Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

The novel opens with Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Amelia is the kindest of souls, with her tearful promises to write to her numerous bosom school friends, while Becky is determined to overcome her humble birth. The stately Miss Pinkerton deems Becky too lowly to receive the copy of Dr Johnson’s dictionary presented to all young ladies on their graduation from her establishment. When a copy is smuggled to her, Becky doesn’t want it and throws it out of the carriage taking the two girls away, much to Amelia’s genteel horror!

Amelia is headed back to her father’s house in Russell Square, to await marriage to her long-term beau George Osborne. Becky stays with the Sedleys en route to a position as governess at Sir Pitt Crawley’s country house Queens Crawley. While at Russell Square, Becky sets about wooing Amelia’s brother Joseph (an hilariously self-centred dandy). Luckily for the reader, Becky doesn’t ensnare Jos Sedley, allowing her to continue on her journey to scale the social heights by heading to Queen Crawley.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. It was originally serialised so Thackeray used lots of tricks to keep the reader hooked. There’s a wide range of characters from right across the social spectrum, from humble servants to aristocrats (and even occasional glimpses of the King). There are secret marriages. There are scheming relations vying with each other for their maiden aunt’s sizeable fortune. There is a bankruptcy. People flee to Paris to avoid their debtors. Waterloo carries most of the sizeable cast of characters to Brussels.

I’ve been meaning to read Vanity Fair for years, and I was very curious to know what I’d make of Becky Sharp. She’s one of those characters with a life of its own (and I’ve not even seen any of the screen adaptations of the book!). She’s certainly the brains of the operation, skilfully handling not just the men but most of the women too. She contrasts brilliantly with the rather insipid Amelia, to the point where at times I wished for less Amelia and more Becky. She also shows how frustrating life was for women, who were effectively powerless and reliant on fathers, brothers, husbands and patrons to survive.

But William Dobbin was a revelation for me. I wasn’t expecting him at all, and he was undoubtedly the beating heart of the novel. He physically unappealing, being lanky and squeaky voiced, but his heart is good and he’s a true friend. His emotional depth compensates for the weaknesses in other characters. The contrast between William Osborne and George Osborne counter balances the contracts between Becky and Amelia perfectly.

John Carey, who introduced this novel (or wrote the afterword in my case, as I obeyed his exhortation to only read his introduction after reading the entire novel!) in the Penguin Classics edition I read made some interesting comparisons with War & Peace. I hadn’t known of Thackeray’s influence on Tolstoy and since War & Peace is also a challenge read for me this year I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Eva's Reading Meme

Thanks to Verbivore at Incurable Logophilia for tagging me in Eva's Reading Meme ! This is the first meme I’ve responded to and the questions are just delicious! Also perfect for me today, as I finished Vanity Fair late late last night and my tired brain has enjoyed these questions so much…

