My TBR

These are books that I own but have not yet read. The idea was shamelessly stolen from Novel Insights, so thank you/apologies to her for that.

A few of these I have actually started reading at some point and then given up on – mostly “classics” or I would have got rid of the book – and I have marked these with an asterisk.

EDIT: I have now moved this to its own page. I will update it there. This post can stay as a historical record, or something.

A
Edward Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
Isabel Allende – The Sum of Our Days
Tash Aw – The Harmony Silk Factory

B
Honore de Balzac – Old Goriot
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Louis de Bernières – Red Dog
Vinoba Bhave – Moved by Love
Christopher Brookmyre – Not the End of the World
Christopher Brookmyre – A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
Anita Brookner – Providence
Mikhael Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
William Burroughs – Naked Lunch
A S Byatt – Still Life

C
Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
Bernardo Carvalho – Fear of De Sade
Blaise Cendrars – Dan Yack
Blaise Cendrars – Moravagine
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote*
Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely
Vikram Chandra – Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Anton Chekhov – Three Plays
Jonathan Coe – The Rotters’ Club
Colette – Break of Day*
Colette – Cheri/The Last of Cheri
Colette – Claudine at School
Colette – Claudine in Paris
Colette – The Rainy Moon and Other Stories
David Crystal – The Stories of English

D
Roald Dahl – My Uncle Oswald
Charles Dickens – The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens – The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
Carol Ann Duffy – Feminine Gospels
Alexandre Dumas – The Black Tulip
Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet [3 books – one’s missing]

E
Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Bret Easton Ellis – The Informers

F
E M Forster – A Passage to India

G
Neil Gaiman – Coraline
Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
Gabriel García Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Luiz Alfredo García Roza – Southwesterly Wind
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Graham Greene – The Ministry of Fear
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
Ursula le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet*

H
H Rider Haggard – Allan Quatermain
Knut Hamsun – Hunger
Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native
Joseph Heller – Catch-22*
Joseph Heller – God Knows
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway – To Have and Have Not
Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island

I
Christopher Isherwood – The Memorial

J
Henry James – The Bostonians
Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady*
James Joyce – Dubliners

K
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales II – Fingerprints
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales III – The Mechanicals
Mark Kermode – It’s Only a Movie
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Milan Kundera – Immortality
Hanif Kureishi – The Black Album

L
J Robert Lennon – The Light of Falling Stars
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Charles de Lint – The Ivory and the Horn

M
Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice and Other Stories
Yann Martel – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Reclamation
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
M Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
Daphne du Maurier – The Glass-Blowers
Daphne du Maurier – The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier – The King’s General
Daphne du Maurier – The Progress of Julia
Ian McEwan – Enduring Love
Robert McGill – The Mysteries
Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net*

N
Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
Irène Némirovsky – David Golder
David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
Geoff Nicholson – Bedlam Burning

O
Elsa Osario – My Name is Light
Jim Ottaviani – T-Minus: the Race to the Moon

P
Chuck Palahniuk – Non-fiction
Alan Paton – Cry, the Beloved Country
Elliot Perlman – Three Dollars
D B C Pierre – Vernon God Little
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Dennis Potter – Blackeyes

R
Rainer Maria Rilke – Turning Point
Salman Rushdie – Fury
Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet*
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie – The Moor’s Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie – Shame
Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden

S
J D Salinger – For Esmé: With Love and Squalor*
Paul Scott – The Jewel in the Crown*
Hubert Selby Jr – Requiem for a Dream*
Will Self – Great Apes
George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion
Mary Shelley – The Last Man
Mary Shelley – Lodore
Murasaki Shikibu – The Tale of Genji*
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
Stendhal – The Red and the Black
R L Stevenson – Travels With a Donkey
Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human

T
Dorothea Tanning – Chasm: a Weekend
William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72*
Hunter S Thompson – Hell’s Angels
Mark Thompson – A Paper House: the Ending of Yugoslavia

V
Voltaire – Candide
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

W
H G Wells – boxset of short stories and novellas [3 books]
H G Wells – The History of Mr Polly
Thomas Wolfe – You Can’t Go Home Again
Tom Wolfe – The Bonfire of the Vanities
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid

Total = 137

Music to my ears

This week we went to a music quiz at our local pub and what it reminded me – besides the fact that I have pretty poor music knowledge despite rating it as one of my better subject areas – was how soul-joltingly amazing music can be.

