I prefer to think that women are human

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L SayersAre Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
by Dorothy L Sayers

I thought this would be an appropriate review to publish on International Women’s Day. As the title suggests, this tiny volume is a pair of pieces by Sayers on women’s rights – an address given to a women’s society in 1938, and an essay first published in 1947.

I was a little frustrated by Sayers dismissing feminists as too extreme while arguing the case for women being individuals. But in general she finds smart, astute ways to explain how men, and society in general, treat men as human individuals and women as identical members of a stereotype.

“Are women really not human, that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep? I think that people should be allowed to drink as much wine and beer as they can afford and is good for them; Lady Astor thinks nobody should be allowed to drink anything of the sort. Where is the “woman’s point of view”? Or is one or the other of us unsexed? If the unsexed one is myself, then I am unsexed in very good company. But I prefer to think that women are human and differ in opinion like other human beings.

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Visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood

holidays on iceHolidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

I thought I would get in the holiday spirit by reading this small volume of essays and short stories about Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed Sedaris in the past and I love Christmas, so I didn’t see how this could go wrong.

Well…I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I was a little disappointed. I actually really liked the two essays about Sedaris’s own life, which were funny and insightful in just the way I had come to expect.

“SantaLand diaries” describes his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. It gives him a perfect opportunity to bring a critical eye to the various people who work as santas or elves, and the people who pay to visit them. Sedaris can be a little cruel in his observations, but he is so honest about his own failings that it all evens out.

“I spent a few hours in the maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the lollipop forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan…We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and faeces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds.”

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I can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts

slouching towards bethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion and had been looking forward to reading this, her most famous work. It did not disappoint. Even her introduction is gorgeously artful, packed with lines I want to write on Post-its on my wall like when I was a teenager.

This book collects together essays Didion wrote between 1961 and 1968. They’re grouped into three sections: “Life styles in the golden land”, all about California, “Personals”, which aren’t really personal but are reflections on a topic, and “Seven places of the mind”, which despite the title are about seven different physical places.

Didion’s sketches of places and people are masterful – and distinctly Didion’s own take. She always takes an unusual angle. For example, her profile of John Wayne is a reconstruction of conversations on the set of one his last films. Her piece on Joan Baez centres around a neighbour’s complaint about Baez’s school, the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

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Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases

sedaris-me-talk-prettyMe Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris

I had come across Sedaris a few times in the New Yorker and found him invariably hilarious, so I’d been meaning to read this, his most famous book, for ages. Finally, on a day out in Oxford earlier this year with my friend H, we inevitably found ourselves in my favourite branch of Blackwells and I wandered around happily picking up and putting down books indecisively until I spotted this volume and knew it was the one.

This both is and isn’t an autobiography. It’s a collection of essays, previously published in various places including the New Yorker and Esquire, but they are all stories from Sedaris’s life and they are arranged in chronological order, so a sort of memoir emerges, a highly selective one.

“That’s one of Alisha’s most well-worn adjectives, sweet, and she uses it to describe just about everyone. Were you to kick her in the stomach, the most you could expect would be a demotion to ‘semi sweet’. I’ve never known someone so willing to withhold judgment and overlook what often strike me as major personality defects. Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”

The first half of the book deals with Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina, his failed attempts to be an academic, his move to New York and the varied jobs he took to survive there, including as a house mover and as PA to an eccentric publisher. I say “deals with” but each essay tells one memory, or set of linked memories, so this is by no means the full story of Sedaris’s life. However, his open engaging style makes it feel a lot like a memoir, so it can be a bit disconcerting to realise that information learned in one essay means that some pretty important information was withheld from a previous essay.

“It was my father’s dream that one day the people of the world would be connected to one another through a network of blocky, refrigerator-size computers…He envisioned families of the future gathered around their mammoth terminals, ordering groceries and paying their taxes from the comfort of their own homes…’I mean, my God,’ he’d say, ‘just think about it.’ My sisters and I preferred not to. I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Apparently Sedaris has attracted some controversy for the questionable veracity of his non-fiction, to the extent that some magazines that regularly publish him label the work as fiction. It’s fairly clear in some stories that there’s an element of exaggeration if nothing else, but this doesn’t bother me at all, as they’re so very well written.

