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1. Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

Don't miss BBC Radio 4's current Book of the Week: Stop What You're Doing and Read This, a series of essays by leading writers on the importance, mystery and magic of reading.  You can listen again to episodes here.  

So far Michael Rosen has talked about the experience of his father reading Great Expectations aloud on holiday and how books wove themselves into his daily life to the extent that he began to think of the characters as part of his family.  

Jeanette Winterson's essay is my favourite so far - reading in bed a book about the Cairngorm mountains she talks of the mystical experience of reading - a door from one place to another, with her ususal passion and intellect.

And Tim Parks has a fascinating essay on mindful reading.  How words construct selves and how reading whilst aware of our own responses can make us know ourselves.  'Life is too short for a bad book or the right book at the wrong time' he says.  

There are two more to come in the series; I have already listened to these three twice each (they are a modest 15 minutes long).  A reminder that Radio 4 alone justifies the BBC's licence fee.


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2. 'Tis the year's midnight

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day


'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
         Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.


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3. Paris for the weekend

I'm hopping on the train to Paris for a long weekend.

Packing: Hemingway's A Movable Feast and Alan Jacobs's The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

It will be bliss. 


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4. Paris for the weekend

I'm hopping on the train to Paris for a long weekend.

Packing: Hemingway's A Movable Feast and Alan Jacobs's The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

It will be bliss. 


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5. The Lovers by Vendela Vida

I purchased this on Kindle after reading the Guardian's double page spread on the author, not, if I am honest, because the book sounded irresistible but because she was clearly a notable contemporary writer (witness the double spread) and because the ebook was only 99p (I never said I wasn't shallow.)

Reading it was a disappointment. The genre of 'older woman taking a journey after the death of a long-term spouse' is a dreary one at best and this narrative is aimless and peppered with inconsequential encounters that never quite achieve anything for the characters or indeed interest (this) reader.  A scene early in the book where the protagonist Yvonne takes a walk to the beach, orders and doesn't eat an ice cream and then walks back to her sterile holiday rental house had me right back in my novel writing class hearing the tutor telling us that every page of a novel must be interesting: either the events or the style or the atmosphere.  Vendela must have missed that class.

Another inherent pitfall of the 'dead loved one' genre is that much of it is composed of memories of the dead loved one, so that we are either in the realm of being told or in the realm of the protagonist buttonholing passers by conveniently provided for this purpose (and no other) by the author who are then forced to stand glassy eyed until the protagonist and author have finished their Ancient Mariner moment. 

The blurb by Zoe Heller calls it a 'moving meditation on love and a page-turning adventure', a description that actually had me double checking that the correct book had been beamed to my Kindle.  Still, I have usefully reminded myself that this is a genre I don't enjoy and should avoid in future.


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6. Digressive non-fiction with lots of musing on reading and writing

After devouring Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks I have re-awakened my hunger for a certain type of non-fiction.

The key elements in books of this sort for me are: intelligent clear prose, lots of digressions about reading and writing, often to do with solitude or the puzzle of writing 'true' history or biography, forays into psychology or philosophy and an author who often appears in the work or discusses its creation even if the work is not billed as memoir.

Here’s my list of all-time favourites in the un-genre.  

James Hamilton-Paterson: Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island.  I blogged about the book here, and although bits of it were not to my taste, the passages about living alone in the forest were so good that it earns its place on this list.

Alix Kates Shulman: Drinking the Rain. Frustratingly, I cannot find that I have ever blogged about this one, despite having read it twice during the lifetime of this blog.  I love the account of the author leaving her life in New York to go live alone in a cabin on a beach on an island off the Maine coast.  It is self sufficiency and nature with a dash of divorce and re-discovery of self thrown in. Her subsequent book To Love What Is is also excellent, but very different in subject matter, dealing with the enormous changes to her life when her (new) husband suffers a fall and is left brain damaged with little or no memory.

W G Sebald: The Rings of Saturn. Blogged about here, here and here.

Janet Malcolm: Reading Chekhov: a Critical Journey, In the Freud Archives and The Silent Woman. Respectively, a journey to visit some of the places Chekhov lived, a feud in the Freud society and the problems of writing biographies of Sylvia Plath while her literary estate was controlled by her former husband Ted Hughes.  I like Janet Malcolm a lot and see that she has a new book out Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial which I should

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7. Teach Us How to Sit Still by Tim Parks

I have just finished reading a book of my favourite unclassifiable type: strands of memoir, musings on reading and writing, seemingly meandering but actually fiercely but unobtrusively organised.  I love these books so much and find them so hard to find because they turn up in so many different book categories.  How does one search for a plotless meandering book on a topic that one is not yet interested in?  So I have to wait for them to find me.  And, thanks to the Kindle, this one did.  Tim Parks’ Teach Us How to Sit Still was advertised on a poster on the underground  and something in the blurb from Will Self made me want to read it and as soon as the tube train rattled into the air of the upper reaches of the Northern line I had it in my hands.

