Friday, 28 December 2012

The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade - Anthony Trollope

I’m painting.  Nothing arty, you understand.  Just my flat.  Well, not my whole flat.  Actually just a couple of walls in my bedroom.  For the moment.  On the advice of my physio. I need to find some simple, repetitive movements for my still-troublesome shoulder. 

The painting is therapeutic.  Or so I'm telling myself through the pain.

Still I’m loving being on holiday.  I have projects.  Including the painting.  Like knitting. Visiting. Baking.  And lots of eating.  I love being on holiday.  Can I do this for a living?
Probably not.  Still, I have a pile of books that have just arrived to compensate and I’m launching forth into them.  Another project.
As previously mentioned, winter is a romantic time for me.  The most romantic time of the year, in fact.  Although this winter is a tad too mild and wet, if the truth be told.  Still, it’s winter.  And that’s romantic.
So I need to read romance.  And I recently discovered the Penguin series, Great Loves.   “Love is strange, love is beautiful, love is dangerous, love is never what you expect it to be.”  So says Penguin Books.
There are 20 books in the series.  I bought a few and am reading them in no particular order.  I started with Stendhal’s Cures for Love.
Stendhal takes us through stages of love.  From first contact to jealousy to conflict.  With lots of comparisons and even more contrasts between men and women in love.  He's interesting and insightful in his musings.  For musings they are. 
One stood out: “the difficulty of forgetting a woman with whom you have been happy is that the imagination tirelessly continues to embellish moments of the past.” I think that applies to us all.  Regarding more than just former love and former lovers. We are sentimental beings.  Romanticising the past to make up for the present.  Or is that just me?
John Updike was much less fun.  He doesn’t muse.  At all.  His take is The women who got away.  Which I thought might be a sweet reminiscence of former love and former lovers.  But it's all reminiscing on former affairs.  All by married men.  All fathers.  Penguin says of this book:  “love is a game”.  Apparently these are the players.  It didn't do it for me.  Affairs are just not my idea of romance.  Call me strange.
So that's two down and 18 to go. Great Loves are going to see me through the rest of my holidays. Between painting sessions.  And baking.  And knitting.  And before romance gives way to reality and we’re back in work.
But we’re not there yet.  Let the romance live on…

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Never judge a book by its movie - J. W. Eagan

It’s very cold here now. The snow’s gone but it’s cold nevertheless. And grey. Very winter-like. I am so not complaining. I love the winter. It’s the most romantic of seasons in my book.

Chunky clothes, comfort food, vin chaud.  Bracing walks, visions of snow-filled fields and sparkly lights everywhere. The days dragging themselves awake and scurrying back under the covers almost as quickly.  Seriously romantic.

All you need is a little Ella in the air, a good book in the hand, and winter is truly a delight.  On days like this, one of my greatest joys is starting and finishing a book in one afternoon. Indeed, I’ve just had one of my more perfect days. Cuddled up to two (very warm) cats, sipping some steaming coffee, and said music filling my flat, I read Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid. Not a romantic read in the traditional sense, for sure. More tragic, really. Although the profound beauty of a mother’s love is never far from real romance. Self-sacrifice, lost love, pure misery.  It’s all there.
Of course, I couldn’t help but read the whole with Betty Davis in mind. I don’t normally watch a film before reading the book.  Possibly for this reason.  In this case, I only recently realised the link between the two.

I cried hard at the end, even though I knew what would happen. Inspired by such sacrifice. In awe of the lengths one human being can go to for another. True romance.
I never cried so hard watching the film.  It moved me, but nothing more.  And it turns out to have been a fairly faithful rendering of the book. Although I’m not sure Betty Davis could ever be as plain as Charlotte was meant to be. Still I insist with my bah humbug about film renderings of books. 
Films lack the sparkle a book inspires in my head. Reading is such a personal thing. Your own imagination is allowed to – indeed encouraged to – give free rein to its fullest capacity. I don't doubt that a film-maker wants to reproduce his/her own imagined version of the book.  But essentially such banalities as time, money and sales will always take priority. And are always guaranteed to dull the sparkle of imagination.
I'm certainly not anti-cinema.  Just a cautious film buff.  I saw Skyfall.  And I loved it.  Even though I saw it in French. Dear ole James. It was delightful. On so many levels. I will of course have to go back and see him, I mean it, in English. To get the real romance of it all.
Now there's a book I’ve never read.  OO7.  Ian Fleming. I don't know if I could after all this time. But who would I think of, I wonder, if I did? Mmm a nice dilemma to mull over on a cold winter's night...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested - Francis Bacon

Flaubert’s Parrot.  How’s that for a great title to a book? And a great inducement to buy and read it.  Well, it was for me, anyway. 

I’ve never read Julian Barnes.  But for some reason, I came across FP recently and I couldn’t resist.  And all because of the title.

I seem incapable of ignoring unique, quirky book titles. Superficial, I know. Influenced by what's outside instead of what's inside.  Buying books like this simply guarantees I will be disappointed.  It's logical.  A catchy title is obviously no proof of quality writing.  Sometimes, the text is plain rubbish.  And I have to desist from reading.  Which you know makes me uncomfortable. 

Still, they look good on the shelf.  They attract attention.  They start conversations.  Even if the conversation goes nowhere beyond the title, because indeed there is nothing else to say.  Superficial, indeed.

But FP, I’m delighted to say, was an excellent read.  The life and times of Gustave Flaubert.  Now, I’m not into biographies.  I don’t rightly know why.  Maybe I’m not that interested in people's lives. Authors' or otherwise.  What does that say about me?  Nothing positive, I’m sure.  And that was a rhetorical question, I hasten to add. 

But not FP.  We studied L'Education sentimentale in school.  It wasn’t the most pleasant experience.  Heavy literature in a foreign language.  For teenagers.  Who understood the merest hint of anything.  Of life, the language, of ourselves.  It was hard work.  A few years later, imagining myself older and wiser and more fluent in French, I tackled Madame Bovary.  Flaubert did not impress me, I’m afraid.  Although I admit the failings may well have been my own, not his.

