A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 29 April 2015

The end of #TBR20, and a confession

It is done. My TBR20 challenge is complete. Last night I read and read doggedly, and I finished David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. I did not greatly enjoy it, which makes me sad. It wasn't the pressure of reading - had I been enjoying it there would have been no pressure at all - but rather it was a Mitchell book I didn't feel engaged with. Has my Mitchell worship been broken? Quite possibly.

Yes, I have finished reading my 20 books. The full list is as follows:

1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
2. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
3. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
4. The Years by Virginia Woolf
5. Flush by Virginia Woolf
6. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
7. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson
8. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
9. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
10. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
11. Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy
12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
13. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
14. Behindlings by Nicola Barker
15. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
16. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
17. School for Love by Olivia Manning
18. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
19. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
20. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

If you recall from this blog entry I made a cracking start on my TBR and by early January I was already half way through. So I decided to make it harder. Then I made it even harder on myself by going stir-crazy over library books so my TBR reading has taken about 3 times longer than it had to. And whilst this is no excuse whatsoever, I have to admit that when I stalled on my last 3 I totally caved and bought 4 books. Yes, I am a terrible cheat. Mea culpa.

So, what have I learned from the process? It's been great. I may have cheated towards the end, but by that point it had been over 3 months since I'd last bought a book which is probably the longest I've managed without book buying in the last 10 years. I think, whilst not being 100% successful, it has gifted me a better relationship with book buying. Now I only want to buy books I intend to keep. I'm using the library much more, which is no bad thing, and whilst I haven't completely quashed my acquisitive spirit or the compulsive curiosity that makes me want to immerse myself in random themes (right now it's islands and cyber crime. Don't ask) I am in a lot better shape. One of the things I've done is to create a spreadsheet where I can note down books I want to read, then I research what I can source at the library and which I really want to buy. I find writing them down helps to quell the desire to impulse buy, and by spreading out my planned acquisitions it gives me time to decide I don't want to read them after all. Sounds crackers, I know, but it helps. 

Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact once I've got my initial need to acquire some new books out of the way (by the end of this weekend, then) I will select another 20 from my to read pile and implement a new book buying ban. Next time I'll go a little easier on myself, and perhaps pick a selection of books which is not quite so mentally challenging (or at least I won't save all the long ones to the end). 

In the meantime, I have a lovely book about Tove Jansson to reward myself with...

Saturday 25 April 2015

Holloway by Robert McFarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards

A holloway is a sunken path, a deep and shady lane, a landmark that “speak[s] of habit rather than suddenness” explains this brief and poetic book by acclaimed nature writer Robert McFarlane (plus buddies). It is a book which is very much an exploration, a way of being in nature, a memorial to a man – Roger Deakin – with whom McFarlane began this journey. In the beginning the two men set out to find a holloway, to which there is no map, mentioned in a book called Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household – a book, as it happens, that I have also heard mentioned somewhere else very recently, the result of which is has found itself onto my to read list. It is the book that inspired them, their shared love of it, and so they set out with map and tent, penknife, matches and candles and a hipflask each to find this hidden place. Together they enter a church, crest the summit of a half-moon of hills; they enter the dusk of the holloway and camp out in a flower meadow with full and glorious views of the stars.

Then Roger Deakin died, suddenly and unexpectedly. A few years following Deakin’s death McFarlane returned to the holloway, this time in the company of Dan Richards and Stanley Donwood who contributed to this book. They slept in the holloway, pursued by rain and something mysterious they they couldn’t identify but all felt. It is fitting, perhaps, that in the course of this second journey McFarlane should encounter the ‘ghost’ of Deakin, though not in a literal sense as he explains:  

“That long & happy day passed in exploration, tree-climbing, walking, talking, lounging. I had not gone in search of Roger’s shade, but I found him there nonetheless, glimpsed startlingly clearly at the turn of a corner or the edge of a tree-line. Actual memory traces existed in the stumps of the holly saplings we had cut as staffs, our blade-marks still visible in the wood. He knoweth hym by the traces & by his denne and by the soole.”

A further outing ensues, similar to the last in tone, in character and emotion. There is a sense of boys out at play, rediscovering the freedom of the countryside as described here:

“That car. That strap. My bike. This. The tactile reassurance of the close at hand. Sunlight falls and kestrels call to disavow what we’d just seen and been through and, indeed, the clouds seem to have lifted off and melted quite away when we turn and look back.

