Last week I blogged about authors from my home town of Coleford. But when people ask where I’m from I don’t say Coleford, I say the wider district of the Forest of Dean. Yes, that’s partly because they’re more likely to have heard of it, but not much more likely. I identify with the lakes and woodland of the Forest more than being from a small town. Living in a city now, I miss trees; I don’t miss those same old four pubs and no shops being open after 5 pm. The Forest of Dean is truly beautiful and while it has an industrial past, these days the economy is mostly tourism and leisure, so I can see why writers might move there. Here are some Forest writers to add to the list from Coleford.
Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.
Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo
This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.
Now, Coleford is a pretty small place, a country market town of 8000 people, and a good third of those have arrived during my lifetime, so you might not expect there to be many authors with links to it. But, partly thanks to a local literary culture cultivated by the (now sadly closed) Forest Bookshop, Coleford is a bit of a writers’ hotspot.
I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.
This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.
But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.
It’s been a pretty eclectic month, reading-wise. There’s been short stories, novels, poetry, work in translation, graphic-novel memoir and more non-fiction of very different kinds. Which I think is an excellent start for a new year.
I did break my book-buying rule very slightly last week, but as Tim bought me tickets to see author Matt Haig as a Christmas present it would have been rude not to buy the book! Haig was a great speaker – warm, funny, intelligent and honest – and I’ve added his older books to my wishlist. I’ve already read the book he was speaking about, Reasons to Stay Alive, and thought it completely brilliant. (Review will follow soon.) And I’ve been to bookshops no less than four times, so only buying one book for myself is frankly amazing, if I do say so myself.
In book-relatedness, I have watched the films of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (great, possibly better than the book, though equally hard to follow to begin with); Push (which is fun if ridiculous and has a comic-book mini-series prequel); and Limitless (pretty good despite the annoying premise and based on the book The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn).
I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.
Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.
Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.
I have had some interesting conversations in recent weeks when I told people I was a reading a book from 1919 about American English. I know that it’s an odd choice of reading matter. It’s because I was looking for older titles from the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge on Project Gutenberg, which didn’t have either of the Mencken titles on the list but did have a dozen others, including this one. I didn’t expect to read more than the first chapter or so, but found it strangely enticing.
This is a difficult book to categorise. It’s part reference book, part textbook, part history, part sociology. Mencken combines his own knowledge of etymology and philology with a huge array of sources in order to cover the rather large question of how the American language evolved into its then-current state.
For most people, January is pretty quiet. You might be drinking less so you maybe cut down on socialising, when the booze might get tempting. You might be eating more healthily after Christmas indulgence so you don’t go out for meals. The weather is nasty and the evenings long and dark, so walks and other outdoor activities are kept to a minimum. Which makes it a great time for catching up on reading books and watching films.
On the other hand, January is also traditionally time for a fresh start: a new exercise regime, a new project at work, an honest look at all those DIY projects that need finishing. Which isn’t so good for the ol’ leisure time.
This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.
12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.
The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.
The Vagabond by Colette
translated from French by Enid McLeod
I love Colette. This slim, seemingly simple novel is beautifully told and explores in great detail the psychological weight of the decisions we make.
Renée is a music-hall dancer in Paris. Divorced and in her 30s, she has to perform in seedy venues late at night to pay her rent but she doesn’t mind that. In fact, she quite enjoys it, though it does give her a great fear of getting old, knowing as she does that it is her looks and not her talent that the crowds are attracted to. For now she has an agent who keeps her in work and a regular partner called Brague, a mime who designs and choreographs their act.
“Behold me then, just as I am! This evening I shall not be able to escape the meeting in the long mirror, the soliloquy which I have a hundred times avoided, accepted, fled from, taken up again, and broken off…Behold me then, just as I am! Alone, alone, and for the rest of my life, no doubt. Already alone; it’s early for that.”