Now I read this wonderful biography and I believe I am drawn to him.  Almost like him.  Firstly, JB speaks through a retired doctor and Flaubert amateur.  The discussion is animated, passionate, droll.  And exceedingly informative.  Secondly, I find myself sharing GF’s sentiments, his frustrations. His loves. 
One example: Flaubert apparently wrote in a letter to Alfred le Poittevin: “I attract mad people and animals”. How this made me smile. I had said a similar thing only days before reading it in FP. Possibly not for the same reasons as GF said it. But the sentiment was uncannily similar.
You see, recently, I have noticed a worrying - and increasingly frequent - tendency for encounters with (seemingly) mad people. Mainly in public transport.  Not a day goes by without some strange being approaching me, mumbling at me (mostly incoherently), pawing me. We can enter at completely opposite ends of the bus / tram, but they’ll always find me. It's bizarre.  Worryingly so.
I’m sure there’s an explanation. But I’m not sure I want to think about it too much. Explanations may explain, but they don’t always reassure. Still, I was glad to read GF’s words. If not reassured, you can always take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone...


Sunday, 11 November 2012

You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read - Charlie “Tremendous” Jones

Sometimes nothing works out as you want it to.  Or as it should.  Life collides with the universe and advancement is impossible.  Well, I’m there.

Firstly, I lost a very important notebook.  It had contacts and details in it that I may never retrieve.  I never lose things.  Never.  This was a bad sign.  Following this, a series of strange and unexpected events have conspired to disturb and destabilise my normally sedate and very normal existence.  I’m somewhat lost for words.  Lost generally.  This is disturbing.
My joy of reading has taken a hit as a result.  It is less, well, joyous.  I find myself too troubled to take in the words which would normally soothe my being.  I come round to find myself sitting – at home or in public – with book open, pages waiting to welcome me in, but unable to cross the threshold from this world into that one.  My mind is elsewhere.  Far, far away.  Tramping through thoughts and distractions.  Very disturbing, indeed.
My sanctuary is fragile and rocked.  I need to do something.  Take action.  Quickly.  Presently, I’m soothing myself with some wine.  Wine is a great soother.  Or so I'm told.  This is Welsh wine, at that.  I kid you not.  Ty-Hafod.  Very fruity. Very refreshing.  I’m waiting for the soothing to begin. 
All that said, I did read something touching this week.  Something which touched me even in my seemingly untouchable state.  Wise words from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Is that not wisdom?  And a wonderful principal to apply?  And see applied?  Would the world not be a better place if it was a guiding principal for one and all?
I’m planning to apply it.  Once I’m soothed and back on track.  In the meantime, please forget everything I say, do and how I make you feel.  Until it’s as good as it should be.  Or close. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy - Edward P. Morgan

I went back to my roots this week.  To Wales.  The land of song.  And all things beautiful. 

It was good to get outside, in the sea air.  In the wind, the rain.  And in the sunshine.  Yes, the sun shone.  Intermittently, it must be said.  Chased by stormy clouds.  But it shone all the same.

It was good to be back with my family.  Talking to people rather than my cats. Although they can be easier to deal with.  I'm so out of practice being in human company 24/7.  I forgot how challenging human relations can be...

But never fear, my Kindle was near!  My dear, little Kindle. Ready to soothe my soul.  Along with a good dose of chocolate and a good deal of wine. 

Once I was en route, I forgot that I was reading an electronic device.  Even when the warnings came on board the plane.  Which was only a problem apparently on the third flight.  An officious steward informed me I could down the plane if I continued reading my Kindle during take off.  Well, he didn’t use those exact words, but the inference was there.  I chose not to challenge his theory.  However, the inconsistency in plane security did not reassure me. 
My Kindle aroused interest too.  One security man didn’t know what it was.  And needed an explanation.  I gushed.  He seemed duly impressed.  By the Kindle, not my gushing, I presume.
I read John Grisham's The Confession.  It was wonderful.  I not only forgot I was reading an electronic device, but I also forgot I was hanging around in airports, flying and having a generally tedious time.  What a great storyteller JG is.  It’s all so easy and flowing and gripping and tense.  I cried and gasped out loud.  In public.  On my own.  I know.  It was a tad disturbing.  For me as much as for anyone around me. 
Although I was not alone.  A fellow passenger, a lady of a certain age, was reading Sue Townsend beside me.  She giggled intermittently all through our flight.  She apologised.  She was truly embarrassed.  But it was the sweetest thing.  It made me giggle. And I wanted to read what she was reading...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read - Mark Twain

This week in work I took a course on learning more effective reading.  More speed and more efficiency.  Normally, I’m not one for courses.  I do love to learn.  But my experience has been that one- or two-day courses are a let-down.  Lots of chatter, no substance.  While work is piling up back in the office. So no tangible benefits.

However, I’d heard good things about this course.  And presently, lack of sleep and other post-accident factors mean that my concentration is not what it should be and I take much longer to do most things.  Reading being one of them.  I’m not saying I want to read quickly.  The pleasure has never been tarnished for me because I am a naturally slow reader.  It’s true though that, with less time available, I do tend to linger in books for weeks rather than days. Like I'm stuck.  And that can be somewhat annoying. 

The problem of course is having tons of unnecessary things to read.  And today the tons are multiplying.  Emails, text messages, internet pages, newspapers, documents.  In work and at home.  I am surely not alone in hating wasting time doing anything that seemingly adds nothing to your life. 

Hence the course.  Speedily and efficiently dealing with things I have to read, but don’t want to.  Leaving time to sit back and enjoy reading things I do want to read.

