Bloggiesta is here!


Bloggiesta is an online event for (book) bloggers in which we are encouraged to spend the next three days working on our blog in any way we see necessary. We Plan, Edit, Develop, Review and Organise – no wonder our mascot is called PEDRO! Olé! Bloggiesta is organised by It’s All About Books and There’s A Book.

The Bloggiesta fun begins here with my vague not-nearly-planned-enough to do list; and there’s a lot to be done!

1. Change how hyperlinks appear (I don’t like the current style).
2. Tidy up sidebar.
3. Catch up on book blog posts in Google Reader.[Done for now at least!]
4. Contact some publishers about getting their new releases catalogues.
5. Back up all blog content (thanks to Leeswammes for that idea).
6. Read and join in as much as possible with the Bloggiesta discussions on Twitter and other blogs. (If you’re on Twitter, you can use the hashtag #bloggiesta to keep in touch with what’s happening. I am @Nose_in_a_book.)

For me, that last is the real point of all this. I hope to learn a bunch and meet lots of new book bloggers. So, let’s get started!

UPDATE 1 (Sat): I have changed one of my goals to a more realistic one for this weekend because I am already flagging! And catching up with my fellow book bloggers is way more important than most other stuff anyway 🙂

UPDATE 2 (Sun): I will soon be going out for the rest of the evening so here ends Bloggiesta for me. I have achieved everything I set out to and gathered together a bunch of new ideas, not to mention meeting lots of ace new book bloggers (new to me) on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who took part!

The power of a great title

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
by Amara Lakhous
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This book is clever, funny, insightful, serious and lighthearted all at once. I bought it on the back of a glowing review I read somewhere (possibly Eva of A Striped Armchair? Sorry I’m not sure on that) and am so glad that I discovered both an excellent book and a very interesting new publisher to me.

This book blends together a tried and tested format with a very modern story and characters. It’s a murder mystery, with alternate chapters made up of diary entries by the now missing – and therefore prime suspect – Amedeo, and the chapters in-between each narrated by a different character involved in the story.

They all live in an apartment building on Piazza Vittorio in Rome managed by the redoubtable Benedetta, or “the Neapolitan”. In fact, the residents come from all over – elsewhere in Italy, in Europe and the whole world. Immigration, racism and racial stereotypes are the central theme here. This one building is home to people from different parts of society, including a university professor, a travel agent, a cafe owner, a film student and an unemployed former chef. Each has their own view of the world and their own limits on what they observe or question.

The humour is evident right from the start, with Iranian immigrant Parviz despairing at his inability to hold down a job, convinced that he keeps getting fired because he doesn’t like pizza; despairing at the concierge Benedetta’s persistent use of a word he thinks (wrongly) is a swear word; despairing at the police repeatedly arresting him for feeding the pigeons, which he cannot comprehend being a crime. It is clear that this is a series of misunderstandings, largely based on his almost non-existent Italian. But he is not being mocked. Rather, Lakhous is pointing out how easy it is for people to choose anger and resentment rather than try to understand and be understood.

And the misunderstandings continue, get worse even, among people who do (or can) speak the same language but fail to listen to each other. Or prefer to believe their own prejudices and stereotypes rather the evidence before them. This can lead to some horrifying assumptions, but the humour – often revolving around the apartment’s elevator, which is central to many a row between residents – keeps the tone from getting too serious.

This is a short, fun read that has a lot to say and does it supremely elegantly. I will be on the lookout for more from this author and this publisher.

First published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio in 2006 by Edizioni.
This translation published 2008 by Europa Editions.

When real life gets terrifying

Some Other Rainbow
by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell

When I was visiting my parents the other weekend, I spotted this on the bookshelves. I had been meaning to read it since my Mum bought it shortly after publication but somehow hadn’t got round to it. Since then I have become a fan of John McCarthy as the host of BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Excess Baggage so I thought I would take a trip back to the events that made John a household name for a few years in my youth.

If you lived in Britain in the late 1980s/early 1990s you will know who John is but for everyone else, a quick summary. John went to Beirut in 1986 as part of his job as a TV news producer. He was supposed to work there for four weeks and then come home to his girlfriend Jill who he had left looking for a flat that they could buy together. Lebanon was in the midst of civil war at the time and westerners were being taken hostage but the situation had seemed to be getting better. Then, on the drive to the airport to fly home, John was kidnapped. He was held hostage for five years.

