Monday, 25 February 2008

Monday, monday

How on earth is it Monday already? The weekend whizzed by, with just not enough reading, either of books or blogs, to keep me happy. My mind is still on law study so I've been flitting around since I finished Then We Came to the End. I'm counting the minutes (well, almost!) until next Saturday afternoon, when my Litigation exam is over and I can enjoy some guilt free reading. Happily, I'm now 100 pages into The Crime of Father Amaro by Eca de Queiros. He's a brand new author for me, and I'm enjoying it so far. The themes of hypocrisy and romantic love are deliciously rendered, with some of the characters just hilariously drawn. It's set in Portugal in the 1880s, which is an almost utterly unknown period for me and it's interesting to contrast it with the 19th century British and American novels I've read. At this stage, I feel sure that I'll write up my thoughts more fully in due course.

I was also lucky enough to have an excellent brunch yesterday, hosted by a dear friend who lives in the most amazing flat just steps away from Borough Market. She's a voracious reader, with such a wide and interesting taste. I can spend hours gazing at her shelves and asking for her thoughts on the various books I stumble across. I trust her recommendations a lot, so there was much opinionated discussion of what we loved and what we hadn't. Pretty much the ideal way to spend a Sunday morning at a time when I just don't have time to read as much as I'd like!

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Office daze

I was really excited to read Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. It's about workers at an ad agency in Chicago in the late 90s, faced with lay-offs brought on by shrinking advertising budgets. As you can see, it's got a gorgeous cover and it was heaped with praise when it came out in hardback last year. I work in an office, and I was intrigued by a novel from a promising young writer about my daily reality. Spring was in the air and it was time to lighten up and read some humourous fiction. It started promisingly enough:

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.

The first person plural narrator initially seemed like a quirky way of getting the reader instantly inside the gossip-y world of the strangers forced to spend most of their waking lives together as colleagues. A stream of characters were introduced, and some details were spot on - Marcia with her 80s hairstyle and continued devotion to the bands she worshipped as a teenager, the woman still a teenager in her head; Jim Jackers, with his insecure desire to be loved by all and his fear of the blank page, the archetypal college kid transitioning to adulthood.

But I couldn't get hooked on the story. The first person plural narrator stopped being quirky and just started grating. I didn't care about the characters, so I didn't really care about the endless firings. I didn't care enough to follow who was laid off when. And, crucially, I didn't care about the tragedies playing out in these characters' lives. I wasn't moved by the mother of the murdered child handicapped by grief. I didn't care about the suicidal Carl Garbedian, with his existential crisis and marital problems. I found most of it profoundly depressing, particularly the bullying and isolation of Joe Pope.

I had a reprieve in the middle of the book. For a brief chapter Ferris moved into third person singular, following the character of Lynn, a partner at the ad firm. His writing here was much better, portraying a woman used to being in control during a very vulnerable time. The depth and complexity on display were so much more appealing to me and gives me faith that Joshua Ferris is a writer of talent if he can move beyond stylistic posturing. And it helped me get through the book, as I think I would have put it down otherwise.

This book made me wonder, yet again, about what goes on in reviewing circles. Had any of these reviewers every actually worked in an office? Perhaps if they hadn't, it would explain how they could find such a depressing book "dazzling" and "stunning" and the like. It's funny how there's usually such a consensus around debuts like this, like he's been annointed the hot writer with the buzz for the year, so nearly every reviewer is going to treat his debut as the best thing they've read. But it's certainly reminded me that I need to get back to my usual policy of ignoring the critical guff on prelims and jacket blurbs...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Random jottings

You know when you've never heard of a writer and then someone mentions them to you or you read their name for the first time and within days they start popping up everywhere? I'm experiencing that at the moment with Marianne Moore. I had, literally, never heard of her before recently discussing twentieth century poets with a friend, who raved about her as an outstanding poet worthy of a far higher profile. Then I saw her book cover on Nigel Beale's collection of his favourite book covers on flickr (there are lots of lovely faber covers on there) and today her name's popped up in David Morley's poetry workshop on the Guardian Books site.

