Sunday, November 27, 2005

Intellectual Phalloplasty

It must be coming up on Xmas, holiday season of self-betterment and self-love, because look,here's the Guardian Best Books of 2005 list. Lots of clever famous writers describing how their stockings will be filled with 4-volume histories of medieval Europe and books on Iraq.
Mmm-hmm. I too delight in poring over endnotes once the turkey has been digested (mainly because the soporific haze they induce aids digestion) but I find this list appalling. For two reasons. Firstly, I'll admit it, I think I could do it better - either as the compiler or one of the selected interviewees (although I'd probably be just as shameless about promoting my friends, but less shameless about name-checking other people on the list) and secondly, because, quite frankly, this is closed-minded intellectual poseury crap. Only Joolz Denby offers an honest picture of her reading that sounds sexy. Everyone else is busy showing off -- reading Orhan Pamuk in the original (and denying they're reading him just because he's in prison -- yeah right, I saw you at all those PEN meetings) or reviving obscure authors.
The snobisme is most apparent in the lack of non-English titles that pervades, and in the genre limitations that float unsubtly around the list like red-pen-wielding Dementors. Even Philip Pullman, the one children's author invited to speak from his ever more pulpity pulpit, has been reading "serious" adult fiction (he's not the one who notes that Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is, in its inclusion of a medium, at least on the borders of genre fiction). Biography, history, current events, weighty tomes of grown-up writing (mainly historical fiction, satire or heterosexual romance), a few Euro-bigwigs (mention the War! mention the War!), short stories, mainstream poetry… Not a single book on the list that I want to read.
Or make that, not a single writer who persuaded me that I might want to read something. And I read this in the spirit of good cheer and capitalist expenditure that the holiday season is supposed to induce. My aim in the dark days of the year is to die of a surfeit of words, but they have to be good ones. Compelling, inventive, fiery, demanding, excoriating, alive. But the sense I get from this is that books are the new Ferrari, the metrosexual penis extension that you leave casually on the coffee table so that your impressionable young date will remark, "My goodness! You read all three biographies of Shakespeare published this year. How swoony," as you seduce her/him with little-known facts about the Bard that you actually gleaned from Germaine Greer's rant on the Late Review.
Here's the thing: I write book blurbs for publishers and for the TWB website. Do you know how much of the book you have to read to whip up a 150 word souffle about its wonders? None. The back, the table of contents, a paragraph in the middle, maybe the colophon if it has an interesting typeface. If you read reviews (which I do), you can sound erudite on 15 minutes' reading a day (and spend the rest of the time reading comix). So why not be up front about it? Why pretend that a biography of Anthony Burgess excited you more than, say, the last book you read with your kids? Or that PD James paperback you grabbed for the train ride home? Or that celebrity tell-all tawdry ghostwritten biography you couldn't put down (in case anyone saw that you were reading it)?
It's obvious that these lists are an exercise in dumbing down to anyone who reads more than 3 books a year (the best? I can't really remember the last). So why try to disguise that with a huge codpiece made of hardbacks? Undoubtedly, they won't see fit to publish my challenge to their innovation (and children's book-free) list of dullard dullness (mm, yes, I'd love to spend Xmas mornind reading about child soldiers and the invention of fish paste). So I'm posting it here, with the caveat that I'd add Abigail Child's This Is Called Moving (but worry about sounding pretentious, because it's kind of film theory) and the new Kabuki series, The Alchemy (but it hasn't been collected as a trade yet). #1 stocking hope in the book department? Astonishing X-Men: Gifted 2 (now that I have the Serenity book, gotta get me some Joss). #1 book you should put in someone else's stocking this Xmas? The Outlaw Varjak Paw (especially for a snowy Xmas, as the snow scenes are brilliant -- and very real ;)

So yeah, don't watch out for this in the Guardian…
Astonished to see that Guardian Books preserves the division between adult and "young adult" fiction. Nothing in the so-called former has struck me as much as Meg Rosoff's Orange-deprived How We Live Now, a beacon of immediacy and honesty about war (and love) and Geraldine McCaughrean's harrowing and beautiful The White Darkness. Two sequels -- Alison Croggon's The Riddle and S.F. Said's The Outlaw Varjak Paw -- reminded me of the delight and power of ongoing narratives and maturing characters. Writing for young people demands elegance and precision of phrase, which these authors have in abundance. Salt's Earthworks series, publishing emerging and distinguished voices in Native American poetry, is a fantastic, essential endeavour. Each book is differently rousing and compelling; Qwo-Li Driskill's Walking with Ghosts stands out for its combination of in-your-face protest politics and tender, sensual language.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Khivan music & Mesopotamian cats

When I first started reading One Hundred Thousand Fools of God it seemed entirely possibly that I might get to visit Uzbekistan or Tajikistan and hear some of the music that Theodore Levin writes about for myself. In particular, I wanted to visit Khiva -- and I've been reading everything Central Asian that I can get my hands on to learn more about the swirling mixture of cultures, languages, stories and styles that pattern the area known as "the Silk Road". Seems unlikely in the current political climate that I'll be holidaying in Tashkent any time soon. Perhaps that's why it's taken me so long to read the book? Nearly a year now… It has sticky notes on several pages, marking I don't know what - I just have a vague impression of mountains and lots of vodka drinking, as well as several pages of musicology that I just skipped over. It did lead me to the incredible Sevara Nazarkan, one of the most alarming and beautiful wake-up CDs I own. But man, it's slow going. I pride myself on being able to toss off a new Judith Butler book in a couple hours (as I'll have to tomorrow, writing up her latest opus for the Women's Bookstore monthly new books list.
Haha! Into which I will sneak in a review of The Outlaw Varjak Paw -- second only to the release of "Serenity" for excitement in my world this autumn! Cats, martial arts, Gothic urban landscapes, bravery, power struggles, creepy towers, juicy fish and some very loyal dogs… this book has it all. Except for throat singers. Perhaps in the next one?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

