June reading round-up

This has been a pretty good month, reading-wise. I’ve got through more books and short stories than previous months, but I’ve also squeezed in some other book-related stuff. I went to see Neil Gaiman talking about his new book, which was pretty awesome. I went to see the new Joss Whedon film of Much Ado About Nothing, which is completely amazing (in fact, I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it all the time). And I took part in the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, which is always fun.

I’ve also found some time to enjoy the summer so far, including having a whale of a time with Tim flying our new kite yesterday, although I did manage to sunburn for the first time in several years, which I am enjoying a lot less.

Let's do a montage

Books read
A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (review here)

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (review here)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (review here)

Selected Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (review here)

31 Songs by Nick Hornby (review here)

The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Short stories read
“The gray goose” by Jonathan Lethem (in the New Yorker, May 6, 2013)

“Axis” by Alice Munro (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Eveline” by James Joyce (Guardian books podcast)

“On exactitude in science” by Jorge Luis Borges (Guardian books podcast)

“The story of my dovecote” by Isaac Babel (Guardian books podcast)

“Summer of ’38” by Colm Tóibín (in the New Yorker, March 4, 2013)

“Unwelcome reminders” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“The drinking problem” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“The first time” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“The delivery men” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“The unburdened heart” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“Made-up” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“Sea story” by A S Byatt (available online here)

“The swimming pool” by Jekwu Anyaegbuna (available online here)

“The River of Lost Souls” by Isabel Greenberg (available online here)

Listening to music and seeing faces in its fire

31 Songs

31 Songs
by Nick Hornby

I love Nick Hornby. And this collection of his essays about music might be Hornby at his best. Because when it comes to music, Hornby is a true fan, but not the kind of fan who knows it all and lectures on the roots of all music; he’s a fan in that he loves what he loves with great enthusiasm, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As the title suggests, these essays centre around a list of 31 songs. Not necessarily Hornby’s favourite 31 songs, though they are for the most part among his favourites. Instead he has chosen songs that give him something to write about. So his selection of “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five gives us an essay about pop lyrics and whether it matters that most pop lyrics aren’t the stuff of great poetry (a subject of great interest to me; in fact I wrote my dissertation on it). I was happy to find, as a fan of Ben Folds, that Hornby’s decision on this matter doesn’t affect his belief that “Smoke” is “lyrically perfect”, and he adds a fascinating postscript:

“It’s possible that this sort of craft goes unnoticed because ‘Smoke’ is just a song, in the way that ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ weren’t just songs. The young men who wrote them were also, unwittingly or not, in the process of changing the world…Their songs have therefore become imbued with all sorts of magic that doesn’t properly belong to them, and we can’t see the songs as songs anymore.”

I found some essays better than others, just as some are more personal than others. There’s a very touching essay centred around “Puff the Magic Dragon” because Hornby’s autistic son responds positively to that song, which is a huge deal when you have a child so severely autistic that he only has three or four words at the age of ten.

Hornby does sometimes contradict himself. For instance, he accuses others of being unnecessarily bleak about the state of pop music today and then makes similar dismissive statements himself. His opening essay says that this is not about songs that are connected with a certain memory, and he’s actually pretty harsh about that as a reason for picking out a song, and yet at least two of the essays are exactly that. I don’t agree with all Hornby’s statements (it’s possibly a product of the time of his writing, but I don’t think the age of the Internet has narrowed musical styles, I think it has widened and democratised them wonderfully), and I don’t always share his taste, but then that’s not the point anyway.

“This book isn’t predicated on you and me sharing the ability to hear the same things; in other words, it isn’t music criticism. All I’m hoping here is that you have equivalents, that you spend a lot of time listening to music and seeing faces in its fire.”

As someone who does indeed listen to a lot of music and loves that moment of being transported by a good song, I really really enjoyed this book. I liked that it demands to be read while listening to music, ideally pop music, which is something I tend not to do, to avoid distraction. Even though Hornby is older than me and we don’t entirely share our music taste, I felt compelled to make a playlist from this book, not of the 31 songs themselves and not of every song mentioned at all (that would be a long playlist) but instead of every song he enthuses about. I used Spotify, so not all the songs were available, but I’m enjoying the results. If anyone’s interested in listening, the playlist is here. But even if you don’t like the look of the song selection (and there is a lot of Rod Stewart on there, I’ll grant you) I still highly recommend this book to any pop/rock music lover.

