelves, and ones to return to often.

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature no less (with, perhaps, the best reaction to discovering her success ever (oh Christ!). I am not sure if she is still writing, but still alive and really more people should read Lessing than do. Doris Lessing is indomitable. She is fiercely intelligent, fearless. In those theoretical dinners at which you can invite four people from any point at any time in history, she would be at my table and I would be quietly in awe. Famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, largely pegged as feminist (which it is) but also a fascinating exploration of craziness, Lessing is not the sum of one book. She’s ventured into science fiction, dystopia, she’s written about South Africa and what it means to be a women restrained by social expectations and ideals. Her book The Fifth Child, the story of a strange and unlovable child, is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, the natural parent of Shriver’s rightly lauded We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think it would be hard not to find something you enjoy in Lessing’s catalogue.  

A M Holmes
I’ve only read one book by Holmes, but immediately went out and bought another two for myself and another one for a friend. She is a writer to share. This Book Will Change Your Life is a wonderful exploration of a lonely man learning to make connections in the world. It is happy and sad, quirky and wonderful. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but I felt like I’d been there after I read that book. It made me want to hug someone. It made me want to eat doughnuts. It made me want to be kind. It is a funny, warm, humane book about finding yourself in the world. It is a hard blend for a writer, I think, to explore the sadness in life with a positive eye without making it mawkish or overly sentimental. This book was neither of those things. It is simply marvellous. It’ll make you smile if you read it. Go on. No really: go on.

Nicola Barker
Okay, Barker is my wildcard here. I’ve only read one of her novels, Darkmans, and it made an impression. It was odd, very odd. Very long, complex, weird, unsettling and impossible to define. Which is why I’m including Barker here. No one, no one, writes like Barker. She’s probably one of those Marmite writers, but I loved her. And for some strange reason every now and again the word Darkmansss pops into my head, in a evilly, whispery kind of voice that sends a shudder down my spine. Not to everyone’s taste, but another example of a female writer getting out there and pushing the boundaries, not writing ‘safely’. Dangerously. Fearlessly. Admirably.  

I’m aware that in formulating this list, I’ve taken a very narrow perspective on female writing. I’ve excluded, for example, any factual or scientific writing, and there are no women writing to a particular genre. I’ve excluded female writers who are no longer living, though arguably there’s an even richer range if you include them: George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Simone de Beauvoir, to name a mere few. Which, in a roundabout way, means that there are lots and lots more amazing female writers out there.

Who are your favourites? Please share.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Confessions...just confessions

Forgive me internet, for I have sinned. Yes, I have bought a book. In actual fact I have bought eleven books (eleven!) since resolving to stop, stop, stop buying books. I am a bad, book-buying person. There is a story, of course, isn’t there always? And perhaps once you’ve heard the story, you’ll understand why this one, slightly excessive, book purchase was in actual fact actually necessary.

So, a couple of weeks back I was in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, and my daughter came with me. I was pottering around the aisles when my daughter asked me if she could go and look at the stationery (there is a bit novelty eraser trend going on in her school right now) which I said was fine. So I carried on. I bought meat and cheese, I bought bread, I bought milk. I bought everything I needed and was ready to pay, but there was no sign of my daughter. Now as someone who is almost as addicted to stationery as she is to books, spending something in the region of thirty minutes in the stationery aisle isn’t really that odd, but all the same I was ready to go so I sought her out. And I found her, standing in the book section with a shiny new book in her hand and a hopeful little smile on her face. The conversation went something like this:

Me: what’s that you’ve got.

Her: (excitedly) it’s the new ‘How to Train Your Dragon Book’.

(context – since they watched a trailer for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at school, she’s been slightly obsessed with the whole series. My son had the first book and she read it in super-fast time. I think it’s the first book I’ve encountered her devouring...kind of like I do actually.)

Me: oh, interesting.

Her: can I have it? PLeeaaaase? (winsome smile)

Me: (inward dilemma. I am not buying books, not buying books for anybody. Not even gifts, that’s what I said. I am not buying books. I am not.)

And so we left the supermarket with a shiny new copy of the latest How to Train Your Dragon book, costing all of £3.50, in my ecstatic daughter’s hands.