Sedaris really is a great humorist, making me laugh out loud and save up so many great quotes that I ended up reading whole essays out to Tim for him to share the fun. Sedaris makes genuinely funny observations on an at first glance unremarkable life – he’s been a drug addict and lived in Paris and New York, so it’s hardly been a dull life, but he somehow paints it as painfully ordinary, while also making it wildly interesting.

“If you happen to live there, it’s always refreshing to view Manhattan from afar. Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases, but from a distance it inspires fantasies of wealth and power so profound that even our communists are temporarily rendered speechless.”

What I’ll admit I did find odd is that there is no reference to Sedaris becoming a writer, and a successful one at that. The second half of the book deals with his time in France with his partner Hugh, from shorter trips and language difficulties to moving there full-time and taking French lessons (from which the title of the book comes). These essays feel like a series, like they had been commissioned and were being written in the moment, as indeed they were. This was long after Sedaris had achieved some success telling his stories on NPR, but he continues to refer to taking odd jobs and helping Hugh do up his rural French cottage, while never talking about writing or being a writer. It’s almost as though he wants to maintain the character built up in the first half of the book, that of a lovable loser, a disappointment for not making the most of his comfortable middle-class start in life. Perhaps he wanted to save writing on writing for another time, or perhaps he thought it a dull subject. I’m more than happy to read more of his books to find out!

First published in 2000 by Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Blackwells, Oxford.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The world is bathed in the colour of heat

Other ColoursOther Colours: Writings on Life, Art, Books and Cities
by Orhan Pamuk
translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely

I completely fell in love with Pamuk’s novel Snow when it came out so when I saw he had a new book out I snapped it up before realising that it was a collection of his essays. And then it sat on the shelf unread for five or six years. Ahem.

Pamuk’s writings as collected here are…varied, from a light-hearted series written as a regular newspaper column to serious literary analysis and his Nobel Prize speech. And my enjoyment of them was pretty varied too. The short pieces from the newspaper column were sweet, brief pithy observations about life but the longer essays tended to get a bit bogged down with either name-dropping all the classic authors he’s read or talking at length about being a bestselling author – which I couldn’t help but find big-headed. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

“We see things and we don’t. The world is bathed in the colour of heat, and in our minds we can see this too.”

Pamuk is an interesting man with an interesting life, but perhaps a little repetitive even when I spread my reading of this book out over three or four months. There was lots of theorising about East versus West and Turkish politics, which I liked, plus backgrounds to most of his books, e.g. months spent in Kars while writing Snow, which is naturally interesting to any fan.

“To those viewing them from the outside, one city can seem much like the next, but a city’s collective memory is its soul, and its ruins are its most eloquent testimony.”

One of my problems with this book is that Pamuk does that thing when talking of being a writer: he generalises that all writers must be this way or feel this way. Why? Are there not many thousands of writers producing very different work from very different backgrounds? Can they maybe not have very different personalities and motivations too?

“The stones we writers use are words. As we hold them in our hands, sensing the ways in which each of them is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes almost caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around.”

(I should note that the above quote is not one I consider over-generalised. I quite like this phrasing. It’s more the stuff about working methods and personality type that wound me up.)

On the other hand Pamuk is a gifted writer, with great skill at bringing scenes, real or imagined, to life, and I still intend to read more of his fiction. (In fact, this book did include one short story, which was very good.) But I might give any future essay collections of his a miss.

Published 2007 by Faber & Faber.

Source: I honestly don’t remember.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

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.

It is the ideas and stories that count

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!
by various authors

Slightly meanly, I think, the publisher has not credited anyone as the editor of this collection of essays on the topic of reading. Even the introduction is simply signed “Vintage Books, 2011”. I bought this book on a whim at the same time as The Library Book, as they were both pretty and colourful and contained essays by interesting people.

Foyles haul

I think it’s probably not surprising, then, that my reaction to this book is very similar to my reaction to The Library Book. Hit and miss. But perhaps to more of an extreme in this case. The hits had me nodding my head furiously, while the misses in some cases had me furious.

I like that the 10 essays are not only written by big names. They include novelists, poets, publishers, journalists, academics and the founder of a charity, the Reader Organisation. And the wide topic allowed them to take very different angles. Blake Morrison writes intelligently and profoundly about the pleasures and benefits of reading, including why poetry matters:

“It takes courage to own up to dark thoughts and dangerous feelings. But poetry – the most intimate yet public of forums – is the ideal place. Ted Hughes is one writer who recognised this. Writing, he said, was about facing up to what we were too scared to face – about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately need to share.”