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? This would have to be Saturday by Ian McEwan. Not sure if all the reviews I saw were positive, but it was just everywhere. It seemed like whenever I opened a newspaper there was a review or a piece by or about McEwan. It seemed that whenever I listened to Radio 4 it was being talked up. I live in London, was actually on the anti-war march on the day the novel is set, and I even love Fitzrovia (where the main character lives). I’ve enjoyed other McEwan books (though I think the film of Atonement is completely over-praised!). So usually I’d be raring to go but it just repells me. Actually thinking about it, a wealth of postive reviews or enthusiastic friends means I’m quite likely to avoid books (for instance, I’ve not read Harry Potter and now the fact that just about everyone I know loves them means I probably never will).
If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? I’d invite William of Baskerville (from Eco’s The Name of the Rose), Brogeen the leprechaun (from Patricia Lynch’s Brogeen books, particularly my favourite Brogeen and the Green Shoes) and Sylvie (from Robinson’s Housekeeping) to a dinner party. Not too sure what the topics of discussion would be, but between a mediaeval scholar monk, a representative of the fairy folk and a free spirit from mid-20th century America, I'm sure it would be an interesting night.
You are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?. This is perhaps cheating a little but it would have to be Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which is actually a very long poem). It bores me to tears, so despite trying it a few times I’ve yet to actually finish it.
Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it? I don’t generally have a problem owning up to not having read something, but I must say I did pretend to have read Tristram Shandy for the first couple of years of university. I think I was trying to look as well-read as possible (and it’s still on my tbr list now!). I also pretended to have read Villette, but only because I inadvertently ended up in a literary conversation with two friends who’d read it, and loved it, and assumed I did too. I went straight to the library, checked it out and discovered my favourite Bronte novel. I even then admitted my previous ignorance so it all ended quite happily!
As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realize when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book? Erm, nothing springs to mind in this category as I generally have a pretty good memory for what I’ve read and what I haven’t. But if this question were about a book you thought you hadn’t read but actually had, then it would be The Little Friend (Donna Tartt). I went to read it about a year ago and started having the strangest déjà vu. It seemed so familiar, but I was sure I hadn’t read the book. Well, when my déjà vu reached prophetic levels (as in I knew exactly what was coming next), I admitted that I’d suppressed the memory of this book. It’s actually quite a good book, so I was happy to inadvertently reread it, and it remains a puzzle to me why it disappeared so completely from my memory!
You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalize the VIP) I think maybe something by Bill Bryson. His style is so funny and chatty that even a non-reader would be sucked in. Or perhaps Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, for its sheer beauty. And I loved that book, so I’d happily sing its praises to the VIP in question, hopefully getting them into the right frame of mind to love it too!
A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? Spanish, as I’ve enjoyed so many Spanish language books in translation. But there’s a small likelihood that I’ll someday build on my schoolgirl Spanish (and French and Italian) so I’d choose Mandarin. I think there are going to be more and more interesting novels coming out of China, so it would be handy to be able to effortlessly read them in their original language.
A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? I’d have to go with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve reread this intermittently since I first read it as a teenager and I still love now as much as I did the first time around.
I know that the book blogging community and its various challenges have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)? I’m still pretty new to blogging, and am still finding my way around the book blogging community, so I’d have to say that challenges are my big “discovery”! A month ago I had literally no idea they existed and now I’ve signed up for three, so plenty of new books and new authors are in store for me in 2008. I can also feel myself becoming more thoughtful in my reading, as the act of noting down thoughts, reactions and words to look up is making my reading more textured.
That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leather-bound? Is it full of first edition hard covers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favorite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free. I think my dream library would have to have a fireplace, as I love reading in front of a fire more than anywhere else. So two chairs, on either side of a fireplace, each with its own reading lamp. There’d be a window, which looked out over trees and a pond (so I could see the seasons, or the rain, or the dark and feel even snugger in my dream library). The shelves would be full of cloth bound sewn hardbacks. Much as I love the smell of glue in paperbacks, I hate the way they gradually fall apart. The shelves would be magic, in that I’d never run out of space (now if only that would happen in real life!). And all I’d have to do to get a book into my library is to think about it. In fact, if I’m not sure of the title, all I’d have to do is think about a particular theme or idea and my dream librarian (with her vast knowledge) would provide interesting books.
I’d like to tag Cass at The Reading Life of Antipodean Owl, Orchidus at Epiphany, Juliet at Musings from a Muddy Island and Equiano at Lost in Translation. Only answer if you’d like to, as not sure if you love/hate memes!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Doris Lessing on the writing life

I went to listen to Doris Lessing (in conversation with Hermione Lee) at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday night. The Literary Saloon drew my attention to Ben Hoyle’s article in The Times about Lessing’s thoughts on contemporary authors and their promotional duties. This grand old dame, frail in body but still strong and edgy in spirit, expressed sympathy for the young writers of today, particularly young women. It’s interesting to think about whether the media profiles of authors – readings, signings, literary festivals, talking head appearances on TV and radio and the like – have a detrimental effect on the quality of writing they produce.

I’ve not read much Lessing, and only went along because it was her first public appearance since being awarded the Nobel. But it was a rather marvellous experience!

She began by reading the opening from her new novel, Alfred and Emily (due from HarperCollins in May 2008). It’s about her parents, about how WWI changed them so drastically that she thinks she never met her “real” parents, the people they’d have been but for the war. She described how the first half of the novel gives them the lives she imagines they had while the second half is about what actually happened to them (at least as far as she knows). It opens in 1902, Edwardian England, with the village cricket match at which the 16 year old Alfred meets the 18 year old Emily.
She said it will be ultimately be “quite anti-war”. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Lessing was witty and sharp, quite like her fiction really. She spoke intelligently and movingly about WWI, about how it was the foundational event of the 20th century, twisting and shaping everything that came after it, but yet doesn’t get the time or attention she thinks it deserves. She spoke about Zimbabwe, about the friends she still has there and the daily struggles they face. And if it’s bad for them (who are comparatively well off) it must be brutal for poorer people.