That was the first one.

Then she devoured that one, and came to see me with the pleady eyes begging for the second book in the series, ‘How to Be a Pirate’. ‘No’, I thought. ‘I can’t get back into the terrible habit,’ and to my credit the first thing I did was check the book’s availability at the library. I would rather go to the library and I do love taking the kids there. No luck. Whilst there are copies, none were available and there were even reservations against them. I am able to wait, but for a nine year old waiting is never going to be a key strength. So I had a little look around the various bookshops and there are, of course, plenty of copies there and whilst I was browsing I came across a marvellous set which included the first 10 (ten!) books in the series at the meagre price of £30.

So that’s how I bought eleven books.

Encountering across a series of books that one of my kids was really interested in was an event I was not expecting. I have always had an unspoken rule that whilst I would balk at buying them toys or games or sweets, if they want a particular book they can have it. They rarely ask for books, it is not a daily occurrence but engendering a love of reading is something that I have always wanted to share with my children. It is a companion that walks with you through life, enriching it. I could have said no to my daughter, but there is a fine balance, I think, a tipping point which makes you a reader or not reader. I am always afraid of tipping the balance the wrong way, saying no at the wrong time. Whilst my principle of not buying books is a really good one, in this case it just felt wrong. My daughter is thoroughly enjoying the world of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, she is enthused and entranced by it. I have sinned, I broke my promise to the world, but in this case it was worth it to see her tucked up in bed at night destroying her eyesight with a good, good book.

So perhaps, dear world, I need to amend my vow and promise that I will not buy any books for myself. Which I haven’t, regardless of the temptation. Oh yes, I am desperate to read The Luminaries, and when The Goldfish, Donna Tartt’s new book, is released I will be itching to get my hands on a copy. If I do, it will come from the library. That part of my promise, I am keeping.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder...appreciating what you’ve got

I think I might have mentioned it, but halting my persistent quest for new books has had a few unexpected, and pleasant, side effects. I’ve rediscovered the wonder of the library, I’ve found a core of discipline and patience in me that I didn’t expect. And then, what would you know? In addition to all the wonderful things I’d already discovered there was still something new waiting to surprise me (and it wasn’t a book, honestly).

I have, you might not be surprised to learn, a fairly extensive library. I’ve spent a long time building up my book collection, and part of the reason for pausing the purchases was that my current bookcases are fairly bursting at the seams. I have three bookcases in total. One is built into a convenient alcove upstairs and that one houses most of my classics, my books of philosophy, my husband’s sci-fi collection (yes, he is permitted a little space) and a few children’s books I’ve held onto in the vain hope that one day my kids might read them (seriously, everyone should read The Dark is Rising Sequence. Everyone). Of course that is really the book case for the books no one actually wants to read (though now and again I will pop out a classic, just for fun). Then downstairs I have two book cases: one which is filled with the books I have read along with my ‘collections’, and the other stuffed with books I haven’t quite managed to read yet. They are both double stacked (inner row, outer row per shelf). I must have something in the region of 1,000 books packed in there.

It’s an awful lot of books, and yet for so long I have wanted more and more. Looking back, it seems strange that I was so desperate to acquire new books when I had so many fantastic ones already waiting to be read. Looking at my bookcases with these new eyes, the first thing I noticed was that in my ‘to read’ pile there are some amazing books. I finally got around to reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it was beautiful. I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which a friend bought as a present for me, and it was marvellously sad. Discovering these hidden gems in my collection has made me excited to read more of them. I have War and Peace and Anna Karenina, A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, October Light by John Gardner, about 12 books by Don DeLillo and a handful by J M Coetzee. I have books by Jeanette Winterson, Helen Oyeyemi, A. M. Holmes, The Wonderland Quartet by Joyce Carol Oates and a sampling of the wonderful books published by Persephone all neat in their classy grey and white coats. I have Shanameh (The Persian Book of Kings), Herodotus, The Mahabrhata, The Thousand Nights and One Night, Icelandic sagas. That’s just a sampling of the treasures sitting there waiting for me to read. It is surprising, thinking about all that is there, that I ever thought it necessary to read anything else.