“‘Caravan’ isn’t a song about life or death, as far as I can tell: it’s a song about merry gypsies and campfires and turning up your radio and stuff. But in its long, vamped passage right before the climax, when the sax weaves gently in and out of the cute, witty, neo-chamber strings, while the piano sprinkles bluesy high notes over the top, Morrison’s band seems to isolate a moment somewhere between life and its aftermath, a big, baroque entrance hall of a place where you can stop and think about everything that has gone before.”

Published 2003 by Penguin. Published in the US as Songbook.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Tears are the perspiration of the eyes

Saadat Hasan Manto

Selected Stories
by Saadat Hasan Manto
translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan

This collection was recommended – and indeed loaned – to me by a friend after a conversation about classic books in India versus in the UK. Many of the names were the same for both of us, but one literary giant I hadn’t heard of, much less read, was Saadat Hasan Manto. So we had to fix that, obviously.

“It was about this time of year. The monsoons had come and, outside his window, the leaves of the peepal tree danced as the raindrops fell on them…Outside, in the milky dankness of the evening, the leaves of the peepal tree swung in the breeze like a golden ornament on a woman’s forehead.”

Manto wrote in almost every medium but the short story is what he was known for, and this selection, specially translated (though apparently most of Manto’s work has been translated into English before at some point) attempts to provide a representation of his whole career, including stories considered classics, such as “The new constitution”.

When telling people what I am reading I have stumbled over such basic information as his nationality, or country of birth, because the answer to those questions is a bit tricksy. He was born to a Kashmiri family in Amritsar in British-ruled India, later living mostly in Lahore, Bombay and finally Karachi. He died less than a decade after the Partition of 1947, and is quoted in the introduction to this volume as saying that he truly did know whether India or Pakistan was his true homeland.

And that, with the turbulence of those years and tensions between religions and social groups, is central to many of the stories in this collection. Which is a great insight and can be very moving. However, in all I’d say I had a mixed reaction to these stories. The language is often beautiful, not flowery and easy to read – except occasionally for the subject matter. The stories are often erotic, with lots of describing women’s bodies, and they don’t shy away from getting down and dirty at times. This is particularly true because many of the women characters are prostitutes.

And I think this is where I began to have a small problem. Where the male characters are varied, three-dimensional and cover a wide strata of careers, the depiction of women is a little…misogynist. Women are always described physically in detail and tend to be defined by their social position or religion rather than having a clear character.

“Tears flickering over her thick eyelashes will look lovely. It will be like raindrops dancing down a shuttered window. It is possible that you may not think tears to be necessary in women’s eyes, but I cannot even imagine a woman’s eyes without tears. Tears are the perspiration of the eyes. A worker’s brow is only a worker’s brow when it is shining with perspiration. A woman’s eyes can only be a woman’s eyes when they are drowned in tears.”

But that reservation aside, these are good stories. They’re real, sometimes shockingly real. There was one story, “The return”, that left me stunned. In fact, for that one story alone I would rate Manto very highly. I also really liked the (very different) story “Odour”, which is sensuous and strangely touching.

This translation first published by Penguin Books India 2007.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Thoughts on ideology

“Democracy is an experiment the goal of which is to keep the experiment going. The purpose of democracy is to enable people to live democratically. That’s it. Democracy is not a means to something else; there is no higher good that we’re trying as a society to attain. When we compromise with democracy in order to achieve some other purpose, even when the purpose is to defend democracy, then we are in danger of losing it.”

This quote from Louis Menand in the New Yorker (Mar 4, 2013, p71) really got me thinking. It’s such a basic point and one that should be blindingly obvious, yet I’d hazard it’s a subtlety that’s often lost on politicians.