So I thought I'd head over to one of my favourite poetry sites, the Poetry Archive to see what I could turn up. I love the Poetry Archive. It's a charity that exists to promote the worldwide audience for poetry and they have an incredible archive of recordings of various poets reading their own work. If you ever fancy listening to Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree or Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade or just want to meander through, listening to your favourite poets or poems you remember from school then this is the place for you. Unfortunately no Marianne Moore for me on there but now that she exists for me I hope to read some of her work myself soon.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

This poor blog's been sadly neglected over the past week or so, as it's been a busy time chez moi...but I won't bore you with the intricacies of revision for my property law exam! Instead I'd like to share my thoughts on James Baldwin's stunning Go Tell It On The Mountain. Baldwin always struck me as a writer that's fallen out of fashion, with his popularity tapering away after his death in 1987. Despite his "modern classic" status, I wasn't ever particularly tempted to investigate his work for myself. But since African-American writing was the genre for February in the Year of Reading Dangerously challenge, I thought I'd give his debut novel a go. Mainly because I just loved the cover artwork (which, as you can see for yourself, is starkly gorgeous). And I am so so very glad I did.

John Grimes is going to be a preacher when he grows up. He's going to preach at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, just like his father Gabriel. Everyone says so and everyone's been saying so for so long that even John himself believes it now. The novel opens on the morning of his fourteenth birthday, the first morning he begins to realise the enormity of his looming future. He's still not saved, not like the living saints in his storefront church, so how can an unsaved sinner like him find a future saving sinners as a preacher man? His emerging sexuality and his changing body add to his guilt and fear. But his biggest sin is his hatred of his authoritarian and distant father. He's nursed this hatred so long that it's part of him, part of his future, and his struggle with this hatred in the eyes of God is the biggest part of his spiritual journey.

This is an intense novel, grappling with the role of religion in early 20th century African-American culture at a time the blues and jazz explosion were expressing African-American life in new ways. The first and last chapters are largely from John's perspective, while the three longer chapters are from the perspective of his paternal Aunt Florence, his father and his mother Elizabeth. While the action unfolds only over the course of less than 24 hours, this tight structure allows Baldwin to swoop over decades and geography. His older characters move from the South to the North, following lovers or seeking a new life away from the grinding physical poverty of the South. His spare, almost clipped, style adds to the repression and poverty of post-emancipation life in the South. One character, Deborah, was violently gang-raped as a teenager by a group of white men, while lynchings are in the background as the white bloodsport. But the fabled North is not much better, with black women still toiling as cleaners for whites and black boys too afraid to go into the New York Public Library, as it's too imposing, too intimidating, too white, even for an intelligent boy like John Grimes. John is not a likeable character, he's dutiful but resentful, at times self-pitying (will anyone remember his birthday?) and isolated from the rest of his family. But the family secrets revealed (to the reader, not necessarily to all the other characters) show how he's a product of his history and environment. It's compelling stuff

This accomplished debut was just what I needed after finishing another debut (Joshua Ferris' debut Then We Came To The End - more on this later). I'm now planning to read more Baldwin, to make up for all the years when I thought he wasn't worth the effort!

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Digital natives

I got a kick out of Steven Johnson's article "Dawn of the Digital Natives" in the Technology section of today's Guardian on my Northern Line journey this morning. It's a response to the NEA study released back in November 07 about the decline in reading in the US saying that the Google generation's reading is not quite as woeful as anyone over 25 likes to think. It's pretty US-centric, but he has a good line in one liners:
"Simply excising screen-based reading from the study altogether is like doing a literarcy survey circa 1500 and only counting the amount of time people spent reading scrolls".

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

One month already?!?

