A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 30 April 2014

On Hanging Around in Book Shops

I work in a city, and I’ve worked in that same city for 20 years. It’s a small city which has changed little despite the time that has elapsed and the impact of the bombing seventeen years ago which shattered glass and buildings but left the essence of the city intact. In that time I have come to know the city well and consequently there is little left to surprise me. This is proving a problem for me. As part of my desire to adopt a more ‘writerly’ life, one of my goals is to walk more frequently. There is much to be said for leaving the office for a little while during the day, even twenty minutes away from the desk can be restorative. Walking comes highly recommended as a writerly kind of activity, as the body is occupied and the blood is pumping but the mind is free to wander. So I made myself a deal, and that deal was that I would go for a long walk at least three times a week. This is easy at home where open green fields, country paths and shadowed tree-lined walks are within easy reach, but the city, sadly, I find quite boring. There are shops and there are streets. The architecture is very familiar to me. There is a sad absence of green space and what green space remains is shrinking. I have walked this way and that and, though I try, I find it very difficult to see the beauty in so much steel and concrete. I can walk, of course, simply for the sake of walking. I can set myself a time limit and tromp around and pay little attention to where I am and the quality of my surroundings. There is something quite soulless in this kind of walking, the kind that is just about the exercise. For my walks to work, for me to gain true benefit from them, they have to offer something more than just the distance from A to B.

In the past I used to spend a lot of my lunch breaks in the library. There were lots of books and lots of nooks and crannies I could hide in and read a chapter here or a poem there. Then the library closed and three and a bit long years later it re-opened. I waited until the second day to visit, and since that day I have been trying to get my head around what exactly is wrong with it. There is a deplorable absence of books, but that alone isn’t it. Ostensibly it is the same building, but it is like they have taken the shell of it and scooped out all the warmth and humanity and left a lifeless husk behind. I imagine it like being confronted with a loved one suffering from amnesia or dementia: you look into those familiar eyes only to see a stranger staring back. Perhaps that sounds a little dramatic, but it is a fair representation of how this new version of the building makes me feel.

So walks to the library are to be done sparingly, which leaves me with a glaring lack of motivation to get away from my desk. The promise of books, their fine-leaved loveliness, is enough to get my feet moving. This is why I hang around in bookshops. I am lucky to work in a town which has a huge book shop, three floors with shelves and shelves of books and lots of chairs and sofas where you can haul up and read the first few pages of something. I have discovered that I can take a long walk, the leisurely way around, and end up at the bookshop somewhere towards the end of my walk. It is a nice place to take a rest, to have a browse and indulge in one of my other favoured activities: future book collecting. I love making lists of books I’d like to read.

I recently discovered an interest in nature writing, and books about travel and journeys. This discovery surprised me; I have always been a staunch fiction reader but my encounter with Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence changed everything. These days I hang around, often, in the nature or travel section, both of which are upstairs which adds neatly to my exercise quota. Consequently my ‘to read’ list is growing, with lists of titles like ‘Otter Country’, and ‘Gossip from the Forest’ and ‘Eight Feet in the Andes’ slipping their way into my wish list. I find these books surprisingly meditative, peaceful. the literary equivalent of lying in the warm sun by the banks of a meandering stream, listening to the bees buzzing, caressed by the long grass with the smell of wild honeysuckle in the air. You know what I mean. I remain focused on reading books by women writers, though sometimes I find my mind playing tricks on me. I see a book by ‘Sarah Gartfield’ only to take it from the shelf and find it is, in fact, Simon, but despite these little deceptions I have found a wealth of new books to read. Names like Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy, Olivia Laing and Jean Sprackland will soon be as familiar to me as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, Helen DeWitt and Tove Jansson. Old friends, side by side on the shelf. Last weekend I was lucky enough to find a copy of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen for £1 in a secondhand bookshop, and despite the fact that I’m not buying books it found its way into a little slot in my library.

I can’t afford to buy any more books. I can’t afford it in many ways. It is not just the money, though that is a consideration of course. I don’t have the space. Neither do I have the time to read them all. I have managed to accumulate a lifetime’s worth of reading material already. Sometimes I wish on myself some kind of debilitating illness which keeps me in bed all day for a year so that all I would have to do is lie there and read. Of course I know that is silly. I would be bored within a week. But there is something infinitely pleasurable in the idea of having nothing else to do in the world but read and read and read.