Though I lived through these events, I was quite young so a lot of the detail was either new to me or I had forgotten. It is an incredible story. The book is split so that John will narrate what happened to him over a certain time, then Jill will tell her story of that time. And while John’s story is inherently more interesting, some of the real shocks come from Jill’s side. It was not until his release that a political group claimed John as their hostage (Islamic Jihad, who actually released him as their envoy to the UN). There was no video or photograph of him sent home. In fact, for four years, until his fellow hostage Frank Reed was released, Jill had no way of knowing that he was alive.

There are so many details in this book that shook me hard. The hostages had to be blindfolded whenever the guards were within sight, which in some prisons meant all of the time. They were chained to the wall most of the time, with – if they were lucky – two trips a day to the bathroom. They were moved around a lot, staying in prisons anything from a few days to a year. And with each move they would not know who they would be with at the next location. Both guards and fellow prisoners would disappear and reappear.

John was fortunate not to be held alone after the first six weeks. For the majority of his captivity he shared a cell with Irish schoolteacher Brian Keenan. They formed a strong friendship and found ways to help each other cope. They also found innovative ways to communicate with prisoners in other rooms or cells (their prisons varied between houses, apartments, basements and purpose-built prisons). A moment that really got to me, after reading so much about John and Brian’s companionship, was when they heard knocking from the room next door and translated it as “My name is Terry Waite, I have been alone for over three years.”

Jill, in the meantime, had a lot of difficult decisions to make. She had to decide to what degree to get on with life, whether talking to the press (against Foreign Office advice) would help or hinder John (she had to weigh up the chance of John seeing her on TV or in the press, hopefully lifting his spirits, versus the risk of making him seem more valuable to his captors), whether to do her own investigations into the political situation (again, counter to FO advice). She made the decision, with many of John’s close friends, to campaign for his release. This was partly to keep him on the political agenda, so that deals would not be done with Middle Eastern countries without the hostages being mentioned. But it had the effect that, on his release, she was as much a celebrity as he was and there was a lot of press interest in their renewed relationship.

Both John and Jill had worked in journalism, though neither of them on the writing side, and that does show. Not that the book is at all badly written; rather that it is surprisingly conversational, open, honest but all grounded in the bare facts of what happened. Brian Keenan also wrote a book about his captivity, An Evil Cradling, which I read shortly after publication and found hauntingly beautiful. This is a very different take on the same events.

John is amazingly positive and cheerful, one of those people who is deeply affected by others’ troubles, so he takes great effort to learn how to help his fellow prisoners. He also reaches out to the guards and in some cases makes a connection, though it is never something that he can trust, as he can of course never forget that these men are keeping him like an animal, subject to occasional beatings and with his “belongings” (books, playing cards, dominoes, very occasionally a radio or television but they would usually be banned from listening to news) taken away on a whim. Jill is less cheery, but she makes up for this with incredible determination and brutal honesty about her darkest doubts.

A quick Google reveals that John later co-wrote a book with Brian Keenan, which I would very much like to read. But I also hope that I can go back to enjoying his Radio 4 show without picturing him locked in a dark concrete basement. It’s a horrid image and I have to contradict his statement that he is not a hero. He survived (and helped others to survive), he went on to live life, he is living proof of what the human spirit can endure if it must.

Published 1993 by Bantam Press.

11 random things about me

Whenever I get tagged by one of these things, I am torn. I have an age-old hatred of chain letters (remember when they were actual letters and you were expected to write the whole thing out 10 times?) but I like to learn more about my fellow bloggers and have no problem with sharing more about myself.

So, because Jo is so nice I will half-reply (and direct you to her far-more-interesting answers) but I won’t continue the chain (though if you want to carry it on yourself, feel free!).

Here goes…

1. I had glue ear when I was little and was almost entirely deaf by the time I turned 6. Thankfully, one operation, two grommets and a bunch of unpleasant wax-drainings later my hearing was completely restored. (Theories about how this may have affected the rest of my life or at least childhood could fill a whole series of blog posts.)

2. I was a quite-good gymnast as a child and am a trained gymnastics coach.

3. I have a phobia of fish.

4. My first foray into journalism was at primary school when I wrote, produced and distributed an environmental newspaper that I now sadly not only have no copies of but cannot even remember the name of.

5. I have been a vegetarian – for ethical/moral reasons – since I was 13 but when I was 17 I worked on the deli counter in the local supermarket and had no problem with skewering chickens for the rotisserie; indeed to this day I’m happy (well, okay with) pulling apart a chicken carcass. I am also very careful about food hygiene since that job.