On the face of it this is an unlikely book for a woman to like as the first section is given over to a detailed account of the author’s struggles with ‘men’s problems' ie his prostate and the problems of peeing and not peeing.  To my surprise, it made interesting reading; possibly because I had the selfishly comfortable sensation of thinking that at least it wasn’t going to happen to me, but also because Parks is a good writer and editor: he knows just how much detail to put in, when to veer off topic for an interesting digression and when to go up close into places that made even me go ‘ouch’. 

But what elevates the interest is the author’s deeper instincts about what the illness is, or means, and his investigations into certain images and ideas that recur to him and seem linked in mysterious ways to his pain, particularly Velazquez's painting The Waterseller of Seville in which the glass of clear water with a black fig in the bottom seems to represent a solution to his problem, if only he could decipher it. He mulls over the relationship of illness to writing in a satisfyingly deft way.

Medical diagnosis seems not to explain his symptoms, the internet predictably drowns him in a babble of conflicting stories but through a chance reference to a self help book he discovers the benefit of relaxation, then shiatsu then meditation.  That then is the ostensible subject matter announced in the subtitle 'A sceptic's search for health and healing', but in these sort of books the destination is much less important than the journey, the musings, the asides and chance connections made.  He discusses the relationship of mind to body which in turn becomes the relationship of words to consciousness and the problem of how or whether it is possible to to experience life unmediated by them.

 “Everything had to be lived through language, or it wasn’t lived at all; to the point that I hadn’t really seen a painting …. Until I had thought about it, or better still written about it… Then I possessed it.” Like tourists who experience a holiday through their photos  “What mattered was not the experience itself, but the experience described.”  

Being a writer, translator and teacher he tests his experience against literary models and as he comes uncomfortably close to thinking that he will have to give up writing in order to heal himself he circles round the writing of Robert Walser, J M Coetzee and Samuel Beckett and the conundrum of not wanting to write about oneself (or at all) but being compelled to do so whilst seeking ways not to.  And his references are so apt and interesting that once again I feel myself nudged towards that day when I will get over my terror and actually read Beckett.

The book reminded me of Sebald (in a good way and without being derivative) and was the perfect companion on a long journey on an old fashioned train across a very dull part of Poland. It did however show me the limitations of making notes via the Kindle: so hard to navigate around them later, not a patch on the Moleskine.

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8. Concentrate on content and let the format take care of itself

So, as predicted, I did buy a Kindle.  We had an uneasy stand off for a week or two: I downloaded cheap or free classics, a dozen trial first chapters and I somewhat regretted its greyness and ugliness.  We did not like each other, the Kindle and I.  And then I accidentally got hooked on a giant doorstopper of a book, a positive housebrick, in a week in which I was travelling a lot and carrying other things which left no room for the housebrick.  But I needed to read the housebrick.  So I choked back my inner puritan (‘But you’ve got the hardback free from the library already! Why pay £6.99 for something you already have, can’t lend to a friend or re-sell?’)  and lo! the housebrick was a feather and I read it everywhere, not noticing that there was housebrick in my hands, not noticing that I had just changed my life forever.

Next I bought the expensive Penguin e-book of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady causing the inner puritan almost fatal blood pressure issues (‘You already have the paperback version! It’s not heavy! You could get a free version of this!’) because I wanted the Penguin notes and introduction but not the slightly depressing yellowed pages of the old paperback.  Suddenly, I realised that without the distraction of paper, the attempt not to break the spine, the awkward flipping from a page on one side of the volume to the other, and with only bite size pieces of unparagraphed Jamesian prose, the reading experience was totally immersive.  It was a pure reading experience that swallowed me up as I haven’t been swallowed since reading as a child.  It is the opposite of the scattering of attention that I thought might come from too much choice.

Now the Kindle and I love each other.  We are never separated.  I have read seven novels on it in just over three weeks. I took the Kindle on holiday but hedged my bets with three actual books as back up.  I didn’t touch the books.  I downloaded the Saturday papers in less than a minute for 99p each.  I finished Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and immediately downloaded and read The Line of Beauty.  I am reading more now than I have in years.

