August 2016: Reading List

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There are a few teeny tiny books, and nothing very taxing, in August’s reading list.

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Everyone I love is a Stranger to Someone, Annelyse Gelman, Write Bloody, 2014. [ Write Bloody ]

Edward Bawden’s Kew Gardens, Peyton Skipworth & Brian Webb, V & A Publishing, 2014. [ V & A ]

Describing the Past, Ghassan Zaqtan, tr. Samuel Wilder, Seagull Books, 2016. [ University of Chicago Press ]

Dogs in Australian Art, Steven Miller, Wakefield Press, 2016. [ Wakefield Press ]

Stories and Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett, Grove Atlantic, 1968. [ Grove Atlantic ]

Huntingtower, John Buchan, Oxford University Press, 2008. [ Oxford University Press ]

The New Odyssey, Patrick Kingsley, Guardian Faber, 2015. [ Faber & Faber ]

Dying: A Memoir, Cory Taylor, Text, 2016. [ Text Publishing ]

The Painter of Signs, R. K. Narayan, Penguin, 1993. [ Penguin Random House ]

End of July 2016: Success or Failure?

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So, did the ‘read my own books’ experiment work during July? The answer is, yes and no. Yes, I did manage to read all the books I said I would, but I also managed to acquire some library books that I want to read too, which wasn’t in the plan.

I’m thinking about writing MUCH shorter posts in future. This site is supposed to focus on my reading project and not on book reviews, however, I seem to have slipped into old habits and have been writing  ‘review’ posts that are far too long and far too dull. 🙂

I guess I’ll figure it out as I go along.

The Beautiful Librarians

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The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O’Brien, Picador, 2015.

I have a confession to make: although I really like reading prose, I really love reading poetry.

I think my love of poetry started when I was a very young child, sitting under the kitchen table and listening to my mother teach my home-schooled half-siblings. Family legend has it that I used to pipe up and recite the lines of poetry that my half-brother never could seem to remember, but which my mother insisted he memorise. I moved on from being unofficial prompter to writer of very bad odes in the style of Keats and Shelley, great swathes of words lamenting the passing of time and the dying of trees, and whatnot. Yes, I was a weirdly melancholic child, so it’s no wonder that I gravitated towards the Romantic poets. Wordsworth made me weep; Coleridge fascinated me; Byron enthralled me.

As I got older I started studying poetry, the nuts and bolts of it, learning about the mechanics of it. I stopped writing my bad verse and started reading more carefully. I developed a love for the sonnet which is with me still. How do they do that, was my frequent question. How do they DO that?

I’m still fascinated by poetry, and I’ve come to understand that poetry and painting are the two artistic media that speak to me in the most intense way. Poetry and painting don’t seem to require explanation: my experience of them just seems to slip into my brain, somehow, and I’m not conscious of analysing or thinking; I just seem to ‘know’. Poetry and painting are all about Ah-Ha moments for me, and I like the immediacy of the experience.

So, I read Sean O’Brien’s latest collection of poems, and loved them. He’s a sixty-three-year-old British academic, poet and playwright, and has won many awards for his writing. Clearly, he knows his literary stuff. I found The Beautiful Librarians a joy to read, because the poems are so clever and accomplished, and so different from one another.

The first verse of the titular poem:

The beautiful librarians are dead,
The fairly recent graduates who sat
Like Francoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters
With cardigans across their shoulders
On quiet evenings at the issue desk,
Stamping books and never looking up
At where I stood in adoration.

::

Grey Rose

When you enter grey rose country,
After the days, more days, the last,
The comfortless finality
That has not finished yet, the rest
Versus the rest, no aftermath
Is absolute enough for death.
Grey roses’ petals do not fall
At summer’s end: the grey rose rears
Its hydra heads to stand for all
That can be neither mourned nor shed
In the grey gardens of the dead.
Grey roses worn on the lapel,
Grey roses rooted in the mind,
Grey roses with a sweet-sick smell,
Grey roses, grey with all regret
For all that has not happened yet.
The grey rose has no history
In the lost world it imitates.
The grey rose is and cannot be.
It neither toils nor spins. It waits,
A truth that will not set you free,
Grey rose that’s nothing but a rose
That flowers here where nothing grows.

