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26. How does anything ever get written? And when will I know when it is time to give up?

More years ago than I care to recall I typed the first page of my novel. 

I faffed around with it here and there for a while, took some writing classes, lost the soft copy when my laptop died, re-typed the manuscript from the hard copy, read books on writing, faffed about some more, and then joined a writer's group that meets every other week.  Forced to produce work on a regular basis, the novel got a little longer. 

Then it stalled. 

Then I spent a month re-plotting and my enthusiasm returned. 

Today I arrived at my writer's group with the re-vamped Chapter One. 

Now I am back at my laptop engaged in a staring match with what was tactfully agreed to be the failed re-vamp of Chapter One.

How does anything ever get written?

And how will I know when it is time to give up?

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27. Making Room

“In the best times of my life I always think I am making room, even more room in me. Here I shovel away snow, there I raise aloft a piece of fallen sky; there are superfluous lakes, I let them run out (I save the fish), overgrown forests, I drive crowds of apes into them, everything is astir, but there’s never enough room, I never ask why, I never feel why, I just have to keep making room, on and on, and as long as I can do so, I merit my life.” --Elias Canetti

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28. The Joys of Stubbornness

I am within 30 pages of finishing Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, a work of genius according to the Washington Post, and with every page I turn my pleasure increases, knowing that I am one page nearer to starting a new book after slogging through this one for nearly 6 weeks. 

I have liked the occasional sentence, but in a book of 577 pages of very small type, this is a meagre return on the hours of my life I have spent.  And yet I don't regret my stubbornness; sometimes it is good not to take the easier option (which would have meant abandoning it somewhere around page 120.  This was the point at which I succumbed to deja vu and was back in a school physics class on a warm afternoon and I became convinced that I would die or go mad of boredom, frustration and the impossibility of enduring another minute).

I predict that my next read will not be 2666 .  But that said, it is good to be reading again and going head to head with a tough cookie of a book like this one.  By making it to the end I win.

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29. 2009 - My Worst Ever Year For Reading

Yes, I think 2009 was officially my worst ever year for reading (and also blogging, but that is less of a life threatening condition).  It feels as though I spent the year reading bad books, the wrong books, books that were highly praised and turned out to be rubbish, books that started well and fell apart in the middle, books that were boring, books that were incomprehensible.  Or it might just have been me.  Either way, I was not a happy reader.  But looking down the list I now see many books that I truly loved.  I think the truth was that life got in the way and it ended up being the year in which I probably abandoned more books than I finished: an astounding reversal of my usual forced march through books I am not enjoying, on the off-chance that they redeem themselves in the final pages.  (For the record this has happened just the once in my entire reading career but it was Ali Smith's The Accidental and I ended up liking it so much that it vindicated a life time of trudging).  I kept starting good books and then being distracted from them so long that by the time I was back I had lost heart with them.  Some appalling casualties of this were Wolf Hall (which I had in my hands the day after publication and well before the Booker hoo ha), A Gate at the Stairs and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, all books that I adored in the hours I spent reading them but after being taken away from them for a month or so, I couldn't bring myself to pick up again.  For the record I would recommend all three, despite only having half or a third read them.

So what with one thing and another, not many books got mentioned last year so I am going to do a quick catch up and see if I can review all 36 in a single post and in nine words or fewer.  Here goes:

Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life by Dominic Dromgoogle.  Mad exuberance of a man living and breathing Shakespeare.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.  Gorgeous book drunk on history and love.

Down River by John Hart.  Ho-hum thriller. Don't bother.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  The world was right: this is an amazing book.

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor.  Baffling, wonderful, compulsively readable.

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30. Funny old life

I have, in a quiet way, been absorbed by the after-story of Pat Kavanagh the literary agent who died, aged 68, within a month of having been diagnosed as having a brain tumour. 