I am but a humble reader and have no idea if e-books will kill or save publishing.  The Financial Times has a very good article on the state of play and Sam Leith at the Guardian also has an interesting take on the issue (and which deserves a far less dull title than Is This the End for Books?) 

If my experience is typical, this is just the beginning of a new, initially painful perhaps, but ultimately exciting change of format for written creativity.  My thirteen year old twin daughters used to be voracious readers until their attention was diverted to Blackberry status updates, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube all the shallow stuff that we old folks bemoan.  I could get them to the library at holiday time only because their mobile phone contracts didn’t include foreign roaming.  This year, in my evangelism, I bought them Kindles, registered them all to my account so that we could share all the books we each downloaded and I watched them read.  And read.  And read even in preference to switching on their laptops when we got home.  They are very, very comfortable with reading on screens and, presented electronically rather than on paper, they were gripped by fiction once more.  They and their generation are the future for publishing if it wants to have one.   Concentrate on excellent content and let the format take care of itself.



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9. Florence is heaven for notebook addicts


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10. Home...


Though it is always a deep joy to be home, still, I can't help wishing that the two weeks in Tuscany could have been two months.  Yes, Chiantishire is a cliche for the English, but cliches are only over-worked truths and Tuscany is truly beautiful.

(Above a view towards the medieval hill village of San Gimignano).

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11. From the sublime to the .... very different

So how does one follow the experience of being deeply moved by Henry James?  Nothing in the house seemed up to the job and I wasn't even sure that I wanted to dilute the aftermath with more James.

So, something very different was called for.  Graphic novels!  (Though in my head they are still comics and all the more fun for it).  It makes my list of recent reading look a touch schizophrenic: Henry James, Shakespeare, Caitlin Moran's laugh out loud feminist memoir How to Be a Woman (and more on that later), then The Walking DeadY: The Last Man, and The Unwritten.

Yes, I have many readerly personalities.  I love reading.  And sometimes it's good to look in unexpected places.  I am sure that Shakespeare read everything he could get his hands on.  He might even have been tickled by the plot possibilities of zombies; a plague that has killed all the men in the world and the troubles of a man who may not actually exist but has come out of a book.

Henry James, I suspect, would have been less tickled.


(Graphic novel recommendations gleaned from another reader of many personalities.)


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12. Falling in love with Henry James

Perhaps one has to be of a certain age to fall in love with Henry James.  I have read him before and apart from some of the shorter fiction - The Turn of the Screw, The Europeans - I haven’t really enjoyed the experience.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that I have been maddened by what I perceived (in my modern haste and brash desire to ‘get to the point’) as his circumlocutions and cheese paring of his characters’ sensibilities.  But just as I failed to understand Jane Austen’s irony as a teenager but become a devotee of it in my twenties, so in my forties it seems I am ready to understand and appreciate Henry James’s subtlety, his patience and more than anything, his artistic tact.

 I started reading The Portrait of a Lady because of an article by Colm Toibin in the London Review of Books (which I wrote about here) and an idea I had that Mme Merle could teach me something about a character in my own novel.  Actually, I have now axed that character and instead, Henry James has taught me much more interesting lessons about finding the apt image or metaphor, describing emotional states with insight and specificity and artistry in structuring a narrative, especially his knack of avoiding the big scenes and moving instead to look at their consequences.  

I admired (and took notes) on how perfectly he dealt with Isabel’s marriage.  She has refused an offer from an English nobleman, Lord Warburton, and from her American suitor Caspar Goodwood, both of whom would have made ‘good’ husbands in the sense of being decent, honourable men, but neither of whom she loves.  Isabel is then introduced to the American ex-pat, Gilbert Osmond, a man of no means but exquisite taste and sensibilities.  Isabel projects her own goodness and honesty onto Gilbert and misreads him entirely.  James somewhat laconically tells us she spends three weeks in Gilbert’s company without giving details then moves on to the expected arrival of her cousin Ralph.  In the next chapter Isabel is in a state of agitation awaiting the arrival of a young man.  Of course the reader assumes it is either Gilbert or Ralph and is disconcerted to find that it is Caspar and that in the course of their conversation it is disclosed that Isabel is now engaged to Gilbert.  It’s a masterful sleight of hand to preserve the inward mystery of Isabel’s attraction to Gilbert and to keep the reader out of the detail of any intimacy between them so that James can make an even more audacious leap.   The narrative moves on in time to three years after the marriage and in a conversation between Isabel and Mme Merle which is ostensibly about a husband for Gilbert’s daughter, we find out that Isabel and Gilbert are not happy in their marriage.  Thereafter the detail of why they are not happy and the slow disclosure of Isabel’s disillusion take on the character of a psychological thriller, all made possible because James has deliberately chosen not to tell the reader what has actually happened.  