And that’s not the end of it. Because alongside my ‘to be read’ shelf sits the shelf of ‘already have read and when the heck are you going to get around to reading us again’. Within my collection, my already read books, I have so many that I would love to read again: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, everything by Helen DeWitt (though that is only 2), Ghostwritten and Number9Dream by David Mitchell, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Mao II by Don DeLillo (I’m not completely obsessed, but close). It got me thinking about re-reading, and how I’d fallen out of the habit. As a child I used to read and re-read almost obsessively. It wasn’t necessarily due to lack of availability of new books, I used to go to the library every week. No, it was something else. Re-reading a book brings something out of it that the first read doesn’t. Something of the depth of it, the bits that you missed first time around. Then there’s even more to it. Re-reading a book, delving into it over and over, etches something of the story inside you, it becomes almost a part of you. There is something wonderful in being so familiar with a character, with a world, with an idea even that it becomes like a close friend, or family. You can return to it over again and it remain unchanged and yet, perhaps, you appreciate it differently because you have changed. In this way a story can show us, in ways few other things can, how we have evolved. At the same time, the story’s familiarity is comforting. It can connect us to the person that we were the first, second or even twelfth time we read it. It reminds me that only through practice do we become really good at things, and I think there are worse things to be than an artisan of Kristen Lavransdatter or The Tale of Genji, that there is no shame in repeating and repeating the reading of a book that you love. I think in this world of relentless newness, in which we are constantly encouraged to consume and move on, that the value of a deep, repeat reading is underestimated. It is something I know I have lost touch with. And yet I know that it is enriching, that a deep understanding of a particular work of fiction can provide a hidden, unexpected backbone to your life.

If you think about it, everything we know is a kind of story. My life as I know it is a story, one that changes both in real terms as I move forward but also in my history which I invent and reinvent entirely unwittingly. I overlay my life with other stories: my husband’s, my son’s, my daughter’s, my step-son’s, my mother’s, my work colleagues’, my friends’, people I pass in the street and acknowledge or don’t. I believe in the fiction of other countries and the history of mine, and the lives of people hundreds of thousands of miles away who I will never know and never meet but who, unknowingly, my story may touch upon. And then there are the story-spinners, the ‘shapers’, who tell and retell the stories of others, of heroes and villains, lovers and haters, and everything in between. That their stories touch us isn’t such an odd thing, but it is only through reading and re-reading that we really let them in. I do believe that doing so enables us to learn something true, not only about the story but about ourselves. Perhaps it is one of the ways we learn true empathy, that by caring about a person who we know not to be real it helps us to care more about the ones that are, whose existence may be separated from our own by streets or villages, countries or even worlds. Who knows? It is possible.
One thing I have learned for sure, I am in no hurry at all to finish Proust. I have every story I could ever need already under my roof. I am looking forward to becoming more intimately acquainted with some of them.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Really Great Books by Japanese Writers

Those of you who have been following my blog may have noticed that books by Japanese writers crop up reasonably often. I have a bit of a penchant for Japanese writers. A while ago, when I was lost in a reading desert, I happened upon a book called Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and it reinvigorated my love of reading. I’ve since read the entire of Hurakami’s output and explored a bit further into the murky world of Japanese fiction. One of the things I love about Japanese fiction is how characters are never black-and-white, good or bad. Of course any decent writer should be creating deep and complex characters, but somehow the complexity, the shades-of-grey (and not in a E.M. James sort of way, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about here) is more apparent in books by Japanese writers. They kind of ‘get it’, if you know what I mean.

There are fairly common themes in Japanese books, themes which seem to pervade the culture. Loneliness and isolation, disconnection: these themes appear regularly. The sense of duty against the rights, or desires, of the individual. Difficulties of love. Suffering. If you don’t like any of these themes then perhaps Japanese fiction is not for you, but somehow they always speak to me.