I recently finished Lessing’s The Fifth Child. It’s a slim novel, but still powerful. Harriett and David Lovatt are out of step with the Swinging Sixties, being “conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent”. Their shared dream is to create the perfect family, to provide a loving home to a brood of children in a rambling Victorian house. As the first four children are born the reality almost surpasses the dream. The children are healthy and charming, the parents are brimming with love for them and each other, the extended families are brought together, with wounds from the past being healed during shared Christmas and Easter holidays in Harriet & David’s house.

The plot turns sinister when Harriet falls pregnant with the fifth child. None of her pregnancies had been easy but this one is tortuous. The baby quickens early, and the movements gradually build into a crescendo of agony for Harriet. She starts to think “this savage thing inside her” is the enemy. When Ben is born at 8 months there are no reserves of maternal love for this monstrous child, so different from the other Lovatts. The cracks have well and truly appeared in the Lovatts’ charmed family life.

This almost reads like a fairy tale, a reworking of the ancient fear of giving birth to a monster. The taboo of the mother who despises her child. But there are shadows lurking in Harriet and David’s life before Ben’s birth, and Ben is not a complete monster (I felt quite tender towards him at times, at his isolation within his family), and it’s this complexity that made this an interesting read. I would say it’s a good book, good enough to seek out more Lessing.

Monday, 21 January 2008

The Africa Reading Challenge

I came across the Africa Reading Challenge over at Siphoning Off A Few Thoughts. It involves committing to reading 6 books by African authors or books about Africa or African issues, from January 1 to December 31 2008. It got me thinking about extending my reading beyond my usual European/North American focus. I’ve read a fair bit of African fiction, by writers like Andre Brink, JM Coetzee and Chinua Achebe, and a tiny amount of African non-fiction (erm, Philip Gourevitch’s powerful We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is the only thing that springs to mind at the moment). Since Half of A Yellow Sun is currently in the stack next to my bed, and I’ve wanted to read Nadine Gordimer for so long now it’s getting embarrassing, I’ve decided to sign up for this challenge. Six books seems totally achievable! And since my limited African reading to date involves male writers - The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta is the only book by a female African writer I think I’ve read - I’ve decided to make this a female only list. Here's the list:

So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
Your Madness, Not Mine by Juliana Makuchi (Cameroon) – short stories
Nervous Conditions by Tsi Tsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)
The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

I’m looking forward to reading the reviews posted as part of the challenge – I’m sure it’ll end up with yet more books I desperately want to read!

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Borges led me to Adolfo Bioy Casares' The Invention of Morel. Borges writes that to classify this novella “as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole” while Octavio Paz describes it as a
“perfect novel”. I usually discount blurbs but two such heavy hitters, along with Louise Brooks on the cover, were enough for me to buy this novella and read it in one sitting.

The unnamed narrator is on the run from the police, after a trial where he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He smuggles himself to an uninhabited and diseased island. With its disused swimming pool, chapel and museum, combined with its isolation, the island is the perfect place for him to remain hidden, serving a life sentence of his own design.

The novella is made up of journal entries, which start with the mysterious arrival of other people on the island. They appeared as if from nowhere, sending the narrator into hiding so as to avoid detection and arrest. He creeps around the island, watching the new arrivals unobserved, particularly the beautiful Faustine. He watches her each evening, as she sits on the rocks as the sun sets over the ocean. His unrequited love is sharply observed:

She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her. Yesterday, and again today, I discovered that my nights and days wait for this hour. The woman, with a gypsy’s sensuality and a large, bright-colored scarf on her head, is a ridiculous figure. But I still feel (perhaps I only half believe this) that if she looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.

The island's inhabitants become more mysterious the more he learns. Two suns and two moons appear in the sky. The narrator talks of the searing heat and the roots he subsists on and the reader wonders how much of this is “real”, as related in the factual journal, and how much is imagined or hallucinated. I won't discuss the invention of the title, as the revelation of what is happening on the island serves the plot so well.