Part way through, as Isabel realised how she was caught in a web she had not seen, I mentally accused James of cruelty.  But as the book went on and the character of Isabel grew, gained depth and complexity as she faced her situation clear-eyed and bravely, I simply gave in to admiration of his skill in creating a heroine courageous enough to endure the situation and who was wholly good (albeit sometimes misguided) and yet not priggish or unsympathetic.  

My creative writing classes have strongly come down in favour of reading contemporary fiction on the basis that this is the work from which contemporary writers should learn.  No one can write a novel like a Henry James novel nowadays so don’t even try is the message.  But the problem

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13. Richard III at The Old Vic

I see quite a lot of theatre in London but last night's performance of Richard III at the Old Vic with Kevin Spacey in the lead role was probably the best thing I have ever seen.  It is also the first time I've been in an audience that rose with one accord to give a standing ovation.  

It always amazes me how actors bring a line from the page to real, quivering life on the stage with just a look, a gesture, the right intonation. Spacey didn't so much speak Shakespeare's lines as actually be them.  It's a long play but it was riveting and purely, absorbingly entertaining and unexpectedly funny.  Spacey's Richard was ironic, sarcastic, outrageously hypocritical and manipulative but also chillingly charismatic and energetic.  And despite such a towering and dominant central figure the women (in what is really a man's world) were equally compelling: the old queen Margaret as a shamanistic doomsayer; Anne physically wooed despite her horror and Elizabeth broken and brought low.  I feel Shakespeare would have liked this production: his characters were given majestic full rein and the staging inventively supported the dramatic action.

I often blanch at the cost of theatre tickets in London and leave some highly praised plays disgruntled at having been sold a pup, but last night restored all my love of theatre.  Films cannot compare with being in the centre stalls, ten rows back from actors of real skill and stature performing that night for that audience.  Magical.

I'm now glancing nervously through my diary wondering how the next performances I have booked  (a revival of Tom Stoppard's Rozencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead and Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest) can possibly compare.  

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14. Practice is the heart of the matter

From John Gardner The Art of Fiction Notes on Craft for Young Writers:

"On reflection we see that the great writer's authority consists of two elements.  The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, 'Yes, you're right, that's how it is!" The second element, or perhaps I should say force, is the writer's absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts, a trust grounded partly in his intelligence and sensitivity - his ability to perceive and understand the world around him - and partly in his experience as a craftsman; that is (by his own harsh standards), his knowledge, drawn from long practice, of what will work and what will not.

What this means in practical terms for the student writer, is that in order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter."


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15. Part two - Half a year of books.

Bringing the year's reading up to date.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd.

When I was much younger I read Boyd's The New Confessions and loved it so much that not only did I read Rousseau's Confessions (which Boyd gives a nod to in his title) but I also read every book of Boyd's as it was published.  None gripped me quite as The New Confessions did, although they were all excellent in their own way.  Somehow along the way though my Boyd habit abated. Out of curiosity I picked up Ordinary Thunderstorms at the library, looking, I think, for that elusive animal, the well written, intelligent, readable literary novel.  

Ordinary Thunderstorms ticked four and a half of those five boxes.  It is well written (and by this I mean the prose is not dull, pretentious, a distraction from the subject matter or wincingly tone deaf and on the positive side is well made, fresh and interesting - a pretty high hurdle, I am a picky reader nowadays), is readable and literary (and this word I use loosely and controversially to mean 'non-genre').  

The story is broadly that of a man who stumbles into a murder scene, becomes the main suspect and thereby tangles himself up in a conspiracy, all of which force him to live rough in London and then find an alternate identity.  It's a great plot and well executed.  My only reservation was the conspiracy element: big pharma as the villain.  Again?  If this hasn't become a cliche by now, the idea is at the very least severely fatigued.  But it didn't ruin a good read.

Great House by Nicole Krauss.

Great House by Nicole Krauss is definitely in with a chance of being my book of the year.  It won't be to everyone's tastes: you will need to love being inside the head of at least two introspective, self-absorbed female characters who write; you will also need to be tolerant of interior monologue and an overall atmosphere of loss and anxiety.  If you can manage that then here is a beautifully written book of deep thought and loveliness.  

Theodora by Stella Duffy.

