Category Archives: Reading

Culture keeps us going

I don’t know about you, but writing is harder now. And it’s not as if I live off writing, or anything. But I know people who write, and they find they can’t, or at least not their usual stuff.

Sara Paretsky was bemoaning how she couldn’t get stuck in with writing, when she came across something Toni Morrison had said:

“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine — and you?’, I blurt out the truth: ‘Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…’ I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!'”

Morrison adds, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

I’m hoping now that Sara will be able to get started. Because we need her words, we need V I.

Within minutes of reading the above, I found myself watching a flash mob thing on YouTube that someone had linked to. It was a group of opera singers belting out Funiculì, funiculà in a Waitrose food hall. It was wonderful! I listened twice, and felt very cheered. I could tell it wasn’t recent, because people were standing too close, but it didn’t matter. I’ve since discovered it was from 2013, and had something to do with pasta sauce, but it was still joyous and fun.

I came to the conclusion that we perhaps appreciate these things more for being short and near and unexpected. Something to brighten up everyday life.

That bit of deep thinking reminded me of something the volunteer organist in church once said. Jan Wallin played double bass for the Liverpool Philharmonic for a living. It seems he, too, doubted whether what he was doing was of any use, when a doctor friend pointed out that it was hearing music like that, which made life bearable for people like him.

In short, we need ‘fripperies’ like culture to survive. Or, to feel better while surviving. Jan didn’t only play for the philharmonic and in church; he also wore the exact same shoes as Father Christmas.

Burn

I have to admit to a degree of surprise on hearing that Patrick Ness’s latest novel – Burn – would be about dragons. He just doesn’t seem like a dragon kind of author, I thought. But then, most of his stories are not of the entirely normal kind either, with space travel and hearing men’s thoughts, or any of his other books. So why not dragons?

Why not, indeed? Dragons are lovely. Or can be, in the right hands.

Here we are in 1957 and the strain between the US and the Soviet Union is growing. Things can only get worse.

We are back in Patrick’s part of the world, near Seattle, but out in the sticks, mostly on a farm, or in the woods. 16-year-old Sarah is finding life hard; she’s less white than her neighbours – except for the Japanese boy she rather likes – and her mother died and her father is struggling to make ends meet. That’s why he hires the services of a dragon to help on the farm.

Kazimir (that’s the dragon) is there for another reason. He knows that Sarah is the centre of an ancient prophecy, and he needs to help. There is a religious sort of assassin coming, and two FBI agents.

Whatever you think of these characters, they are both interesting, and mostly quite intelligent. (It’s the sheriff you need to keep your eye on.) This makes them a dream to read about, and you discover, yet again, that people can change, or that bad people can have good in them. And you just don’t know what fate has in store for anyone.

I need to shut up here, so I don’t give the game away. But trust me, it’s a good game.

And, well, I’ve not been told. But there could be a sequel. I’d welcome one. But there doesn’t have to be. This novel is perfect as it is.

When it’s good

This will sound silly, but I’m currently reading a book that is so good that I don’t have to worry. It struck me as I was reading past my bedtime, that I had no idea where the plot would take me. But I knew I felt quite safe and I had no concerns, because wherever it went and whatever happened, it’d be fine. Not necessarily a happy ever after ending; but a more than competently put together story. Good content, using good language.

I don’t know Words Without Borders as an online magazine. Understandable perhaps, as I gather they hardly ever cover children’s literature. In the April issue they did, and Daniel Hahn was there to tell us about it. He, very sensibly, felt it wasn’t for him to select authors to showcase, as he doesn’t read every language in the world. (He almost does, I’d say.) He asked some translators for advice.

One of the authors chosen was Maria Parr, about whom Daniel had this to say: ‘If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.’

So, it’s not just me. Except I don’t need Guy. At least, I hope I don’t, but even so his translation work is more than welcome.

And in the same issue of Words Without Borders there is a short piece by Maria, translated by Guy, about explaining Corona virus to your stupid younger brother:

“Corona is a ball with spikes,” said Oskar.

He was in the lower bunk, jabbering away as usual.

“Corona is a virus,” I said.

“It looks like a ball with spikes on,” said Oskar.

“Yes, but it’s a virus,” I said, feeling annoyed. I wondered if all seven-year-olds are that stupid, or if it’s just my little brother who’s particularly dense.

Oskar went quiet for just long enough that I thought he’d gone to sleep.

“It looks like a ball with spikes no matter what you say,” he said…

and if you want more, you click here.

If you want more still, just read a lot of children’s books, especially good ones like Maria’s and others. Like the one I’m reading now.

(I might tell you more about that later.)

Whose Shakespeare?

We moved Shakespeare upstairs over the weekend. Mostly this was because the bookcase he was in ascended, and Shakespeare is rather large, so needed the big shelf. He’s now in Son’s room, should the boy ever be able to return to it.

Anyway he went, along with the three-volume poetry collection from Linlithgow.