The piece in the New Yorker, incidentally, was a review of a book about the New Deal. Menand was arguing that Franklin Roosevelt’s success as a politician was rooted in his being “a political pragmatist, someone who is less interested in the ideological provenance of a policy than in its effectiveness” – which sounds like a good thing to me. But it must be pretty rare to rise to the top in politics without a strong ideology, right?

I don’t pretend to know enough about politics or philosophy to be able to say more myself, but I like what Menand has to say.

Human society was a sort of monster

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

When I saw that Margaret Atwood was coming to Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas I got very excited about it and bought tickets. Only then did I realise that she is coming here to talk about her new book Maddadam, which is the third part of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, and I had read neither of those. Cue a hurried purchase of both…

This dystopia is hauntingly desolate, a lonely existence for our hero Snowman, who may be the only human left, though not the only person. The devastation of society appears to be quite recent, as Snowman not only remembers the world as it was before, but played a key role in the tragedy, something that is gradually elucidated by his unreeling memories.

“The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest – clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.
‘You did this!’ he screams at the ocean.
No answer, which isn’t surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash.”

However, the world as it was, the world Snowman knew before, back when he was Jimmy, was also a place that might be called a dystopia. Global warming was wreaking havoc, claiming coastal cities and changing climates unrecognisably, with widespread droughts and species becoming extinct with alarming frequency. Society in North America had become unruly and dangerous, with only those living in heavily guarded compounds safe from crime and disease.

“Too many things were coming back to him, too much of what he’d lost, or – sadder – had never had in the first place. All that wasted time, and he didn’t even know who’d wasted it.”

But how did the world change from there to here? Who are or were Oryx and Crake? Who are these people who look human but aren’t, called the Children of Crake, whom Snowman feels compelled to protect? And can he keep them safe in this post-civilisation Earth?

There’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a pretty complex set-up and I can see why it’s a trilogy, because there’s so much more that could be said with this setting. The central theme is an environmental one, pressing home the point that the Earth will go on, it’s humans who will lose out and risk making ourselves extinct if we continue to mess with our habitat. And in this respect it’s a very sad story, because what’s depicted is so believable.

“Maybe there weren’t any solutions. Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain.”

However, there is another major theme that is, perhaps, less believable, more sci-fi conceptual idea (and possibly saves the whole from being too preachy or moralising, or perhaps is actually more of the same). The pre-disaster society depicted is a world where genetic modification/bioengineering has gone to sometimes ludicrous extremes. I found this sometimes annoying, often strange, but ultimately it all makes sense.

The world we are left with is a beautiful but terrifying devastation, with nature reclaiming control, and I look forward to seeing where Atwood is going to take this next.

“Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

It’s that time again! Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (22–26 June)

**This giveaway is now closed. The winner will be announced shortly.**

Literary Blog Hop Giveaway

Hello lovely people who might want to win a free book! I am offering up a choice from my favourite books of recent years:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I genuinely loved all three books and look forward to sharing one of them with a lucky winner. Just leave a comment saying which book you want for a chance to win.

This competition is open to anyone from 22 to 26 June 2013.

This blog hop is run by Judith of Leeswammes. To find out more check out the blog hop announcement. And do take some time to visit some of the other participants, listed below.

Linky list:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Ciska’s Book Chest
  3. The Book Garden
  4. Sam Still Reading
  5. Ephemeral Digest
  6. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  7. Rikki’s Teleidoscope
  8. The Things You Can Read (US)
  9. Seaside Book Nook
  10. The Relentless Reader (US)
  11. Under a Gray Sky Blog
  12. Exurbanis
  13. Candle Beam Book Blog
  14. Booklover Book Reviews
  15. Books in the Burbs (US)
  16. Babyboomerwrites
  17. River City Reading (US)
  18. Lakeside Musing (N. America)
  19. Read Lately (US)
  20. The Book Diva’s Reads
  21. A Place That Does Not Exist
  22. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (US)
  23. A corner of the library
  24. Roof Beam Reader
  25. The Misfortune of Knowing
  26. Girl Vs Bookshelf
  1. heavenali
  2. Love at First Book
  3. The Little Reader Library
  4. The Siren’s Tale
  5. Musings and Ramblings
  6. The Readers Realm (US)
  7. Lost Generation Reader
  8. Readerbuzz
  9. Literary Meanderings
  10. Book Clutter
  11. Bay State Reader’s Advisory
  12. Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity
  13. Nose in a book
  14. Audios & More
  15. Laurie Here
  16. Mythical Books
  17. Books in the City