So if you’re interested in exploring Japanese writers, where do you start? Well, a great place to get a feel for what Japanese writers have to offer is the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, which includes the output of generations of the ‘best’ Japanese writers and gives you a flavour of what to expect if you do decide to explore further. Or, if you’re feeling brave, you could trust my list below and just leap in. In my explorations, the following represent my favourite (and by definition the best) Japanese books around.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

You can’t start a list of the best Japanese books and not mention Genji. Considered by some to be the first novel, this sprawling tale casts a curious eye on the 12th Century Japanese court and the shenanigans of the ‘shining Genji’. And a tale that reminds us that whatever era you’re living in, life is never as good as it ‘used to be’. For a more complete review of Genji, read here:

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

Kawabata is one of the cornerstones of the Japanese ‘canon’ (assuming there is such a thing, the idea of ‘canon’ always strikes me as peculiarly American and, perhaps, an inevitable fallout of the authority of Harold Bloom) and all of his novels are worth a read. Many people would mention here Snow Country, a story of beauty and decay. It is true that Snow Country is a marvellous novel, but for me Beauty and Sadness is my favourite of Kawabata’s work. This is a story of the terrible impact of young love, and how its breakdown can taint our lives resulting in catastrophic consequences.

The Kangaroo Notebook by Kobo Abe

Everything written by Abe is odd and surreal, but none more so than The Kangaroo Notebook. A nightmarish story of a man who wakes to find radish sprouts growing out of his legs, and then embarks of a Kafkaesque journey into a dark underworld in which the barrier between what is real and what is imagined breaks down. Like Lewis Carroll on sake and LSD, this is a peculiarly Japanese surrealism which would probably make the most disturbing anime movie that anyone had ever seen. If surrealist fiction is your thing, you’ll love Abe. Also check out The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man. Creepy.

A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga

A reflective and sad novel following a young man with a dark secret from his family’s past hanging over him. Throughout his life, his bachelorhood and then his marriage, he is unable to shake this spectre of the past. A very Japanese take on depression, conveyed with directness (and yet obscurely – the Japanese are very good at this), clarity and honesty. A beautiful if sad story.

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

Ibuse’s terrifying novel follows the fortunes of some survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. If you ever read any novel about the effects of atomic weaponry, this should be it. Conveying the horror of the bomb and its aftermath in graphic detail, Ibuse manages to remain non-judgemental simply showing what happened and how it affected people. It is a more powerful novel for it. It is worth reading this either before or after John Hershey’s journalistic exploration of the same incident, Hiroshima. It is hard, here, to convey how excellent and essential this book is. Not easy reading, but worthwhile.

Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki is known for this and its companion piece The Key (again, it’s worth reading these together), as well as the more conventional Makioka Sisters which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Using the diary form, Tanizaki explores the mind of an old, dying man obsessed with his daughter in law (and sex). Saucy and funny, yet kind of sad.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

I’ll say it here, I’m not a fan of Mishima. I know he is considered one of Japan’s greatest writers, but on the whole he leaves me cold. Last year I embarked on the full Sea of Fertility tetralogy which begins with Spring Snow and over the course of three following books explores the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. Of all the books in the tetralogy, Spring Snow was the standout piece (although if you’re interested in the book which, practically, fortells Mishima’s end then Runaway Horses is the one to read). Telling the story of forbidden, impossible love and the lengths to which one man will go to fulfil the impossible. At times frustrating, but in other respects a beautiful read.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

I think I mentioned this book before in my entry about books that are just plain nice. The Housekeeper and the Professor involves a woman who is housekeeper for the ‘professor’ a maths genius with a 45 minute short-term memory window. If you read it, I defy you not to end up with an unexpected interest in maths. I learned so much from this book about number theory, memory and relationships and it is, in short, a lovely read. An off-beat introduction to Ogawa whose usual fayre is dark, disturbing and may involve sexual violence. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Speaking of dark, disturbing and sexual violence, Out by Natsuo Kirino is perhaps the pinnacle of what contemporary Japanese fiction does best. A downtrodden woman working in a factory offs her husband, and with the help of her equally downtrodden factory-worker friends they cover it up. But that’s just the start of their spiral into a darker, more forbidding world. Atmospheric, creepy and dark.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Staying on the same theme, a man who gives tours around Toyko’s sex district finds himself on a tour with a sadistic killer. Some really disturbing stuff in this one, if you don’t like graphic crime novels then give this one a miss. I am still emotionally scarred by two pages in this book. Just thinking about it makes me feel a little sick (I am a wimp though, bear that in mind). If you enjoy the dark, seedy underworld, death, gore and dodgy sex then Ryu Murakami is probably the author for you.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