That’s the theory anyway.  I was, however, a tad stressed learning how to skim through pages just picking up words or ideas.  Appalled, indeed.  Learning how not to read the detail. Anti reading.  Especially as we were using for the exercise what would seem to be a very interesting book.  Hiroshima, by John Hersey.  Now in my Amazon shopping basket.  How anal of me.  On so many levels. 

Still the exercise did the job.  After a couple of efforts, I started to get the hang of it.  And I was more speedy and more effective.  It will need practise.  Preferably with dull text.  But if it opens up a time saver for me, then that’s good.  Disposing efficiently of the uninteresting to linger in the interesting.

And having just received Dostoevsky's The Karamazov Brothers (from my list of classics to read) I may need my speed and efficiency sooner rather than later.  It's huge.  A tome and a half.  I will need to buy out all the time possible to linger through it.  And so begins another labour of love...

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers - Charles William Eliot

So my first Kindle outing has been and gone.  It was not as fulfilling as I’d imagined.  Or hoped.  But then, such is often the way with our expectations and wishes.

I was initially so excited that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was reading.  And then I couldn’t settle on one thing.  There I was flicking from short story to poem.  To history.  And a bit of psychology.  Yet not actually reading anything.  Like literary zapping.  It's simply too much choice in one place.  The kind of blinding effect of standing before vast shelves of unread pages.  All as inviting as the next.
Teething problems, methinks.  I have more journeys before the end of the year and will hopefully calm down for the next time.  Although I’m wondering if the Kindle is not actually the problem.  I mean, how could it be??
Since my return to work, I have mentioned the trouble of finding quality time to read.  But something is wrong.  I do have opportunities to read, albeit fewer and farther between than earlier in the year. On the bus, waiting (for people, for things…), before bed.  Yet my mind is elsewhere.  Open pages are remaining unturned and unread. 
My physiotherapist commented how long Summer had been.  And he was right. The book itself (by Edith Wharton) is short.  I am careful to choose shorter books or stories now I have less time available. To ease the transition. But I’ve been reading it for a good three weeks.  Three weeks?!
It’s not that I wasn’t loving it either.  I do love EW – vivid, thoughtful.  Endearing.  If always a tad tragic.  But reading it has been like wading through waves of the sea – a happy chore. Tiring and bordering on burdensome.  An unfamiliar malaise.   
Concerned, I made time to address such madness. So I killed off Summer last night.  And today, my day has been dedicated to catching up.  I slept late, cooked, baked.  And this afternoon, took up with Alan Bennett.  The Uncommon Reader.  Thankfully, I devoured it in a matter of hours.  Thankfully, because it is the very remedy to end any literary malady.  The very book to send you right back into reading.  Superb.  Even with Elizabeth II as the central character.  Strange.  But true.
Reading how HRH discovered “how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do”, you can’t help but be inspired back between the pages.  Delightful.  My world makes sense again.  For now at least...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What is reading but silent conversation? - Walter Savage Landor

There are very few occasions when I would recommend watching rather than reading.  But let's face it - last night was one of them.  Andy Murray.  The US Open Final.  Five sets. 

Words on the page cannot convey the brutal emotional ride that Andy Murray's games often are.  And were last night. Who knows how those men were still standing at the end of the match. I wasn't. 

Indeed, I'd gone to bed before the end.  As the fourth set finished.  The match wasn't.  But I really was.  

I'm drinking my champers in honour of the win today instead.  Truly delighted!  A great match, a great fight and a great feeling to see AM finally do the deed.

There's nothing else to say.  Reading about it is not watching it.  But reading about it certainly makes you smile big and wide...

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day - Emily Dickinson

I have never been one to listen.  To anyone or anything.  This is not a boast, simply an admission.  And something I'm not particularly proud of.  It just is.

But be it due to age or experience - or pure need - things change.  And for the past three weeks, I've been enjoying listening to a serialised production of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks on Radio 4. While pottering in the kitchen, preparing food and snacks for the week.

It's been wonderful.  And took the whole stress off seeing Buddenbrooks sitting on my shelf and expecting to be read.  It's in German.  I have no idea why I bought it in German.  But in German it is.  And I have no compulsion, energy or otherwise to struggle through the German text just now.  If ever.

The whole experience was just that.  And is it mad that I felt so grown up listening to Radio 4?  I usually tune in to France Info in the morning, and Radio 2 in work so this was my first foray into Radio 4.  And it felt... different.

Anyway, the point that came home to me was that reading is reading is reading.  Whether you go through the words yourself, or have them read to you.  And one is as stimulating as the other.  Hence the recognised importance of reading to children.  But why stop with them?

The wonderful thing about being read to is that, as you are being entertained, you can get on with necessary tasks.  Which are rendered less burdensome (if like me you are not a fan of housework, cooking, baking or otherwise...) because the mind is being thus entertained.

As I have said previously, going back to work is increasingly denying me of quality time for my books.  So I feel a great need to compensate in whatever way possible to continue my reading.  Particularly as my one last reading refuge - my visit to the physiotherapist - has now progressed such that I am no longer allowed to lie back and let the TENS machine do the work.  It appears that I should put in some effort myself now to encourage my muscles back to action.  And I can't use weights and read at the same time.  If you were a fly on the wall, you'd see the problem.

All this means that, unless I do something drastic, I will end up reading less.  Surely that is not necessary.  There are options. And I am so very much more open to all reading possibilities now.  Read to me, read with me, read for me.  Read, read, read.  Oh, and did I mention that my Kindle can read to me?  Loving it more each day...

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you - Harold Bloom

There are times when you simply don't have the words. To express what needs to be expressed. To undo the muddle of thoughts and feelings clogged up inside. To simply speak and be heard.

At the same time, somebody else will have all the words. Will express exactly what should be expressed. Will undo and unclog your muddle of thoughts and feelings. And will be heard clearly over the world's din.

An author with such eloquence is a delight to the soul.  Especially when it is stuck. Or simply dissatisfied. Even momentarily. Abstractly. Unconsciously.