Some facts that add to the quiet interest: she was married to author Julian Barnes, who before her diagnosis or death published his meditation on dying, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, and she was also the lover of Jeanette Winterson, for whom she left Barnes for a period.  I admire both Barnes and Winterson and the love triangle always intrigues. 

How sad then to see this account in The Telegraph that Winterson, who was absent, no doubt for reasons of compassion for the family,from Pat Kavanagh's funeral, was not mentioned in a will that did make a number of specific bequests. 

But the killer line, is,to my mind, this one: 

"Although Winterson, 49, was not present at her former lover's funeral, she paid tribute to her on her blog and said: "I wrote The Passion for her, and I loved her very much."

In such an impoverished national emotional landscape, where the death of a talentless, ignorant woman like Jade Goody becomes 'news', yes real hard news, where does an honest, uncompromising, uncomfortable comment like Winterson's sit?  When the cultural discourse is so debased and corrupted, how do we hear the authentic voices?

Well, ignoring propaganda is one strategy (and as a bonus this post has, to my mind, the single best line from a blog for a long time... "the Leni Riefenstahl of Richard & Judy's Britain") and another strategy is to follow one's own interests quietly.  Though that does make blog posting a little intermittent. 


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31. Sometimes you only see what you're looking for

The title will be a truism to any woman feeling broody.  As soon as the idea is in your head, the only women in the world are pregnant women.  But it has broader applications as well, as I found to my cost today in the London Library.  I was browsing the section on Birds, looking more in hope than certainty, for a book on the mythology of ravens, crows or rooks.  And suddenly, there it was, staring at me: "The Mythology of the Raven".  I settled down in the reading room but after a puzzled few minutes flicking through pictures of dissected birds and diagrams of muscles I looked again at the title.  And learnt a new word: myology.

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32. Inspired gifts from Hesperus

I had the delight of finding two volumes of Christmas stories from Hesperus Press in my post this morning.  If you're looking for a last minute present for a bookish friend then this and this look just the thing:

Round of stories    Another round

Many thanks to the good people at Hesperus for making my day!

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33. Many bookmarks

A quick scan of the bedside table reveals a total of ten books with bookmarks sticking out of them.  I used to be much more disciplined about just reading one or two books at a time, but nowadays I seem to be a fussier reader and must have a half dozen or more books in progress in order to be assured that one of them will suit my mood.

The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate has been a fixture on the bedside table for some time and is destined to stay even longer.  It is a wonderfully rich selection of essays and has already led to my falling in love with Montaigne (and yes, I am waiting to read Jenny Diski's Apology for the Woman Writing).  Lined up elsewhere in the house are volumes dedicated to individual essayists I have discovered through this marvellous anthology.  So many that it would take me years to read them all.  And for once that is a comforting rather than a depressing thought.

The Road Washes Out in Spring by Baron Wormser, combines two of my fascinations: poetry and living in the wilds.  I can't remember where I first heard of the book, but I do recall that it instantly sprang off the page as a book I would love.  And I do.  Of course it makes me want to read Thoreau all over again.

Jeanette Winterson's The Passion I picked up in the London Library when I meant to bring home Written on the Body (I had left my list at home and so had to reconstruct it from memory; this was the only muddle I made in a list of 15 books), but so far I am enjoying Napoleon and Venice equally.  And am reminded what a talented writer Winterson is.

Browsing the London Library's numerous  "Biog Woolf" shelves produced Leonard and Virginia Woolf by Peter Alexander.  A book about Virginia Woolf's slightly mysterious, or at least ambiguous, marriage was of course irresistible, and reading the introduction on the train on the way home piqued my interest even more as the author nails his colours firmly to the mast: much of Virginia's output and virtually all of the rest of the Bloomsburyites achievements have been vastly over rated and he is on a mission to redress the balance.  I'm halfway through and learning much and arguing with more.  Great fun.

Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace will, I fear, fall by the wayside.  I have struggled halfway but I'm unarguably stuck.  I am not the right reader or in the right place.

Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children was one I started to race through and then put down one day and somehow couldn't pick up again.  Another recommendation from Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, I think.  A very distinctive voice and style but I am struggling to get the characters into focus in my mind.  Thinking about it though revives my desire to persevere.

Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude is a book I have nearly finished and I raced through it until I got bogged down in some Old Testament dullness towards the end (Nineveh, and whales may have been involved).  I'll be annoyed with myself if I don't finish it but the biblical stuff is tiresome.  I have never got on with Auster's fiction, but this memoir is gripping and supremely well written.

I am on a Janet Malcolm binge at the moment.  I enjoyed In the Freud Archives (who doesn't love a good internecine feud?) and Reading Chekhov is one of the best books I've read all year.  Obviously I now have to read all of Chekhov's stories and plays.  The book mark sticking out of Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession, is in the early part of the book but already I am happy and wondering if I should dig out some Freud, or maybe Ernest Jones's biography on my next visit to St James's Square.

The slimmest volume is a Hesperus Press edition of previously unpublished sketches by Virginia Woolf: Carlyle's House.  The foreword by Doris Lessing warns that this is early stuff and Virginia at her least likable (ie anti-Semitic, snobbish and judgmental), but in the manner of a true addict I will read it anyway.  And as ever there is the lurking idea that I might start the final volume of her diary, the only one I haven't read.  But the fear of finishing it and not having it in reserve stops me.

And finally, War and Peace, with its bookmark a mere 13 pages in.  It has been in the back of my mind for a few months to re-read Tolstoy and so when I saw a new fat, silky paper volume on the Books in Translation table at Waterstones the other day, I couldn't resist.

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34. Christmas Present

My combined present for Christmas and birthday is, for the third year running, membership of the London Library.  And on a day like today, with husband and children all out for the evening, when I settle down with a heap of 15 austere looking volumes, stripped of their covers (and gaudy graphics and alluring blurbs) and read, read and read some more, I wonder how I ever lived without this treasure.

I finished Jane Bowles's novel Two Serious Ladies earlier.  A very unprepossessing volume to judge it by its cover, and not borrowed once between January 2005 and November 2008.  Any municipal library would have weeded it long ago and denied me the pleasure of being charmed and baffled by it in equal parts, having been desperate to read it since I read excerpts from it in Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. 

This refusal to give up on the out of fashion, or slightly obscure, is the strength of the London Library.  The current magazine reports, to my mingled delight and sadness, that as a result of the cretinous policy of our current government, libraries are getting rid of evermore of those inconvenient books that clutter up the space between computer terminals and DVD display racks:

"The public library service used to pride itself on its national 'Joint Fiction Reserve', whereby each library authority in the UK was assigned certain letters of the alphabet and was expected to keep a copy of each fiction title by authors with surnames in its alphabetical section, so that there was always a copy of an older title available to satisfy a reader's request via the inter-regional lending service. "

As these reserves are now being dispersed (ie thrown away) the London Library has been able to acquire around 200 older fiction titles from the Tower Hamlets library system, which was responsible for authors with surnames St- to Th-.  And this means that they have acquired a number of books by Rosemary Sutcliffe, one of my all time favourite authors as a child.  I will be raiding those shelves soon.  But my gain (as a paying member of the London Library) is undoubtedly the loss of far more people who depend on the public library system (and fund it with their taxes).

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35. I have changed the words 'great men' to 'Judy'

I have to share with you this quote from Susie Boyt's My Judy Garland Life, which somehow sums up the total madcap seriousness of her enterprise:

"Hero-worship can be seen as a modest and ill-adjusted form of love, but it can be so productive.  You may consider it essentially deranged, and deduce that therefore nothing good can come from it, but you are wrong.  In 1841, in his lecture "The Hero as Divinity", Thomas Carlyle expressed what, for me, are some of the chief benefits of this kind of love.  I have changed the words 'great men' to 'Judy' or 'Judy Garland' throughout and altered the pronouns accordingly.  The word 'humanity' replaces the word 'manhood':

One comfort is, that Judy Garland, taken up in any way, is profitable company.  We cannot look, however imperfectly upon Judy, without gaining something by her.  She is the living light fountain which it is good and pleasant to be near.  The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of humanity and heroic nobleness; in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.  On any terms whatsoever, you will not grudge to wonder in such neighbourhood for a while.