For me, this was certainly not the perfect novel heralded by Borges and Paz, especially as I read it in translation, but it is readable and tightly plotted. The mystery builds as the threads of the story are woven. It's a book I think I'll reread, as it's short but dense with themes of immortality and metaphysical love.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Reading dangerous (and chunky) books

Wandering through the litblogosphere is bringing out my inner explorer...stumbling across an insightful and quirky blog is like discovering a new land. I'm reading about new authors, or new books by authors I've already read. It's invigorating, and exciting. My mental reading list is growing ever longer.

My other great discovery has been reading challenges. There are some utterly wonderful reading challenges out there (I'm thinking of things like the outmoded authors challenge I saw on Books of My Numberless Dreams). Most challenges would be too challenging for me, as I'm not a big one for lists, preferring to read where the mood takes me. But then I came across the year of reading dangerously challenge. It grabbed my attention. Such an idea, reading outside my personal comfort zone. And not too prescriptive either, providing a recommended list of titles, with the option to mix & match as I choose. Which suits me perfectly!

Here's the recommended list of titles:
- January: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (English classic)
- February: The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (African American)
- March: Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood (Atwood for Atwood's sake)
- April: Transformations, by Anne Sexton (Poetry)
- May: Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote (Southern US)
- June: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
- July: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (adolescent)
- August: Maus I and II, by Art Spiegelman (Graphic Novel, Pulitzer winner)
- September: The Secret Lives of People in Love, by Simon Van Booy (Independent)
- October: The Human Stain, by Philip Roth (Contemporary/Jewish)
- November: A Month of Classic Short Stories, Various - watch for a list
- December: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (Dusty)

But, since I've read some of these, and since Atwood is one of my favourite authors (so not exactly dangerous!), I've decided to tweak it slightly. Instead, here are my dangerous reads:
- January: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray - This has been on my shelf, making me feel guilty, for about three years.
- February: Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
- March: The Diviners by Margaret Laurence - this Canadian Margaret is brand new to me.
- April: Transformations, by Anne Sexton (Poetry)
- May: Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote
- June: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (Russian) - this will be re-reading, as I love Nabokov but don't read him now as much as I used to.
- July: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (adolescent) - I didn't like adolescent novels when I was an adolescent so this is quite "dangerous" for me.
- August: Maus I and II, by Art Spiegelman - I've never really gotten into graphic novels
- September: The Secret Lives of People in Love, by Simon Van Booy
- October: The Human Stain, by Philip Roth
- November: A Month of Classic Short Stories
- December: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (Dusty) - I've read a lot of Steinbeck, but not this one.

So with these twelve books to look forward to, I thought I'd sign up for another challenge - the Chunkster Challenge. Again, this isn't too prescriptive, as it's just four books, of over 450 pages, over the course of the year. Even better, cross over with other challenges is allowed so my Vanity Fair counts for this. But I really want to read War and Peace, and to re-read Ulysses, so this challenge appeals. My chunky books for 2008 are:

- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (809 pages)
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (a whopping 1358 pages)
- Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs (474 pages) - I'm very glad this qualified as this has been in my stack a while
- Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages) - The 1922 edition

It should be an interesting and satisfying year I hope!

Monday, 14 January 2008

Arts Council funding cuts for publishers

So much for not buying any more books! I've just spent nearly £40 on Amazon after reading Nicolas Lezzard's piece on today's Guardian Books blog.

I've been thinking how strange it is that I go out of my way to support independent bookshops but that I don't really seek out works by small independent publishers. And I do often check who's publishing what I'm buying (I worked in publising for a number of years, for two of the large mega publishers, so I retain an interest in the industry). My plan was to rectify this by starting with Persephone Books, as the bookshop's near where I work and it combines independent bookshop and publisher in one tidy package. But then I read a comment to Lezzard's piece along the lines of "well, how about supporting independent publishers by actually buying their books". So I have. I've bought:

At the Water's Edge by Pradeep Jeganathan (South Focus Press - I can't seem to find a website for them, so if anyone knows it I'd appreciate it)
The Crime of Father Amaro by Eca de Queiros (Dedalus)
The Maimed by Hermann Unger (Dedalus)
The Class by Hermann Unger
When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan (Arcadia Books)

While I bought these on impulse, they do fit with some of my nebulous reading aims (more short stories, more works in translation, more new authors). Now I just want them to arrive so I can start the process of discovering if there are any jewels in this haul!