6. My first job was doing my Dad’s filing. He would take me to work on Saturday mornings and before we left he’d log my hours in the petty cash book and pay me my wages. It was such a good gig I continued to work the occasional Saturday for Dad until I left home.

7. As a kid I always had a project on the go. I planned theoretical trips around the world. I made a database of kings and queens of England that was harder to refer to than the books I’d used as reference.

8. I used to cut out pictures from magazines that I thought might inspire my writing.

9. I was, briefly, a member of the Barbie Fan Club.

10. I once adopted a whale (or rather, it was a birthday present, but I asked for it specifically). She was called Scylla.

11. I have read Ulysses. I had to for the modernism unit of my English degree. I recognise its brilliance but did not enjoy the experience.

Apparently most of the things I think might be interesting about me date back to my childhood.

The joy of reading

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby

This book looked and sounded like fun with a literary bent, which was exactly what I needed after a few non-absorbing reads in a row.

This is a compilation of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns that he wrote for the literary magazine Believer from 2003 to 2006. Hornby is funny and the magazine had a policy of positivity so the result is a real delight to read.

Hornby’s novels probably fall into the more readable end of literary fiction so it is perhaps no surprise that that is where his own reading tastes lie. He loves Dickens but has little patience for the vaguer, plotless end of literary fiction so to keep in line with the Believer‘s no-negativity clause he creates the mythical Polysyllabic Spree, the “twelve [or 100, or 64, depending on the column] rather eerie young men and women…all dressed in white robes and smiling maniacally” who he claims berate him for any bad reviews, which makes for some hilarity.

But most of the pleasure comes from Hornby’s frank discussions of how he chooses what he reads, how life intrudes on his reading, and sharing his great joy in reading what he wants to read. He despairs of literary snobbery, of those who look down on others for reading Dan Brown or Mills & Boon. He wisely and wittily describes his reads, mostly biographies, comedy and history. He is open about the sources of his books – his publisher, friends and family send him proof copies, but he is also an insatiable book buyer, frequenting book shops, new and used, whenever he can.

Believer is published by McSweeney’s, so a lot of the names involved are writers who are familiar to me – Vendela Vida, for instance – and, brilliantly, the internet tells me that Hornby’s column was recently reinstated. I might just have to become a subscriber!

First published by Viking 2006.

On the brink of getting old

Break of Day
by Colette
translated from French by Enid Mcleod

I found this book both beautiful and uplifting, and painstakingly slow and even dull. Which is probably why I had started and abandoned it once before. I’m glad I gave it another go.

I suppose you could call this novel a lightly fictionalised autobiography, and it may even have been the inspiration for so many books since written in that vein – half of Amélie Nothomb’s works, for example. Its ageing heroine, Colette, is spending a summer in her beloved Provence. She is alone but for a coterie of pets and, though she has endless company from friends old and new, she feels strongly that the time has come to learn how to be on her own, how to live without love.

The novel is partly addressed to, and partly about, her mother Sido. Colette quotes from her mother’s letters and realises with pride how much she has come to be like her. But mostly it is a musing on her own life, her love of nature and her thoughts on love. Her lofty aim to no longer depend on a man for happiness is complicated by the presence of Valère Vial, a younger man whose company she enjoys but who she frets does not belong in her story.

The prose is beautiful but rambling. The blurb calls it a prose poem and that’s pretty apt. If you can accept that for pages at a time nothing will happen, or her meaning will not be clear, then you can just wallow in the language and enjoy a master at work:

“The open windows let in the smell of the melon rinds floating on the water of the port; between two parts of a tango, a long sigh announced that a wave, born far out at sea, had just died within a few paces of us.”

The title refers to her ongoing battle with sleep and her love of the dawn. A lot of the book is set in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, with Colette perusing life in an overtired state, hoping to see the new day begin before sleep finally comes. It could be the most lyrical autobiography I have read, except that she adds the lines:

“Are you imagining, as you read me, that I am portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model.”

First published 1928 by Flammarion as La Naissance du Jour.
This translation first published 1961 by Martin Secker and Warburg.

Bloggiesta: coming soon


Bloggiesta is a blogathon that is all about working on your blog. I have watched it from afar the past two years and this year I’ve decided to plunge in and be a joiner. It takes place on the weekend of 30 March – 1 April and it’s hosted by Suey of It’s All About Books.