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Residential Brownjohnesque

They’ve put you in the Edward Thomas Room,
The dim one in the tiny annexe with the tiny window blocked by leaves,
With a sleepless chiffchaff and the bed
You realise eventually is coffin-shaped.
There will be baked potatoes and a sense of déjà vu,
Lasagne and, perhaps, a sense of déjà vu,
The Director is on leave / is leaving / has left /
Is barricaded in the office with
A shotgun and a box of Mini Cheddars.
It all seems very far away, The Rurals,
Like somewhere you’re not really meant to go,
Not liking smells, or sheep especially, in Wales almost.
Yet after all, what is it? Only a week of your life,
One long week of the short third act,
In which to have fallen with a sense of déjà vu
Among demons and maniacs and bores.
Reading down the the list of names,
You seem to know them all from somewhere –
Flanerie O’Anaconda, Delphine Stain,
Euphemia Bandersnatch, Clive Overbite
And the indomitable Norman Shouty,
And someone who is always not there yet
But on a train / plane /a mission / medication / sectioned.
And all the rest. How many of the bastards are there? They are waiting.
If the slurry served at dinner seems to have a fringe on top
Remember, truth is beauty, beauty truth
And that is all you need to know. So eat your greens.
Enough of this, it’s time, it’s time.
There is a further room prepared, the Déjà Room,
Down a dark path, through a mire, a grimpen, a minefield, a boneyard, Wales, not far,
And there at last you’ll have to talk to them. They’re waiting,
Waiting with their pens, their grudges and their daggers, eagerly.

::

How ghastly to be a writer for hire and have to make your living running writing courses and giving readings and fronting up at festivals. *shudder*. I read somewhere that when O’Brien performed this poem at a book reading it didn’t go down too well with some of the punters. I’ve never been to a writers’ festival and doubt that I ever shall. I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with a few writers whose work I admire, but being part of an audience doesn’t appeal to me. And, as far as I’m concerned, no one can ‘teach’ others to write: it’s either something someone has a talent for, or not. Can you imagine Tolstoy teaching a MFA class, or Woolf doing a Q&A session at a writers’ festival? No, me neither. Writers as celebrities is a whole other post, though.

A Country Road, A Tree

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A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker, Alfred A Knopf, 2016.

Last night, I went to bed at around 10pm and intended to read for 20 minutes before going to sleep. When next I looked at the clock it was 12.30 and my eyes were feeling increasingly gritty and I noticed the dull thud of an impending headache, but I read on. Later, when I read the final line and closed the book with a contented sigh, it was nearly 1.45am. It has been an absolute age since I’ve felt so captivated by a book that I stayed up late reading. Despite being really tired, it felt all kinds of wonderful to have been so engrossed in the world Jo Baker created, and I felt as though she had shot a little dart on a string from her brain to mine, or maybe from her heart to mine.

And so, now I have read two fantastic books in the space of a few weeks, although this one has knocked Margaret the First into second place as far as my best read of the year goes. I would like to encourage everyone to read it, but I doubt that it’s everyone’s cup of tea, seeing as how it’s a re-creation of Samuel Becket’s experiences in France during World War II. I don’t usually get along with most biographical fiction, but Baker has done a stellar job with this book. She sticks to the known facts and, more interestingly, makes use of many of the themes, metaphors, and features of Becketts’s own writing, somehow bringing him to life at the same time as creating a compelling story in a style that feels decidedly Beckettian.

I was a bit hesitant to pick up the book in the first place, after my disappointing experience with Baker’s Longbourn. Oh, I liked the writing, and I liked the idea of re-telling Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, but I could not like how she portrayed Mr and Mrs Bennet, or the backstory she invented for them. I was worried that she had done something similar with Beckett, but as soon as I started reading I realised that I was going to like this book a great deal. I really enjoyed Baker’s imagining of James Joyce: almost blind, dapper, insistent, oblivious, self-centred, carelessly cruel and offhandedly kind. And then there is the push and pull of Beckett’s affection for Joyce and his nostalgia for old times mixed with his bafflement at the distance now grown between them, and his need to slough off Joyce’s influence and to discover his own style of writing.

