Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.

Reading Wrap-up: December 2018

For the third month in a row, I have stuck to my self-imposed book-buying ban. I did have a good Christmas book haul, though!

Highlights

Sea Summit: Poems by Yi Lu, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. I love this book (or, at least, I love the half of it that’s in English)! At first glance a direct descendant of traditional pastoral poetry, it soon reveals that passively consuming nature (and pretty poems about it) is not an option. Rusty iron girders have a place alongside the birds and flowers and all demand that the reader, no less than Yi Lu herself (with her remarkable porosity) be an active participant. Yes, our actions affect the natural world but so are we changed in our trajectories by the appearance, if we only notice it, of a bird.

Disappointments

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Stuff and nonsense! Had I not been reading this for the #ShakespeareReadAlong on Litsy, I would have bailed out long before the final act. Leontes, King of Sicilia, has a ridiculous hissy fit and thereby causes heedless death and suffering to the people who should be under his protection. Polixenes, his erstwhile best friend and King of Bohemia, has a hissy fit of his own which makes everything right in the end, if you can overlook said death and suffering. Powerful men indulging in behaviour that would shame the kids splashing about in the water corner at playgroup: just what we need! And as for that ending?! Nope! I liked Paulina. I loved the language. And that is all.

Reading wrap-up: November 2018

For the second month running I have stuck to my book-buying ban!

Highlights

Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw. He shares several Dartmoor stories, walking the ground of their being as he does so, and offers a lively, thoughtful and sometimes surprising commentary on them, informed by his belonging to this land. This may sound rather narrow in scope but he covers a lot of cultural ground. I found the book fascinating, exciting to read, challenging at times and at others a huge relief. I don’t want to say too much about it though. It’s still percolating. Have a listen to the man himself: drmartinshaw.com/books/scatterlings

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Evasive celebrity novelist Vida Winter invites amateur biographer Margaret Lea to stay in her Yorkshire mansion to hear her tale and write her life story. But why has Vida chosen Margaret? And what hidden connection does Margaret have to Vida’s story? This is a proper, good old-fashioned gothic novel. I watched the BBC adaptation (with Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave) a while back so knew I would enjoy the story but I wasn’t expecting Margaret to be such a bookworm! I loved all the nods to the Bronte sisters but am not quite the fan of a “proper” ending that Margaret is: I prefer things a little less neatly tied-up. (And, yes, I did have a wistful hankering after Vida Winter’s non-existent novels.)

Disappointments

Game of Thrones (Volume 1) by George R R Martin. Curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not bad but it isn’t my cup of tea. The chaps charge about being heroic or dastardly and the women mainly get to be their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. (I’ve been told that they “come into their own” later. Well, I would hope so: there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from having fabulous hair.) I think I’m too much of a bolshevik to tolerate all the my-lords and my-ladies. All in all, Tyrion was the only character to hold my interest, probably because he is morally ambiguous and he thinks.

Reading Wrap-up: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.

Our Lady of the Sparrows

Once upon a time there was a girl who spoke sparrows. She didn’t speak to sparrows: when she opened her mouth it wasn’t words that came out but birds. This was unconventional, to say the least.

Her family was deeply embarrassed and didn’t know what to do with her until one day they had the bright idea of selling their story (her story!) to the papers. Well, after that, people flocked to their door to catch a glimpse of the miracle and gawp at the freak-show that was their daughter. Some chirped that she was a holy-woman, others squawked that she was a witch. Stephen Fry tweeted that she was a fraud.

The girl who spoke sparrows was very unhappy. She had things of her own that she wanted to say, damn it, but all anyone cared about was those bloody birds. Talk about stuck in a rut! Stuck in a rut with bird-shit all over the IKEA furniture, to boot!

So she made a decision. No words: no birds. She refused to open her mouth. People got bored and went home. They had uncooperative teenagers of their own.