light in the darkness

It comes as a bit of a shock that it's been two months since I posted here… That's what finishing a Ph.D. while selling coursebooks to thousands of students will do to yer desire to read, write and converse with human beings, even invisible ones. But now I've been released -- or put out to pasture. Never again do I have to read Judith Butler! I can just pretend to. Begone scholarly journals. Pah.
So what does a doctor read for fun? Well, my strongest temptation at the moment is to assemble a big pile of Geraldine McCaughrean books, having just been dazzled by her latest, Antarctic adventure The White Darkness from the vantage point of a warm comfy sofa in Reykjavik (not the one in splendid record store 12 tonar or the cafe in Sufistinn, probably Europe's only Sufi-inspired coffee shop [in the Mal og Menning bookstore]).
But calling The White Darkness an adventure novel is like calling Reykjavik a smallish European city. It's true, but it doesn't get to the detail, the splendour of language and character that marks it out from other children's fiction. I have a very vivid memory of reading A Little Lower than Angels (one of her first books) when I was six or seven. We used to have a Book Club in school, like the Book of the Month club or QSP. I think it was called the Red House. It was one of my favourite things about school: getting the flimsy leaflets with bright pictures of book covers and tantalising hints of the stories hidden within. Then there was the agonising process of checkmarks (how much pocket money do I have? Lavish picture book or cheaper story book? Favourite author or untried newbie?) and the loooooooooong, endless wait for the packages to arrive. Names were called out and then the reading could begin. Anyway, A Little Lower Than Angels was one of those books. I can picture the fey, wispy watercolour cover and hear the beginning of the story (in a medieval market town) in my head. As I can't remember the names of most of my primary school teachers, that's quite a feat. Books are probably my most vivid memories of childhood -- the order of spines on my bookshelves, the texture of different papers and covers (leatherbound classics with shiny paper, paperbacks with grainy beige paper and large lettering like Little Lower, picture books that were landscape rather than portrait). And the frisson of opening a new book -- where will I go this time? How far away will I get? With whom? What next? No wonder children love serial books -- the idea that the world you have visited isn't over, that you can meet the characters again, not be forced back into the real world.
Not much has changed ;) Except now I can buy whatever books I want, and the New York Times books section has replaced the Red House (Brick House?) leaflet. I still use the local library system (which includes the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books for an afternoon of truly atavistic pleasure) and when I'm sad or sick, my first instinct is to hunt out a book that reminds me of being a pre-teen, snuggled up in bed with soup and a fever, reading fantastic adventures. And I still love serials. My great treat in the lacuna between this posting and the previous one was to re-read the entire Strangers in Paradise series. Talk about living with characters! Comics offer an even more intense pleasure than the longest series of books (say, Oz). Month in, month out (or every six weeks in the case of Terry Moore's now so-familiar Strangers). Growing, changing, flipping back and forth in time, telling stories in different art forms, from different perspectives. The comic serial seems to free writers up where the book serial bogs them down (challenge that one, posters!).
So delirium's bookshelf of the old-new, the forgotten and the found beckons. But the memories of childhood pleasures beckon even stronger, a desire to re-read, relive, perhaps change. To read with the intensity, the ferocity of a child. In fact, some of the best conversations I have about books are with my friend Helen, who will be 9 next month. She has an eye for detail and a sense of ethical behaviour that make her the reader I think of when I write. It's fascinating to imagine how she will look back on the books that she reads voraciously -- books I've given her, books she's shared with me -- when she's older. What will it be like, I wonder, to re-read His Dark Materials as a teenager, having read it when you were 7?
Which reminds me that I should be sending her a copy of The White Darkness for her birthday, so we can talk about it the next time we meet -- surely the reader's second greatest pleasure…