What Carlyle neglected to add was that hero-worship broadens one's love horizons wildly, for if love doesn't require the merest hint of participation from the other party then the number of potential candidates is infinite."


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36. Other people's enthusiasm

I simply don't know why I persist in reading, or at least starting to read, crime novels when I have, post children, become so hypersensitive to even fictional violence involving children.  Still, optimism still triumphs over experience from time to time and seduced by reviews of When Will There Be Good News? I waited patiently to move to the front of the library reservations queue.  Then on page 20 (and bearing in mind that the first page of full text is page 13) I closed it; ostensibly on the pretext that a dead mother, baby and child was a bit much for reading over lunch, but actually knowing that the library queue was going to shorten a little faster.  To be honest it hadn't grabbed me much by then anyway.  It was one of those competent but unexceptional starts that make me ask myself in exasperation 'what made the author want to write this? What obsession or passion drove it?'  With the weary feeling that 'nothing and none' might be the answers.

But the experience of opening my next library reservation could not have been more different.  It was a bit like one of those cartoon moments where a character in a calm room opens a door or window and suddenly a gale pours in and hurls everything to the other end of the room.  For gale, substitute passion. The moment I read this review in The Times, I knew I had to read My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt. I have no especial interest in Judy Garland, but I love other people's enthusiasms.  And if they can quote poetry and indulge in some thoughtful self-analysis along the way then so much the better.  Eighty six pages in and I am swept along on a fabulous tidal wave of passion and intelligence.  And no dead babies in sight.

Judy garland life 

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37. Thinking about voice in writing

One of the several hundred things I can't yet do in my writing is find my real voice.  Reading The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez, some quotes made me stop and ponder:

"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words.  But on the other hand here am I sitting half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm.  Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words.  A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words), and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."

(Virginia Woolf writing to Vita Sackville-West)

"The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet.  Imagery ..., affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem, may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who ... has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius... But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination ... [It] may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned."

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

"Imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the very reflexes of his art.  Thus under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author's personal and secret mythology. ... Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical."

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero

"For the dissident writers, an author's integrity could be judged by his tone of voice and his attitude to language.  Like George Orwell, they believed "the greatest enemy of clear language is insincerity," and the language of insincerity is cliche - the debased phrases and dead metaphors that come automatically, without thinking, without any personal input from the writer.  Orwell says of empty formulations like these, "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."  Style, he meant, defines intelligence as well as sensibility; how you write shows how you think."

Al Alvarez, The Writer's Voice

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38. Instead

I still get a few offers of review copies from publishers. One that I wholeheartedly accepted (a while ago now) was Canongate's offer of The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.  I haven't got round to it yet, but the review in today's Guardian Review section makes it a likely candidate for next new read (when I've finished my current comfort re-reads of Bob Dylan Chronicles and Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer).  This is the best use of 'instead' that I've read in a long, long time:

"This is at once a redemptive love story, gothic horror, historical epic and tale of addiction, and Davidson would need a dab hand to chisel a balanced work from his twisting mix of genres. Instead, he has produced a colourful, sentimental and lopsided pageturner; it may be as unreal as Marianne Engel's [the novel's heroine] bestial carvings, but if you've the stomach for grisly detail and the patience to sit through icky prose, you'll find The Gargoyle a splendidly compulsive novel."

"Instead" now becomes my new favourite deadpan word.

