The Great Grocery Bag Exchange #1

I have received the first of my two parcels in the Great Grocery Bag Exchange, a fantastic idea dreamed up by Carin of A Little Bookish where book bloggers get to know each other by sending a parcel of goodies, including at least one reusable shopping bag, to their exchange partner(s). What fun! Goodies from another country, another blog to read, another blogger to get to know and perhaps the best bit – fun post!

My first parcel is from Amy of Amy Reads, a Canadian blogger whose reading taste has, I think, quite a lot of crossover with mine. At least, I have starred a lot of her reviews in my Google Reader, which is my totally hi-tech system for marking out books I think I might like to read. Amy sent me these good-looking goodies:

For me!!!

The postcard and one of the bags were designed on Prince Edward Island by descendants of LM Montgomery, which gives me a book-nerd thrill. Oh how I loved the Anne of Green Gables books when I was younger. Also, I like how the greeting card has a non-denominational “Happy Holidays” message. Very Canadian, I believe. It’s hard to even get a birthday card in the UK right now, everywhere’s so Christmas-obsessed!

Thank you Amy for my great parcel of fun stuff. I will definitely take your advice and bump Adichie up the TBR pile 🙂

Words on women of the world

Feminine Gospels
by Carol Ann Duffy

A lot of the poems in this collection by our esteemed Poet Laureate read like little short stories, which made them pleasingly accessible for someone like me who doesn’t read a whole lot of poetry.

The subject matter, as you might guess from the title, is women – the women of myth, of urban legend, of old wives tales – and womanhood, what that means. The tone ranges from meditations on love, beauty, identity to everyday rhythms and humour.

There’s “The Map-Woman” about a woman whose skin is a map of the town, from head to toe. There’s “Work” about a woman taking on increasingly tough jobs as she has more children to support, until she has a billion children and can no longer cope. There’s “Beautiful”, about some of history’s most famous women, from Helen of Troy to Princess Diana, drawing the parallels between their lives and the way they were treated.

I usually like love poems best and there are some of those here, but I think my favourite in this collection is “A Dreaming Week”, which uses repetition and clearer rhythm and rhyme than most of Duffy’s poems to create something that sounds really good spoken aloud. Its story, if it can be said to have one, is quite simply a person daydreaming/dreaming a week away. There’s idle playing with words, there’s evocative descriptions of bed and night-time.

I think I prefer Duffy’s most recent book, Rapture, but this is an excellent window into multiple characters/perspectives/ideas about femininity.

Published 2002 by Picador.

Undecided about mornings

One of the joys of having lupus is the many blood tests I have to have. Okay, that was sarcastic but the regular trips to the GP surgery are actually quite fun. Maybe not fun. Diversions from the normal routine that aren’t too unpleasant. That’s closer.

I always book my blood tests for first thing in the morning on a work day. I stroll up the hill against the flow of people heading to work or school, spend about two minutes with a nurse and then amble on my way to work. I’ve warned my manager that I’ll be a little late in, so I’m in no hurry. I sometimes need a pick-me-up after having blood drawn so I treat myself to a sugary breakfast. I get to see a slightly different view of my neighbourhood, like the lollipop man outside the local primary school who makes crossing the road so much easier. And it’s morning, which is a time I think I like. Probably.

The blood test itself isn’t too bad these days. I’m inured to the whole thing. I’m lucky that the two practice nurses are great (that’s nurses at the medical practice, not nurses who are practising on me, obviously, though I did have a student nurse draw my blood once – it wasn’t pleasant, I had to lie down for a while). You might think all nurses are equally capable of taking blood but believe me, you’re wrong. I show them which vein looks good and we chat a little about holidays, family, weather, whatever. Before I know it the tourniquet’s off, the plaster’s on and I’m saying goodbye. While my health is steady as it has been all year (I’m not superstitious but I feel I should touch wood or something here) I only have to have one sample taken, which is a whole lot better than the armful I used to give every month.

But regardless I’m always a little nervous beforehand and a little relieved afterward. As I was today. It was particularly cold, with a biting wind and I was worried I’d chosen a bad outfit for getting at my inner arm easily. But it all went fine and I was feeling cheerful as I bought my cappuccino and brownie from A Cappella, then strolled down the road sipping at my drink, having a nose at a shop that’s opening soon and someone’s house covered in scaffold. Now maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to where I was going or maybe I wasn’t fully awake still but personally I blame the police siren and the car that looked like it was about to mount the pavement and head straight for me. Either way I walked into a wall and spilled my coffee all down me. Perfect.