What will I be doing? I have a few ideas I want to investigate but mostly catching up on writing posts, reading up on advice from other bloggers and brushing up my HTML and CSS skills. Which is quite enough for one weekend.

Interested? You can sign up here.

Today x, y and z came to visit

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952–73

edited by John Saumarez Smith

This is the first collection of Mitford letters that I have read, after a couple of years of build-up, and I must confess that I feel a little bit let down.

Nancy Mitford briefly worked at the London bookshop of the title, before her writing career took off and she moved to Paris. The bookshop was started by, and for many years run by, Heywood Hill. Their correspondence lasted from 1942, while Nancy was still working at the shop, through Heywood’s sale of the shop and subsequent retirement, right up to Nancy’s death. From friendly but businesslike beginnings, they became firm friends and confidantes.

Between Nancy Mitford’s reputation (and indeed my great enjoyment of her novel The Pursuit of Love) and the bookish basis for the book, I had high hopes. I imagined an 84 Charing Cross Road with added gossip and celebrity shoulder-rubbing, and to an extent that’s true, but this book almost entirely lacks the charm of Helene Hanff’s classic. While both Heywood and Nancy are clever, witty and bookish, their letters seem to be largely composed of lists of people who they have visited/who visited them, most of whom are famous or aristocratic or literati (or all three).

Now, this may be down to the editing, which I was not impressed by. Smith also worked at the shop, starting there just before Heywood’s retirement, and struck up a friendship with Heywood and his wife, so he is not an impartial outsider. He is even mentioned in some of the letters. He has heavily cut the letters – ellipses abound – and added lots of explanations in square brackets, but he has not changed anything. So there are varying styles for book titles or emphasis, and abbreviated names are left abbreviated. I am sure it would have been acceptable to readers to spell out all those ampersands and contractions (seriously, text messaging was not the first time people wrote in their own shorthand code to one another) and it would have been a sight easier to read.

What he has done is summarise the first nine years of letters and occasionally throughout he adds in italics his summary of a letter or exchange of letters rather than the originals. But he hasn’t explained some events that are obliquely referred to – a falling out between the Hills and Heywood’s successor at the bookshop, for instance, which comes up often but is never explained. There are also bookshop/publishing terms used often and only a couple of these are explained. (What on earth is a Rainbird?)

Between Smith’s interjections, footnotes and a bibliographical index, there are a lot of different ways of filling in the details of the large cast and it felt bitty. A lot of the letters have been cut down to half a page or less and I constantly got the feeling that the better half had been cut out. There was certainly very little that was personal left in. I understand that in places a letter had been lost and Smith was piecing together what had been said from other sources but he also chose not to include letters that had been published elsewhere, leaving odd gaps, especially early in the book.

Perhaps more time needs to pass between a person’s death and a publication like this (Heywood Hill died in 1986 and I imagine this book took many years to compile). And I would certainly have thought that an editor who did not count the book’s subject as a personal friend would be preferable. Or perhaps surviving family (Hill’s widow and Nancy’s youngest sister are both still alive) were responsible for the odd editorial decisions that appear to have been made.

Whatever the reason, though both letter writers come across as warm, intelligent, humorous people, this collection was only occasionally entertaining and often tedious.

First published 2004 by Frances Lincoln.

See also: review by Simon at Savidge Reads.

Codes and spies and stuff

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Reading this book appealed because I love the Hitchcock film and I was looking for a couple of short books to read before embarking on 1Q84.

Richard Hannay is an intriguing lead character. He has made himself a small pile of money mining in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was then) and come to London to enjoy his earnings, but quickly finds himself bored and lonely. So it’s almost a stroke of luck when he discovers a Mr Scudder has been murdered in his flat, just days after the victim confided in him that he has uncovered an assassination plot that could lead to war.

As prime suspect in the murder, Hannay flees London for remote Scotland with both the British police and a German spy ring close at his heels. His resourcefulness and acting skills ensure there is never a dull moment. And he has Scudder’s coded notebook, with a mysterious message about 39 steps.

I really liked this. It’s an enjoyable romp and yet any reader knows that the war Hannay is working so hard to avoid is inevitable (the dates are clearly given as May and June 1914), which gives it a sad air. The descriptions of Scotland are beautiful but brief because there is no space here for asides. It’s 107 pages of action and, as such, was perfect for translation to film, but there was still, as always, something lost in transition. The book explains why Hannay is how he is and briefly summarises the political state of Europe, neither of which is in the film, as I recall.

First published 1915.