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39. Long time, no post

Yes, its been a long time since I posted here and I confess to missing the old blog from time to time.  I am still reading compulsively but I find that without the background thought that I will be summarizing or expressing an opinion on my reading, I've got lazy; both in the books I'm reading and my responses to them.  So I may, just may, pop back for the occasional post.

On the writing front, I recently started an introductory creative writing course and within 30 seconds of entering the room I was itching to write about my fellow participants.  The title of my first short story collection came to me instantly too: "Cruel and Heartless Stories About my Writing Class".  I may end the term with serious injury I am biting my tongue so hard. I can't decide if I am profoundly depressed or deliriously overjoyed that it confirms all my worst fears about creative writing classes.  Still, by the end of the day I had produced 3,000 words.  We are definitely talking quantity not quality though.

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40. 'Fess up Friday (late edition)

I rather like this idea (seen here, here and originating here) of a weekly mea culpa of writing progress, so I'll temporarily lift my head above the blogging parapet.

This week I have added three handwritten, narrow feint A4 pages to the previous week's four.  The essay project is so, so much easier to write than the children's novel.  Rather than forcing and scratching around for ideas I find myself overwhelmed by them.  One thing leads to another.  Thoughts endlessly branch and digress, leaving me anxious that I'll never have time to follow them all.  I'm trying to tell myself to be calm; that if my brain can teem today, it can teem tomorrow.  Too much to write is a new phenomenon for me.  And yet still I fear sitting at my desk and actually picking up my pencil.  Why this resistance?  Will it decrease or will every day be a battle against myself?  I think it may the fear of actually doing something (as opposed to endlessly imagining and talking about it) and being faced with botched reality instead of basking happily in the glow of the idealised work I am going to write, soon, tomorrow, sometime. 

Today I have taken advantage of a rainy morning and the children at dance lessons to start typing up some of my scribbles.  And in doing so I see that the essay I thought I was writing is really three different ones, none of which is finished or remotely polished.  I'm trying not to judge and just to type it out.  I'd like to have one finished essay up at Topography by this time next week.  But even as I type that the hubris hits me.  Really, you think you'll have that muddle sorted out in a week?  My inner censor is on good form today.

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41. The kindness of strangers

Reading the comments here and here, I am overwhelmed and touched by the kindness of strangers.  Why do I never see the print media commenting on this support and encouragement as opposed to the notion that blogs somehow spell the demise of Culture as we (or rather, they) know it?

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment.

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42. And now

And now for something (not so) completely different:  Topography.

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43. Farewell blogworld

I was all set to write you a gushing, over-enthusiastic review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road which I read, awestruck, over three consecutive evenings this week, when suddenly I thought 'Does the world need another opinion on a book that everybody agrees is a masterpiece?  What on earth can I add?'

And so I closed my 'new post' window and idly surfed around my blog feeds and this struck an immediate chord.  Yes, it's true.  Far too much of my time pours itself into the void of the internet and I'm running out of energy and enthusiasm for it.  So in future I'm not planning to update Book World save for my list of books read and maybe the occasional interesting quote from books in progress. 

All the fun will continue over at Britlitblogs and the other very fine sites over in the right hand sidebar.

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44. Read, reading, not reading and not yet reading


Joyce Carol Oates Middle Age: A Romance.  Again I marvel at Oates's ability to create a cast of utterly realistic and unclichéd characters, an entire social context and network of relationships that compel me to turn the page whilst satisfying and defeating my expectations of both plot and character.  The idea seemed trite: an eccentric, charismatic but apparently poor sculptor in a wealthy US suburb dies suddenly; we see how his death touches a handful of those who knew him, forcing them to re-assess themselves, make changes to their smug lives, run away from spouses, stop keeping up pretences and so on. It looks too neat and could easily have slipped into sentimentality, but always Oates veers away from the easy redemption and cuts to the harsher and occasionally happier but less pretty truth.  Outstanding.