So I will continue with my walking, I’ll carry on hanging around in bookshops. I will continue to graze the shelves and make my lists and finger books and read first pages and not, not buy anything. Well, mostly.   

Thursday 24 April 2014

Reflections on writing: the start of a long journey

I think it’s highly likely that most people who are prolific readers probably also desire to be writers of some description. For some people that desire will be satisfied by the daily quota: the posts to Twitter or Facebook, an e-mail to a friend. For others a blog might do the trick, or keeping a diary. There are those that dabble in journalism, the many that desire to be poets and write little rhymes or tankas or limericks, or if they’re lucky have the odd piece published in a literary journal or perhaps win a small, local competition. Then there are those who want to write creatively, who create little stories or perhaps have an idea or two for a novel and tinker away at it and dream.

I am one of those people.

For me, the bug hit early. I remember the moment, though I cannot place it precisely in time, when I discovered I wanted to be a writer. I must have been around six or seven years old, and I’d written something at school about a tiger and I brought it home to show to my parents. My Mum paid little attention to it, I suppose even by that age she was used to the swath of work I’d bring home from school and she gave it the usual acknowledgement then got on with whatever it was she was doing, making dinner probably. My Dad, however, took the time to read it and at the end he said that it was ‘really, really good’ and he said it with that tone of voice that meant that he really meant it was really, really good, that he wasn’t just humouring me. Right then and there I decided that I would be a writer. It was the first inkling I’d had that there could be something I might be really good at, and it was extra special coming from my Dad. My Dad wasn’t around a lot when I was a child. He worked away most weeks and we’d see him only at weekend and even then he didn’t spend a lot of his time with us kids. So his acknowledgement, his interest, had a special meaning for me.

I went on to tinker with writing. In my secondary school I wrote plays. Two of them were successful, both parodies of popular TV series. My third play was a flop. At the time I was hanging around with a group of girls who were quite popular and wanted to be ‘stars’ in my play. I, foolishly, allowed them to interfere with the creative process and the result was a dreadfully showy rip-off of St Trinians in which all the girls wore short skirts and were sexy and did dances and which hung together as well as a row of marbles. And that was the end of my playwriting career.

In college I wrote stories and articles for the college newspaper. I wrote terrible fairy tales along the lines of those by Angela Carter without an ounce of the talent or skill. But it was nice to see my name in print and to see people reading my stories, whether they liked them or not. And yet I found myself floundering in English Literature class. It was my worst subject (not that I did that badly, mind) falling behind my drier, more factual legal and history studies. I started to question my capability. My childhood dream, my grown up dream of perhaps becoming a journalist turned into lawyer which turned into historian / archaeologist.

Then I dropped out of university and got a job in insurance.

That was the end of everything. Since then I have been an inveterate tinkerer. After my son was born I started writing stories, I even wrote about three-quarters of a novel, which I eventually threw in the bin. After my daughter was born I started writing poetry, and I managed this much more successfully. I had a few poems published and I even won second prize in a competition. But this success killed my poetic interest. Suddenly I was in sight of actually achieving my dream, and the fear killed me. What if I made it? What if I was only moderately good? Rather than continue, I lost my appetite for writing. I gave up. I changed my job and absorbed myself in technical writing which, perhaps not surprisingly, I proved to be quite good at.

And yet I was not satisfied. Somehow the idea of writing, creative writing, not being a part of my life depressed me beyond measure. I started to unpick what I had been doing. I realised that I had been doing everything I could to put barriers between me and achieving my childhood dream. Perhaps because it is easier not to try than to try and fail. Perhaps because I was afraid. Perhaps because if I achieved my dreams, what else would I have to look forward to? Whatever the reason, I realised that if I didn’t want to end my years sunk in the mire of regret, it was time to bite the bullet and really try to be a writer.