I read this whilst deep in some unproductive writing endeavours of my own and my review here was heavily influenced by my frustration with some elements of the craftsmanship of the writing.  I gather that the novel has now been optioned by HBO.  I suspect it will be better on the screen than the page.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee.

Another contender for book of the year.  

On a writing course I attended a while ago the tutor declared that there is nothing as boring as reading about money in a novel.  I was astonished.  I love reading about money.  Money, property, inheritance, debt are all motivating factors in of several of my best loved novels: Madame Bovary, anything by Edith Wharton or Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, swathes of Henry James.  So this glimpse into the live

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16. Half a year of books. Part One

July is here already and it is time for a mini stock take of the reading year so far.  I am tempted to use my nine-words-or-less review plan again but can't be that lazy twice.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest.  

This was a book whose premise was excellent: a collective negative hallucination by the 'normal' population in respect of some people which thus renders them effectively invisible (giving them the 'glamour') and allowing them to lead parallel immoral lives.  The narrator becomes involved with a girl from the 'glamour' and her demonic ex-boyfriend.  This could have been interesting in itself without the additional layering of a plot involving the narrator's amnesia, but sadly, and I do mean sadly as I loved the idea, it never took off.  Something about the style flattened the story, made it dull and then, as a final insult, the writer pulled off the sort of cheap trick ending which, frankly, only Lewis Carroll has successfully got away with.

Surprisingly, I didn't resent starting the year with a dud.  It was a novel off the beaten track of my usual reading and worth taking a chance on.

The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska.

Well, to start the year with one unenjoyable book may be regarded as a misfortune but to follow it up immediately with another one looks like carelessness.  But careless I was. 

The book consisted of three sections narrated by the same un-named character.  In fact they felt like essays or even non-fiction with their footnotes about real people.  Sebald does this magnificently.  Ms Modjeska less so.  Either I wasn't concentrating or the narrator's role in the stories, and the connection of the stories to each other was somewhat sketchy.  It may well have been me.

The book had a few good passages on the theme of women finding their selves, their voices, their role in the world and there were some interesting sections on the relationship between Stella Bowen, Ford Madox Ford and Jean Rhys (and I now have no recall at all as to what they were doing there) but unfortunately the prose tended towards portentousness, platitudes and abstraction. The section on the boredom of being blind was, alas, all too successful.

The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd.

This is another in what I privately designate as Ackroyd's novelisations of his research for the magisterial London: the Biography, a book I adore and venerate.  The trouble is that as I have read the Biography twice now, the spin off novels seem slightly less satisfying by comparison.  

The Clerkenwell Tales is set in fourteenth century London and is gorgeous with historically accurate detail.  It has a thriller type feel, revolving around a political/religious plot with a nun who is either a prophet or a madwoman at its centre.  As with all Ackroyd's work the writing and detail are meticulous and wonderful but this one just didn't capture my imagination and (whisper it) I felt the mad/religious dichotomy just a bit cliched.

The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd.

Now, The Fall of Troy, by comparison saw Ackroyd at his best again so far as my tastes are concerned. 

The central figure, Obermann, is from the start powerful and charismatic; a romantic obsessed with excavati

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17. Theodora by Stella Duffy

I like historical fiction but don’t often venture as far back in time as the first millennium, preferring to stay within my 18th/19th century comfort zone. Theodora by  Stella Duffy was an interesting departure for me, not just as a reader, but also as a would be historical writer (my still-struggling-with-it novel is set in the 19th Century).  I should make it clear that what follows is more a note to myself on issues around writing rather than a full review of the book.  Perhaps reading as a writer has taken over from reading as a reader.  I have never read solely for plot but it seems that nowadays I can’t overlook less than excellent writing (even though I can’t produce it myself!) 

Theodora is set in Constantinople around 500 CE and there is no attempt to re-create period speech or style, the book is unashamedly modern in its narrative tone and dialogue.  So here, for example, is Theodora is speaking to her maid: ‘Yeah, right, because you’ve got so much time between screwing the captain and flirting with that fat merchant..’  Or to her friend Sophia: ‘We could go somewhere else, just the two of us, for a meal?’ I admit I find this modern speech somewhat jarring but I accept that it probably represents the modern equivalent, the spirit, of how Theodora spoke in her own time and her own language. 

I was less happy with the colloquial narrative style.  I seem to have developed a thin skin so far as ugly sentences are concerned.  These were really quite painful:

‘A presumably barren ex-dancer, who’d slept with far too many men, not all of them for money, but not many for free, who had found a new life as an anti-Chalcedonian believer at a time when there were even more attacks on that group than before, and who now couldn’t make up her mind if she was hungry for the City or terrified of that hunger, didn’t seem to have a lot going for her in terms of greatness as far as she could see.’