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Someone somewhere (probably the Guardian) was complaining about the lack of high-quality historical fiction for children these days... Leaving aside the narrowness of a definition that wouldn't include The Golden Compass as historical fiction (after a fashion), it made me reflect on my own childhood love of books about 'real' events and people by authors such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geraldine MacCaughren, whose A Little Lower Than Angels is one of my favourite books (and still in my library, twenty years on). I was a fanatical collector of a kids' magazine called Discovery: each issue covered a different historical period, and included a tape with 'as if you were there' eyewitness accounts of events and places, and some sort of project (I remember building a cardboard astrolabe and developing a code based on Mary Queen of Scots' secret communications). History was rich and fascinating -- if frustrating. I was never one to quest for a single truth, but I did want more than kings and queens. And more than anything, I think I wanted place.
Growing up in London inevitably had a lot to do with that. But London is such a palimpsest of eras - yes, there's the thrill of walking the old East End after reading an Iain Sinclair novel, or the immense excitement of the first season at the Globe - that you need to get out of the city to see landscapes as they were, rather than as they are. Most of my memories of place are bookish: Dartmoor seen shortly after reading Lorna Doone and Hound of the Baskervilles, for example. And, after a phase of reading Arthurian novels, Tintagel and Hengistbury Head. Sea, stone, sheep droppings: these are the smells and sights of historical fiction.
So it was almost uncannily tempting to see a review of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, a new historical novel of the (sort of) feminist revisionist variety, set in the French Pyrenees, the Langue D'Oc, where I spent one of my favourite ever summer holidays, reading Montaillou and looking for signs of Cathars. Heretics appeal to me: fiery beliefs (including sexual equality) and fiery ends. The use of Cathar hideouts by French and Spanish Resistance fighters struck a resonant note as well, of the landscape repeating its stories, offering protection as a covenant. I stayed with my friend Mark and his family in Barrere, near Carcassone, where his dad had bought a house to paint in. There was a lot of drinking of cheap wine (pumped, like gas, into big canisters at roadside stations), lying round people's swimming pools, making food, eating, making food, monitoring the septic tank, observing the mountains and cheering on the French football team in the world cup. And, of course, reading. I can remember fairly precisely what I read on that trip: Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter (part of my secret addiction to CanLit); Robert Drewe's The Drowner; Montaillou; a Gillian Tindall book about France... Place stains the pages.
Mosse's descriptions of landscape and its stains of blood, violence and religion are powerful, calling up a medieval world that is still absolutely present in Carcassonne and environs. I found myself skipping the banal and tortuous details of the plot (Grail blah blah, handsome American blah blah, people getting beaten up rather repetitively blah blah) to take the adrenalin hit of being there, feeling the heat of the plains and the cool shadow of the mountains. Perhaps it would be better to call it geographical fiction? Mosse's liberal sprinkling of Langue D'Oc phrases from a phrase book inscribes place rather than time (although it is, of course, always useful - should one find oneself in Toulouse - to be able to ask "Where is your siege engine?").
Historical discourse is a tricky one: Elizabeth Kostova fails the test badly in her otherwise competent novel The Historian, which loses me on the place associations (never been to Cold War Hungary) but is a cracking, well-plotted thriller with a fascinating historical sweep (and absolutely nothing to do with the Grail). But an epistolary novel from multiple perspectives demands a writer who is brilliant at voice -- differentiating one from the other, and periodising as well. She oscillates between stilted and anachronistic at moments, and it's very obvious that the details of the novel were obtained by the author - as by the characters - from books. It's the kind of thing that my supervisor, Linda Hutcheon, would call "historiographic metafiction" if it were being done with irony and verve, rather than a strange combination of being an earnest MFA student and wanting to be the next Dan Brown.
Harrumph. I was really quite absorbed by The Historian, although its main effect was to make me want to reread Dracula, which is its source text in many ways (or should I say, read and finish Dracula, which I've never managed, although I can see Bela Lugosi on the cover of the Oxford World Classics edition as if it were here with me and not in London). And, despite my impatience with Mosse's prose, I enjoyed her feisty female characters and their sensual appreciation of the world, especially Alaïs, her medieval heroine. Some claim that it's anachronistic to write contemporary politics back into historical situations (Mosse has religious tolerance, sex out of wedlock, cross-dressing, and strong women) but I think that's unfair to historical situations. Just because the narratives of the victors have always read so smoothly ("And lo, the white man triumphed and everyone else was rubbish") and monotonously doesn't mean that those accounts have to be accepted. As more and more documents emerge from archives, and more people listen carefully to oral texts such as songs and stories, it seems likely that, while it may be anachronistic to talk of women's liberation or feminism in previous periods, it's stupid to imagine that 53% of the population have spent all the time since the end of matriarchy twiddling their thumbs at home and dying in childbirth.
Susan Carroll's The Dark Queen takes exactly this perspective. Expectations for women in Renaissance France are constricting, and both biological and social risks attend their every move, but within any society - given money and/or power, it has to be said - women have educated themselves as healers, thinkers, artists, advisers, and self-managers. In Western Europe that often lead to them being labelled "witches," a term that is in its - what - fifth age of reclamation? ("It could be witches! Some evil witches! Which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecuted, Wicca good and love the earth and woman power and I'll be over here," as Xander puts it so eloquently in "Once More with Feeling.") Carroll, in a twist on the revisionist history model, suggests that a number of powerful women were actually witches (some evil, some Wicca good and love the earth) and that their magical battles shaped historical events such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (rendered in loving detail in La Reine Margot, if you need visuals).
While Mosse's novel is a pseudo-feminist Dan Brown (complete with real locations for tourists to go overrun), Carroll's - which is less likely to be reviewed in the Guardian because it's shelved as historical romance (ie: trash) - doesn't bother with that whole flashy double time sequence, linear detective car chase thing. Mosse is going for a labyrinth structure, I'm pretty sure, but comes up straight as an arrow. Carroll is more leisurely at twisting the screw, without the obvious dream sequences that are so clunky in Mosse. I'm in danger of sounding all Helene Cixous here (women's fiction should be circular and soft, like cotton puffs, because men's is all pointy and fast and in love with bullet time) but I prefer the Ursula K. Le Guin take: the handbag theory of fiction (in Dancing on the Edge of the World). Carroll wears her learning lightly - no quoting Langue D'Oc here - and couldn't give a crap about religion. A fair few bodices get ripped (isn't that one of the temptations of historical fiction? the bodices and ripping thereof?) and all women are beautiful and queenly with long hair.
So what exactly is my argument here? I enjoyed Mosse's book because it brought back to me one perfect summer and the complex fabric of place, making me yearn to revisit not just the landscape but a particular time. Kostova's mammoth tome kept me awake at night, and made libraries seem scary and exciting again (I'm a sucker for any text in which research is a glamorous pursuit -- one of the charms of Buffy, no doubt). The Dark Queen was a cracking read - an airport purchase, the least redolent of 'real' bookishness (not even bought from a real bookstore, just a newsstand in the hell that is Pearson airport), and nowhere near as fat or wordy or decidedly pleased with its own cleverness as the other two (Mosse offers a reading list!). All three prove something indubitable: historical fiction is a genre where women writers excel (Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe, the author of the Arthurian books). It's time Dan Brown got booted off his perch & we anointed the queens in his stead.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Roma UnDaunted