This is the joy of reading. Those moments of unbridled delight when the reader hears words spoken in such a way and with such intimacy that it is both alarming and assuaging. The release and relief. The escape and the rediscovery.

You will know by now that I'm really not a poetry reader, as much as it would please me to be one. All the same, this weekend, I've been thinking much about W.B.Yeats' words in He wishes for the cloths of Heaven.

I know so little about Yeats that it amounts to nothing. So little in fact that I once sang one of his poems for an exam and have only now realised he wrote it. But I have read that he wrote to be read aloud. So I put this to the test with the collection of his works I have just acquired. Reading aloud to my cats. The words did indeed trip elegantly and gracefully off my inexperienced tongue. I was impressed. The cats were less so.

He wishes for the cloths of Heaven is beautiful read aloud or not.  It strikes cord after cord within.  Such a tangible beauty that I don’t mind knowing nothing about poetry. Or about Yeats.  The sentiment of love is so strong, the giving of oneself so complete. And the final statement so stunning: "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Such power. Such vulnerability. It touches me and I'm not sure why. But it seems to speak from deep within me. And I like the sensation. Which is why I believe that reading is always such an irresistible joy...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The great objection to new books is that they prevent our reading old ones – Joseph Joubert

So, as I warned you, I am now an official Kindler. My Kindle came, I charged it and I filled it. Well, it's not quite full - far from it, indeed - but it's humming along nicely with a selection of poetry, plays, short stories, history and psychology.  And a smattering of music to help me along the way.

It really is very cool. Ignore the fact that it's a solid, cold piece of technology. Just embrace the fact that it carries a whole library within.  And more.  At your disposal at all times.  Which can even be read to you when reading is beyond you. In whatever unimaginable circumstances that may be.

I bought a lovely (burgundy) cover to protect it.  More coolness.  It features a light to help me do the deed should gloom and doom threaten my enjoyment and my eyesight. Seriously folks, you have to consider this thing.

My first real voyage will be a brief and possibly not so exciting affair with work. But it has taken on a whole new hue now that it will afford me my first outing with said Kindle. This is so very exciting. Which tells me much about the state of my own affairs at this present time...

Still, I know that not everyone shares my excitement. I increasingly read articles and comments voiced from across the globe disparaging the emergence and progression of such sinister technology which seeks to devour and destroy physical books. Seriously.

True bibliophiles - and we are many - will never give up the printed word. The book. Touching and smelling and absorbing it.  But lovers of the written word can surely only rejoice that reading is being promoted by these means. 

My own father - a man of few words, fewer of which were ever in writing - has embraced such new technology. He enthused to me recently that he was considering taking up a book he's been tempted to read since childhood.  Since childhood!  Simply because the options now available to him defy and defeat his literary complexes. 
Maybe reading on a screen is less intimidating than reading off the physical page.  Whatever works, methinks. And I believe sincerely that my father, while exceptional, is not the exception.  He may well be the rule in these matters.

A fellow bookworm did, however, underline the limitations of my dear little Kindle. Recounting her summer adventures, she pointed out that the Kindle just would not suit. She had left home with a selection of books to read. Read them. And disposed of them en route.   Lightening her load as she travelled about.  But also providing a wonderful opportunity:  the gap left in her suitcase by the books was exactly the right size to accommodate the new pair of shoes she'd promised herself. Travelling with a Kindle would take away that opportunity.  And the justification.  Indeed.  Life's dilemmas just never end, do they?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought - Arthur Helps

So the Olympics are over.  My little stay-at-home holiday is drawing to an end.  And the summer sun has finally come out to stay.  What on earth will divert my little mind now?

On top of which, I’m still struggling to get back on form and find my pre-January self again.  The frustration is, well, frustrating.  I look fine, I’m almost up and running in my everyday activities, and I thus should be fine.  I’m not.  I try not to think about it.  But I do.  And I’m not.
I have therefore been trying to cheer myself up by throwing myself into guaranteed mirth.  And Saki has been my chosen vessel.  Although it must be said that he can be a tad dark at times and I do wonder at the wisdom of my choice.  But I have persisted.  And have absolutely delighted in his eloquence.
Saki is the master of the short story.  I think I’m stuck in the genre.  But that’s not always a bad thing.  I was actually introduced to him during my A-levels many moons ago. The Open Window was part of a collection of short stories we were studying at the time.  It stayed with me.  The collection I’m now reading confirms it was not a one-off. 
Featuring heavily are animals with colourful characters and youngsters with vivid imaginations, who artfully execute their playful and sometimes horrifying plots. Clovis is a staple character from one story to the next, injecting a particular brand of wit, and undermining all innocence. He is, it must be said, worse than a rogue.  It’s bizarre, and yet somewhat comforting, that he turns up so consistently.  Like the proverbial bad penny.  Bad.
But my endeavours at distracting myself from my wallowing do not end there.  I have to admit that I have finally been buying a Kindle.  I know!  Despite all my former reticence, I am very excited.  It's been somewhat of a process, but I was not to be rushed.  The three versions available required much mulling over, as did the variety of covers in the variety of colours. I finally did it though. It's now purchased but not yet delivered.  Five days and counting.
I have also allowed myself to take a sneak peek at the literary delights available to me now that I've joined the Kindlers.  Therapeutic cyber window shopping.  There is a whole new universe of the written page out there just waiting to eat up my salary.  And at jolly interesting prices too, I might add.  Did I mention that I was excited??  Little things, little minds, and all that. This will not be the last you hear of this...

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Never give up, never give in, and when the upper hand is ours, may we have the ability to handle the win with the dignity that we absorbed the loss - Doug Williams

I woke up this afternoon, after falling asleep with a book on my chest -  yes, I'm ageing before my time - to find that Andy Murray had won a gold medal at the Olympics. Beating Roger Federer no less.  In three stunning sets.

Then, through the post-nap haze, I watched him win a silver medal in the mixed doubles.  Amazing.  Go AM!  Go London 2012!