Finally!… except that… after a while, the girl began to feel the tickle of feathers in her throat. Oh no! She swallowed hard. Now claws began to scratch at her. She couldn’t keep it in any longer. She opened her mouth and out flew not a sparrow but a HAWK! And then life got very interesting…

Reading Wrap-Up: September 2018

This month’s highlights:

Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. “You are not fully ordinary, bees.” I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this documentation of bee-keeping: poet Alice Oswald calls them, not disparagingly, pre-poems and note poems (of which I have a deskful of my own: finish the things, damn it!). I loved it! Here we have the mundane and the mysterious inseparable from each other, with a sense of immediacy throughout.

I opened the jar of honey I bought on holiday and sipped a little from a teaspoon. After reading these poems it tasted no less than a bee-spit sacrament.

The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. In which a small team of lexicographers compile and publish a dictionary over fifteen years. Sounds dry? Not in the least! It’s delightful: a feel-good book without saccharine or fluff. I enjoyed the contrast between Majime’s precision and exhaustive referencing with the definition of words and his ineptitude with the spoken word. As for his love letter, it is at once unintentionally funny and painful.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. If the truth be told, London Above is scarcely less baffling and stressful to me than London Below is to Richard, a hapless everyman who finds himself in mortal peril in a world he didn’t suspect even existed. This is the first I’ve read of Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed it very much and didn’t want it to end. It has fascinating ideas, great characters, humour amongst the deadly serious bits, and plentiful illustrations in the margins. What more could I ask? Well, maybe more of the splendidly awful Mr Croup, an utter savage who speaks as though he digested a Stephen Fry vocabulary-builder at a formative age.

This month’s disappointments:

Ink by Alice Broadway. So, tattooing of significant life events is compulsory and, after death, one’s skin is made into a book to be honoured or publicly burned. Add a charismatic leader ramping up fear of the other and exhorting a return to “traditional values”. It had me feeling so tense at the start but as I kept turning the pages, that tension wasn’t sustained or adequately resolved and the book failed to deliver on its promise. Regrettably, it reads as though Broadway spent the bulk of her writing and editing time on the opening chapters with the rest being all rather “meh” with a headlong dash to the finish, where it becomes apparent that this is volume one of a trilogy. I won’t be reading on.

I spent too much money again although, in fairness, three of the books were bought during a special occasion day out (and two of those had been on my wishlist for some time). The other two I bought after first borrowing copies from the library. Poetry.

 

Welcome to Kathedron

Here, in a crowded marketplace, I offer you this. I know, I know: you are up to your neck in it; there is somewhere you should have been twenty minutes ago; you don’t have time for this nonsense. Granted, it doesn’t look much, but it is a whole world.

You can ball it to a disgusted nothing and lob it at the nearest seagull-priested bin. You can crumple it into your pocket along with your loose change and obsolete till receipts. You can pause for a moment in brow-furrowed incomprehension. You can ignore my out-stretched hand and stride past, your focus held, compelled, by the trail of gum gobbets and cigarette ends that guides your feet. You can nail your attention to the horizon over there, oh anywhere, over there! Your eyes can meet mine and flick away or glare me down. You might even glimpse this world, maybe even kick at the tumbled masonry amid the nettles and sneer at the god-fled ruin of it: what earthly use is any of that?!

Listen: the only way to see this world for what it is, is to become familiar with falling between the cracks in the floorboards with all the magnified momentary disruption and utter inconsequence of a lost button. It is a dark cramped place at first sight but light comes lancing down from the sky-boards’ flex and groan and illuminates a spark amongst the moth wing dust to kindle a humming bee-glimmer, warm and ancient and charged like amber.

And maybe the humming now has become a bell summoning the long lost in the back of your mind and here you are! Here you are: welcome to Kathedron.

For they labour for life and love, regardless of anyone

But the poor spectres that they work for, always, incessantly. *

*William Blake  The Los Poems: Jerusalem ch.3 lines 279-280