‘As Justin faded from bad to worse health, Justinian needed to immediately step up in every area of governing the Empire.’

In places it feels like something written at speed and not fully edited.  So for example on page 160 we have Severus ‘speaking in many languages and not just the Greek of the church or the Latin of state, using whatever words he could find to make sense to his disparate group.’ Then just four pages later, in her retreat in the mountains Theodora recalls Severus ‘speaking in Syriac as often as any other language, proudly using whatever words were most appropriate to express universal truths, refusing to stick to the Latin the Roman west loved, the Greek the church preferred, choosing instead to use whichever languages his followers understood to make his point clear to them.’  Repetitious?  A little.

And I lay a bet that Ms Duffy writes a daily quota of 500 or 1,000 words.  How do I guess this? On pages 250 to 253 we get three separate sections of background: a day’s work each (after they have been edited down) interesting, connected in content but plunked down without linkage.  I do this sort of thing in my first drafts too but I am surprised to see them turn up in a published novel.

The novel follows Theodora’s life chronologically and large amounts of history and theology are neatly summarised and slipped in without causing indigestion in the reader, but Theodora packed a lot into her life: dancer, mistress to a Governor in Africa, religious convert undergoing visions in the desert, adviser to the Emperor’s heir apparent back in Constantinople, then wife and in the final pages Empress.  I wished for longer with each stage, more expansiveness rather than the hurrying on to the next stage.  The material is so interesting that it could easily take a longer treatmen

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18. To Kindle or not to Kindle?

My mind was firmly closed on the subject of e-readers.  I knew where I stood on them: nothing could replace a book so far as I was concerned.  And then in December one of my friends showed me her Kindle.  On one level it was disappointing: grey and ugly, and nothing happened when I touched the screen - I was expected to press buttons the old fashioned way!  But I was impressed with the quality of the screen definition and the lightness of the thing.  And so the idea simmered away in the back of my mind.  Many bloggers and tweeters I follow have them and swear by them.  I keep looking at the Amazon page and hypothetically debating 3G or wi-fi.  I keep nearly buying one.  And yet I keep not buying one.  

But on the horizon comes a home downsizing which will be very welcome but also radical.  My CDs are all digitised; can I contemplate doing the same to my books?  (Actually just typing that sentence has every cell in my body screaming ‘no’!)  And then holidays loom with the always huge pile of hardbacks which I deem indispensable for any period away from the house that exceeds 24 hours.  A Kindle would be a major help on both fronts.  

I could keep all my classics, biographies, poetry and reference books in hard copy and going forward buy contemporary fiction in e form.  After all, this is the stuff which has the highest turnover rate in my life.  My rule is that a book only goes on the shelves if I am convinced that I will want to re-read it.  Only about a quarter of the contemporary fiction I read makes the cut.  Putting these on the Kindle would save space.  Packing holiday reading would be a breeze.

But this is where I start to have doubts.  I know that if I get a Kindle then I will immediately download every public domain classic and hug the plastic incarnation of the complete works of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Trollope and so on, just because I can and because obviously I never know when I might need to re-read Wuthering Heights for the eighth time.  And then instead of choosing 5 contemporary novels from the hundred odd that lie, unread, in my library, I will stuff them all (or as many as I can afford to stockpile) onto the Kindle thinking that it will be good to have lots of choice.  But then when I actually come to read something, rather than getting my book out of my bag on the plane and reading I know I will start half a dozen novels on the Kindle, flick through several classics, decide to read Shakespeare, change my mind, go back to the Orange short list, lose interest, skip to a thriller and then be told to switch off all electrical devices before I have read even half a chapter of anything.  I will be paralysed by choice, constantly undermined by the idea that there is something better elsewhere in the 3,500 books the Kindle can apparently hold than.  

And then there is the loss of the memory of the physical sensation.  This shouldn't be underestimated.  In the future all I will have is a  recollection of holding a Kindle, whereas now I can summon the exact feel of the weight of A Place of Greater Safety on the beach in Mexico, the London Library copy of The Quest for Corvo  on the flight back from Venice,  and the moment I pick up my old Penguin copy of Jane Eyre I am straight back to my sixteen year old self (not always such a good trip that one!)

I think that it is almost inevitable that I will buy one.  And that I will both love it and regret it.  Until then - any wisdom to share dear readers?


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19. Like a large, needy reptile

An outstanding essay by Colm Toibin in this week's London Review of Books on The Importance of Aunts (in the 19th-century novel).  Unfortunately it is available online to subscribers only but for this alone the £3.20 cover price is a snip.