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Winterwood by Patrick McCabe

I'll often sit in winterwood for hours...maybe just humming a few bars of 'Scarlet Ribbons', watching all the little ribbons as they flutter in the breeze. In the timeless beauty of our winterwood home.

tells the story of Redmond Hatch, a journalist who returns to his roots in the West of Ireland. In his home place of Slievenageeha, he comes under the spell of Ned 'Auld Pappie' Strange, a fiddling, story-telling mountainy man. Is Ned a gas ticket or something a lot more frightening? The storyline follows Hatch's descent from family man in the economically depressed Ireland of the 80s to mentally unstable drifter in the boom times of the Ireland in the Noughties.

Hatch's convoluted narration, with his self-consciously "educated" vocabulary, shows his dislocation from his background, and ultimately from reality. He idealises his wife and daughter, trying maintain a perfect happiness that steadily becomes creepier and creepier. As his life fragments, he starts to emulate Auld Pappie. His reaction to the changes in his life and in the society around him is to obsessively dwell on the old fashioned mountain life of his early childhood.

Only McCabe could imbue such a disturbing narrative with black humour. This dark and twisted novel is by far his best book since The Butcher Boy. The sinster story got under my skin in a way few stories do. This is brilliant and disturbing and a must-read for any fans of contemporary Irish fiction.

Eileen Chang

I've just seen Lust, Caution, at the marvellous Phoenix Cinema, and now I must, must read some Eileen Chang. And soon. It's a luscious film...and so, working on the Brokeback Mountain principle (incredible short story = incredible Ang Lee film), things bode well for her original story.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

No Country for Old Men by Cormac MacCarthy

The book opens with Chigurh, the sinister killer, brutually murdering both a police officer and a man picked solely because he's driving alone. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss, out hunting antelope, finds the remains of a drug deal gone wrong: three shot up vehicles, several dead bodies, a cache of weapons, some heroin and a suitcase full of $100 banknotes. He decides to take the money, knowing it will change his life forever, knowing he will become the prey.

Chigurh is on Moss's trail. Almost a killing machine, he methodically and clinically kills anyone who gets in his way, often using a slaughter house bolt gun.

One of the outstanding scenes for me was when Chigurh pulls into a filling station just as it's getting dark. The shopkeeper tries to engage him in the usual polite conversation about the weather and where he's from. The tension mounts and the terse dialogue culminates in a coin toss. Chigurh is deciding whether to kill him and the shopkeeper doesn't even know that his life is to be decided by the flip of a coin:

The man looked at Chigurh's eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones.
You need to call it, Chigurh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.
I didnt put nothing up.
Yes you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what date is on this coin>
It's nineteen fifty-eight. It's been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And I'm here. And I've got my hand over it. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Meanwhile, Sherrif Bell is also trying to find Moss, trying to save him from Chigurh. While the book is narrated in the third person, Bell's first person thoughts are interspersed throughout. He reflects on the changes in society since his boyhood, since he became a police officer after World War Two. He tries to make sense of the violence he witnesses in what was a law-abiding and peaceful place.

The impact of war, from World War Two on Bell and Vietnam on Moss and Wells (who is also on Moss's trail), is a recurring theme alongside the degradation in American society. Bell is trying to atone for something that happened in the war when he was 21. Moss had already killed in Vietnam, so perhaps the carnage he unleases by taking the money is not totally alien.

The plot is pacy and violent, but the writing is generally outstanding and the tone is unremittingly bleak. MacCarthy's descriptions of the desert setting are often achingly beautiful (see here for some thoughts on the words he uses). While I enjoyed this, I'm not sure it deserves the hyperbolic praise it seems to have received from just about every publication, to judge by the quotes included in my edition. It reads like a beautifully written thriller, enjoyable but no masterpiece.

The desert in words.