I mean, generally I’m a words person. This will come as no surprise I’m sure. And there are certain bands – mostly the ones I grew up with – whose lyrics I know inside out and back to front. I followed my Mum’s habit of writing out lyrics so that I could sing along to whole albums. I mean, Smash Hits only supplied lyrics to the big singles!

But for the most part I listen to the music, not the words. I love to turn up the volume, lean my head back, close my eyes and let the music wash over me.

This means that (a) I’m not nearly as good at music quizzes as I’d like to be and (b) when playing Singstar I am constantly surprised at what the lyrics really are. It’s often a pleasant surprise because lyrics can be remarkably poetic. I leave you with some favourite examples:

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

(David Bowie)

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

(U2)

If life is an open book, she’d rather read the pictures for a while
Let the bastards moan
’cause where she falls, she falls

(Ooberman)

Dreams of sights, of sleigh rides in seasons
where feelings not reasons, can make you decide
as leaves pour down, splash autumn on gardens
as colder nights harden, their moonlit delights

(Lightning Seeds)

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power
Just like lungs sucking on air
Survival’s natural as sorrow

(Manic Street Preachers)

75 years of Penguin

Penguin book design is fab

I love penguins, I love books and I love Penguin Books. I love that little paragraph most Penguins have somewhere in or on them about Allen Lane deciding to start a publishing company when he couldn’t buy a decent book at a railway station. I love the design of their covers and the fantastic range of quality content between them. In short, Penguin Books rule.

A lot of my childhood books were Puffins, which is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, so happy birthday to them too. And Penguin Classics have always been my preferred editions, even when they cost more than the equivalent from other publishers, because the Penguin ones look better, have better introductions and, in the case of translations, have better translators. I remember when I read The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, after a couple of chapters I read a comment online about the Penguin edition being the only one to use a new translation that reinstated the sex and violence that the Victorian translator had censored out, so I immediately went out and bought the Penguin version and switched to that. (And I still didn’t find it particularly sexual or violent. How times change, eh?)

I have really liked the Penguin birthday promotion running at the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street in Bristol (no idea if their other stores are doing this) for the past few months because it’s meant they have dug out and displayed hundreds of old Penguins, particularly those with the classic orange and green covers. I am a sucker for those editions, even in poor condition, and I loved the Penguin design exhibition when I saw it at the Holborne Museum in Bath. If I didn’t find books such tactile objects I would totally put a bunch of Penguins in a glass frame on my wall. That would look awesome.

So, in short, happy 75th birthday Penguin Books. You’re great.

Mr Penguin Sir

Penguin!

Comfort clothes

There’s a green cardigan that I have a tendency to wear when I’m feeling a bit rubbish. It doesn’t have buttons or a belt so for it to warm me effectively I basically have to hug myself. It’s surprisingly comforting. On such days I also tend to wear flat shoes. The only reason I can think of for that is that heels are effort. Rubbish days are definitely not about making an effort.

I wonder whether anyone has noticed these proclivities of mine. People who are around you every day can be surprisingly perceptive. Well, some days they can. Of course, I’m feeling rubbish so often that perhaps I should reword all the above to say “more rubbish than usual”.

Or should I? The thing about chronic illness, or a thing at least, is that you kinda get used to feeling ill and while sometimes the fact of feeling ill, especially if it’s lasted several days, is enough to make me hate the world and want to crawl into a hole, generally feeling ill is just that – physical pain and/or discomfort – and is not necessarily related to my mood. This can get confusing for me and for the people around me. But it’s a survival mechanism as much as anything else. If I was miserable all the time that I felt ill I’d be pretty depressed. And depression is common among the chronically ill but thankfully I have not suffered that extra blow.