Mrs Dalloway.  Slowly.  Woolf is too rich for me to take more than a handful of pages at a time but I love every word.  I especially love how the apparent jumps and illogicalities of conversation or thought make perfect artistic sense.

T S Eliot's poems and this guide whose introduction is a truly excellent and interesting guide to Eliot's influences and where they took his poetry.  I've picked up a couple of allusions in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had passed me by before, and I plan to head off in the direction of The Waste Land now we're home from holiday.

Dante's The Inferno.  By accident.  This Penguin translation by Dorothy L Sayers has been on my shelves so long that it has my maiden name in it.  The Southam book mentioned above cites Dante as a major influence on Eliot and my readings in Gabriel Josipovici's essays The Singer on the Shore had also whetted my appetite for embarking on The Divine Comedy.  But the problem loomed of which translation to use.  On the basis of this article I bought the Mandelbaum translation but it was too heavy to take on holiday and the unintelligible introduction by Eugenio Montale rather curbed my enthusiasm.  Sayers has a very informative introduction and notes and whilst her actual translation feels dated in places she is in three volumes and therefore portable.  I'm already as far as Nether Hell without it feeling like hard work.  Indeed, I even read it by the pool on holiday (I hope the surrounding swathes of Ian McEwan fans felt suitably chastened). 

Not reading...

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell.  Purchased because it was the only book I'd heard of about Cyprus.  I got about a third of the way through while we were there and it was a case of Durrell being snooty about the English ruining the island by turning it into a clone of suburbs like Wimbledon and then taking himself off to 'the real' Cyprus to restore a house.  And what comes next is obviously the usual tale of bumpkin builders being colourfully eccentric and falling down drunk.  Yawn.  But then I hit a discussion of the, no doubt, interesting-at-the-time politics, and fell into a deep state of narcolepsy in which the book slipped from my hand never to be picked up again.  But all is not lost for Mr Durrell.  Our brief visit to Cairo has left me with a burning desire to read about non-ancient Egypt and there's an outside chance of The Alexandria Quartet making its way onto my tbr pile.  I've already read (but wasn't terribly keen on) Palace Walk, the first of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy and am wondering about The Yacoubian Building.  Has anyone read it?  Does anyone have any other non-ancient Egyptian suggestions?

Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky.  I'm not sure quite how this smuggled itself into my holiday hand luggage; possibly another Josipovici recommendation, but having taken several hours to get through just 40 pages I fear defeat looms.

Not yet reading..

April's plans are to read Dorothy Richardson's Pointed Roofs and Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas.

Clearly I haven't a hope of completing so much heavyweight reading in one month but its going to be fun trying.

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45. Back from holiday




and Cairo.


There are still plenty of horses on the streets of Cairo... thankfully not in the state of those described in Rosalind Belben's Our Horses In Eygpt; though I did wonder if some of the current animals might be descendants of those First World War horses..

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46. Sidetracked again, or one thing leads to another

I'm seriously wondering whether to re-name this blog The Accidental Reader.  After reporting on my reading in progress and plans for the rest of the month, in which I mentioned Joyce Carol Oates, I started hankering after reading another of her novels.  This led to my pondering the question of her amazing productivity, which in turn led me to take Greg Johnson's biography Invisible Writer down from the shelf and before I knew it I was on page 303 having read nothing else all weekend.

Some passages which struck me:

"None of her classmates or teachers knew that she had written a novel while still in junior high, or could have guessed that she had now begun a deliberate apprenticeship, "consciously training myself by writing novel after novel." For the time being, the fifteen-year-old Joyce put aside any notion of publication, throwing away her apprentice novels as soon as she completed them: "I seem to have written them as a pianist practises scales and exercises."  Some of the novels - she wrote roughly a dozen of them - were deliberate imitations of the masters she read in her classes." (p.52)

"Reading was "the greatest pleasure of civilization," she remarked to one interviewer, and in a later essay titled "Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature," she argued that "reading constitutes the keenest, because most secret, sort of pleasure."  Since her teenage years Joyce had turned her chronic insomnia into the opportunity to perform what had become, for her, a "sacramental" act, one that represented an intimate and profound communion with another consciousness.  "It is the sole means," she wrote, "by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin; another's voice; another's soul." (p.140-1)

Her devotion to Flaubert's dictum: "Live like the bourgeoisie so you can be wild in your imagination."