If I were a poet, I would use these events to inspire me to write beautiful lines in homage to the wonderful displays of human sporting ability.  But I'm not, so I won't.

Indeed, I'm not much of a poetry reader either.  Not for want of trying.  I'm just a tad impatient and possibly slow on the uptake.  It takes me longer than necessary to get the point.   So the enjoyment is minimal and I avoid the effort.  I always wanted to be able to quote poetry to others, to share my delight.  And woo lovers.  I've never succeeded. Except maybe for my A-level.  But that was a whole different deal...

So in my delight at AM's success - and let's face it, not only his - I'm at a loss for classy words.  I can only borrow words from others.  And most inadequately, as I'm sure there are more appropriate ones.  But I borrow from one of the greats, and therefore I can only be apologetic to a degree.

Kipling, in his fabulous poem If noted the following:

If you can keep your head when all about you
  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, ...
If you can dream and not make dreams your master...
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
  To serve your turn long after they are gone...
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more -  you'll be a man, my son!

Rousing stuff, eh?  Don't you just want to get out there and run a marathon?  Take on Usain Bolt?  Andy Murray? In my dreams, of course.  But only the good dreams...

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Read, read, read - William Faulkner

The Olympic Games are on.  In case you hadn’t noticed. I don’t feel I can blog without mentioning them. 

I don’t have a television, so I’m not watching them.  But I do like to catch up with events over the Internet.  There’s something really exciting about following big sporting events.  Makes me want to be sporty.  And I am so not. 

But thankfully, I am not alone in my dreams.  I heard a radio programme today discussing the merits of the Games which are inspiring nations of youngsters to take up sport. How wonderful is that? 

Now all the world needs is a literary Olympics.  Seriously.  Imagine the most talented wordsmiths coming together from across the globe to show their wares.  Imagine 24-hour discussions of the finest writing ever.  Imagine a nation of youngsters inspired to read. 

Not just books competing with one another.  But poetry, plays, scripts.  Letters.  Whatever would get people reading.  Even comic strips.  Yes, even comic strips.  I used to read comics as a youngster.  Not very cool ones, I might add.  Bunty, Mandy, Judy.  Girls' stuff.  But my sister and I loved them.  My mum would buy them for us every Friday.  With a bar of chocolate into the bargain.  She was so good to us.  A nice light read after a long week.  And let’s not forget that the comics kept us quiet for a good couple of hours too.  Good for everyone. 

Here in France comic strips are big business.  This may be the case elsewhere too.  I just don't think I've ever paid attention.  It's a whole new world for me.
Shops, clubs, even festivals are devoted to them.  And adults here love them too.  It’s popular practice to litter conversations with references - if not direct quotes - from comic strips. Very annoying when you’re not in on the joke. But a great cultural richness. Pop into a bookshop here during the lunch break and see rows of business men in suits engrossed in a comic strip annual of choice.  It's a stunning picture.  The boy in them plain to see.  
But maybe comic strips are not just for children.  Indeed, evidence tells me the contrary.  And let's face it, the limitation to children is all in my head. All the more reason we need these Olympics.  To break down the barriers. To take away the prejudices. To experience new perspectives on reading. 
Just like London 2012, a literary Olympics would have something for everyone.  Nations sharing their treasures to inspire us all.  We need nations to read.  We want children to read.  The literary Olympics is my suggestion.  What's yours?  

Sunday, 29 July 2012

A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend - Author unknown

Last weekend, I found a book that I don’t ever remember buying.  “Found” is a bit much.  It was sitting on my bookshelf, quite open and accessible to all who would look.  With all the other short story collections I have.  And yes, I do classify my books.  But that’s for another time. 

I recognised it when I saw it.  It has a rather uncouth cover: blocks of pea green, purple and black.  But it’s old and I have no recollection when or from where I acquired it.  And I know that I’ve never read it.  It's entitled simply, almost arrogantly, Famous Short Stories.  Nothing to attract you.  Indeed, almost everything to repulse you.  But at the moment I’m trying to be all-embracing, open to new things.  And to cut down my spending on new books when I haven’t read all my present library.
So I started to read.  It’s wonderful.  An easy, entertaining read that brings together some of the big names of literature to share their brief, often quirky tales.  Saki, Maugham, Dylan Thomas, Kipling and the late Ray Bradbury. Perfect for the long, slow summer evenings we’ve been having. For a week up to last night, at least.
Each author has so much to offer in so little space.  I was totally absorbed. To the point that I actually gasped and my hand flew inadvertently to my mouth in dismay when I finished Waugh’s Bella Fleace gave a party. The mark of good writing, methinks.  You see, never judge a book by its cover.
Now I am left only to lament the fact that this book sat overlooked for so long!  It’s inexcusable.  I really must revisit my bookshelves more frequently.  What other gems are sitting waiting to be remembered?   Good thing books don't hold a grudge.  They sit so beautifully, nobly, filling space and never complaining of the negligence of a spoiled owner who does not read or touch or even peruse them for months on end.  Or indeed years. 
Like really good friends. Some of my very best friends are those from my youth.  We can go months, sometimes years with only the tiniest of contact between us.  Yet, coming together, we simply pick up where we left off.  There’s nothing like that sort of comfort.  The safety of knowing and being known.
Good friends are much harder to make with age.  I have no real idea why.  But my purely unscientific analysis tells me it is so.  And thus we cherish good friends all the more.  Maybe we love the nostalgia.  Like perusing the shelves of a bookshop. Or your own library.  Finding lost memories.  Rediscovering moments shared, surprise recollections. It's heart-warming. It's enduring. It's food for the soul.

Friday, 20 July 2012

He who lends a book is an idiot. He who returns the book is more of an idiot - Arabic Proverb

Another grey, rainy day here.  And I’m full of cold.  Again.  The trials of a weak immune system following my prolonged recuperation.  Patience, patience.  But my compensation was a quiet afternoon curled up with my cats and 84 Charing Cross Road.  One of my comfort films.  Till now.  One of my comfort reads from here on in. 