I do find it helps to have a handful of ways of dealing with feeling ill, stuff that makes me feel cheerful while requiring little or no energy input. There’s certain TV shows of course. It’s a cliché but Friends never fails to make me laugh. (I know, I know, I should lean toward something less mainstream and more British if I want to continue considering myself indie.) This year I’ve discovered gardening, which is great except for when slugs and snails and caterpillars eat all my beautiful plants. And there’s curling up under a blanket and daydreaming. This requires less brain power than reading and somehow feels more productive than watching TV.

And when I’m feeling a bit rubbish but still capable of dragging myself out of the house, there’s always that big, slouchy green cardigan.

The importance of doing science

I am an English graduate. I didn’t study any science subjects after the age of 16 and I was happy with that decision, but I have always had great respect and admiration for scientists. I mean, in my experience they’re all smart people who talk sense and do work that aims to make the world a better place. How can anyone not be impressed by that?

As I’ve got older, I think I’ve started thinking more like a scientist than an arts graduate (though I do hate the emphasis on how divided those two are). I believe in evidence, research, double-blind studies, querying sources, abandoning superstitions and traditions that don’t have any logic behind them. It just seems like common sense to me. But I also believe in “pure science”, blue-sky research with no concrete application, because that’s how humankind develops.

It stuns me that people fail to grasp the point of fundamental science, that anyone can bemoan spending millions on a new particle accelerator or laser facility (especially considering how much has been spent subsidising banks or the car industry in recent years). I say this because today I read this hideous piece by Simon Jenkins, in which he attacks the entire scientific community but has particular venom for the LHC and the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, and this rebuttal by physicist Jon Butterworth, in which he says that satirising Jenkins made more sense to him than just countering each point of idiocy one by one. And I sympathise, I do. Scientists must tire of respectable newspapers and journalists repeatedly pulling out this story whenever a new major science research centre is announced or opened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact a good thing. It must seem so obvious to them that Jenkins has no idea what he is talking about, but sadly, it is not obvious to everyone.

I was cornered at a family party recently and asked to justify big spending on theoretical science projects. So I began with the obvious: the internet. An accidental development from the sharing of scientific research that has changed the whole world phenomenally. Family friend was unimpressed. So next I told him about the laser. You know the story, right? It started as an entirely theoretical idea in one of Einstein’s later works. It had no practical application, it was just an experiment to create a beam of light in a laboratory. Blue-sky research. A laser beam was first achieved in 1960 (50 years ago this year), after decades of work. By that point some applications had been identified but it was a further 13 years before any were possible. Ever since, lasers have been continuously improved and developed and uses for them continue to be found everywhere in our daily lives, from barcode scanning and DVD players to medical treatments, precision cutting and welding, and satellite communication.

Family friend rolled his eyes and said that it doesn’t all end that way. Look how long they’ve been trying to make nuclear fusion happen. So I switched tack and talked about another aspect of pure science: it captures imaginations; it teaches us more about the world and indeed universe that we live in; it gets the kids interested, which is vital to get people into careers that are more obviously practical, like engineers and doctors. Tell a child that a giant machine in Switzerland is being used to figure out how the universe formed and they will be far more excited by that than the average adult. Which was proven when family friend changed the subject at this point, clearly bored and unconvinced.

I was and still am exasperated but I am trying to understand. Science is extremely badly covered in mainstream media. You don’t need to read Ben Goldacre to know that, though it’s a good start. Most people trust what they read in newspapers, particularly broadsheets, and sadly that means the perpetuation of ill-conceived opinion and half-truths, overshadowing the brilliance that is happening every day in science. But why? I found a clue when reading George Orwell last weekend. He went to highly respected public schools (St Cyprians, Wellington and Eton) and said that science was taught appallingly badly. Aptitude in science was likely to lead to disdain from teachers and pupils alike. The system required a thorough drilling in classics, good grounding in English literature and history, but little or no science. This is how the “great minds” of twentieth century Britain were raised, the people to whom current journalists turn for inspiration and wisdom. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance: intelligent, articulate men and women who can write knowledgeably about philosophy and classical music but haven’t a clue where the isotopes used in radiotherapy come from, or how particle accelerators are used to develop the ever stronger, harder materials that allow higher temperature (and therefore more efficient) power stations to be built. Or any of the other million ways in which pure science is improving our lives.