From one Murakami to another. I have read basically everything by Haruki Murakami, and he has written some excellent books (personal favourites being Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which equally has an extremely disturbing couple of pages that make you glad to still have custody of your own skin. Ugh) but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to feel that Murakami, whilst good, is not a true great. His last novel 1Q84 had a great idea at its core, but it was flabby and overdone and his portrayal of the women in the book was sadly two dimensional, almost like a male fantasy of a woman (the main character spends a lot of time obsessing over her breasts and vagina). People have different views on what is Murakami’s best novel (I think this is undoubtedly Wind-Up Bird, but others would disagree) but of all his books the most affecting, the most compelling is this journalistic work of fact which centres around the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground. Murakami presents his interviews with the victims, family of victims and members of the Aum cult that carried out the attack. What comes from all these interviews is a chilling idea that given the same circumstances, most people would have done the same thing. It is terrifying, yet an honest portrayal of how people respond to authority.

And that concludes my list. I am sure there are some terrible omissions, writers that I myself haven’t yet gotten around to (I’m thinking Ooka, Soseki) and some deliberate (Taichi Yamada never did it for me, Banana Yoshimoto almost made the list but there’s something missing). What do you think? Have you encountered any truly great Japanese novels not mentioned on my list?

Monday 30 September 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder...what I’ve learned: patience and willpower

It’s been six weeks since I bought a book. Six whole weeks. It is a long time since I’ve been able to make a statement as stark as that and it not be a lie; no hidden copies sneaked out of bags when no one was looking, no disguising new acquisitions as library books or borrowed copies. No books bought. Zero. Go me.

What’s been surprising about this whole process is quite how easy it has been. It seems that all I needed to do was make the decision and share it with the world and suddenly the appeal of Waterstones, The Book Depository, secondhand bookshops and Amazon instantly disappeared. Of course it is not quite that simple, but taking that first step has really been the boost that I needed. If I hadn’t posted it here, I would still probably be book buying like crazy.

I have been tempted, a few times. There have been books I have wanted to buy and I would have bought, certainly, if I hadn’t committed not to. I wanted, for example, a copy of the Shōbogenzo. I wanted to buy The Luminaries and The Lowland and finish my Booker shortlist reading. I wanted to buy, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble after reading a glowing review about it on Twitter, but I didn’t and there was one day when I was feeling a bit knocked down and I could have bought any book at all just for the pleasure of its possession. I managed to stop myself, and in so doing I realised I didn’t need it.

That’s what I’ve been learning through this process. Oh, it’s not a true addiction, I can’t equate my experience to that of someone trying to kick smoking or drinking, trying to give up cannabis or heroin. My addiction is nothing like that, and perhaps it was wrong to call it an addiction at all. It was more of a compulsion, an impulse unfettered and subject to the vagaries of my whim. Silly really. Belittling as my issue is, I have learned the value of exercising a degree of self control and it has had some surprising effects on my attitude towards some other things. Because willpower involves taking a moment to stop and think, and asking myself: do I really need it? It is surprising how often the answer is no, how often I can achieve what I want to achieve by some other means.

I discovered this when I was trying to hold myself off buying The Luminaries which I really, really want to read (someone equated it to Twin Peaks meets David Mitchell and if that wasn’t dangling the carrot in front of my nose I don’t know what is). I even went into Waterstones and had a little read and it was so tempting just to walk up to the counter and buy it, it would have taken mere seconds. Then I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I realised I hadn’t explored all the possibilities. That night I fired up my computer and did a little searching and found it, easily, in the Lancashire library catalogue. They have three copies and against those three copies were thirteen reservations. I added another, and in clicking that little button all my desires, the oppressive need, evaporated. I knew I was going to read it eventually, and that was enough. That’s pretty much what happens anyway when I buy a book. Once acquired it goes onto the shelf and it can be days, weeks, months, years or in some cases decades (honestly) before I actually get around to reading it. So placing it on a waiting list and waiting until it turns up isn’t really so much different.