So here I am, trying to become a writer. I know this will be a long journey. I know I need to do many things: I need to build my confidence; I need to get into the habit of writing; I need to practice, practice, practice; I need to learn to understand what it is that makes writing good as opposed to mediocre and I need to put that learning into practice; I need to read and research; I need to lead a life which is more conducive to writing, and not one in which it is easy to put it off until tomorrow. I intend to share this journey on my blog, but I will tell you now that it is not for you but for me. It is part of my strategy. I have discovered that making a commitment openly can be the distinction between success and failure, and this time I intend to succeed. 

Sunday 20 April 2014

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

As part of my quest to read more books by women, I realised that my reading has been, not surprisingly, dominated by writers from a Western European / North American cultural background. One of the reasons I wanted to read more books written by women was to open up a wider range of voices, of viewpoints, to open myself to a different cultural norm. I can’t do that without reading from a wide range of cultures too. Sadly, as an English speaker, this is surprisingly difficult. Book in translation are only a small proportion of the available book catalogue, and a large proportion of books in translation are by male writers. There are books written by women available, but it takes a bit of hunting around to find them. If anyone has any recommendations, please post them in the comments here.

Xiaolu Guo is a writer whose name I encountered in reference to the Jaipur book festival where she argued that Western literature was ‘massively overrated’, and she made some interesting comments about how the Western narrative form had ‘stolen’ the reading habits of other nations, swamping their traditional forms with the Western traditions. I don’t know enough about literature to say if Guo’s accusation is true, but I do feel that a diversity of voices is something which should be encouraged in literature; without this literature loses its edge of challenge, it fails to be the mirror reflecting the realities, the dreams, the horrors and wonders of human existence back at us, so the idea that this diversity might be discouraged is a little troubling to me. Anyway, it is perhaps a blog entry for another day, but if you’re interested in reading a little more about what happened at the Jaipur festival there’s a link here:  

Having piqued my interest, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a copy of Guo’s short novel 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth on a table display at Manchester library. 20 Fragments tells the story of Fenfang, a young woman who has moved from the sweet potato fields, and mind-numbing repetitiveness, of her village to Beijing in pursuit of a ‘better life’. There she takes up various different jobs, finally settling on a career as a film extra. From there we follow Fenfang as she moves from place to place in Beijing, gaining friends and unsuitable boyfriends, disapproval from building committees, reflecting on her village upbringing before finally turning her hand at scriptwriting. Fenfang is someone who is willing to try and take a risk, someone who is prepared to leave behind everything and start out on her own journey. As Fenfang says at the beginning of the novel:

“My youth began when I was 21. At least, that’s when I decided it began. That was when I started to think that all those shiny things in life – some of them might be possible for me.

If you think 21 sounds a bit late for youth to start, just think about the average dumb Chinese peasant who leaps straight from childhood to middle age with nothing in between. If I was going to miss anything out, it was middle age. Be young or die. That was my plan.

Anyway, when I was 21, my life changed just by filling out this application form. Before then, I was just an ignorant country girl who didn’t know how to do anything except dig up sweet potatoes, clean toilets and pull levers in a factory. Okay, I’d been in Beijing a few years, but I was still a peasant.”  

20 Fragments makes for very interesting reading. It isn’t complex or peppered with lush, beautiful prose. What it is, however, is very fresh and authentic and honest and it represents, with the appearance of faithfulness, how it must be for a young Chinese girl escaping her rural history and trying to make a new life in the city. Guo has a keen eye for social commentary, using Fenfang and her many appeals to the ‘Heavenly Bastard in the Sky’ as a vehicle to reflect on social structures within China, the role of non-Chinese organisations in China, living without a support structure, the bravery and risk-taking of migrant communities and how they’re received and how they struggle in the places they migrate to. The character of Fenfang is curiously non-judgemental about her situation. She reflects on her boredom, times when she has virtually nothing, hunger, her fear of returning to the sweet potato fields, escaping a stalking and potentially violent boyfriend. She is brave and charming, insightful and eager to carve her own groove in history. She has the kind of pioneering spirit which would not be out of place in the American West, though her story pans out very differently.

I found 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth a refreshing, fun and entertaining read which hides its deep social critique beneath the voice of a charming 21 year old, who never stops being hungry.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth receives an authentic 8 out of 10 Biis. 