Tim has this pet theory about the food chain of science. Mathematicians come up with numbers and formulae that have no concrete meaning. Physicists take that maths and use it to model the real world, allowing them to understand the universe a little better. Engineers take that physics and use it to create a real-world device that ends up in your home or workplace. We need that abstract beginning.

EDIT
There’s some great resources on this subject here: interactions.org on benefits to society

On location

I have lived in Bristol for a few years now and am coming to really love it. Like most things I love, I want to get to know it better. There’s a few ways of doing this, like going for random walks and attending community events, but one that particularly appeals to me is finding some books that are set in Bristol to read.

I mean, when a book’s setting is an important element of the story, when it’s evocative and detailed, it invariably makes me want to go to that place and walk in the footsteps of the characters, visit the same cafés and cinemas. I love that feeling. But what makes an author choose their setting? Any writers among my readers want to comment?

I don’t think, as far as I can remember, that I have ever read a book set in Bristol. There must be a few. It’s a reasonably sizeable city and a particularly creative one. But the majority of books I’ve read that are based in Britain use London for a setting. I know it makes sense in terms of mass appeal. At any given time around 10% of the UK population lives in London, possibly more. If you consider how many of those people spend only a short part of their life there, then the proportion of Brits who have either lived in London or regularly visit friends or family in London has got to be pretty high. It’s certainly the UK city that non-Brits are most likely to have ever visited. And I’d guess the number of authors who have lived there is also pretty high. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some agents have persuaded authors to change the setting of a novel to London so that it has wider appeal.

But I want to read some books set in my city, so I’m going to compile a list. What should be on it? Please leave some ideas in the comments below. I did find this list (PDF, page 2) but I haven’t heard of any of the books on it. If you have and can recommend or indeed warn me off any of the titles, let me know!

UPDATE
The list so far:
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Dead Innocent by Maureen O’Brien
Gone Without Trace by Caroline Carver
Selfish People by Lucy English
A Respectable Trade by Phillippa Gregory
Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey
A Penny for Tomorrow by Jeannie Johnson
The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis
Where’s My Money by Mike Manson
Life and How to Live it by Daniel Mayhew
The Sun is my Undoing by Marguerite Steen
Shawnie by Ed Trewavas

Do or die

I accepted long ago that I will not read all the great books in the world before I die and I feel no guilt when I admit to not having read this or that other people discuss. However, I seem to have failed to transfer that rationality to other parts of my life. I want to see every good film, play, comedy show, TV series; I want to visit every country, every city; I want to eat at every great restaurant, ride every classic train line, stay in every top hotel. What I don’t particularly want to do would be a far shorter list. And I often feel a bizarre sense of guilt for not having done many of those things yet, as if I am somehow wasting my life by going to work, socialising, sleeping, spending time in my lovely house with Tim, walking or jogging in the park or any of those other things that constitute the greater portion of my life.

Which is crazy because I’m sure if I have any regrets as I get older it will be that I didn’t take enough time out for my friends or that I didn’t appreciate time alone with Tim while I could. I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed regrets never having seen The Godfather or never having eaten at the Fat Duck in Bray. (Though I’m sure there’s quite a few who regret not having travelled more.)

So where does it come from, this odd need to cram in life experiences? Is it an awareness of how short life is? Or is it just a need to impress other people? So much of small talk is taken up with this stuff: “What are you doing tonight/this weekend?” “Where are you going on holiday this year?” “Have you seen this film/play/comedian/band?” and it feels a bit lame to say “I’m staying in tonight” “I’m using my leave to do stuff around the house” “No, I haven’t seen it/them” every time. It’s like an admission of failure. I would never tell a colleague that I plan to go home and read and yet that’s what I do more often than not.