Cormac MacCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was a feast of new words. It’s a gripping read (see my review here) and MacCarthy’s pared down style means he uses words carefully. Sentences are mostly short. Characters mostly speak in short bursts of dialogue. It seems only right that MacCarthy displays his command of the language by using words that describe specific features of the desert setting. He’s showing me the reader how intimately he knows this land, how knowledgeable Moss is about his physical place in the world.

The first word that had me reaching for my dictionary, “datilla”, appeared on page 8. Neither of my dictionaries have a definition for it, so my googling turned up this . It seems likely that it’s describing a yucca, or other desert plant, when the word is taken in the context of the sentence: “The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him.”

I was quickly reaching for my dictionaries again when I came across “barrial” on page 10: “The barrial stood silent and empty in the sun.” Again, nothing in my dictionaries and I couldn’t find a definition via Google. It reminds me of barrio, so it would seem to be a Spanish word describing desert terrain.

I came across “caldera” on page 15 (He looked out down the track south across the caldera back the way the truck had come.”), and finally my OED could help me. It’s a noun, meaning a large volcanic crater, especially one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano (late 17th centry, from Spanish, originally Latin calderia meaning “boiling pot”). Such primeval violence contained in one short word. Knowing what it means adds depth to MacCarthy’s description, as the book opens in the aftermath of a violent drug deal gone wrong.

“Bajada” appeared overleaf, the end of page 16: “At the foot of a rockslide on the edge of the bajada was a small piece of something blue.” Again, my OED relieved my ignorance. It’s a noun meaning a broad slope of alluvial material at the foot of an escarpment (mid 19th centry, from Spanish “descent, slope). The specificity of the word, along with the fact that the rockslide is at the edge of it, somehow reinforces the smallness of the blue thing Moss sees. It is a blue speck in the reddish desert landscape that he can only see through his binoculars.

It was another word describing the physical landscape that had me next reaching for my dictionary: “He took off his boots again to try to cross the gravel without leaving any tracks and he climbed a long and rocky Rincon toward the south rim of the river canyon carrying the boots and the wrappings and the pistol and keeping an eye on the terrain below.” (p 35). “Rincon” means an interior corner, a nook; hence, an angular recess or hollow bend in a mountain, river, cliff, or the like.

The final word this book taught me is "caliche", which is used on page 270 to describe a woman burying her husband herself in 1879. It means a mineral deposit of gravel, sand and nitrates, found in dry areas of America (mid 19th century, from Latin American Spanish).

I lived in New Mexico for two years as a teenager. I hiked in desert landscapes, listening to rattlesnakes as the sun rose overhead. I learned words to describe my environment, words like arroyo and butte and pinon. These words from MacCarthy’s book have added to that stock.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

French feminism

Today is the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir's birth, and she's long been on my to read list. As a teenager, a French/Ecuadorian friend strongly recommended The Second Sex as a foundational feminist text but I never seem to come across a translation at a point when I've the time or inclination to read it (not helped by the criticisms of English translations of her work). Here's an interesting article in The Independent about how this cultural event is being celebrated in France.

I spent five days in Paris with my beloved over New Year, so found this particularly interesting. I adore Paris, but I do find it a fairly conservative and old-fashioned place compared to London. Perhaps it's the knowledge the beauty of Hausmann's centre is ringed by ghettos I'll probably never see. Still, we had a marvellous time, food and wine and lots of walking and talking, as well as the Louvre (the scrum of tourists snapping the Mona Lisa on their mobile phones was profoundly depressing) and the Arc de Triomphe and the utterly marvellous sewer museum, which was my personal museum highlight. After admiring the majesty of Notre Dame on New Year's Day, we walked to Shakespeare & Co for some much needed book browsing. We had a conversation outside the shop about what we'd study if we had the time and money. My beloved said architecture and I said philosphy, mentioning de Beauvoir and Sartre but expressing a desire to start with the classics, and get to know the foundations of the canon I've grown up with. We had a lively discussion about the merits of both subjects, how much they'd reveal to us about the development of ideas and culture in the world. Maybe we'll get around to it one of these years.

The first book of 2008 - Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell had not registered on my reading radar before the recent BBC production. In fact, I only tuned into the first episode of the BBC production because a colleague mentioned in passing that everyone dies in Mrs Gaskell’s stories. Morbid, I know, but it was enough to pique my interest. I was immediately hooked. The stories unfurled during the four weeks of the series were gentle and witty, tender and gripping, funny and unbearably sad. Such was my addiction that I received not one but two copies of the stories the series was based on (Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow) as Christmas presents.