I was also really interested in a book called The Devotion of Suspect X, it was another staring balefully at me from my wishlist. Then someone at work bought it and offered to lend it to me. I waited patiently until they’d finished it and then I took it home and started to read it. 100 pages in, I gave up and gave it back. Had I bought it, it would have been wasted cash. Sure I could have swapped it, or given it away, but the expenditure would still have been made and I would be left holding a book that didn’t appeal to me. It got me wondering how many of the books currently sitting on my shelves, that I couldn’t wait to buy, will turn out to be the same thing: a disappointment. Hopefully not too many.

All this has made me realise a few things. The first is that patience is a good thing: it is worth waiting for something. In this instantaneous world in which we can satisfy our every whim at the click of a mouse, seemingly whether or not we actually have the money to pay for whatever it is, it is too easy to give in to temptation. The internet is, amongst many other things (some very valuable, don’t be mislead into thinking I think the internet is all terrible), a vehicle for facilitating impulse or reaction. I am not too sure this is a good thing. I think this ability to impulse buy, to push a button and have goods arrive in the post, disconnects us from the reality of what we’re doing. It’s all virtual. There is no shop, no shopkeeper. The buyer does not have to walk anywhere or carry anything. They look at pictures on a screen, select, click buy and the act of purchase is done but the reality of the thing only appears a few days later unless it’s an electronic copy of a book in which case it disappears seamlessly into your reading device. It’s like a game. Even the money is fictional, added to a credit card bill which may or may not ever be paid. They certainly don’t want you to. And who are ‘they’ anyway? They are virtual too. The virtual corporation, the virtual bank spinning their virtual money. What is not virtual is the person working in a factory somewhere churning out all this stuff, probably on the minimum wage or worse. But that person is so far removed from the process, you virtually do not have to think about them. It even extends towards criminal activity. Piracy is only virtual theft, and if you want a book or a movie or some music it’s okay to take it and forget about the person at the other end trying to make a living, because the corporation distributing it is virtually stealing too. And besides, it’s not even really worth anything. There is such abundance it all becomes meaningless, worthless, throw-away.

What worries me more about this culture of instant gratification is that it bleeds, in the worst way, into other things. The internet breeds disconnection, it can be terribly dehumanising. It is easy to forget that at the end of an angry or insulting tweet there is an actual person who can hurt and suffer. Underneath the mini-skirt is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling woman. The child in the photograph...well, let’s not go there. Indulging in anger, passion, righteousness, desire for that tiny millisecond can have such terrible consequences that a moment’s hesitation, a moment’s consideration, shouldn’t seems such a difficult thing to do. It should be natural, encouraged. Yet everything in this 24/7 world conspires to create the opposite; impulse becomes king, a tool to drive consuming. To hell with the consequences.  

Patience, waiting, is something that gives meaning to the things we have in our lives. Relationships are valuable because they are grown, with difficulty and effort, they withstand and grow stronger and become more important, essential, because of it. The same is true of material goods. A vegetable grown by your own hand is immeasurably better than that which has been mass produced, which you have merely had to part with a matter of pence to acquire. A cake made by your own hand may be less perfect than one bought from a shop, but the sense of achievement alone adds greater flavour. A trip of a lifetime is such because it happens only once in the length of a human existence, but if you took that same trip every week it would cease to mean anything, it would become like taking the train to work: routine, boring.

Then there is the creative power of working around your limits. Buying the book is the easy option, anyone can do it and books aren’t so expensive (collectible or academic works aside) that the average pocket can’t stretch to one. But not buying the book means I have to work around the problem if I still want to read it. I have to find another way. This process opens up a more creative way of thinking. I blogged about this before when bemoaning the changes to the MAN Booker Prize, but there is extraordinary value in limits. To surpass them requires effort, creative thinking, problem solving. Not buying a book is a tiny limitation, but the creative process it opens up has application in so many other aspects of daily life that it leaves me wondering how I could have allowed myself to slip, so easily, towards atrophy. How did I become so dull? Because it was easy, that’s the truth.   