Today is my one month blogging anniversary, my blogiversary if you will. I can't believe how fast the month has passed...on the 5th January I was still missing Paris (where we spent New Year's) and was on day five of my new non-smoker self. On Feb 5th I'm loving London again and haven't even thought about cigarettes in weeks. I was comedy proud of myself on Saturday night, as I managed to wait outside the theatre while the Husband parked the car and not only didn't want to smoke but actually felt a little sorry for the smokers standing out there with me. Which must be some sort of non-smoking turning point. And then one of the actors was smoking on stage and I thought the smell was obnoxious - I've well and truly turned! The play (David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow at the Old Vic) was fantastic, helped by my crush on Jeff Goldblum no doubt. I generally don't like Mamet, as I found Oleanna and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (the only other Mamet plays I've seen) tiresome, but I would recommend this one. The Husband loved it, which was handy as I'd gotten the tickets as his birthday present. Mamet always makes me wonder about whether a play should be readable or not. Oleanna was easy to read, but I just didn't buy it as a performance, which to me makes a weak play...whereas I struggled with Henry V but was gripped by the RSC performance I saw in Stratford last autumn. I sometimes think a play only read is a lesser thing, as it's a performance and a text. It's like only reading songs.

A friend has a wonderful food blog (Treat a Week - he's such a foodaholic, and I can vouch for how good some of these recipes taste!), and reading his posts got me thinking about blogging myself. I work full time and have also been studying law by night for the last three and a half years (the end is in sight - I finish in June and it's going to be great to "just" work!). The work/study combination is at times terrible for my reading (my telly watching's also suffered but that's really no bad thing). I started to think how a blog may help my reading, may help me to reenergise and expand my horizons, may help to remind me that there's life beyond work and text books and case law and revision. So I started to mull over the idea of starting my own blog. I even mentioned it to the Husband, who was his usual supportive self (he's got far more faith in my than I do!).

After all my thinking about it I actually signed up to Blogger on a bit of a whim at the end of the first week back at work in 2008. My "official" aim is to actually look up words I know instead of just skipping over them, hence the name of the blog. Hmmm, that promise hasn't actually survived so well. I'm still noting words down, and where I found them, but finding the time to actually look them is proving elusive. Probably because I'm discovering this whole amazing world of bloggers! I love to wander through blogs, it's amazing what you find. Though thank god I discovered bloglines, or I think I'd spend all my free time wandering through the litblogosphere and never get any of my own reading done!

I want to write up my thoughts on Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (I initially disliked it, but got more into it and ended up thinking it's a worthwhile debut - I'll keep an eye out for Joshua Ferris in the future) and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (I loved this book, I think it should have won the Booker, although Darkmans is sitting in my TBR pile as I write this so I may revise that opinion when I get around to that book). I'm currently reading Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (my second Reading Dangerously book) and I'm finding it an intense experience. I read a little before pausing to digest, so it's a more thoughtful reading experience than other books I've read recently. Unfortunately, I've got a Property exam coming up on the 16 Feb so I'm just going to have to go and study and leave the world of books for pleasure behind for a while...

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Spring is in the air

Look what I got in the post today!

Some more books for my African Reading Challenge. I love getting books in the post, there's all the satisfaction of a package with the added thrill of new books. It's not quite as good as browsing in an actual bookshop but it's lovely all the same. I've just started using The Book Depository and it's been so good. It has a massive selection of books (I went on there originally because I couldn't find all the books I needed for the African challenge on Amazon), with good prices and free delivery. I think the free delivery is what sells it to me. I hate the awful "hmmm which delivery method should I use" part of Amazon and the cost usually makes me feel I've not made such a big saving on the book. The BD also sends the books out as they're ready from its warehouse, which means I had the fun of receiving So Long A Letter earlier in the week. So I get even more packages, which can only be a good thing. And it sends book marks too, which should help to stop me moaning about the perpetual lack of book marks in my's such a lovely morning here, cold but bright and clear. The spring bulbs are still coming up. The slight breeze is perfect for the laundry on the line. I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched as I refilled the bird feeder. So I wasn't too surprised when the blue tits and our local jay were there within seconds of me closing the back door. I love watching the birds, the wood pigeons bullying the magpies, the robins who seem so fearless. I even love the squirrels, despite my perpetual campaign to position the feeders in squirrel-proof locations! I've got to admire their ingenuity at getting at the food. Spring is definitely in the air in London despite the snow and storms in other parts of Britain.