Nothing said in that language can be a lie

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman

It’s not often I read a book within 24 hours of buying it but the combination of circumstances and it being a darned good read meant on this occasion I did just that. As I mentioned on Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend a “pre-launch event” for this book on Friday and got my 30 seconds with Neil Gaiman himself, during which I, as always, failed to have anything interesting to say. By Saturday lunchtime I was reading the last page and wishing the book could have been twice as long.

There’s a sweet story behind this book, and also a very sad one (two different stories, that is). Gaiman’s wife went away for a few months last year on a tour of Australia and he missed her, so he decided to write her a short story as a kind of love letter. Not that it’s a romantic story, but it is a personal one, with a character heavily based on 7-year-old Neil and a setting heavily based on his childhood home and beginning with an incident that really did happen to his family when he was 7 years old, though his parents didn’t tell him about it at the time. Except this isn’t a short story, because he kept on writing and ended up with a novel. Which I think all Gaiman fans will be grateful for.

The un-named 7-year-old boy at the centre of this story is bookish and friendless, which is fine by him as he has his books. But the sudden and shocking death of the family’s lodger unleashes something terrible and powerful that only the three women who live in the farm at the end of the lane can possibly defend against. These are the Hempstocks – Lettie, who is 11 and has been 11 for a very long time; Young Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. They resist the word “magic” but there is definitely something magical, or even mythical, about them.

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big. Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country. Her mother said Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk. Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.”

This is quite a dark story, in a fairy tale kind of way. And it gets genuinely frightening in places, as well as being happy and sad and wistful and of course funny. It touches on the different ways in which children and adults see the world, with children both missing certain things through lack of understanding but also seeing more through curiosity and not having yet built up that blasé acceptance of how things are that can blind us adults to possibility.

“I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real…nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything.”

Gaiman said on Friday that he felt writing this that he was creating a myth rather than a novel and that makes a lot of sense. He also said that the Hempstocks have been characters in his head since his childhood and this book certainly doesn’t clarify who or what they are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn up again.

Published 2013 by Headline.

Source: Bought from Topping & Co at their author event on 14 June.

Sunday Salon: the week of awesome

The Sunday Salon

I have been looking forward to this week for a long time, and though life threw a bit of a spanner in the works it still turned out pretty great.

The thing is that we had tickets to not one but two awesome events and our dear friends H and G were throwing a big party for their wedding anniversary. We were pretty excited. Then at the last minute Tim had to go away on a work trip Monday to Friday, missing the first two evenings of fun and being pretty jetlagged for the last one. However, I still got to have all the fun, just with a teensy bit of guilt about Tim missing out.

But what were these amazing events we had tickets to? Well, Thursday night I went to the first UK performance of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band. Who were brilliant. Here is a terrible photo I took from up in the gods of the Colston Hall.

Copper Bottom Band

This group are possibly the most amazingly talented musicians I have ever seen perform. Hugh Laurie plays piano, sings (though not for all the songs) and acts as band leader. Which he of course does with humour and grace and loveliness. I had such a wonderful night. And I really badly want to go to New Orleans and hang out in jazz bars now.

Then Friday night I went to the first event on Neil Gaiman’s promotional tour for his new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which actually comes out next week but attendees were able to buy the book early. It was held in Bath, hosted by Topping & Co Bookshop, although I can see why it wasn’t held in the bookshop itself as there were I’d guess a couple of thousand people there. Neil Gaiman has a lot of adoring fans. Understandably. He was charming, funny, intelligent and interesting, as you might expect, and clearly an old pro at this kind of thing. I don’t have any photos from the event itself (my friend T took some photos that she said I could have copies of but we have yet to co-ordinate on that) but here is what I came away with:

I met Neil Gaiman

I should add that we queued for two and a quarter hours for our brief meeting with Neil and narrowly missed our train home, so had to get a taxi but that just added to the adventure! And the queuing was fine because we had this great new book to read… My brother (who I gave Tim’s ticket to), T and I were all about halfway through the book by the time we got to the front of the queue and then a very nice lady offered us chocolate by way of apology for the long wait!