For those who don’t know, Samuel Beckett (yes, the Beckett who wrote Waiting for Godot), was in England visiting his mother when war was declared, but he would rather be in France during wartime than in Ireland (where his mother was), so he high-tailed it back to his cold garret apartment and his vastly interesting girlfriend, Suzanne. Just before the Germans invaded Paris, Beckett and Suzanne fled, becoming just another two bodies in the vast crush of people trying to escape, but when it became apparent that not a lot had changed in the city, they returned and tried to carry on as usual. However, Beckett soon became involved with the Resistance and did some valuable work for about a year, until the cell to which he belonged was betrayed by a Catholic priest and most of his friends were rounded up by the Gestapo. He and Suzanne managed to escape, and with the help of many brave people made their way, slowly and painfully, on foot, to the Free Zone where they lived under assumed identities. When the Germans invaded there too, the escapees’ lives were once more in danger, but they had nowhere else to go so they stayed put and hoped that no one would betray them. Beckett worked on a farm in exchange for food, and Suzanne gave piano lessons and did what she could to help them survive. It was, of course, a time of great fear and hunger, and boredom, as they waited and waited to see what would happen next. Once again, Beckett got involved with the Resistance and risked his life by going out at night to retrieve munitions dropped by parachute, and helping to hide and cache the weapons for future use against the enemy. The war was declared over before local fighting took place, but he and his comrades were ready to take on the invaders if need be. After the war, Beckett went to Ireland to visit his ailing mother and then returned to France as a Red Cross worker, because that’s the only way he could get back into the country. When his contract ended, he was able to return to Paris and take up residence once more in his cold garret apartment, where he claimed the time and space and solitude that enabled him to write and write and write. Oh, and he was reunited with Suzanne, but by this time they were companions rather than lovers. They stayed together and married in 1961, a few years after Beckett met the other great love of his life, Barbara Bray. It’s all very complicated, really, but it seems that both women were important and necessary to him in different ways and for different reasons.

The lovely thing that came through in this book is Beckett’s innate humanity and decency. He was, by all accounts, a kind and compassionate man, and I think Baker manages to capture his character beautifully. In conjunction with A Country Road, A Tree, I’ve been re-reading parts of Damned to Fame : The Life of Samuel Beckett and Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett : Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him. I seem to have disappeared down the Beckett rabbit hole, so I think I’m going to have to re-read Damned to Fame in its entirety, along with some of Beckett’s fiction, which I haven’t touched for a couple of years now.

Anyway, for fans of Beckett, or those interested in him and his work, A Country Road is sure to prove a most interesting read. I loved it. I didn’t want the book to end and I wish Baker would write the next chapter in his life, but I’m sure she’s feeling rather exhausted after the effort she put into this book. The title, by the way, is taken from the stage directions for the first act of Waiting for Godot [A country Road. A tree. Evening.], and there’s a wonderful Godot-like scene in the novel where Beckett and Suzanne wait under a tree on the side of a road for a guide to appear. He is supposed to turn up and show them the way to a safe place where they can rest until it’s time to cross into the Free Zone, but he doesn’t arrive and they wait and wait, and talk about nothing. Sound familiar? Also, unsurprisingly, there are a great many mentions of boots in the novel. 🙂

Burnt Bridges

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I’m an inveterate (metaphorical) bridge burner in real life. I’ve destroyed most of my internet friendships over the years, too, by suddenly deleting my accounts and disappearing. I used to have quite a few internet friends, but only a few have stuck with me through the ups and downs of my Crazy Brain misadventures.

Sometimes I feel a little sad because I’ve taken myself out of the loop once too often and lost the friendship of some really lovely people. But, life goes on. I keep on plodding in no particular direction, one foot, then the other foot, and somehow that eventually turns into a journey, of sorts.

I guess I just want to say thank-you to the people who have stuck with me, who understand that when I disappear it’s because that’s what I need to do at the time. Sometimes I need to concentrate all my attention on just putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s all I have the ability to do.

You know who you are. Thanks for being there.

Violet xxx