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things is a book about love. It is a book about who can love and who can’t love, and the terrible things that happen when the love laws are broken.

The story is told from the perspective of ‘two-egg twins’ Rahel and Esthappen and tells the story of their family, broken by tragedy and forbidden love. In the beginning we learn of the death of Sophie Mol, their English cousin, though it is not until later that we learn how that death happened. Present at the funeral are the children, their mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko (and father of Sophie Mol), Sophie Mol’s mother Margaret Kochamma, their Grand-Aunt Baby Kochamma and Grandmother Mammachi who founded and owns a local factory, Paradise Pickles. Ammu and her small children are separate, in disgrace, and shortly after the funeral Estha is ‘Returned’ to his absent father, the twins separated. All this is revealed in the beginning, and the rest of the story shows how their lives unravelled to this point then how it went on, ghostly, thereafter.

The God of Small Things is a story told in flashbacks and fragments. Rahel, who has spent some time in America, been married, then returns to her family home in Ayemenem is a grown woman. A ‘viable die-able age’. Her brother, Estha, has also returned but is curiously and unequivocally silent. Baby Kochamma, their unmarried Aunt who has spent her whole life in longing for an Irish priest, Father Mulligan, has left the house to go to ruin. Mammachi is dead. Ammu too. Chacko is gone. The house is full of ghosts.

Then there is Velutha, the ‘untouchable’ whose ghost has haunted the twins for their entire lives.

The unravelling of the twins’ stories, the story of their family, makes for a fascinating, horrifying and beautiful read. Roy spins the story masterfully. She wraps it up in lush, beautiful language, revealing not too much and not too little. The breaking of the love laws is written with constrained passion, and is all the more beautiful for it. The book is also funny, full of character, whilst revealing the harsher side of life with an honest and unflinching eye. In the course of the novel, Roy uncovers the brutality of the police; the inequity of the position of the ‘untouchables’, condemned by the caste system to something less than a human life; the danger of unrequited love and the equal danger of requiting it when love is forbidden. It highlights the difficult position for women, the guilt of betrayal, the complexities of social order and disorder. It is a complex and challenging book, but despite this surprisingly easy to read. I felt myself drawn in by the characters, their life and vivacity. I found myself hating some of them (Baby Kochamma: infuriating) and yet sympathising. And though terrible things have happened, in the end there is love and though it may have been forbidden it has at least been expressed. Somehow that seems to be important.

It is impossible to describe this book. It is sad and terrifying, it is colourful and funny. It is depressing and uplifting. It gives us a vision of India seen through the tragic lives of one family, a family torn to pieces by love. Strange as that might seem.

The God of Small Things receives a stunning 9 out of 10 Biis.        

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

The Days of Abandonment is a powerful, stressful book. It is a book that focuses on abandonment at a number of levels: firstly there is the direct abandonment, the abandonment of a women by her husband. Secondly there is her own abandonment, the abandonment of the self, the abandonment of self control and identity. It is a short but heady book that left me slightly exhausted.  
It is a familiar story. One morning Olga’s husband tells her he wants to leave her. At first she continues as normal, she thinks it is temporary, relates a story of how this has happened before, how her marriage had been in danger but the danger passed. This time will be just like before, she need only carry on patiently and calmly and eventually her husband will return and her life go on as it did before.

 Which of course it doesn’t. Gradually she uncovers more of the truth. Her husband is seeing another woman, though she doesn’t know who. She begins to lose control. She becomes angry, ungovernable, she questions her friends until they abandon her, she questions herself. She cannot look after herself or her children, every task becomes a mountain to climb.

It could be an ordinary, predictable story except for the intensity of the breakdown that Olga suffers. She embarks on a kind of affair with the sad man downstairs, Carrano, who her husband disliked. She flirts with workmen who come to fix her door. She obsesses about the women her husband has left her for, what their sex is like and how it differs to the sex he had with her.

It is a dark book, a book about loss of control, loss of self. It was, to me, a natural companion to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, which similarly deals with the loss of self, the anger and upset of being abandoned by a long-term partner. Where Ferrante’s book distinguishes itself is in the ferocity of the protagonist, the violence of the loss of control which seems destined to land in disaster. There is strength and honesty and passion in this book, it shows the loss of identity that follows the break in a relationship as a kind of sickness from which Olga may or may not recover.