My day wasn’t ruined but I’m still uncertain about this morning thing. It might just be the lupus, but another hour of sleep sounds a whole lot better than an early morning walk to me.

A different normality

Non-fiction
by Chuck Palahniuk

A few years back I considered myself a big fan of Palahniuk’s novels. Then either they got worse or my reading tastes changed. Either way, this collection of his essays, many of them previously published in newspapers and magazines, lay around unread until I had an urge to read more non-fiction and this seemed to fit the description well!

While I may have gone off his fiction, I still love Palahniuk’s writing style. His short punchy sentences, repetition and colloquial phrasing break all sorts of rules about writing and grammar but they work. He can be very critical of the world but he can also be very sweet in his genuine interest in people, often people no-one else is interested in. He’s led an odd life, some of which he talks about in these essays, and that has no doubt coloured his view of the world. I don’t admire him for doing strange, sometimes dangerous things, but I do admire him for working with dying people, for telling stories that deserve to be told, for openly analysing his reasons for writing what he does.

If you’ve read any of Palahniuk’s fiction these essays will make sense to you. He collects facts and stories about real people and files them away for later use in a novel. Literally, it turns out. He has a wall of filing cabinets full of this stuff. The essays range from moments in his own life, to people he’s met casually, to people he has deliberately researched. There’s the crew of a US navy submarine, three men who built their own castles, a woman who trained her dog in search and rescue, professional wrestlers. There’s Palahniuk’s experiences of having his novel turned into a Hollywood film, of having an annoying faux psychic woman genuinely unearth a troubling childhood memory, of dealing with his father’s murder.

My favourite pieces were the more positive ones, which were mostly about writing. Palahniuk’s career took off when he attended a creative writing class and he writes movingly about the greatness of his mentors and some of his favourite writers. His cynicism is still there but it’s aimed at himself and not the subject.

I didn’t enjoy every essay. Palahniuk does his research thoroughly and in some cases that meant trawling through paragraph after paragraph on a subject I don’t care about, like wrestling or demolition derbies, but the essay as a whole is always worth reading because somewhere in there will be a gem of a portrait or observation, a really real person saying or doing something that makes you stop and think.

These essays don’t get as dark as his novels do, possibly because they’re mostly written for the wider audiences of magazines with editors who don’t want to publish Palahniuk’s darkest thoughts. But they’re clearly written from the perspective of a person who has dark thoughts, who questions the acceptance of any “normality”, who has frankly been through some shit. It’s interesting stuff.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.

Not as sweet as it sounds

The Heart of a Dog
by Mikhail Bulgakov
translated from Russian by Michael Glenny

This book was selected for our local book group, partly because most of us had never read any of “the Russians”. Including me, unless Nabokov counts (I’ve only read Lolita, which he wrote in English, and he left Russia when he was 18 so it’s a bit tenuous).

I’ve always wanted to explore this group of authors but didn’t know where to start. The Heart of a Dog was probably a good choice in that it’s short and easy to read, but it’s crammed full of analogies to history and politics that I suspect I’m not familiar enough with to get the most out of it. I did study the Russian Revolution as part of A-level history but that was a few years ago now and I had rubbish teachers.

The story is a combination of the real setting of Moscow in 1924–25 and the surreal. Rich, successful Professor Preobrazhensky appears to be protected from the ravages of the Party by his specialism – STDs and “sexual rejuvenation” – and when he first picks up a scarred, mistreated stray dog and takes him back to a plush apartment it seems like a sweet friendship is developing. But the professor has more sinister reasons for adding to his household and the Party sees an opportunity to hold the rich man to account for continuing to have more rooms and more money than anyone else in the building.

A lot of the book is narrated by the dog, which sounds bizarre but is actually very well done. Bulgakov uses humour and empathy to create a novel viewpoint of the poorest of the poor. I liked the logic given for the dog being able to understand most of what is said around him and the way he loyally repeated his master’s political views without understanding them. When the surreal part of the story takes over and switches to a conventional third-person narrative, I found it harder to connect with the characters I had previously liked immensely. I began questioning my previous judgement and was uncertain I liked where the plot was going. But although the undercurrent is one of fear, this book doesn’t get too dark or scary.