Willpower, and the value of exercising it, is another thing I have learned to value. What is surprising about willpower is how applying it to one thing can affect your relationship towards others. Asking myself whether I really want to buy that book translates into whether I really want to buy that skirt or dress or DVD. It instantly makes me more conscious of where and how I spend my money and, more importantly, how I want to be in control of spending my money. If I really want something, I can wait and save up for it (except the fridge freezer, which broke last weekend and required an instant replacement. There are limits.). It made me realise how easy it is to fritter away cash on little impulse purchases: a coffee here, a CD there, a shop-bought lunch, a box of nice tea. Being able to stop myself from buying every book that passes my fancy has made me more confident about addressing other things that need willpower for me to succeed: a diet, perhaps, or exercising more, controlling family finances, walking to the supermarket rather than jumping in the car, knuckling down in my career, getting writing. When I commit to something, I want it to be valuable. I’m not entirely there yet, it’ll take work and more willpower and patience, but I’m working on it.

All because I stopped buying books.        

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Playing tennis with the net down

Robert Frost famously said that writing [poetry] without form is like playing tennis with the net down, or something to that effect, and this saying has been on my mind ever since hearing about the change in the MAN Booker Prize rules. For a while now I have been following the MAN Booker Prize, and I had been hoping to make an annual feature of the MAN Booker Prize listed books in this very blog. But the recent announcement has left me feeling quite disenfranchised with the prize. Which is weird, really. After all, it’s not my prize, I am not associated with it in any way and the odds that I’ll ever write anything that could be in the running for it are so astronomical that there probably isn’t a number you could write in your lifetime that would represent it. Still, I feel let down.

Many of the newspapers have focused on the fact that the change in rules means that American writers are now in the running for the prize, and there’s been a lot of emphasis of this point as though there is such a slim possibility that a British or Commonwealth writer could compete with the Americans that we might as well call it the Washington prize. Or the Philip Roth prize, perhaps (though Roth leaves me totally cold, I really don’t understand the almost gleeful excitement there. Now DeLillo...that’s a different story). I am not sure where this terrible sense of inadequacy comes from. There are, indeed, many great writers from America as there are equally many great writers from UK and France and Brazil and China and Japan and so on including the vast and varied nations of the Commonwealth. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the amazing talent that is out there in this ever-shrinking world and the idea that a literature prize could seek out the best book written in a single year is quite an exciting prospect. But that’s not what they’re doing with the MAN Booker prize. They’re not interested in finding the best book written in the world (cue Jeremy Clarkson impression), only the best book written in the English speaking world.

This is where that little phrase sticks in my head. One of the things I liked about the MAN Booker prize was that it was limited. The value of having limits is often underestimated and yet limits can encourage innovation, creative thinking; limits are the stuff that make life challenging. It made it interesting that the prize only applied to British and Commonwealth writers, and this limitation has opened my eyes to some writers I might not otherwise have encountered. Of course it doesn’t really matter what the nationality of the writer is, nationality is only a story we tell ourselves anyway, but the limitation allowed the prize to be focused in a way which could make its listings surprising and innovative. In making this small change, to focus on the best writing in the English speaking world, the MAN Booker prize is letting the net down just a little, not enough that you could make it into a different and perhaps more exciting game, but enough to spoil it.  I understand, and to some measure support, the MAN Booker team’s attempt to make the prize more global, to position itself as the pinnacle prize in the literary world. But that’s not what they’ve done. In limiting their extension to books written in English it makes it look like a cynical attempt to open the doors to American writers only, as though there is something important and terrible about their omission as opposed to the omission of Chinese or Chilean writers, and it also leaves me asking the question: why? And I can’t help but think that there’s cash somewhere at the bottom of this decision, that it is a marketing strategy, and as a reader and lover of literature that feels somehow intrinsically wrong. Or perhaps I am just paranoid.

I love books. I love discovering new writers. Over the years, the MAN Booker prize has helped me to do that. I can’t help but wonder whether this new MAN Booker prize will continue to do that or merely promote the interests of already known names, that the list will become less surprising and less innovative, and infinitely more predictable. What I do know is this: the net is down, the game is spoiled, and I no longer feel inclined to play. I know this disappointment is both silly and pointless; I know that my views affect the MAN Booker prize not the tiniest bit. I still feel like something powerful has been lost, and that's a shame. From now on I will need to look elsewhere for my new and wondrous writers. Perhaps that is a good thing.