There was a most beautiful piece in Thursday’s Guardian, written by Aditya Chakrabortty, about his mother who died recently. I’m sorry for Aditya’s loss, but infinitely grateful that he shared his lovely memories of his mother with the newspaper’s readers.

Mrs Chakrabortty was a teacher. As her name suggests, she was not born in the UK, but she definitely did more than her share for this country and the people already here as well as those who arrived after her.

According to Aditya his ‘mother’s love of Shakespeare and Hazlitt was not an attempt to fit in. She claimed them as she claimed all of world culture.’

This set me thinking of how some people view Shakespeare, believing he’s there exclusively for the English. We all know Shakespeare in some way or other. His plays have been translated into many languages, and Hamlet is everyone’s prince; not just that of ‘cultured English’ people. We all have the right to know and enjoy Shakespeare’s work.

I would like to think he’d see it as an honour to be the favourite of a woman such as Mrs Chakrabortty.

Best and whackiest

It’s rather a mouthful to say or write, but Yvonne Manning who is Falkirk Council’s Principal Librarian for Children’s Services, is the winner of the 2020 Scottish Book Trust Learning Professional Award!

I know I always say this about winning librarians, because they are all so great, but I don’t believe there is one greater than Yvonne. Congratulations!!!

Finding this out now, made my day a lot better. It’s the kind of news we need when things are tough, and Yvonne is the kind of librarian we need at all times, but mostly when things are tough.

Yvonne is the one who organises the Falkirk RED book award, and she’s kept it going in the face of the ever disappearing money that has been the death of so many awards and book events. If you watch this video, you’ll discover for yourself what she’s like, and that giving up because the funding went away isn’t her style.

I’ve occasionally wanted to be Yvonne, what with her endless energy and her gorgeous, somewhat whacky, coats.

The event to celebrate her award that obviously isn’t happening right now, would have been the best. I can see myself there, having a great time. I’m sure there would have been deep fried cauliflower.

The Book of Hopes

It’s always like this. I get tired and want nothing more than to stay at home for ‘quite some time.’ After a while – it could even be after ‘quite some time’ – I have had enough and I begin to want to climb the walls. Or at least to get out and go to some event, somewhere.

Well, I am ready for an event. Now. Before agoraphobia takes over.

I’ll pretend. There’s a book you can read for free. Katherine Rundell has collected lots of writing from a lot of writers, and some illustratings from illustrators. You’ll find them in The Book of Hopes, which you can get here.

There were extracts in the Guardian Review at the weekend. I was particularly taken with Catherine Johnson’s Axolotl poem:

“Care of Exotic Pets: Number 1. The Axolotl at Bedtime.
Never give your axolotl chocolatl in a botl.
Serve it in a tiny eggcup, not too cold and not too hotl.
Make him sip it very slowly, not too much, never a lotl.
After all, he’s just a sleepy, snuggly, bedtime, axolotl.”

And so it goes. More verses online!

‘All’ the big names have contributed something. Whatever you like, it could well be in here somewhere. I’m thinking what a marvellous book launch this would make, if we could all get together. See you there?

Genre?

By turning as French as I can – no mean feat for a non-French speaker – I have retrieved the ability to say ‘genre.’ Which is good, because one sometimes has to say it. Out loud, and so others can hear what you’re on about. It was while I interviewed Anthony McGowan about five years ago I discovered that for the life of me I couldn’t say the blasted word.

To get round this handicap, I’ve had to avoid using it, or to spell it.

When I was young, and tremendously foreign, I learned this word. Both what it meant, and how to ‘say it in Swedish.’ It involved saying it really wrong, in a kind of pidgin Swench. I don’t know whether Swedes now know better, or still say it like that.

As to its meaning, well, it stands for sub-categories of fiction, like crime, or romance, or sci-fi. All very nice categories. And useful if you want to specify what something is about. Because that’s what I took it to mean, a useful labelling tool. Not that it might indicate anything less worthy.

But that’s what it’s come to. At least in Britain. Maybe it was always thus. Maybe the term was invented, or adopted into the English language, in order to refer to rubbish fiction, on a completely different level than Literary Fiction.

A couple of months ago the word and its meaning came at me from two totally different directions at the same time. One was a question on a Swedish book newsletter site, where someone was asking ‘What does genre mean?’ Except they did it in Swedish. And I think the question was prompted by the discovery of the more British use of the word.

The other was on social media, where someone reported a programme they’d listened to, which went roughly like this:

(I asked permission to use it.) It’s not an exact quote or anything; more an idea of how people actually think, and are not ashamed to admit to in public. But basically, anything not very good is genre.

It’s very snobbish.

I read practically only genre fiction. By which I mean several genres, like children’s, or crime. It’s really good stuff. Sometimes I read Literary Fiction. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t and that’s when I remind myself why I prefer children’s books and crime. Although, some really Literary authors have been known to lower themselves to genre-writing. Quite often something seems to go wrong when they do.