The critic Alfred Kazin remarked of her "her mind is unbelievably crowded with psychic existences, with such a mass of stories that she lives by being wholly submissive to them."

Discussing the almost separate life and personality that she perceives the writer 'Joyce Carol Oates' to have in comparison to the inner person who writes:

"The famous writer who consented to these public appearances, however, was "Joyce Carol Oates," a person still quite distinct in Joyce's mind from the private, invisible writer who conducted, again like Emily Dickinson, a richly rewarding interior life at home.  Joyce's only apprehension about the move to Princeton, in fact, was feeling "doomed to perform in the role of 'Joyce Carol Oates,' " whereas in Windsor she had felt comfortably anonymous as "Joyce Smith."  Two years earlier, she had chafed at the occasional "restriction to a few cubic feet of consciousness: Joyce Carol Oates,"  feeling herself "fated to spend hours as a kind of secretary to that person, answering her mail, turning down requests politely ... As Oates' public fortunes rise, mine must necessarily fall; as hers level off or decline, I gain." "

And this poignant comment on her marriage:

" "my marriage has made my life stable.  Ray is a center; perhaps the center without which .... But it's useless to speculate."  She described him as "kindly, loving, sweet, at times critically intelligent, sensitive, funny, unambitious ... Ray is an extraordinary person whose depths are not immediately obvious."  The idea of living without him would be "like the end of the universe, the obliteration of time.  Unthinkable.  If I survived his loss it wouldn't be Joyce who survived but another lesser, broken person." "

How very sad then to read of his death in February this year here and here.

After the death of a close friend Joyce in 1980, Greg Johnson's biography notes

"Joyce turned to her work for solace.... She reflected on the degree to which her own writing represented "an idyll, a true 'romance' " to which she could always turn in times of pain and confusion, For Joyce, art was always the supreme consolation: "A vision on the page; the works' integrity; allowing me constantly to change form - and to slip free.  My salvation." "

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47. The universe sends me a sign

After grumping about my latest audio book yesterday, in which Shakespeare's Globe Theatre burns down twice (once for real in 1613 and then the modern re-construction sometime contemporaraneously) the Misses Book World came home from school with permission letters for a trip to ... the reconstructed Globe Theatre and a request for parents to help out on the trip.  Such requests for parents to act as additional chaperones always accompany school trips and I have never, never been tempted.  Within five minutes of signing the permission slips I had written a letter (in my best handwriting) to the head of drama offering my help with this trip. 

A passage I marked in the Joyce Carol Oates biography I read recently comes to mind.  As an unpublished writer JCO stayed home one day reading a work of fiction by a popular author and concluded that it was so bad she was convinced she could do better and immediately set to work on a novel (which was completed in, typically, six weeks) thus proving that reading bad novels can be good for new writers who might be discouraged if they read nothing but outstanding work which they couldn't hope to emulate.

I feel (in my 'hmm horoscopes can be very insightful' heart) that the universe is sending me a sign.  What that sign means is entirely opaque to me at the moment.  Other than perhaps, to try and avoid dropping lighted matches if I do get to go on the trip.

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48. Back to school. Hooray.

So, the children went back to school today after nearly four weeks of Easter holidays.  Home-schooling parents everywhere, I salute you; not so much for the schooling, as for the actual having them in the house part of it. 