Or the reader. There were times I felt I was going mad along with Olga. It is a book that carries the reader along at breakneck speed. It is very hard to put down.

Days of Abandonment receives a terrifying 8 out of 10 Biis. 

Reading Women Throughout the Seasons

Sometimes I find it is nice to read a book that somehow reflects the season, or maybe a festival or just the time of year. It’s perhaps in the forefront of my mind as we’ve just slipped into April which makes it the perfect time to re-read The Enchanted April which is just about the happiest book I’ve ever read. Very spring-like. Sometimes I like to read books that are deliberately opposed to the season, like reading books about the Arctic in the height of summer (which, let’s face it, is not very high in UK). Sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of a prompt about what to read next, something that feels ‘fitting’.

It’s amazing how many books there are out there which are set in a specific place in time, and I thought it would be nice to share some ideas of books written by women writers that reflect a time or season so if you’re struggling for an idea of what to read next, and want to increase your quota of books written by women, hopefully this might give you a few ideas.

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

February by Lisa Moore

Middlemarch by George Eliot (so called as it’s the middle of the next March by the time you’ve finished it...but it’s well worth the effort).

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin

Frost in May by Antonia White

Henry and June by Anais Nin (ha ha. Yes, I cheat)

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

August Folly by Angela Thirkell

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

A Week in October by Elizabeth Subercaseaux

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

The Warmest December by Berenice L McFadden

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Summer by Edith Wharton

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

The Winter Book by Tove Jansson (yep, there she is again)

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (and again)

A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

It is, perhaps, fitting that after the brassy clamour of Christmas with its flashy lights and shiny baubles, its carols and jangly Christmas songs and the inevitable dearth of (frankly dreadful) perfume adverts, that my first book of the New Year was the meditative A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. It is a book which has been sitting on my bedside table for, oh, probably around three years waiting for me to get around to reading it. It is a shame it has taken me so long to get to it.

Part meditation, part journey of discovery, part love affair, A Book of Silence follows Sara Maitland’s long and, sometimes, difficult journey into a more hermetic kind of life. The book begins where the story ends, on completion of her new home in the wilds of Scotland where her life of (semi) silence is to begin. Here Maitland describes her new home:

“It is early morning. It is a morning of extraordinary radiance – and unusually up here there is practically no wind. It is almost perfectly silent: some small birds are chirping occasionally and a little while ago a pair of crows flapped past making their raucous cough noises. It is the first day of October so the curlew and the oystercatchers have gone down to the seashore. In a little while one particular noise will happen – the two-carriage Glasgow-to-Stranraer train will bump by on the other side of the valley; and a second one may happen – Neil may rumble past on his quad bike after seeing to his sheep on the hill above the house; if he does he will wave and I will wave back. That is more or less it.”  

Through the book Maitland describes her boisterous background; coming from a large family in which silence was discouraged, to boarding school, to a marriage and family life spent in noisy vicarages. It was only following the end of her marriage that Maitland began to explore the pull of a quieter kind of life. Not surprisingly, she met with some resistance from family and friends, and the words of one friend in particular pivot through the book.  She refers to a letter from Janet Batsleer received at the beginning of her journey which reads:

“Silence is the place of death, of nothingness. In fact there is no silence without speech. There is no silence without the act of silencing, someone having been shut up, put bang to rights, gagged, told to hold their tongue, had their tongue cut out, had the cat get their tongue, lost their voice. Silence is oppression and speech, language, spoken or written is freedom.[...]
[...] That silence is a place of non-being, a place of control, from which all our yearning is to escape. All the social movements of repressed people in the second part of the twentieth century have claimed ‘coming to language’ and ‘coming to voice’ as necessary to their politics...In the beginning was the Word...Silence is oppression. It is ‘the word’ that is the beginning of freedom.
All silence is waiting to be broken.”