I liked how, as the book went on, the descriptions of the professor’s assistant, Dr Bormenthal, get increasingly canine, referring to him as loyal and faithful and having been rescued from poverty by the professor, just like the dog. I also found the book genuinely funny, much of it mocking the Party, so I was not surprised to learn that the manuscript was confiscated from Bulgakov and not published until after his death.

For such a short book, this book was able to generate a reasonable amount of discussion in our group. We talked about whether you can enjoy this as a story without worrying about analogies and historical context, what that professor character was really up to, where Bulgakov’s sympathies lay, the development of the dog character and particular moments and phrases that stood out for us. It was postulated that the distancing of the narration was a deliberate ploy to make the reader look more analytically at the characters. That made a lot of sense to me.

I’m not sure I would ever had read this book without the book club so thanks Bedminster Bugbear for choosing it!

First published (in this translation) in Great Britain in 1968 by The Harvill Press.

Flabby round the edges

Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes

The only other Barnes book I’ve read was Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about 100 pages long, so this great heavy thing is a bit of a change and yet in many ways the same. It’s based on actual historical events, drawn heavily from police records, diaries, letters, newspapers etc, relating to some very famous people at the turn of the twentieth century. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker prize and for a while it seemed to be everywhere and yet I somehow picked this up without having a clue what it was about, which I’m glad of.

My reaction to this book fluctuated a lot while reading. I borrowed it from the library (my first library loan since leaving university, and I only went there to try out the cafe, which turned out to be closed) and at several points I found myself wishing I’d bought it because I was enjoying it so much, only to change my mind a chapter or two later and be relieved that I’d not spent any money on it.

Why the variation? It’s a well written book, with some brilliant turns of phrase and some of the best characterisation I’ve encountered in a while but the same excruciatingly slow build-up that results in those thoroughly fleshed out, believable characters also means that the storyline drags. A lot. Although there are events that are the intended focal point of the story, they get a little lost among everything else that is detailed, often minutely. And that could be deliberate. The George of the title is a very detail-oriented person, for one thing. But this is also, to some extent, a detective story and every detail could turn out to be vital. Or to be a red herring.

The story follows the two title characters in turn, with occasional joint chapters when their paths cross, which is an effective way of pointing out the similarities and differences between their lives, but the timeline was not entirely linear and it became clear that it was carefully constructed so that information was revealed in a specific order, deliberately leading the reader to react one way and then another.

Partly because I came to this book so free from spoilers, partly because I believe it’s written in a way that suggests certain details are intended as clever twists that shouldn’t be given away by reviewers, I can’t mention some of the things that I most want to talk about without a big fat ** spoiler alert **, so here it is: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t read this book and think you might want to. Okay?

So, this may in fact be widely known by everyone except me (me about two weeks ago, that is) but the Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle and this book is a sort-of novelised biography of him, from birth to death, concentrating in particular on a criminal case that he got involved in when he decided that there had been a miscarriage of justice. It was big news at the time, with headlines screaming “Sherlock Holmes investigates” and led to the creation of the Court of Appeal. It’s quite amazing that the story isn’t better known, really. Anyway, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan and fascinated by anything related, so I was saddened to discover that I didn’t like the depiction of Doyle presented here. I liked the story of his childhood, told concurrently with that of George, despite it later being revealed that George was actually almost 20 years his junior, and I empathised with some of the events in Arthur’s life, but he comes across as a self-absorbed, brash person with some rather backward misogynist ideas, even for the time.

George is a cold, and yet curiously sympathetic character. He of course suffers from a great miscarriage of justice, so there’s that in his favour, but I felt that for much of the book the possibility that he might in fact be guilty was kept alive and there were a few occasions when I wondered if that was why these events have been forgotten. The fact that George’s surname is Edalji, inherited from his Indian-born father, is saved until a long way into the book. By this point George has spent his childhood and early adulthood suffering from various forms of bullying and with hindsight it seems likely that the colour of his skin was at least a factor, but by not being aware of that fact at the time the reader is led to be curious about why George is continually picked on and called “not quite right”. Maybe Barnes chose this route because George himself states later on that he doesn’t think race was a factor, or at least not the main factor, in his victimisation, and he considers himself as much an Englishman as any other man born in England. Is he being generous to his torturers with this statement or is he in fact more astute than others who jump to the “it’s racism” conclusion just because he’s not white?