I heaved a sigh of relief and headed straight to the gym.  I've posted on various occasions about the audio books I listen to while exercising, but I've recently hit a snag as my iPod has refused to talk to the computer and whilst I have diligently continued downloading my Audible subscription allocations, they haven't been transferring. Finally, I treated myself to a new super duper iPod (when did they get colour screens??) at duty free on the last holiday and took it for its first gym visit today.

The new 'I'm prepared to talk to your computer' iPod now has nearly 40 audio books.  So much choice!  And such a bad one I chose!  In a moment of weakness a while ago I downloaded The Shakespeare Secret after hearing an interview with the author on Radio Four (Front Row possibly?  Not sure).  Anyway, I knew at the time that anything which was being compared to The Da Vinci Code was doomed to annoy me.  And so I spent 30 minutes on the cross-trainer today almost groaning out loud at the hackneyed, clumsy, over-written, heavy-handed nonsense.  What makes it especially painful is that this is just the sort of twaddle I write.  I'm convinced that several phrases I heard are also nestling like vipers in my own botched manuscript.  Which lead to a sort of Jekyll and Hyde moment.  One voice in my head whispering 'Hey, if she can get this stuff published, so could you.  You could be published.  Imagine, published' , whilst the other voice tartly points out that the stuff is awful and that I would rather pluck out my own eyelashes than put my name to something similar.  Leaving me (the bemused onlooker) wondering really whether I shouldn't just give it up and settle down to being a reader.  And switch my gym listening to the 34 hours of Our Mutual Friend instead.

If anyone has got past The Globe Theatre burning down twice in consecutive chapters, please do leave me a comment to tell me if the book improves.

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49. Poetry and precision

Crow_2 Mark Cocker's Crow Country is an outstanding book; and what a revelation that a work of natural history is better written than many of the works of fiction I've read in the last year or so.

A book about the corvid genus of birds (rooks, jackdaws and crows) might sound a touch limited, but Cocker ranges over history, literature, personal observations as well as of earlier natural histories and brings it all together with fabulous writing.  I think it's the precision of his observation that really strikes me.  He can look at a flat Norfolk landscape and see so much that an untrained observer would simply miss: birds, the history of the landscape, its geology, how man and nature have worked together or against one another.  Best of all are his descriptions of literally thousands of rooks and jackdaws congregating at dusk to roost, then rising up almost as a single entity, a swirl of black in the sky, their harsh cries becoming almost melodious through sheer numbers.

Here's a quick example of the quality of his writing:

"Yet the sheer emptiness of the place can intensify feelings of intimacy with those things that are close.  In autumn as I walk the long road bisecting Haddiscoe, the air is filled with dragonflies and occasionally a hunting individual will fly almost at my face.  The chitin snapping together as it manoeuvres is like the crackle of electricity, or a firework fizzing before its explosion.  Then it settles on the concrete wall, its weightlessness poised on the needle-tip of its six hair-thin legs.  In a few days, weeks at most, you know its life will end.  Yet here it is, a scarlet cruciform filling itself with autumn sunlight, savouring the immensity of its existence."

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50. More procrastination than you can shake a stick at

Housebound with a convalescing child today, I found myself pottering round the (unlinkable to) iTunes podcast directory.  Now what follows may be old news to the rest of the world but I'm just catching up with how many tempting bookish podcasts there are for free download.

I already subscribe to BBC Radio Four's In Our Time and have dabbled with NPR's book programme, and Fresh Air, but since I last looked at the available podcasts several new ones seem to have appeared. (Note if you have iTunes you can find the programmes I've found under Podcasts> Arts> Literature and then click the link for 'see all')

The New Yorker has added a monthly feature of a writer reading another writer's story and discussing it with the magazine's fiction editor (note to Diana - including a Lorrie Moore story here), there are free selections of classic poetry, Emerson's essays, philosophers on philosophy, KCRW's bookworm programme and even one called 'I Should be Writing'.  Excellent.  More procrastination than you can shake a stick at.

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