The novel, after all, is not a moral fable or parable; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments about their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel is never simple. A novel isn’t a piece of ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatisation of how these energies might be controlled and given shape. Characters in fiction are determined by the pattern, and they determine the pattern in turn.


The novel, as a form, is unsure whether it is a story, told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors. It is both static and theatrical in its systems, a sphere in which a single controlling voice operates, or many competing voices. And since the novel is made up not of characters moving across the stage wearing colourful costumes and projecting their voices, but grim black marks on the page, one of the other purposes of aunts is that they allow for dramatic entrances and departures. All through the 19th century, aunts breach the peace and lighten the load. 

And at this point, as I realised I have an aunt-like figure in my own writing, entering a closed world and disturbing the peace, I had a little frisson of recognition.

And then this about Henry James's development of the aunt's role

[he] saw what was possible, that the aunt could be made not simply an enabling figure, or a cruelly comic figure, or a passive figure, but a highly sexualised woman, and thus, within the dynamic of the novel, one capable of darting at will from one guise to another, causing havoc within the narrative confines created for her: she is exciting and subversive, dangerous, potentially explosive.

Comparing the aunts in The Wings of the Dove and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (one of my personal favourite books) he has this lovely line:

the aunt hovers over the action, darting in and out of the narrative like a large, needy reptile.

I must now go and urgently read Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove.  All of which I sense have a theme that I am trying out in my own work.

And on the themes that writers share, Toibin has this nice comment:

By the time he began The Portrait of a Lady in 1879, James had followed the serialisation of Daniel Deronda. He read the book carefully, disapproved of it, an

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20. Beautiful and sad; ordinary and heroic.

Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall  left me requiring a quiet moment of contemplation.  And wonder. And admiration.

Its plot is slight: Peter Harris, middle-aged art dealer, in a companionable but arid marriage to Rebecca falls in love with someone unsuitable, is rebuffed by the love object and resigns himself to carrying on with his 'impossible' old life.  But plot is the very least of what this book has to offer.The writing is exquisite and nuanced: Cunningham is one of those rare writers able to describe clearly a sensation that has been inchoate in some part of your life and which now comes into focus as he places it on the page before you.  

Peter, whose point of view we inhabit for the main stretch of the book, is self aware, almost self-conscious in his analysis of his thoughts and interior life, and the issue he is constantly circling around is that question we all ask ourselves: how shall we make a meaningful life in the dislocated consumer society of the 21st century in the affluent west?  

But of course, 'we' do not all ask ourselves this question and for that reason the book may strike some as too rarefied, too self indulgent; missing the big political angle.  But for me the book was a perfect, gorgeous, precious stone: something that exists in the real world but is almost too good for it, something to marvel at and be uplifted by the beauty of its form.  And the ending, in its resignation, in its clear eyed acceptance of having been duped by dreams of being someone other than one's real self, the final embracing of the ordinariness and yet the extraordinariness of an individual soul is very moving and lovely and almost heroic.


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21. What took me so long?

What took me so long to find the work of Jennifer Johnston?  Perhaps she is not fashionable or talked about but, oh, can she write!

The Captains and the Kings is her first novel published in 1972 but without checking the publishing data I wouldn't have guessed this - it has a timeless and yet contemporary feel.  It is a slim volume and understated in tone telling the story of Mr Prendergast alone in a large crumbling house in Ireland after the death of his wife.  He takes comfort in books, the piano and whiskey and resents the intrusive attempts of the local vicar and his wife to cheer him up.  His only companion is the alcoholic gardener Sean who tends the garden Mrs Prendergast created.

Prendergast's slow journey towards death is interrupted by the arrival of a boy, Diarmid, from the village and, entirely believably and without sentimentality, a gruff friendship grows between them. Prendergast is haunted by the death of his elder brother, their mother's clear favourite, in the first world war and scenes from the past interweave themselves into the present.

The charm of the book thus far was the excellent quality of the writing, but just as I was glorying in the prose, the author sneaked a gripping and rather tragic plot in without my quite noticing her sleight of hand, and snapped it shut as neatly and brutally as an animal trap.  

I sat open mouthed with admiration after finishing the book.  My own clumsy attempts at a novel make me appreciate just how hard that sort of effortless looking writing and plotting are.  Really a very, very lovely book and the good news is that there are a good few more and that the London Library has the lot.  And that feels very much like a working definition of 'joy' right now.