A week of reading and not reading Garth Cartwright's Princes Among Men: Journeys with Gypsies, which I picked up at the fantabulous Daunt Books travel bookstore in London earlier this year, while looking for something completely different (Lela Aboulela's Minaret [OK] and Kathleen Jamie's Findings [superlative], if memory serves). Very few works of non-fiction have ever come close for me to Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, and Cartwright's is not one of them. Both Fonseca and Cartwright shift from the position of objective reportage to involved, and even implicated, travel writer - but as their titles indicate, Fonseca does this in order to tell the stories of Roma across the Balkans, Cartwright (in the end) to tell his own story of obsession with Roma music. It's like High Fidelity with six pages on O Porrajmos (The Devouring, the Roma phrase used to describe the Holocaust). Or (given the frenetic nature of the prose) On the Road with naïve attempts at political contextualisation.
Cartwright's enthusiasm for the music is infectious - already leading to record store scouring for rare Balkan imports and eighties world music compilations - but also pretty one-note for a book supposedly concerned with some of the wildest, most diverse and accomplished music in the world, given its incorporation of Indian, Turkish, Balkan, Hungarian, Jewish, Chinese, and other musical traditions. Cartwright's prose, littered with catchy hooks from Western pop music and colloquial expressions (the equivalent of a Beat writer ending every sentence in a poem "dig, man?"), is designed to suggest the oral culture that has remained strong amongst the Roma, even as they are settled and (sometimes) schooled by various European governments - but it has the deadly side-effect of being unbelievably patronising, translating the Roma's rich languages, slangs and stories into British street slang and the commercialised platitudes of MTV. Not so hip, dude.
When the voices of the singers are allowed to come through, the book grabs, embodying the spirit of Daunt: books are travel, but also the prompt to and preparation for travel. As a prompt, it's rather Hunter S. Thompson -- all rakiya blindness, scary driving and stompy nationalists. Gonzo travel has been pretty much overwritten by wacky Brit Nick Middleton, whose endlessly exhausting ability to turn even a trip to the shops for some fags into an obstacle course raises the boy-travel challenge to new levels. Of course, politics and cultures become little more than scenery to such high-altitude writing: the white man's survival of the conditions that their hosts live in day by day becomes the narrative that supposedly hooks us in. Daunt bristles with these tall tales of derring-do (dating back to Polo, M. , I suppose). Travel as extreme sport. On the other side is travel as landscape painting, which evacuates everything that's not picturesque - or sees even poverty as just darling if it adds local colour. Dervla Murphy, the phenomenal travel writer who took her daughter, as a toddler, around Central Asia, said something very profound about men travelling for TRAVEL - speed, danger, a new place every day, very linear and agenda-driven - while women travel to stop - to sit down and talk with the locals, to see where each conversation will take them, what they can learn, what they can share. It's a huge generalisation - certainly Freya Stark's The Minaret at Djam is an example of a woman travelling on a mission -- although she stops frequently to smell, and pick, the flowers. Like any generalisations, it offers food for thought. Cartwright gives the sense that he is travelling in a haphazard, gypsy-like manner, criss-crossing the Balkans as if following the musicians - but he's not. He's a writer with a deadline and a preconceived narrative: he wants people to show up on time and say useful stuff. He wants countries to be sketchable in a single sentence, wringing cheap yuks from a running gag about the awfulness of Communist architecture. His attempts to encapsulate the flavour of each country (and it usually involves those staples of the travel narrative: food and architecture) instead blurs them together, partially because in each country he has a single purpose: manically chase Gypsy music.
Given that Daunt is arranged by country (pretty unique), I wonder where they would shelve it? Gypsy music rarely has a section of its own in world music stores, tending to be included under the country of the singer's origin, or thrown in with Eastern Europe, or even World Fusion (if you're the Gypsy Kings). This is an issue. It suggests that all Roma are assimilated, ignoring the forced settlement and assimilation policies of many countries that effectively destroyed the Roma's nomadic way of life, which was none too concerned with national borders, wherever they happened to be at the time. The fierce nationalisms of Eastern Europe, with their blood and earth mentality, have traditionally found the Gypsies and the Jews at the bottom of the heap. Cartwright's book alludes to this 'clash' between nomads and nationalists, but is resolute in his categorisation: there is Serbian gypsy music, Macedonian gypsy music, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc. (Spain and Turkey don't make the cut).
So this is really a book about the Balkans, its very title a lie: Cartwright journeys, but the Roma that he talks to don't. Or rather, he doesn't journey with them. He has his own agenda to pursue (something about pursuing a Czech girl, yawn), his own rather CNN-ized gonzo history to write through the blaze of yet another dull hangover. All the Roma artists that he interviews talk about travelling: to India, to the US, all over Europe, their music opening doors and earning money. Cartwright gives the sense that he finds all this travel less than pure, a pandering to the West's idea of the romantic musical Gypsy embodied in the current popularity of flamenco. But the Roma, as a nomadic people, have always been accumulators, synthesisers, taking the music of the places that they travelled through and interweaving it to make something unique, playing back to each new listener sounds that he or she might recognise made different. Like jazz, it's a music of call and response, of improvisation, of going with the flow. The musicians interviewed all talk about their delight in borrowing, stealing, remaking, reinventing, collaborating, seeing where the music takes them. It's a shame that Cartwright couldn't put aside his sheet music and follow their lead.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Barbie Got a Gun & Other Feminist Fun

So, once I've stopped laughing, my question is how exactly is this helping? Yeah, it's pretty funny & it reminds me of Simon Abkarian's speech in Yes about the movie on the bus of the blonde American gunning down Arabs with a smile - but, hmmm, as much as I enjoy kooky/kinky Barbie stuff (hangover from childhood Barbie obsession - I was never allowed a Ken doll, wonder if that's why I'm queer?) this picture bums me out.
Possibly because I'm immersed in Tori-world. It's taken me three months to finish Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, not because it's dull or difficult, but because it's so full of wisdom and fascination, I kinda didn't want to finish it. It's also my last tenuous link with being on holiday in Berlin, where I read a chunk of it before seeing Tori's show at the Tempodrom. If I squint my nose, the book smells of linden blossoms and the air before a storm. I like to leave a bit of a holiday book unread so I can slip back into holidayness when I'm back in the grind.
Did the same with a fantastic manga by Kan Takahashi, called Kinderbook. Not your kid sister's manga. I had no idea that there were Japanese comics that weren't all wide-eyed young women showing their panties (hey! i don't draw 'em, i just see 'em - don't blame me for the stereotype). that childish sexuality thing disgusts me (as, for example, when i came across a hello kitty vibrator on eBay). which is why Tori seems so important to me right now - not only is she singing out loud (and writing) about a very powerful form of feminism that is neither a post-feminism of lipstick choices and glass ceilings or an earth mother braless drum circle feminism (these are both cool, just not my cup of herbal tea), but at 41 she's arguing that all those teenyboppers selling shoes by dancing around in their scanties -- it's just wrong.
i am all for healthy expressions of child sexuality. but jessica simpson ain't it. Harmful to Minors is one of the best books I have read in the last five years, an absolutely searing condemnation of the way in which the US government treats children as 'innocent' and highly sexual at the same time, depriving them of lucid and humane education while allowing them to be objectified in the pursuit of big business. Barbie the Bomber isn't just the witty reversal of social norms (bombers are expected to be male and of colour; barbie is expected to be polite and non-political) and a statement about ending barbie's reign of body-image terror, it's also a comment on the dangerous sexualisation of the toybox.
And yet it's still kinda icky? What exactly do I want? More books like Piece by Piece, which offer guidance that's both pragmatic and metaphysical, that's funny and doesn't hesitate to be serious, to talk about bodily fluids and business deals in the same sentence. And... I want it to storm, because right now the pressure is killing me.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reading in the Shade