Cranford (1853) is simply sublime. Narrated by Miss Mary Smith, from the first page it is an engaging and wryly amusing take on the predominantly female world of the village of Cranford:

…for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maidservants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ‘A man’, as one of them observed to me once, ‘is so in the way in the house’.

The characters are vivid and engaging. The gentle Miss Matty, kind but easily flustered as she attempts to accommodate genteel manners with the changes in society wrought by the encroaching modern world. Her sister Miss Deborah, a formidable lady who dismisses the modern idea that women are equal to men, as she knows they’re superior! Miss Pole, and her meticulous collection and broadcasting of gossip. Martha, the faithful young servant, and Jem Hearn, her “follower”.

The pace is slow, but only slow in that the narrative is made up of anecdotes and asides. It’s more a smoothly rolling pace of stories related in letters, or told to a visitor to update her on the events of the months since her last visit. There are many stock themes, such as the thwarted love affair or the long lost brother, but they’re so beautifully written that it’s a pleasure to read. There are so many gems it’s hard to isolate my favourite bit, though Miss Matty’s attempts to enter the world of trade are handled so deftly that they’re funny instead of maudlin.

Mr Harrison’s Confessions (1851) is enjoyable, though more than a little overshadowed by Cranford. The plot follows a young and unmarried doctor as he embarks on his first general practice in the small country town of Duncombe, with a series of misunderstanding and practical jokes leading to much romantic misinterpretation.

My Lady Ludlow (1858) was more of a struggle for me. Structurally, it’s interesting but I found it over long. The story about the French Revolution was a bit too melodramatic for me, even as I appreciated that it was an attempt to balance the revolution occurring in the lady’s world as modern life encroaches. The social history, a feature of all three stories, was most apparent, and most interesting, in this story. It reminds me of how far we’ve come as a society in terms of things like universal suffrage, education and protection of children or medical advances.

I’ve now added other Gaskell novels to my list of books to read, perhaps some that deal with working-class life in industrialising and urbanising England, maybe Mary Barton or North and South, to counter the pastoral Cranford stories.

And I’ve gathered two new words for my collection: fain and quondam.

Fain works as both an adverb and adjective. As an adverb, it means:
1. with pleasure, gladly;
2. by preference, by desire
As an adjective, with “to”, it means:
1. Happy, pleased (archaic)
2. inclined, desirous (archaic)
3. (a) willing; (b) being obliged or constrained: compelled

Quondam, an adjective, means “former” or “sometime” and dates from the first half of the 16th century, from the Latin quom, when.

I’m fain to recommend Cranford and, now that I’ve finally discovered her, I hope Mrs Gaskell is never my quondam friend. This was the perfect book to start my reading year.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Little Women's Christmas

Today is the feast of the ephiphany, the day baby Jesus got his presents from the Magi. At least that's how I thought of it as a child, as the three wise men figures in our nativity scene inched forward day by day until finally arriving at the crib on the 6th of January. I used to feel quite sorry for little baby Jesus, I didn't understand why he had to wait so long for his presents when Santy brought ours on Christmas morning. And then to just get gold and frankincense and myrrh. Poor baby I used to think, passing the crib.

This is also an important day in Cork, where I'm from, because it's Little Women's Christmas (or Women's Little Christmas, as we call it in our house). It's Oiche Nollaig na mBan in Irish - most Irish students should be familiar with Sean O Riordain's famous poem of the same name. It's a day when men took over household and family chores, allowing women to get together and socialise. In bygone days even respectable women could go to the pub, to enjoy a few drinks and a sing song with female friends. Nowadays, the pubs and restaurants of Cork are still full of women celebrating together on this night. My mother, originally from Limerick, says it's not really celebrated in Limerick, so it was a new tradition to her when she moved to Cork in the late Sixties. From what I gather from speaking with friends from other parts of Ireland, it's celebrated most strongly in Cork. So I particularly associate it with Cork, part of my proud Corkonian heritage!