Stan and I plunge down the brink and speed. The rifled lanes spill past and we grin tight until, turn approaching, brakes applied – and now, and now; no, come on; now – I begin a slow crash into Dorset with its gleaming chalk and plough-turned flint-tipped ruts.”

Image result for holloway robert macfarlaneSo, in Holloway, McFarlane shows us both the experience of continuance and renewal: continuance in returning to the holloway, renewal in that each experience was unique whilst bearing the scars, or the ghost, of the previous visit. There is no ending. It is a book not so much about seeking as it is about discovering something about the self, a way of being, an honesty which comes from using your body out there in the world, surrounded by hills and hidden groves. The book is accompanied by strange, pencil-line drawn black and white pictures of the holloway itself, pictures which are at once unnerving and yet also bring to mind the birth canal, all ridged and furred, a place which may be frightening to enter but which brings you out into a new, and exciting world. And there’s a sense that this is what the book is inviting us to do – to enter the world. Before it is too late.

The language echoes the theme; a dense filigree of words that tangle and yet draw your eye down a path. It is beautifully written, and achieves a great deal in its brevity. Each sentence can be read and re-read repeatedly, the words spilling through the mind like water, un-claimable yet etching their way in. Through these words we learn of history, of ghosts, of nature wild and untameable, hidden places and what they reveal about ourselves and others. We touch on the question of loss, so delicately, and it is, perhaps, the absence of reflection of Roger’s death, the way it is so barely mentioned, that makes the loss seem more poignant. The return to the holloway allows McFarlane to discover that “stretches of a path might carry memories of a person just as a person might of a path” and this is a source of comfort: that a path carries the echo of a person means, somehow, that the person is never truly lost, and the holloway itself is the memory of many, the slow returners, the creatures of habit, a path formed by years and repetition, hidden but always discoverable.

Hol weg. Holwy. Holway. Holeway. Holewaye. Hollowy. Holloway.

Monday 20 April 2015

Speedboat by Renata Adler

By happy coincidence, my reading of Speedboat by Renata Adler coincided with the discovery that a paperclip makes a perfectly adequate bookmark, as this is exactly the kind of off-beat fact that could (though didn’t) make an appearance in Speedboat. It’s a strange type of book. It’s not factual, it’s not a memoir, but it feels factual and it feels like a memoir. It’s not a story, yet it is. It is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.

Speedboat is best described, I think, as a series of loosely linked anecdotes, about which something is a little off-kilter. The unnamed narrator is a journalist, and the anecdotes are her observations about her life, her friends, the structures they interact with like schools and universities, their frailties and oddness. It is a book which defies any kind of definition and which, in the end, speaks better for itself. It is funny, sharp and observant. I found myself re-reading passages for their amusement value. It is incredibly well written, an homage to the beauty of a sentence, a paragraph, well constructed. Like here:

Image result for speedboat by renata adler“I often wonder about the people who linger over trash baskets at the corners of the city’s sidewalks. One sees them day and night, you and old, well dressed, in rags – often with shopping bags – picking over the trash. They pick out newspapers, envelopes. They discard things. I often wonder who they are and what they’re after. I approach and cannot ask them. Anyway, they scurry off. Sometimes I think they are writers who do not write. That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.”

Somehow that small passage gives me hope. Or here:

Image result for speedboat by renata adler“It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. But this I know, or think I know, that idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind. Embarrassment, though, on the scale of things to feel, is trivial. It does not even constitute – as do humiliation, envy, guilt – an actual emotion, a condition of the soul. Its command of the attention is absolute. Someone who needs and does not have a handkerchief is likely to be as preoccupied as someone scared to death. Most of the safest form in this is established by form, by sameness, by rote. For others, the stereotyped is most embarrassing. It is by no means clear on which side of this question humor is. A surprise can be comic, as can a certainty. Leaving humor out of it, there exists embarrassment pure. Alas.”

It is an odd book which keeps you reading in spite of the apparent lack of structure, lack of clear narrative. It is a book that goes nowhere and everywhere. It is funny, silly at turns, observant and penetrating. It is slightly off-beam in a way that simply works perfectly. It is a book for the reader, for the lover of a well-balanced sentence. It’s delightful and witty and it feels very fresh and unlike anything else. An enjoyable and invigorating read.