In all, this was certainly absorbing, as the tagline on the cover promised, but it did suffer a little from including too much beyond the end of the Edalji case. There’s a long section at the end set after Arthur’s death that I felt was entirely extraneous. I lost the sense of pleasure I had built up and closed the book for the last time feeling mostly bored. It’s a real shame because for long sections of this book I loved it.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

Art and community

This weekend Totterdown opened its doors for the Front Room Art Trail, an annual neighbourhood event that was one of the things that attracted us to this part of the city. Although people come from all over the city and beyond, I get the impression that most of those on the trail are local residents meeting their neighbours, seeing what an impressive range of artists live nearby.

The “front room” of the title comes from the fact that the majority of the art is displayed in people’s homes, with bright orange flags and wide open front doors indicating where to go (there are also maps freely available). Proprietors are ready with warm welcomes and friendly chatter to guide you around the art they have displayed.

In contrast to complaints I hear that these days no-one knows their neighbours, especially in cities, we have found Totterdown full of community feeling, with an endless rollcall of events, groups and meetings. The art trail is a fantastic addition to this mix. There’s something quite wonderful about walking into a stranger’s house to the warmth and smell of a wood fire, being handed a glass of mulled wine and encouraged to look out of their window to compare their view with your own!

Between the drizzling rain and my attempts to use a film camera rather than digital, I only have one decent photo from yesterday. This sculpture, built primarily by local schoolchildren, stands outside Fig. 1:

Light sculpture art community fun

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. Who knows, we may even open up our own front room!

Not that Herzog one again

It’s Only a Movie
by Mark Kermode

I bought this book at an author event for the Bath Literature Festival just before I launched this website. I thought about writing up the talk and book signing but writer’s block prevented me and I figured I’d just combine it with the book review I’d surely be writing in the following few weeks. And then the book sat around for 8 months before I read it. So all I can really remember about the event was that I had a great evening, Kermode was good fun, smug and self-deprecating at the same time, and I failed to think of anything to say to or ask him when I got my book signed. Hey ho.

This book, and indeed the talk about it, are really just like extended versions of listening to Kermode on the radio, which is something that I have enjoyed doing for about 16 years. He has a genuine deep-rooted love of and enthusiasm for film but he doesn’t come across as snobbish or exclusive in any way. I have always preferred his reviews to anyone else’s, even if I don’t agree with him any more or less often than other critics, and this book helped me to see why.

Firstly, he’s immensely knowledgeable on the subject. He has a PhD and is a visiting lecturer in film studies and all he has ever really wanted to do is review films. He genuinely enjoys watching as many films as he can and still finds time to watch his favourites over and over (and over). His favourite films aren’t highbrow inaccessible fare but the rather more approachable The Exorcist, Mary Poppins and Local Hero but he can argue intelligently and cogently why they are great films.

He’s also a good storyteller. He recognises good anecdotes and knows how to tell ’em well. He opens the book with the admission/warning that he has a bad memory and is prone to exaggeration, so this is the story of his life as seen through his own viewpoint, or rather camera angle. He uses the analogy of this being the film of his life (complete with who would play all leading roles), which is a fitting, if slightly cheesy, way of looking at it.

Some things I learned that I hadn’t previously realised (though perhaps if I was paying more attention over the years I’d have figured this out) – Kermode is an ardent feminist and formerly a bit of a political radical (a “red-flag-waving Bolshie bore” in his own words), a vegetarian (or “near-vegetarian”, according to Wikipedia) who keeps chickens as pets and he has an appalling lack of geographical knowledge (he once flew to Moscow to get to a film set in the Ukraine, failing to realise that Odessa is significantly closer to London than Moscow). Really the only one that’s a surprise and yet clearly affects his response to films is the feminism and I’m not sure why this surprised me. I certainly don’t disapprove; it’s good to see a high-profile, reasonable man talking feminism rather than it being a fight between extreme and less-extreme women.

This isn’t a very personal autobiography, it lives up to its title in that respect. While his wife and children get occasional mentions, this really is the story of Kermode’s love affair with film and his resultant career. Which is what he’s good at talking about, so fair enough. It’s structured thematically, with an almost chronological order, and really my only problem with it is that it starts and ends with that Werner Herzog incident, the one I watched on The Culture Show and read about in the paper and listened to Kermode talk about in various interviews since. Yes, it was interesting, shocking even, at the time, but it’s not the only interesting event in Kermode’s life and I do wish he’d stop banging on about it.

Published 2010 by Random House

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.