This illustrates what my favourite of these essays do well – they quote widely, creating a whole reading list for me within their few pages of eloquent argument. Carmen Callil writes interestingly about books in her life and how being a woman in a man’s world led her to found Virago. She shows a great, warm love for books. Tim Parks, in contrast, goes negative. He generalises the average westerner as someone who either doesn’t read or only reads the latest big title:

“If we read fast, superficially, for plot, to get through, so as to congratulate ourselves…we’re not only missing out on certain pleasures, we’re actually putting ourselves at risk, leaving ourselves open to messages and attitudes we haven’t weighed up…”

Not only is this quite ungenerous, not to say judgemental, but I also think it’s wrong. Different books have different effects on us and who is he or I to tell someone that they shouldn’t read a certain book because we didn’t get anything from it? Thankfully Mark Haddon says entirely the opposite:

“This, I think, does a disservice both to readers and to the books themselves…because it’s not true. Visit a prison library and you’ll meet good people whose lives have been saved by potboilers, and psychopaths reading Jane Austen.”

But Haddon also writes intuitively about the act of reading itself:

“Stop reading right now. Look around you…The sense of being inside looking out, of seeing a world that belongs to everyone, but is nevertheless yours alone. It is this uncrossable gulf between me and not-me, between my private experiences and yours, which lies at the heart of being human and which no other medium can touch, and this border is where the novel lives and moves and has its being.”

And then Jeanette Winterson went and ruined it by returning to Parks’ snobbery and turning it up to 11. She goes from praising the King James Bible and Shakespeare to:

“We live under 24/7 saturation bombing from an enervated mass media and a bogus manufactured popular culture. If you don’t read you will likely be watching telly, or on the computer, or listening to fake music from puppet-show bands…The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contempt for books and art (it’s either entertainment or elitist, never vital and democratic), mean that not reading cuts off the possibility of private thinking, or of a trained mind, or of a sense of self not dependent on external factors…Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading.”

What?!! There is so much wrong with these statements. That last sentence…whooah! Has she ever expounded her theory to a doctor or ADHD specialist? I’d be interested to hear their response! I mean, I think reading is important and rewarding, but that really is taking it too far. And as for her comments on modern pop culture, well that’s her own personal taste and to extrapolate from her dislike to such disparagement is unkind and even ignorant. Music can transport me, make my heart race and my emotions surge – and I don’t mean classical music here, I mean rock, folk, dance and pop music. Not every song, or course, but plenty that I am sure Winterson would turn her nose up at. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day.

I think in general it is a stubborn clinging to the past that frustrated me. A few of the essayists write about how the physical printed book is intrinsically better than ebooks, and how new technology and mass media threaten today’s youth and therefore the entire world. Personal preference is one thing, but I think we have to face up to the fact that we live in an age of transition and be positive about the possibilities the future offers. The final essay by Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai addresses this well:

“The Greek transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture provides a valuable analogue…Socrates argued that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the essence of some aspect of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it…Will [today’s] young people immersed in technological innovation become adept at prioritising, sorting and critically evaluating information, adapting different types of reading styles based upon their purpose…Will the flexibility of digital text actually enhance the reading experience for many readers, propelling them into a deeper engagement with text, or will such enhancements serve as further distraction?”

I accept that my own preference for reading novels in hard copy is a product of my life to date, but I didn’t exactly dislike my brief dalliances with a borrowed Kindle and I absorb most of my journalistic writing via computer these days. I think a love of music, film, TV, comedy and theatre complements my love of reading, rather than detracting from it (though I won’t deny that they are all competing for my time). I think reading is important, valuable and worth encouraging in others but it is not about to disappear. As Callil says in her essay:

“The human race has been telling stories, and trying to record them on papyrus, on manuscripts, on stones, since the beginning of time. Whether we read on the printed page or on a machine is beside the point. It is the ideas and stories that count.”

Published 2011 by Vintage.

This place will lend you books for free

The Library Book
edited by Rebecca Gray

This collection of essays, musings and stories about public libraries has been compiled in support of the Reading Agency‘s library programmes. Which is definitely a cause I can get behind. They are all big names, from Zadie Smith to Alan Bennett to Susan Hill to Stephen Fry, but sadly the levels of enthusiasm and quality are a little variable.