More a question than a blog (drum roll for the chain of references please...): I'm reading Neil Jordan's Shade, having started to read my mum's copy a while back, and it's making me nostalgic for a whole case of books (as I suppose the plural noun must be) I read about the same time as his earlier Sunrise with Sea Monsters, such as Colm Toíbin's The South, which I just saw on a top ten somewhere (much of a blogger I am...) and an Anne Tyler book about a woman who leaves her family that has, early on, a sentence to the effect that "she was a woman who knew how to eat alone at a restaurant, without a book" (something I'm well nigh incapable of) -- but then that memory, as well as making me wonder if anyone out there knows the name of the Tyler book I'm thinking of (could be Ladder of Years or A Slipping Down Life), sets me off on two streams of consciousness: the first, about reading in restaurants, cafés, bus shelters, and the way in which books become indelibly associated with the place in which they are read (most of The Aeneid in a park in Bath, resulting in uneven but quite severe sunburn; bell hook's all about love on the Dundas West via King streetcar, in a summery blur; HP 2 through 4 on my friend Malve's sofa in her beautiful house, the house of perfection that I will always long for, where I also read...) anyway, stream of consciousness 2, somehow intertwined with 1: Anne Tyler makes me think about realist writers writing across gender, because of an article Sebastian Faulks wrote about one of her more recent books, commenting on a male character who stops to comment, internally, on the fabric of the bra worn by the woman he is seducing - this is relevant to Jordan, who switches between male and female characters living in the same era as those in Faulks' best known novel, Birdsong... and this stream meanders into the thought that I rarely read this kind of serious, adult, largely realist (Shade is narrated by a ghost) fiction any more - I'm bored by the thought of tackling nine out of ten novels that get reviewed. But I can't bring myself to give away those shelves & shelves of such fiction. There's still the odd writer who could get me to read anything from a post-it note upwards: A.L. Kennedy, Angela Carter (who wrote the screenplay of Company of Wolves, directed by Jordan), Elizabeth Bowen (still have a couple of her novels that I found at a book sale waiting for the right time), David Mitchell - but then, none of them are realists, are they?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Losing It

I've spent the day pleasantly adrift from all that should have been anchoring me (thesis work, horrible heat, the need for food) in the company of Rebecca Solnit's new book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. What, you cry, another new book? What happened to the plan? Don't you read your own blog? Well, it's a funny story that mirrors both the idea of the blog and the subject of the book. Some time ago, I decided that I wasn't going to buy Hope in the Dark before the store returned it, but did a websearch on Rebecca Solnit because I remembered my friend Leo mentioning her to me. I came across some reference to her forthcoming book on getting lost, and ordered it from the store - then forgot about it. While hanging out of a weekend morning in the UK, I read a review, which I now can't find on the Guardian website (it's not like my media consumption is very broad). Then, magically, the book appeared with my name on it. For those of you for whom Solnit isn't even a vague memory, you could check out litblog Conversational Reading for a better guide than I can give you. But she's one of those authors that you switch onto when you need her, a lucky find, a samizdat secret. I'm full of envy because she writes without teaching - it would be unfair to call her books academic, but they contain both research and theory, as well as personal narrative and meditation. It's hard to sum up FGtGL, partially because the experience of reading it is about allowing your mind to meander, to notice what strike you as a reader. My course through the book will be utterly different to a reader with a different set of life experiences and interests. Like Benjamin, Solnit is a wanderer rather than a guide, and so ends up being a better guide because she doesn't claim to know the way. It's also a beautiful book to hold, at least in the US edition - it feels lovingly designed (although in occasional need of a copy editor), and is MUCH smaller than HP6, so perfect for reading while you go about getting lost.