And why not? I love reading. I love taking time over cooking and eating with Tim. I love hanging out with friends. I love walking around my adopted city, pausing to take photos or drink coffee. This is not a waste of time, this is enjoying life.

And yet still there’s the guilt.

He wishes for the cloths of Heaven

Thought I’d share my favourite poem with you, as the lovely weather has put me in a poetic sort of mood.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Written by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939).
First published in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

10 May is World Lupus Day

I have lupus and it sucks. It really does. But I don’t have it nearly as bad as most lupus patients. I am a mild case. I manage to have a full-time job, a social life and fantastic support from my family and friends. Today I urge you to find out more about lupus. Read about it at The Lupus Site, Web MD, Lupus UK, St Thomas’ Lupus Trust and London Lupus Centre. Pass on those links. Talk about it. Stop this from being the disease that no-one knows or understands.

I was diagnosed with lupus three years ago. The blood tests were conclusive (something that is not always the case) and the huge relief at finally having a name for the mysterious ailment that had been troubling me for over a year soon gave way to nervousness at being diagnosed with something I knew nothing about. At the rheumatology clinic I was handed a slim leaflet produced by Arthritis Research (the two diseases share a lot of symptoms and, indeed, patients) and told not to worry, I appeared to be a mild case. But a mild case of what exactly?

The leaflet was essentially a list of symptoms and medications. As lupus symptoms vary from fatigue and headaches to organ failure and death, this was not very comforting. So I turned to Google. The Wikipedia entry was even more worrying. It talked a lot about the more serious symptoms and some unattractive related ailments. One of the doctors I had spoken to had warned me to be wary of looking lupus up on the internet because outside of the UK it does tend to be a much more serious disease. However, a scan through some lupus chat boards proved that there are British lupus patients having a really bad time of it too.

The problem with a disease like lupus is that the symptoms are so many and varied that it can be hard to pin down what is the disease and what isn’t. For those first couple of years, every ache and pain caused worry as well as, you know, pain, because I was concerned that I might have developed a new symptom and if that was true then it might never go away.

Because here’s the thing: lupus is chronic, systemic and there is no known cure. Although my rheumatologist says that the symptoms I first presented with are likely to be the ones I always have, there’s no guarantee I won’t develop new ones. And I can learn ways to limit or cope with the symptoms I do have, but they will never completely go away.

I have learned to cope most of the time. My fatigue specialist has gone from handing me tissues for the inevitable tears to commending me on my healthy appearance. But it comes at a price. My life had to change. In my mid-20s I suddenly had to cut my social life down to almost none. I have to carefully space out what activity I do, but at the same time do enough exercise to stay fit (because fatigue is a big problem for me and the less fit you are, the quicker you tire). It’s a real balancing act that is best explained by the frankly brilliant Spoon Theory. I have to be über prepared for any trip out of the house – in winter, I must take extra care to keep my hands and feet warm and for the rest of the year I have to wear high-factor suncream and cover my head at the merest hint of sunshine. I have learned to love TV in a way I never used to because all-too-often I am incapable of doing more than staring at that screen.

What I haven’t yet dealt with is the guilt. I am constantly letting people down. It’s not my fault and I don’t want to do it, but I am always cancelling plans with a friend or taking time off work on sick leave. I hate that I have to be that person. I am so so grateful to my friends and, most especially, Tim for accepting and caring for the new lupus-fettered me.

It could be worse. I know that. I have a good life, by any standards. I’m happy. But there are bad days. There are days when I am thoroughly fed up with being too tired to do the things I want to do. There are days when I desperately want to read a book or plan a fun trip but my brain is not functioning well enough. And the frequent pain and blood tests are no barrel of laughs either.

So, yeah: lupus sucks. But it gets easier to deal with when more of the people you know understand what you’re going through every day, when your GP has read up about it and can advise you on the little things like flu shots and dry hands. So spread the word. And if you’re feeling generous, a donation to Lupus UK will always be welcome!