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The Guardian has an interview with Michael Cunningham.  Shockingly, although I have seen the film of The Hours I haven't read the book, partly because the film moved me so much I wasn't sure I could take the additional intensity which I am sure the novel contains.  Reading this interview though I am convinced that I need to read him; we are very much on the same wavelength.

I can in no sense compare my efforts at writing to his but this sentiment is one I face daily:

"I always find that the novel I'm finishing, even if it's turned out fairly well, is not the novel I had in my mind. I think a lot of writers must negotiate this, and if they don't admit it, they're not being honest. You have started the book with this bubble over your head that contains a cathedral full of fire – that contains a novel so vast and great and penetrating and bright and dark that it will put all other novels ever written to shame. And then, as you get towards the end, you begin to realise, no, it's just this book.. .. And it joins all the other books in the world."

And this:

"One of the great things about the novel – and one of the terrible things about writing a novel – is that it takes so long. It's so much about going sentence, by sentence, by sentence."

Is a much more elegant version of this minus the giving up!

And that agonising over what will my mother/children/friends think...?

"A certain slightly cruel disregard for the feelings of living people is simply part of the package. I think a writer, if he's any good, is not an entirely benign entity in the world."

He also name checks two of my favourite novels (Mrs Dalloway and Madame Bovary) and uses my favourite word in the language: interiority*.  

Excuse me while I slip out to buy everything the man has ever written.


*Defined for me as that rich and absorbed feeling of talking to my own mind present most palpably in diaries and writing notebooks.

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23. Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure

Samuel Johnson, from the The Life of Pope, on why it took Pope five years to translate Homer: 

"When we find him translating fifty lines a day, it is natural to suppose that he would have brought his work to a more speedy conclusion. The Iliad, containing less than sixteen thousand verses, might have been despatched in less than three hundred and twenty days by fifty verses in a day. The notes, compiled with the assistance of his mercenaries, could not be supposed to require more time than the text. According to this calculation, the progress of Pope may seem to have been slow; but the distance is commonly very great between actual performance and speculative possibility. It is natural to suppose, that as much as has been done to-day may be done to-morrow – but on the morrow some difficulty emerges, or some external impediment obstructs. Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker’s mind. He that runs against Time, has an antagonist not subject to casualties."

Yes, I know all about indolence, interruption, business and pleasure.


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24. 2011: The Year of Reading Ruthlessly

Usually I am loathe to to give up on a book but the list of 50 novels to get through this year is making me more ruthless than usual.  The first casualty of the year is The Very Thought of You which has already committed three offences against my readerly sensibility and so gets crossed, rather than ticked, off the list

The charge sheet:

1.    Abuse of punctuation and lack of prose euphony:

 "There was one tender night in Berlin which Thomas would not forget.  A ball at the French embassy, when he held Elizabeth's waist and led her deftly round the dance floor, as if nobody else was there.  When their marriage was only weeks old."

 2.    Head hopping:  

On a single page in Ch 11 we dip in and out of three different points of view, which gives me the literary equivalent of sea-sickness.

3.    Lack of action despite interesting material:

How is it possible to make the evacuation of a young child feel flat and boring?  Having made it to p. 77 I am still waiting for the backstory to finish clunking past.  

Next: The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker.  This should prove an interesting counterpoint; what little I know of it leads me to think that it is about making the mundane interesting.  As opposed to inadvertently making the interesting mundane.

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25. Under the dust

Ooh look! I think I can see something under all this dust.  Yes! It's my blog!

I have made a sort-of, can't-quite-decide, but will try-it-anyway New Year's Resolution to pop in occasionally.  I do miss writing about books.  I haven't stopped reading; I have just become lazy.

And in another dose of New Year discipline my reading resolution for the year is to read 50 of the [unmentionably large number] of books patiently queuing up on my shelves.  I have even, efficiently, made a list of them and, being that sort of a person, am going through it in order.  As the books are arranged alphabetically on the shelf so the year's reading will progress alphabetically.  So far two Ackroyds have been ticked and now I'm onto Alison, Rosie - The Very Thought of You.

One of the unintentional and fun side effects of all this lovely alphabetical self discipline is setting off on a random voyage of discovery; there are many books on the shelves whose presence is something of a mystery to me, including The Very Thought of You.  No doubt some time last year I read a review, saw a blog post, heard a radio interview, tripped over a tweet in which this book was mentioned and was sufficiently interested or excited about the book/its content/author to buy it. But for the life of me I cannot now recall what the interest or excitement was, so I happily set off with no expectations or preconceptions.  A little like re-starting this blog really.

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