As mentioned previously, I love books of letters.  And I am in such awe of Helene Hanff.  She must have been one of the coolest people ever.  A tangible enthusiasm for reading.  An extensive knowledge of authors and books.  Such passion, warmth, generosity.  Such talent.  

I dream of those days of writing letters to a bookshop in Charing Cross Road to source my wish list.  Or rather the 5th arrondissement in Paris, my equivalent of HH's much beloved London.  Luxuriating in the anticipation of the arrival of old, used books that "open to the page some previous owner read oftenest..."  Much as I love Amazon, it's not quite the same somehow.

And, there’s nothing like recommendations.  Her recommendations, in particular.  She delights over authors whose names I know only faintly from afar. I am always so ashamed when I discover how well-read other people are and how ignorant I am in comparison”. Seriously HH, if you’re not well read… 

Finally her delight in the book itself.  The first editions, gifts from friends, special messages inscribed within from special people.  Sentimentality I fully relate to.  The words inside the covers are truly enhanced by the history attached to each single copy: a book bought for me by someone who cared, signed for me by the author (I do have one or two), books from my childhood.  And the couple of first editions I have too.  Nothing particularly exciting to those in the know.  But special to me.

And the reason why I am also utterly against lending books.  To anyone.  I cringe when someone hovers around my bookcase, having found something they've never read, and now absolutely need to.  You want it, buy it.  Or find your library card. Mean, oh yes.  But not even a pretty please will melt my resolve.  I have lost too many good copies along the way through such careless generosity.  I've also acquired a few too, it must be said.

HH says it well: “people who wouldn’t dream of stealing anything else think it’s perfectly all right to steal books”. The word “steal” seems a bit harsh.  But then so is losing your books.  Let's not lead anyone into temptation, eh.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Look, I have a strategy. Why expect anything? If you don't expect anything, you don't get disappointed - Patricia McCormick

I'm exhausted. As is anyone who's just watched the Wimbledon men's final. Such a display of athleticism, skill and power.

I'm also disappointed.  I'm an Andy Murray fan.  For which I make no apology or excuse.  I know that many don't like him.  Or worse.  And I desire neither to defend my sentiments nor condemn theirs.  Just to express my great admiration for AM and all that he has achieved.  Go Andy!

Personally, I have never been very sporty.  But I am intensely moved by anyone performing at the top of their game.  Whatever their game may be.  Still, how horrid is the disappointment and, indeed, agony of watching a sporting hero miss the mark.  Nothing like the agony suffered by the sporting hero him/herself, I grant you.  But all the same.

I am very much for avoiding disappointment at all cost.  Hence the safety - and thus delight - of reading.  Where my personal investment is normally matched and satisfied.  Normally.

Still, expectations can be too high.  Even from books.

Not too long ago, I read The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta.  From my reading list.  The cover told me it was a "poignant love story" set in Nigeria.   And Simon Mason, of my book list, said it was an "observant and compassionate account of a young girl's struggle to defy and survive tribal customs, and an upsetting tense drama of a forbidden love affair". 

I was intrigued and expectant. It would, among other things, introduce me to Ibo traditions.  I was ready for a rough emotional ride.  But I anticipated a little sunshine, for all that.  I was disappointed.  And intensely pained.

The title of the book was the key:  tribal lore states that a woman will die in childbirth if her bride price is not paid.  Aku-unna, the central protagonist, lives through turmoil and tears and struggling.  She seems to win through.  And then the tribal lore prevails.  Like fighting against all odds and then life biting you in the bottom anyway.  Or should I say, man's law biting the woman in the bottom.  Again. 

I wanted hope, and none was proffered.  I wanted justice, but it was denied.  It made me mad.  But that's possibly my problem, not the book's. 

Watching AM today, I witnessed an athlete failing against all odds.  It was hard.  But hope prevails.  Wimbledon will come again.  He will win through another time.  And we all need hope.  It sustains life through disappointment.  Even the disappointment of losing a Wimbledon final.  C'mon Andy!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life - Mortimer Adler

It’s been too long since my last post.  Time has not been my own. Exceptionally I have been working full-time to deal with an exceptional workload.  Which has thankfully now ended.  But it left my still-convalescing body needing even more sleep.  So much so that I saw barely 5 minutes of the semi-final between Germany and Italy.  And only woke up for the result.

As a consequence, during this period, the activities I love were pushed further and further down my list of things to do.  Short as that list was: get up, get to work, get home, sleep.  And grab food as possible during the day.  I was grateful to escape to the physio once during that time.  He not only made the pain bearable, but attached me to a TENS machine which allowed me 40 minutes just to read! 

And all this did make me think. What a shame that activities that are so important to us are so easily pushed to the bottom of our priorities.  The things that make us feel good and whole and human are always the things that give way to the sterile, the tedious, the inhuman.  Such is life, n’est-ce pas?

In this frame of mind, I started reading Language Death by Professor David Crystal.  A bizarre choice, you may think, but it seemed appropriate for my mood.  And is a very interesting read, albeit unfinished as I type. But I have more physio to come, so no worries there. 

Professor DC is from my home town.  An added bonus of reading him this week.  I feel a great yearning for home when life is challenging, and all that home encompasses: the beauty, the air, the sea. My roots, my family, my childhood.  Hiraeth is what we call the feeling in Welsh.  A word that has no direct translation in English.  A word that comes from the heart.  And says so much. 

Anyway, I see Prof C’s name and I think of home. And he writes about words into the bargain. So I savour his writings. 

I interviewed him once. I don’t quite remember why. But words were involved.  What I do remember was the insuppressible awe I felt before this man.  He sat in his library of wall to wall books.  A picture of great ease and comfort.  An authority on the words that surrounded him.  And all I could think was: what a good life. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read - Mark Twain

So who exactly decides what makes a classic?  It's a question I raise simply because the word blocks me.  It affects my whole approach to a book. 