There is truth in those words, and yet Maitland felt there was something missing from the story. Why is it in Western culture that the idea of silence is considered such a negative, an absence, an abnegation whereas there are so many stories from history, particularly those from explorers or adventurers, those living hermetical lives, or the more meditative approach of Buddhists, or even the ‘art in the silence of nature’ views of the Romantic movement which suggest otherwise. Through reading, through experimentation, through making changes to her own life, Maitland comes to explore the uncharted domain which is silence. What she discovers is that there are many forms of silence, that it is true that silence, when imposed, is a form of torture or control but when freely chosen can be a source of great joy. There is the silence of the desert which is vast and open and self-dissolving. There is the silence of the solitary walker which is strengthening, and the silence of the solitary adventurer which has the power to transform or to destroy.

It is a fascinating book, full of curiosity and honesty and reverence. I think it is the reverence that comes over the most strongly. Maitland is a confirmed Catholic, and this pervades the book without overwhelming it. I think she is able to balance her personal faith against a more (if not entirely) scientific examination of the experience and scope of silence.

What has surprised me the most is how reading this relatively short and slightly meandering book has given me cause for a great deal of thought. It has also led me to conduct my own experiment in silence, one in which I will try to live more quietly. I have observed, on more than one occasion, that those evenings spent in companionable silence are some of the most restorative and enjoyable though I rarely create the space to exploit them in my ever-so-busy life. I expect it will not be easy, but I do think it will be enriching. I cannot retreat to a hermit’s hut on the Scottish moors, but I don’t think (however desirable it may seem) that such extreme measures are necessary. However, I intend to try to speak less, to listen more, to be in the world more. I am only hoping I can keep hold of this feeling long enough to make it a habit. It has already given me a sense of considerable peace.  

What the book has also helped me to uncover is some thoughts I’ve been having, generally, about speaking and language (though the two are not the same thing, I know. Bear with me). Too often, I think, people speak because what they are really seeking is to be listened to. I know I have done this (and will do this) myself, I know many people do. I would not, and do not, criticise people for doing so. How else are we to reach out to others if not through speech? At the same time the very act of speaking negates the idea of listening, of receiving. It is an outward reaching activity. Rarely, too, do people say what they mean. Too often conversation involves sharing of insignificant facts: what someone had for dinner, what they watched on TV. What they really mean is listen to me, care about me. In this long, lonely existence in which we are trapped inside our own minds, there is a kind of desperation for connection, for validation. Sometimes I think I speak because of a terrible fear that unless I speak, unless I make that momentary connection with somebody, I don’t exist. But at the same time the act of speaking interferes with my experience of being in the world. In the act of speaking, I cease to be.

A large part of this, I think, is down to the fact that language is an inadequate vehicle for expressing the experience of our existence, of the world. I think that language is a cage with which we try to imprison our experience, define it, set it down in measurable and repeatable formulas. It is a means of control. But it is also a lie. It is not a cage made of steel but of smoke. I say to someone I have a black cat and in the saying there is an intellectual leap, that the other person will understand what is meant by I and cat and have and black and yet there is nothing to say that my perception of what constitutes a cat is the same as the next person’s or the next. I say I love you and I already know even whilst saying it that love comes in many forms and shades, yet the same simple phrase, somehow, covers them all. It is an illusion. It is also the best we have, but then I think of all the experiences for which there are no words, for which the words that are available to me are mere shadows of what I think or feel or experience. I think of all those times of meaningful silence, moments of unspoken (but felt) love, or awe or confusion. I think this is part of why people turn to poetry, because poetry is language stretched to its limits, stretched beyond the mere meaning of the words into something closer to the intangible truth of what we feel or experience. Similarly music occupies this space; music is beyond words and yet somehow can come closest to expressing the breadth of what words cannot express.

It is strange, somehow, that a book about silence could prompt such a rush of unexpected (though not unwanted) thinking, and a desire to experience more. I wonder if this is how Sara Maitland herself started on her journey. Not a desire to withdraw from the world, but a desire to be fully within it. That silence can facilitate that desire is somewhat surprising, but through this book she convinced me that it could. I am glad of it. I feel like it has opened a door for me, and one through which I will walk gratefully. I cannot live a silent life, but I can live more quietly and more openly, and more importantly it made me realise that I want to. 