And epiphany, while not a new word to me, is such an interesting one to blog about, as it works on a religous, personal and literary level. According to, it means the following:

1. (initial capital letter) a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi; Twelfth-day.
2. an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.
3. a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
4. a literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.

Its origins lie in the late 13th century, from Middle English epiphanie, from Old French, from Late Latin epiphania, from Greek epiphaneia, 'manifestation', from epiphainesthai, 'to appear': epi-, forth; + phainein, phan-, 'to show'

I had always known of the feast of the Epiphany, as even someone as lapsed as myself knows it's a holy day of obligation for Catholics. But I hadn't realised it had other meanings, meanings that could help my reading, and even apply to moments I experience myself, until my late teens. It was in English class, when I was 17, that our teacher brought it up. I think it was House of the Spirits we were studying, but it could have been 100 Years of Solitude or the Borges' stories we read that year. But the word struck me as so useful that its meanings have stayed with me.

And as it was an epiphany experienced while reading the Saturday paper that set me blogging, it seems an especially useful word to me at the moment.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

And so to begin.

I love words, to the point where I willingly label myself a logophile. My logophilia began early, as reading unlocked worlds and experiences far from my suburban Irish childhood. And the essential privacy of reading, the silent communion between reader and writer, calms me in a way few things do.

It’s always been interesting to see how the different people in my life view my reading. I’ve had boyfriends who’ve been jealous of something that absorbed my time and attention, so it’s no surprise that the man I’ve chosen to spend my life with is also a reader, albeit to a lesser extent than me. I’ve had family and friends wonder how I can stay indoors on a hot day, or stay up for hours, when I’m reading something I literally cannot put down.

The physicality and sensuality of books add to my intense enjoyment - the cover artwork, the texture of the paper, the acknowledgments and dedications and smell of glue. But my love of words is more than bibliophilia. I read the words on shampoo bottles in the shower or on adverts on the tube when it’s too packed to read my book and wonder about who chose those words and why. I eavesdrop on strangers as I move through my life and wonder what the words they use actually mean to them. I love to find old postcards in antique markets, the thrill of imaging the stories behind the faded lines written by strangers to strangers. I love the history of words, and how word usage varies from region to region. Words are my entry into other stories, other worlds, other times, and are as close as I’ll come to another’s mind.

When I was 13 or so, one of my favourite English teachers used to set a weekly list of 10 words to memorise. The words had a theme, perhaps collective nouns or words sharing the same root, and I just adored them. I can still recite some of the lists, with definitions, and I remember how exciting it was to feel my vocabulary expand. And the praise she used to give for using the new words in our essays and book reports. That was a stage in my life when I still avidly looked up words I didn’t know when I came across them in my reading. I stopped doing that at some point during university, when it just became too much hassle, despite studying English and History. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of not knowing words that I felt I should have known, that were obviously well known enough for an author to use them. Or perhaps it was just laziness of my part.

But a couple of weeks ago I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian’s Review section by James Meek. He decided to look up every word he didn’t understand, and produced a delightful essay about language and lexicography and what it tells us about our world. I didn’t know most of the words he mentioned and it set me thinking about how I nearly always skip over words I don’t understand. This triggered memories of when I used to look them up, about how my first major purchase at university was a set of Oxford dictionaries being given away as an introductory offer by a book club. The same set of dictionaries I’ve used and taken care of in the decade since then, carefully packing and unpacking them as I moved from flat to flat. So I decided to honour my love of words by making a resolution to look up words I don’t know, and note where and when I found them. This will hopefully reinvigorate my reading as well, as it’s a chance to recapture the excitement of learning. I’m wondering what patterns I’ll uncover and what effect it’ll have on my own speech.

The very first word I came across after making this resolution was adumbrate, which was used in an email forwarded to me by a colleague. My OED defines this verb as follows:

-report or represent in outline;

-indicate faintly;

-foreshadow or prefigure a future event;


It originated in the late 16th century, from Latin adumbratus, ‘shaded’, from the verb adumbrare, from ad ‘to’ (as an intensifier) and umbrare ‘cast a shadow’ (from umbra ‘shade’).

And of course, now that I know what it means, and its origin, I clearly see the echo of umbra and it seems such a much more useful and multi faceted word than ‘summary’. I’m already glad I’ve made this promise to myself.