Labels are nearly always divisive.  The "classic" label is no different.  And carries with it such pressure. An obligation to enjoy the book at hand.  Or at least recognise its superiority.  I mean, what if you don't?  What if you don't like it at all?  What does that mean?  Are you an inferior reader?  Are you lacking something?  Will you be marked forever?  Condemned?  Cast out?

A (very) quick cyber check tells me this is a question that has been raised through the ages and has not been definitively defined.  Or finished with. Certain criteria are proffered as the generally accepted basis of a classic:  standing the test of time; universal, popular, pertinent.  A mould-breaker.  Expounding words of wisdom.

And pure enjoyment in all that?  I can't help but think that just saying something is such cannot make it so.  The reader reads to be satisfied.  If not satisfied, that book was not the right one for that reader at that moment. Maybe another time.  Maybe never. No worries.  Surely?

But my reasoning is flawed.  In all things, would it not be foolish to think that absolutely no guidance is needed? In school, there were only classics on our reading lists: Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens, Austen.   Not for the faint-hearted, I grant you.  But I really appreciated the introduction to Shakespeare and Austen, Keats and Wordsworth. 

On the other hand, I never did get to grips with Dickens or Hardy.  Even after multiple efforts.  It was the hard slog through (what seemed to me) a quagmire of needless description that put me off.  Does that make me a bad reader?

That said, I recently helped a friend's daughter in France with preparation for her English bac.  The chosen book was a rather dark and dreary account of some youngsters in a contemporary London school: drugs, teenage pregnancies, violence, aggressive slang.  The lot.  Definitely not my idea of a classic.  Not even close.  And strangely not what I'd want my children to be taught.  If I had children. 

It felt like a betrayal.  Of all the most beautiful English literature to introduce to young hearts and minds, this was all they could come up with?  Shouldn't someone police these things?? I wanted to rage about the classics on offer, that should be offered. I did rage to the poor girl.  Hypocritical, n'est-ce pas?

So classics? For me, they can only be the books that fill my little universe with everything that satisfies me.  The good books that I love. And that I love to share.  The rights and wrongs of this choice I'll leave to the intelligentsia.  Whoever and wherever they may be.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere - Hazel Rochman

At this time of the year, for personal reasons, I usually spend a weekend in Paris.  I love Paris.  It is the most refreshing city I have ever visited.  I love the tourist attractions, the grands boulevards, the cafés, the markets.  The nooks, the crannies.  The usual.  The unusual.  It is my favourite city in the world.  When I am sad, Paris makes me happy.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to spend my weekend there this year.  So, I made Paris come to me.  A very dear friend gave me a book called Paris Tales.  A modest collection of short writings based in different parts of the city at different times by very different people.  Writers include Georges Perec, Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.  And many others I've never heard of.

They each take you briefly, often only fleetingly, through areas such as Notre Dame, the 20th Arrondissement, Montmartre cemetery - and particularly the flora and fauna, would you believe; Gare Saint-Lazare, the Bois de Boulogne, et al.

A map of the city shows where the tales take place.  The metro map is thrown in for good measure.  And each tale is separated by black and white photographs of the city.  Mediocre photographs in my humble opinion, only hinting at the magnificence of the city.  Still, the whole serves its purpose. 

Thus with black coffee to hand, rain pouring down outside, and Roland Garros on screen if on hold from the weather, I felt as near to the city as I could get without leaving home.

It was light, atmospheric reading for the most part.  Nothing particularly spectacular.  But enough to transport me there.  I was walking those cobbled streets, feeling the rush of people around me, hearing the noise.  Smelling the metro.  And sharing the love the authors were sharing of this city of such great renown.

Sometimes when things don't turn out as you would have wished, all is not lost.  Someone somewhere has been there and written it down to save your day.  Or in my case, the weekend...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it - James Bryce

I did it.  I finished the tome that is The Golden Notebook.  I feel the need to mark the occasion. 

And what, you may ask, did I think of it?  What indeed.  Well, I am certainly no authority on anything but my own feelings and reactions. And sometimes not even on them.  So I will give you my response with these reservations.

I loved the beginning, the flow, the strength and interaction of the characters.  Moving from the storyline to the notebooks was interesting.  The notebooks add a disjointed element. But that is not negative, it’s just different.  Innovative.  Challenging.  Something to which I relate, for I have tons of notebooks for different moods, purposes and events.

The descent into madness troubled me. Exasperated me.  Repulsed me somewhat. I hated that she knew that her behaviour was out of control and yet would not respond.  I felt she indulged it.  Revelled in it even.  Put off what she would ultimately do.  For she would ultimately take full control again for the sake of her daughter and thus toyed with madness rather than was afflicted by it.  But I needed her to take control sooner.  And when she finally did, and everything sorted itself out, it felt false and rushed and manicured to manufacture a kind of happy ever after.

But then not really happy at all.  Indeed, no-one ever seemed happy in the book.  All the main characters seemed a tad spoiled and overindulged.  The women who often claimed such strength felt weak and dependent. Responsive only to the men and their whims. The men were all portrayed as arrogant and selfish.  Men and women full of their opinions.  Full of their need to fulfil their needs.  Holding back from nothing.  And yet not one of them offered a glimpse of hope or understanding.  Fellow-feeling.  Or simply offered an answer.

It seems like a tale of people living a life they thought they should live, that should make them happy, yet constantly aware that it didn't. With no answers offered.  No direction, no encouragement.  No energy.  Indeed I felt more than a tad sucked free of any energy I might have had at the end.

I was glad to finish. And not just because it was a tome.  I do wonder what others think about it.  And I will find out.  I’m off to Google.