I think part of the problem is that several of the essays cover the same ground: memories of the writer’s first library followed by a vociferous attack on the idea of closing any of them. Some writers are more practical, looking at how libraries and librarians can change with the times. Seth Godin makes a good case for the necessity of the librarian as gatekeeper of information. Bella Bathurst talks about libraries as places where people can mix, can make connections, can interact, whoever they are.

Other writers use fiction, including a very nice extract from China Miéville’s novel Un Lun Dun (though I can’t help think that’s cheating, when everyone else seems to have written their contribution specially). And I like that not all of the writers are novelists. There are also several journalists and, my personal favourite, Nicky Wire, whose piece is titled “If you tolerate this…” and discusses (among other things) the background behind that great Manic Street Preachers lyric “Libraries gave us power”.

This book is certainly a conversation-starter. Though my position on public libraries was never in dispute, I have learned more about the potential arguments against spending public money on them and gained many weapons in the arsenal against such attacks.

I love libraries. To me, these days, they share much in common with bookshops, in that I’m stepping into a room crammed full of books and I get to take some home with me. But then these days I can afford to buy enough books to keep up with how much I read. When I was a child I read so, so much more (and admittedly the books were smaller, generally) and neither I nor my parents could have afforded that without the local library. But libraries are about more than just reading. They are community centres. They are public access to the internet. They are free access to information. They are equal access to culture. They are great.

Published 2012 by Profile Books.

Ranting is not writing

Why I Write
by George Orwell

I generally like Orwell’s writing in all its forms, but I must admit this essay collection was not, for me, up to his usual standard. It was all a bit too…ranty.

Three of the four essays here are primarily about politics. The fourth is a short piece about a hanging, which surprisingly was by far the best of the lot. It is clever and funny and touching, describing Orwell’s personal experience of observing a death by hanging in Burma. It is an official state execution and Orwell is acting as one of the legal observers. He describes their procession toward the scaffold and how a dog jumps out at them, excited and wanting to play, not understanding why these men try to shoo him away. He describes noticing the condemned man sidestepping a puddle and how that observation brought home to him how this was not a man who wanted to die. A very interesting and surprisingly not gruesome or depressing piece.

The other essays however, are all rants. By and large I agree with Orwell’s points but he is not nearly so entertaining a writer when he has a bee in his bonnet. Which is ironic considering that the last essay here is “Politics and the English language”, an out-and-out attack on political language and its downhill journey. He accuses writers of imprecision, vagueness and using unnecessary foreign words or metaphors in their prose. His recommendations for improving the standards of writing are all familiar. (In fact, this essay’s concluding six rules for good writing are quoted in more than one style guide I have worked with.) But the way he wraps this up with politics is actually a little vague itself.

He has certainly not followed his own advice in the longest essay in the collection. “The lion and the unicorn” is an 84-page meditation on Englishness, the ongoing Second World War and how socialism will answer all ills. Orwell repeats himself, makes grandiose unprovable statements and generally goes on a bit.

Which is a shame because even here Orwell’s writing is wonderful. There are so many quotable phrases I don’t know where to begin picking them out but I certainly annoyed Tim by reading to him randomly.

It is of course the opening essay, “Why I write”, that initially attracted me to this book. While it does diverge into politics more than you might expect from that title, it also provides great insight into Orwell as a person and includes the cracking line:

“Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.”

Essays originally published 1931–1946.
This edition published 2004 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.

Happy Dickens Day!

Night Walks

Night Walks
by Charles Dickens

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens, so in preparation I thought I should read at least one of his works that have been sat on my TBR far too long. This is a collection of his essays, most of them from his journal Household Words, which I have a beautiful old boxed set of in my library. They give great insight into Dickens the man, as well as Dickens the writer.

The essays are mostly about Dickens’ forays around London, particularly poorer areas. His social conscience comes through strongly. In fact, he almost seems to be a bit of a busybody, inviting himself into workhouses and people’s homes, dragging children out of the gutter and throwing accusations at the police and government. But in the context of the time, writing such as this was hugely important. He described the real, actual conditions that people in London lived and worked in to spread the word, to spread awareness.

The writing is the Dickens familiar from his novels but with a single theme at a time making him a touch more accessible. There’s a definite sense of humour and a love of people in all their variety, as well as a need to know London thoroughly, at its best and worst. I found myself touched, amused, surprised and informed. Anyone interested in Victorian London would find something here for them.

Dickens Day

Some Dickens Day reading

First published 1850–1870.
This collection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.