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

I’ve been hearing great things about Evie Wyld, so I approached this book with some trepidation. Often when I have great expectations, the reality falls a little flat. I’m glad to say, that wasn’t my experience this time.

All the Birds, Singing follows the story of Jake, an Australian woman running a sheep farm somewhere in the damp wilds of Britain (I sense Scotland). There is something menacing the farm; at first Jake thinks it is the local kids but later on it begins to look like some kind of wild animal. Wyld lands you straight into the action with this gripping opening:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”

Oh my.

Aside from her concerns about the sheep there is something menacing Jake, something from her past. There are scars on her back which are unexplained, for which Jake gives different explanations to different people. There is the question of her apparently chosen isolation, her reluctance to mingle with the locals or accept help from anyone with the exception of Don, her neighbour and the man she bought the farm from. It is clear that Jake is afraid of something, someone perhaps. Sometimes she calls home, but doesn’t speak when her mother picks up the phone. It is clear she is hiding from something.

Jake’s past is gradually revealed by a series of look backs, deftly woven in between the narrative of her present story. Chapters switch from present to past and back again, but this is never jarring instead it is a kind of unveiling, revealing how Jake ended up here, paranoid and lonely, on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There is such a contrast between Jake’s early life in Australia, the heat and barrenness compared to the dark damp and cold of Britain, and yet though the locations are so different there is also a common thread: the isolation, the sense of fear, the sense of something wild and dangerous, something uncontrolled, which threatens to dissolve Jake’s sense of security.

Though Jake craves aloneness, she is not alone. She has her sheep, Dog (her dog, called Dog), and both in present and past an unexpected friendship. In the present it is Lloyd, a seemingly homeless man who Jake almost shoots having mistaken him for the menacing animal that threatens her sheep. In the past a range of men: Greg, Otto, Denver. Each of the men offers her kindness, in some cases at a cost, but it is the last of them, Lloyd, who seems to offer Jake a chance of redemption.

There are a lot of themes running through this book. Guilt and responsibility run the most deeply through the story, along with isolation, fear, abuse - particularly directed towards women, and the difficulty of overcoming bad choices. Jake is a complex character. She is strong, determined and physically very capable. As one of the characters describes her, she’s ‘a good bloke’. In other respects she is distant, stubborn and paranoid, she refuses help, refuses to compromise in order to fit in with the community. Throughout the story you get the feeling that this is something Jake does to protect herself, it is plain she is carrying pain from the past and her isolation helps to protect her from worsening this pain or from being found out by those she’s hiding from. On the other hand, as the story develops, you begin to wonder if perhaps Jake is protecting others from herself; increasingly Jake’s actions seem reckless and dangerous. She almost shoots Lloyd, kills one of her own sheep, accidentally crushes a pigeon to death. Who is in need of protection?

This is where All the Birds, Singing is such a successful book; in it Wyld plays with all your preconceptions, showing how outward appearances can tell you nothing. Just when you think you are beginning to know who Jake is, to feel sympathy or disgust, the picture changes and suddenly the story of who she is unravels. Whatever you think you know, only by digging deeper can you begin to understand and even then understanding is a fiction. Wyld shows how complex people can be, how their paths are not a straight line but a jumble of string, with knots here and there that link one thread to another but which deny untangling. It is a masterful piece of story-telling. The pace is just about perfect, with each revelation you’re forced to rethink, to reassess, the language and writing is beautiful. Wyld evokes the damp-greyness of a British island alongside the raw heat of Australia and connects them, showing that people are the same regardless of where they are, how the differences are largely superficial. And in doing so she shows how it doesn’t matter where we go, how far we run, how hard we try to hide, we cannot escape ourselves.

All the Birds, Singing is an amazing book by a masterful writer. I look forward to reading more by Evie Wyld in the future.

All the Birds, Singing receives a peerless 10 out of 10 Biis. 

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

As a lover of literature, all literature, I have been attempting to read more non-fiction books. I’m a heavy reader of fiction, frequent reader of poetry, occasional reader of short fiction and fairly light reader of non-fiction. Which is not strictly true, exactly, as I read a lot of news reports and articles related to my work or matters of interest, but books of non-fiction not so much. My challenge is to read one piece of non-fiction per month, spread over the month. I find it difficult (but not impossible, the amazing Book of Silence proved that) to continuously read a book of non-fiction in the same way as I read a fictional work. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising as I would not expect to read poetry in the same way as I read a novel so neither should I expect to read non-fiction in same way.