And that, my friends, is the joy that is reading.  Good, bad. Up and down.  And ultimately, an experience every time.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting - Edmund Burke

Following my delight with Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, I decided to prolong my discovery and launch forth into The Golden Notebook.  And I do mean launch forth.  I love the idea of thick books, but never the actual reading of them.  I mean, TGN is 500+ pages.  Seriously. How did DL get anything else done in her life? Certainly any other writing? And she wrote loads.

Tomes feel like such a commitment.  Illogical for a bookworm, yes.  Silly, undoubtedly.  But here's a fundamental truth I live with: I'm not good at living in the moment.  So much so that I try to make my moments short enough for me to get to the end of them quickly, in order to know how good or bad a time I've just had.  I think it's a mental disease. 

I thus feel trapped when I've delved into a huge volume.  And my whole time in there is usually about getting out again as soon as possible.  The tunnels under the River Mersey had much the same effect on me throughout my formative years.  The result is that the experience itself can be lost on me.  Along with the ideas, the tale.  The purpose.

Still, if I've learned nothing else during my convalescence, I've recognised and lived the importance of patience.  Of doing only what you can, when you can.  Bite-sized, if necessary.  And appreciating that much. 

I'm now approaching the home straight of TGN having (more or less) enjoyed the whole experience.  Just a twinge or two of my usual panic. 

I actually started out intending to highlight passages, so that I could come back to them another time.  To be able to really savour them in the knowledge I'd already conquered the whole.  To promote a relaxed read.  But I never managed it.  The very idea stressed me out.

Making marks on books is beyond me.  It always feels more than a tad presumptuous, somehow.  My first French employer - I was an au pair for the summer, looking after his daughter - bestowed on me a number of French novels to help me improve my French.  Well, it was more of a directive, actually: improve your French.  A la française.  But I was so impressed that he dared to write in the margins.  That his ideas, reactions, feelings were so important that they should be scrawled there for all to see. Scrawled so small though that I couldn't understand any of it.  So it could well have been drivel.  But the audacity impressed me, all the same.  Beyond me, as it is.  For now at least.  Small steps, n'est-ce pas...

Friday, 25 May 2012

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading - William Styron

When I was young, I read horror stories.  A fact that surprises me still.  It's so very alien to me now.  Indeed, I even watched horror films.  I don't know why, exactly.  Although I don't ever remember taking them seriously.  They felt like caricatures of some cartoon world.  So obviously unreal. 

Today, I admit to finding the whole idea a tad more sinister.  There's enough horror in reality without searching for it in entertainment.

It was The Omen series that finally spooked me.  Scared the living daylights out of me, actually.  And set me on the road away from the genre.  Indeed, I would read it from behind the protection of a cushion.  Or two.  Totally spooked. 

I think it was because it cited the bible.  That somehow felt too real.  And then I attended Surrey University, and my room looked out onto the cathedral used in the film.  And then it was too real.  A tangible reminder of that inexplicable fear.  For another four whole years.

Then there was Jaws.  I only read the book years after seeing the film.  By then, it was an attempt at catharsis, not a search for thrills. 

When the film came out, I was affronted to be deemed by my mother "far too young" to watch it.  It was a horror story too far.  Hence, I was obliged to await the release of Jaws II.  I caught up with Jaws only after that.

But it was not a disappointment.  We came out of the cinema exhausted.  And I carried the experience with me for weeks afterwards.  Maybe it was because we lived on an island.  We walked the cliff heads overlooking the sea during our play.  We walked the breakwater, dangled feet into the crashing waves off the coast.  Waded in during summer sunshine.  After Jaws, we became wary.  Would we ever think it safe to go back in the water?

My attempt at catharsis was not successful.  The written word seemed only to reinforce the images, rather than rationalise them.  When I'm in the sea today, I still hear the music.  I still expect a fin to appear behind a nearby lilo.  Or from amongst a group of screaming children.  I look for it.  Wait for it.  

What an incredible creation.  Still uniting a generation of readers and cinema goers by the more or less powerful apprehension of what lies in the deep.  By the flurry of uncontrollable emotions enveloped in that one word: Jaws.  You're going to need a bigger boat...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning - Maya Angelou

Did you study Shakespeare in school? We did. Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear. I remember receiving my first copy of Shakespeare.  Feeling that this was somehow a momentous occasion. And an equally confusing one, when I actually opened the pages and tried to read.  Nothing really made any sense.

Yet those same confused and dull expressions came to life once pronounced and performed.  Only when the words hit my eardrum, did my heart beat a response.  Did I understand the joy and enduring legacy that is Shakespeare.

Of course, I'm talking about a professional performance.  Our classroom efforts were pretty dismal. But then, having hormonal teenagers read about unsexing a woman and plucking nipples from lips was always going to be a challenge.  Even for Mrs Drake, our very wonderful English teacher.

And, if the truth be told, reading aloud is an art in itself.  I hated it in school. I was so very self-conscious. And awkward. And I was asked to read Lady Macbeth. With the unsexing and the nipple. You may share my pain.

Still, reading aloud is an art, nonetheless.  An art that should be encouraged and honed.  Valued and promoted.  Although, I grant you, it's an art that we are rarely called upon to exercise in real life.  Understandably too, for it wouldn't do for us all to be milling around, wild and unruly, reading out books and magazines for one and all to hear.  Yet, done well, reading aloud is a delight.

Try reading to a child.  Children are simply waiting to be enthralled by a story.  They will not settle for dowdy reading. You have to let go. Release the actor within. 

Remember story-time in primary school?  I can see us now: sitting cross-legged on the floor in the reading corner, transformed by the teacher's tales.  Nothing else mattered in the world.  Just hearing the words dance from her lips, perform before my very mind's eye.  It was enchanting.  Thrilling.  My mind was electrified, my heart fired up. 

It's almost a gift.  From one person to the next.  From the author to the reader to the listener. And on it goes.  From childhood to adulthood, from the library to the theatre.  And back again.  It's a gift that never stops giving. And it costs nothing. Delightful.