Monday, July 18, 2005

There's a hundred million HP6 reviews out there by now, and I never really planned to contribute to them, although it was fascinating to hear just how global a phenomenon the books have become, putting literature firmly in the 'entertainment industry' in terms of revenue, reach, celebrity, and media coverage. This site is supposed to be dedicated to the lost and the obscure - but also to the delirious madness of reading, and Pottermania counts. Especially if - like me - you work in a bookstore. A bookstore that decided to have its annual Customer Appreciation bbq (yes, we really rock) on the day that HP6 launched. Harry Potter even graced us with his presence. There was a short reading (not by Harry Potter, but by emerging local fantasy author Daniel Justice). And there were the customers, all with their own Potter stories, Potter tics, Potter plans. Me? I reckoned I'd wait until a sick day in November, and then lie in bed and read the whole thing over some boiled eggs or soup. The books are like comfort food to me - heavy, not bad for you but maybe not so great, familiar, and satisfying without ever being incredibly delicious. I think Rowling has an amazing fund of inventiveness when it comes to detail (names, magic gags, buildings, character quirks - like Mr. Weazley's fascination with all things Muggle) but she sweats the big stuff (prose style, character development, narrative clarity). Not everyone has to be Henry James - although fantasy shares James' preoccupation with the minutiae of what characters eat and what the furniture looks like. World-building. All good. After selling so many of the damn bricks, I got caught up in the fever (also, I'd been working for nine hours and it was very hot, so I may have had heatstroke), and decided to buy it and read straight through. Five hours later I was wearier, warmer, and slightly teary from a well-managed climax (hardly an ending) that had the Chinese food effect: satisfied but hungry for more.
Except there's something very weird in the magic world on the other side of The Leaky Cauldron. Many reviewers have noted that HP6 'develops' its now-adolescent characters by having them engage in snogging. Fair enough, it's a main constituent of being a teenager (along with drinking weird potions, obviously), but Rowling's descriptions of both the physical and emotional relationship between Ron and (look away, spoiler) Lavender - as well as between Ron's older brother Bill and Fleur Delacour - are full of queasy images of disgust and violence. Harry's desire for (look away) Ginny is figured as a monster that lives in his chest - which makes his feelings less, rather than more, convincing. I think back to the faraway days of HP5, in which Harry stared moodily into fireplaces and tossed and turned in his sleep waiting for a message from Sirius... who always seemed to be on the verge of telling Harry something, every time they were together, and then - someone else would burst in.
The passion of Harry's feelings for Sirius was unmistakable (to me, anyhow), and fitted in with the curious evolving backstory about Harry's father and his gang of male chums, who liked to turn into animals and sneak off for all-night carousing. One of them, Remus Lupin, becomes a teacher at Hogwarts and... disappears every so often, returning with the signs of a hell-raising night out all over his face. As played by David Thewlis in the tremendous film version of HP3, Lupin is Harry's first grown-up friend, someone who understands Harry's isolation, the special challenges he faces. At the same time, in the film, romance is burgeoning between Ron and Hermione. And then - after an unfortunate night in a house of ill-repute - Lupin's cover is blown, parents are horrified, threats are made. It's a resonant conclusion for anyone who knows schools, and the precarious position of teachers who have to juggle a private life with a medley of restrictions such as... oh, say, don't be gay. Mrs. Thatcher's fear of queers legislation, Section 28, which banned any teaching that addressed homosexuality, lies behind Rowling's gentle werewolf and his fate, to my mind.
And then there's the rest of the Order of the Phoenix - Tonks, in particular. Now, not every tomboy who doesn't want to be called Nymphomaniac and dyes her hair pink and does magic kung-fu is a dyke. Not even every tomboy etc. who names herself after a toy truck. But what the hell is one to make of Tonks' sudden confession of love for Lupin in HP6? (Ooops, spoiler). It has to be the least convincing note in a book that has its share of unconvincing hetero muzak, such as all the girls at Hogwarts suddenly becoming silly gigglers who make eyes at Harry (except Luna, who is mad, and Hermione, who keeps giving him meaningful looks about something). The only sensible XX in the whole thing is Professor McGonagall (the lovely dykey flying teacher appears to have left to set up a coven in Cornwall or something). And she's called Minerva.
So I'm peeved - perhaps unfairly - at the boy-on-girl action that pervades HP6. It's not like it wasn't obviously going to happen. It's just that... a girl can hope. Harry's relationship with Sirius was the best-drawn of the series (as far as his relationship with adults goes), and Hermione suggests that Rowling doesn't think that all girls are eyelash-fluttering spazzes. As for my theory about Voldemort's Dark Side being the sort of loveless self-hating queerness that straight people attribute to serial killers in 1950s movies, while Lupin and Sirius represent a more integrated homosociality (that has brushed the Dark Side)... I think that's waiting for someone else's Ph.D. thesis.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

the beginning of the beginning of the beginning (or, sometimes the way forward is also the way back)