Of course I have fallen behind on my target, but bear with me. I could catch up yet.

I also wanted to read non-fiction written by women. I think where there is an acceptance of female novelists and poets, there remains a challenge for women writing non-fiction. Perhaps this is linked to the idea that women cannot be experts, or a general preference for fiction, or perhaps it is women who think themselves unqualified to write about non-fiction subjects. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it is harder to find non-fiction written by women.

Anyway, that aside I did find a non-fiction book written by a women on a subject that interests me. Alexandra Horowitz’s book ‘On Looking’ is all about how to look and feel and experience more closely that which we take for granted: our local streets and neighbourhoods. Horowitz is based in New York, so her walks were all city based which gives an interesting contrast to my own experience which is more rural in nature. Not being a fan of cities in general, it gave me an interesting view on how to find the fascinating even in the concrete and glass jungle which seems so off-putting to me.

In exploring how to see and experience more of our environment, Horowitz took a series of walks with different experts and taking different perspectives. This helps to draw out different aspects of the environment which might otherwise be missed on a city walk. As a starting point Horowitz took and described her own walk, including some interesting information about why it is that we learn not to see, and she also took a walk with her small son, allowing him to guide her in his own exploration of their neighbourhood. The results were quite interesting. Horowitz discovered that when she walks she walks to be somewhere taking little in and moving swiftly, whereas her son’s walk was far more of an exploration sometimes taking 20 minutes before moving from one interesting sight to another. In her walk with her son Horowitz was surprised to find how frustrating she found it, how much she longed to move determinedly through the streets whereas her son longed to linger and examine and see.

This theme repeats throughout the walks that Horowitz takes with the experts, but in these walks she is much more open to seeing and experiencing the city through the eyes of her fellow walkees. Horowitz walks with Sidney Horenstein an expert on geology, Maria Kalman an illustrator whose willingness to walk into seemingly off-limits places Horowitz found both exciting and disturbing (much notice is taken of personal space), Paul Shaw an expert on typefaces, Charley Eiseman a naturalist who spends most of his time flipping over leaves looking for evidence of creepy crawlies, John Hadidian who has a similar interest but in the larger animals living in the city, Fred Kent an expert on the use of urban space and a man who enjoys a well thought-out shop front, Dr Joseph Bell who can diagnose medical conditions at a glance. By far my favourite walk was that she took with Arlene Gordon whose blindness doesn’t stop her from ‘seeing’ the city, and she also took an interesting walk aimed at hearing the city better and one from a dog’s eye (or more accurately: nose) view.

The specifics of the walks aren’t really important, but what this book made me think about was the quality of my own walking. Often I walk with a purpose: I am going somewhere. I walk up hills because I want the sense of achievement from reaching the top coupled with the reward of an amazing view. I walk to exercise, swiftly and with little care about where I’m going. I walk with earphones in my ear, listening to my own soundtrack and not the soundtrack of the world outside. Reading this book made me think of the pleasure of walking for the sake of walking, for the pleasure of the walk itself. I’d forgotten how much that could be a voyage of discovery. I think that in the Western world we have become obsessed with the idea of goals and stages and achievements and challenges, and there’s nothing wrong with that except it denies us the pleasure of the journey, that the point of a goal is that you are going somewhere but it is the bit between the setting of the goal and achieving of it in which all of your learning and striving and doing takes place. Ignoring the middle part is a bit dumb, when you think about it.

Perhaps it just mirrors the way I’ve been feeling recently, but the idea of going for a walk for the pleasure of walking, as a means unto itself, is very appealing. There is something wonderful in being reminded that life is a means unto itself, that we don’t have to wait until tomorrow to find pleasure in our existence. This book reminded me that you don’t have to go somewhere else to find something beautiful or interesting, that it’s right there outside the window as long as your eyes are open.

On Looking receives an insightful 8 out of 10 Biis.