(I realise that I haven’t really said anything much about the interview Neil gave, mostly because I am rubbish and didn’t take any notes, but I will roll what I do remember into my review of the book. And if you want to know more, Gav of Gav Reads actually did take notes and blogged about the evening over here.)

And that was just the start of the weekend. I then headed to London, met up with Tim, very briefly checked out the new Alan Turing exhibition at the Science Museum, then went to H and G’s party, which was brilliant but I think I shall choose not to share any photos of drunken me on here. Suffice to say there was a lot of fun and then there were hangovers.

So…what have you all been up to?

Her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone
by Daniel Woodrell

When this book was suggested for book club I had never heard of it or its author, but in the months since then both have cropped up repeatedly in book blogs and podcasts, always being showered with praise. Thankfully this didn’t happen so much that I had crazy high expectations, but maybe that wouldn’t have mattered because I completely loved it.

Someone (I think on the Slate Culture Gabfest) described Woodrell’s books as the new westerns, and while the storyline may seem a long way from cowboys and indians I can kind of see what he meant. It’s certainly a remote, lawless setting, or not lawless but with a different attitude to crime.

The book follows Ree, a teenage girl living in mountainous Missouri in a very poor, very small community. Her mother is mentally ill in some way – switched off and unresponsive – so Ree has left school to care for her mother and her two young brothers. Her father is absent, and his absence, and the need to find him, is the catalyst for the story.

“She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered…there was no gas for the chain saw so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.”

Woodrell doesn’t shy away from the harsh, even brutal, reality of poverty, but somehow it is made bearable by the beauty of his language. The facts can take a while to become clear. In fact for the first few chapters I wasn’t sure when or where or what this story was. But that’s part of the point in a way. You can easily imagine that this small society in this area hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Everyone knows everyone else, and there is no privacy, but secrets can be kept if they are for the good of the community. And they might all survive because the men are cooking meth but there’s still a strong sense of honour, albeit an old-fashioned one.

“Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law…Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.”

Ree is a wonderful character. She’s so strong and driven by her responsibilities to her family, trying to be both father and mother while only on the brink of adulthood herself. When pain and possible death face her, she doesn’t flinch, but it’s not bravado, it’s just what she has to do, as if there is no option. Except the obvious option is staring her in the face – she’s offered hard drugs countless times and clearly wouldn’t be the first in this community to check out from reality that way. What she seems to choose instead is to try to distance herself from it all mentally.

“[Ree] pulled headphones from a pocket and clamped them over her ears, then turned on The Sounds of Tranquil Shores. While frosty bits gathered in her hair and on her shoulders she raised the volume of those ocean sounds. Ree often needed to inject herself with pleasant sounds, stab those sounds past the constant screeching, squalling hubbub regular life raised in her spirit, poke the soothing sounds past that racket and deep down where her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room.”

Someone at book club mentioned that the dialogue is slightly wrong for the modern era – people don’t talk like that. But I think I like that it’s slightly stylised. It adds to the timeless feeling of the story. Replace cooking meth with making moonshine and the rest still fits perfectly.

Woodrell uses the rural setting to great advantage, describing the woods and the winter in a way that reminded me of Frankenstein, with that idea of the sublime – the picturesque snow is juxtaposed with murderous cold and ice. But the descriptions are never overdone. In fact it’s a very slight book in which quite a lot happens.

“Keening blue wind was bringing weather back into the sky, dark clouds gathering at the edge of sight, carrying frosty wet for later.”

It should be a completely depressing story – indeed, some people at book club found it to be just that – and the facts of the story are indeed depressing, but the writing about these ugly lives is so gorgeous, almost magical, that I was left wanting more. Woodrell is very subtle and often only hints are given to what might be considered the key facts of the book, the possibility left dangling. But it’s not frustrating the way that could be with a less skilful writer.

Published 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Bought from Amazon.