My friend SF emails to tell me that this blog is clearly inspired by his invention of the "degree of urgency" bookpile, which takes up a large section of his office floor, and is inhabited by many books that I've recommended to him. I remind him that he lifted the phrase from a review written by a mutual acquaintance, Gareth Evans, the editor of outstanding film magazine Vertigo. And that I knew Gareth before he did. In one of those curious 'the British arts scene is so small and yet so sprawling' incidents of reconnection, SF met Gareth many years after I encountered him (and subsequently lost touch), when he came to my first ever book-addict job, at Joseph's Bookstore on the border between the ghetto of Jewish North West London and the real world. Gareth thought Joseph's should sell his arts magazine Entropy, I thought Entropy should publish my poetry. Kismet, as they say. So Gareth is awarded the 'beginning of the beginning' certificate (with gold star) for setting the ball rolling nearly ten years ago...
The terrible, wonderful habit of book-collecting with a vengeance began during my tenure at Joseph's, particularly influenced by one customer, the Box Man, author Moris Farhi - you can read his review of the store by scrolling through this excellently-time-wasting directory of reviews of independent bookstores in London. Moris was, at the time, president of PEN UK and thus in touch with writers and journalists around the world. He would come in with long lists of new books, culled from literary magazine and other, more obscure processes of osmosis, and we would set aside a box. Over the next weeks, and sometimes months, Moris's books would arrive - some from publishers so small or countries so previously unpublished that we would turn them over in our hands as if they could not be real. Once, when Moris came in to trade a box for a new list (and, you know, some cash), I asked him how he found time to read all these books, as well as working as a writer and activist. He smiling knowingly and wisely under his knowing, wise beard, and said that of course he didn't find the time. He read some, and others assembled on a shelf in case... and he shrugged.
In case of what? I wondered. A time when there were no more books? A time when he couldn't leave the house? And, as I've grown older, I see that both of those things are possible, and that many writers in exile have experienced versions of one or the other. There's so many stories of writing, prison, torture, and punishment - Nadezha Mandelstam learning her husband's poems by heart so they would survive, Antonio Gramsci writing his devastating indictment of fascism while imprisoned by Mussolini, actress Mary Robinson starting to write poetry and novels in debtors' prison where she had been sent after her husband's bankruptcy - are three that spring to mind. Reading and writing can be taken away in an instant, by politics or disaster or ill-health. When I had severe tendinitis last year, I had to consider very seriously that I might never write a poem (or column or article or blog) again, or at least one without pain.
I survived - thanks to technology, patience, friends' love, and spending an entire day in bed reading Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix thinking 'Fuck, I could write this book in my sleep!' - and got back on the thesis treadmill, and book accumulation continued apace. Oh, the piles of theory books whose first chapters I've read! Oh, the matching piles of graphic novels from The Beguiling that I've read twice so I can avoid the theory books! But there's theory, and then there's 'theory', the stuff that loosely gets grouped with it because it's essayish and concerned with important stuff. I don't mean Foucault and the other inhabitants of the Ikea 'complete-with-books' bookshelf that occupies many of the living rooms I visit. I mean the Essay. Whether it's Montaigne or Marina Warner, there's the sense of a mind ranging over ideas, rather than coming to conclusions; delighting in the play of words, rather than using them for obfuscation. Essays were the big discovery of my Joseph's Bookstore year. I was introduced to works by the philosopher E.M. Cioran, by American writer Dorothy Allison, by travel writer Jan Morris, and - perhaps most lastingly - by the indescribable Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin then got 'taught' during undergrad, and I read the essays that I had to, dutifully, quelling any sign of passion other than for ripping work apart and finding something useful in the stuffing. But the one essay that I never read was the one that - according to psychic poster WipednWired - is the one that really is the beginning of the beginning of this blog. You can download a PDF of it here. It's called "Unpacking my Library," and it's the first essay in the collection Illuminations, which has been superceded by the super-Benjamin complete works appearing volume by volume. But Illuminations is all about collection, not completion - especially the first essay, in which Benjamin describes his library.
A collector, he sayys, has "a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate." Wow (and I wonder how he ever considered himself a Marxist). Books are not only the scene and stage of the narratives that they contain, but of the narratives that surround them. Bibliophilia is centrally concerned not with objects, but with stories (and Benjamin has another essay in the volume called "The Storyteller"). This is why I've become increasingly drawn to buying travel books in one place, about a second place, and reading them as I travel in a third. Not only does it help me see transnational correspondences and differences, and to travel respectfully and with awareness, but it also adds to the storied nature of the books. Books about books that travel would be the ultimate example of this - like Barbara Hodson's The Sensualist, about tracking down the lost book plates of a famous work of anatomy. There's also reading books about places that you know that see them differently, or that invoke nostalgia - William Gibson's Pattern Recognition did this for me with London. I'd been in the restaurant that Cayce eats in in the first chapter the previous night, and - as I read the book on the plane back to Toronto - I had instant nostalgia for something that still existed but, because it was in a book, felt even further away in time and space.
Benjamin ends his essay with a list of places and people recalled by his methodical unpacking, finally returning him to his childhood bedroom and its one or two shelves (it's interesting that one of his largest collections was of rare children's books). He attributes the passion of collecting to children, who like to order and name their worlds, and to make something new out of what they find (Benjamin the Womble???), and imagines the impulse collector as "little genii" inside him, like a less tacky version of an inner child. At the end there is a sense of Benjamin disappearing back into childhood (his boyhood room, his children's books) willingly, as a reconnection with the imagination that allows him to build his own dwelling (of books) and imagine books as living objects. Books, he says, are most alive in the hands of a private owner who knows (hears?) their story. Although he admires the impetus, he shakes his head at public libraries, which make books into commodities, carriers of information, rather than individual objects in their own right.
That sounds a bit much like The Book for me, the one that can't be marked or destroyed. In the Jewish tradition, when a Torah scroll or prayer book, or anything containing the Tetragrammaton, is too old to be used, it is buried with a full funeral service (OK, so cutlery that's been unkoshered is also buried in the backyard, but there's no service over it -- still, I grant you, weird). I love my books. But I find it hard to accept Benjamin's embrace of private ownership, although I love the way he describes it, as an almost erotic relationship between book and owner, in which the owner listens, like the Sultan, to the book's 1001 tales, without ever opening the cover. For me, that sense of the book's story comes from sharing - lending, discussing, placing one book next to another, even leaving a book somewhere for a stranger to find it (although I've yet to engage in official BookCrossing, slogan "Free Your Books). Or donating them to booksales, prisons, thrift stores. Books, to me, belong in circulation.
Of course, Benjamin was talking about rare books, first editions, stuff with woodcuts. I'm talking about Harry Potter 5. Of the twelve tea chests of books sitting in my mum's garage in London, I managed to clear out two, mostly kids' books that I gave to the families across the street. Will I ever need my Riverside Chaucer again? Probably not. But it's Literature, and that makes it hard to give up. And it meant something to me once (yeah, a millstone around my neck). So I agree with Benjamin more than I let on. Books do acquire meaning from holding on to them, even as they acquire marginalia, coffee mug marks, bus tickets, and minute flakes of skin. As for the books that remain unread, they offer something else (other than a sense of potency in ownership, and pride in a complete collection) - they offer the promise of a future, in which there might be time, or cause, to read them. In case... in case of a quiet day, or a longing for William Maxwell (one of Moris' recommendations, still languishing on a shelf in London). In case of emergencies.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Reading London in its wounds

A map with a whole in the middle greeted me on waking this morning. London turned into a Polo mint (Lifesaver, for North American readers) by a series of explosions in the capital's vulnerable bloodstream, the public transport network. People's responses are pouring out, and into the media. King's Cross, scene of an almighty fire that killed dozens of people and derailed the underground for years (some would say it never recovered). Tavistock Square, where my grandfather died, giving a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Russell Square, core of Modernist London, where so many university students live, where the British Museum stands as a monument to both imperialism and multicultural education. Edgware Road, terrifyingly posted as "Edgware" on many sites, although the suburb where I grew up and the subway stop for Madame Tussaud's are an hour apart. Aldgate East, end of the line, east of the city, edging towards where the Olympic regeneration project will begin. So close to where I was last Friday, filled with excitement at the new East London blooming from the depression of the 1980s, becoming a cultural centre. Where I sat in The Flea Pit, a cafe exhibiting local artists, and offering out space for screenings, reading the incredible words of Sally Potter's new film YES, persuading us to substitute love for hate, and courage for fear. I think of the scene in the film where Simon Abkarian's character, a Lebanese immigrant who has just been fired from his job after he responded to racist comments by other workers, rides the Tube alone, on Christmas Eve. The Tube, which admits everyone who can pay a fare, and carries them where they need to go - or just offers a seat for thought.
The Tube might be a joke, a complete waste of time some days, but it's so integral to London's identity -- I think people sheltering in the now-defunct British Museum stop from air raids during the Blitz. Images of safety, of companionship. In London, everyone rides public transit - unlike North America, where the car is king and anyone on the bus is either too young, too poor, or too illegal to have a car. Of course, I'm eulogising - the Tube is also a crime scene, a place of surveillance, and a source of confusion for locals and tourists alike. But as James Meek writes in his beautiful article from the vantage of east London, public transport could, if we looked up from our papers and self-interest long enough, provide community and conversation that cuts across all divisive lines, through the commonality of space and motion.
But it's there. And we do read on it - not just newspapers or ads, but books. Everyone who uses the Tube learns that nervous, hyper-attentive state of reading, checking up at stations, monitoring the stranger next to you. Long commutes are the ideal site to read - I used to do my homework on the 113 bus (when I wasn't sleeping). An average Tube journey has gone from short story to novel as the system grinds down and gets only partially overhauled. And it's in every novel, play, film about London that I can think of, or find on my shelves. As Delirium's Library is wont to do, it throws up (un)likely bedfellows: Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness, an anarchic post-WWII novel about bombsites and freedom, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, about an alternate universe coinciding with the London Tube.
Then there's the many volumes of Poems on the Underground, full of memories of "I first read this poem..." "I first discovered Anna Akhmatova..." (and the teensiest bit of ambition to be a poet on the underground ;) and the London A-Z, perhaps the best book ever written, certainly one I turn to again and again. It changes every time. There's Aldgate East station highlighted in pink, with my route to the Flea Pit. There's Russell Square, with a small black cross beside the student apartments where friends were staying.
What else? Iain Sinclair's conspiratorial black dystopias of Eighties London (perhaps the best descriptions of the East End) - or Derek Walcott's Omeros, for its melancholy stanzas on being lost, exiled in - but amazed by - London as a Caribbean man. If it's horror you want, the Tom de Ville's series Urban Gothic, full of things that go bang in the night. Or perhaps Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (read it before the Wachowski film comes out).
Or, to go another way, recent books about the Londons few people see, the London being changed and rebuilt by new communities - Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Lela Aboulela's Minaret. Alan Hollinghurst's gay London in The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty.
Perhaps above all, the London book that takes in the city and sees a battlefield, where the ghosts of soldiers walk in Hyde Park, where time stops like a bus, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. A book where the desire to life emerges from tragedy - but only just. Where the city is as fragile and real as the memory of a kiss opening like a tulip. Something to hold onto.
And if someone reads over your shoulder (perhaps now not the worst Tube crime imaginable), share the book with them.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Beginning at the Beginning

Once upon a time, there was a library that held all the books in the world. No, really. It was called the Library of Alexandria and it was so large that young boys were employed to scurry up ladders and fetch papyri for the scholars and readers below. The publishing industry hadn't quite hit its stride, most people in the world were part of largely oral cultures, and there was no way of getting anything written outside of Europe, Asia, and Africa - but who's complaining? Classical scholars, for one, because the Library burned down, destroying complete texts by Sappho, Euripides, and other ancient authors whose names we don't even know. So great excitement ensues when 100 words are recovered on a fragment of mummy shroud and turn out to be a "lost" Sappho poem.
Anyone who has moved house, or returned an essay's worth of late library books, knows that books are hardly insubstantial. Paper weighs you down. It makes Ikea bookcases sag, it gathers dust, gives you wee cuts, and generally has physical presence in the world. For thousands of years - in Western culture, at least - paper has been the stuff of literature, the material of stories and poems, and books have been possessions, things to pile, stack, arrange alphabetically or by colour or on coffee tables. Change is in the air, and most librarians are worried, as the internet turns books into bits and bytes, even books that were once the province of academics with library cards.
Delirium's Librarian is not worried, though. She was there at the burning of Alexandria (and has the scars to prove it). She was there when the Nazis burned Jewish books in Berlin. She was in London recently when Queen Mary's University weeded its collection and dumped books in a skip. Scraps, broken-backed texts, books no-one has ever checked out, pamphlets, anything with a 50% off sticker that isn't a self-help book... these all make it into her capacious book bag, and come home to form part of the library she guards.
Until now, it's just been a storehouse, gathering that aforementioned dust - but, prompted by the charming historian Alberto Manguel and brilliant writer and scholar of the lost culture of Edil-Amarandh, Alison Croggon, I have decided to put the library online.
Not literally, you understand (only Google has those resources, and that arrogance), but as a story in itself - of reading, of remembering how books came to be in my possession, of seeing where working through them takes me, making connections, hopefully hearing from other readers (best comment on each reading gets the book! How's that for a library?)... And in remembering and connecting, an archive will form of lost texts, writers, bookstores. Does anyone remember Compendium in Camden, London? Does anyone know what happened to its fabulous collection of Beat, Modernist and experimental books? I have this plan to make an installation one day... But for now the blog will have to stand, virtual monument to the passing of paper, people and places.
"Men and bits of paper / Blown by the cold wind," as that old curmudgeon T.S. Eliot put it when he was busy shoring up culture's ruins the last time everything seemed to be falling to pieces and into place. And who wouldn't feel curmudgeonly when discovering that the splendid Books Etc. at the Royal Festival Hall is closing because evil conglomerate Borders is refusing to pay the rent (how much more expensive than Oxford Street can it be???). But then, who wouldn't feel uncurmudgeonly at discovering the splendid half-price sale on small press, consignment, and generally weird books with which they didn't go gently into the good night? Having hauled my haul clear across London, and now back to Toronto (much to Air Canada's disapproval), Delirium's Library has a groaning new shelf - which is where I intend to start my monumental project of reading every book that I own but have yet to read, logging it here. I don't think this means an end to book-buying - I work at an independent bookstore after all! So my voraciousness - I once read Finnegan's Wake in a day for a dare - will be put to the test. Watch this space for the delirium to set in...