Sunday, 31 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - William Trevor

Cheating at Canasta - William Trevor

After reading such praise as:
"There is no better short story writer in the English-speaking world" 
Wall Street Journal
And hearing William Trevor described as the "master" of the short story, I was really looking forward to reading Cheating at Canasta

I did not like this collection, at all. Each tale is as depressing as the last, in, what seemed to me, a celebration of melancholia. The twelve stories feature:

  • A young mechanic in rural Ireland whose life is changed forever after a car accident.
  • A wife who, for the last nine years, has tried to ignore her internal screams of anguish and avoid communicating with her husband after he was investigated by the police in connection with the murder of a high-class prostitute.
  • A vagabond returning to Ireland after many years in England, to threaten and blackmail the priest in the town where he grew up.
  • A man reminiscing about his wife and the blissful early days of their marriage. At her behest, he travels to Italy and dines in their favourite restaurant, but he dines alone as his wife and their shared life together have been claimed by dementia.
  • A young teenager who feels guilty after her boyfriend beats another boy to death. She knows that he was, in part, showing off to her and she knows that, if only for a moment, she enjoyed the fact that her boyfriend wanted her to notice him even though his posturing display involved extreme violence.
  • A plain, teenage girl stuck in a dull life who is courted by an older, sexual deviant. Their burgeoning relationship is halted before he can abuse her. But, she laments the end of their 'friendship' in her dull, empty life devoid of love.
  • An elderly widow who mourns the loss of her husband and the end of an era, when her sons are forced to sell off parts of their estate in order to survive financially.
  • A shy, soft-spoken teacher who is left by his younger lover despite the quiet harmony of their relationship and the lack of arguments and disputes.
  • A farmer who falls in love again after the death of his wife from cancer. He hopes to marry his neighbour Teresa, but their union is disrupted by the needs and desires of their children.
  • An elderly lady who bristles at the letters which her husband continues to receive from a woman he had an affair with decades ago.
  • The relationship between Hester and Bartholomew, two unmarried, middle-aged siblings from Dublin who find themselves seeking new housing arrangements after spending their whole childhood and half their adult lives together in the same home.
  • The chance meeting of two men in Paris who had been childhood friends in Ireland. The story details the loss of innocence and the crime of adults who forget things which should not be forgotten.
If I found the collection so depressing, why did I continue reading? The critics are right, William Trevor really is a master of the genre. His characterisation, particularly of his mature women characters, is excellent. The stories are also well paced and do not drag. Although, some of the stories in Cheating at Canasta were only several pages long, all of the stories felt fully developed. In just several pages William Trevor is capable of drawing the whole story and focuses on the heart of the matter so intensely that you wonder why you would even need the extra pages that the longer form demands.

You can read the eleventh story from the collection, Faith, for free online at The New Yorker

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Denton Burn Library

Denton Burn Library opened in 1961 and was refurbished in 1986. It was a beautiful sunny day when I visited which probably helped to colour my positive impression of the building and its services. 

Like all the branch libraries I have visited, it was well-used by locals: reading newspapers, checking books in and out, reading to children in the children's library and, of course, using the PCs. Also, there was an interesting local history display about men's working lives in the West End of Newcastle (featuring lots of information about the Elswick Works, home of Armstrong Whitworth)

The adult section of the library is a large open plan space with comfortable seating situated in the middle of the room. It is well-lit both artificially and by natural light.

I was really impressed by the design of this sixties building. The interior had a warm, bright and airy feel to it and, the exterior with its white walls and jaunty blue fascia really shone in the sun. I don't know if the public are allowed access in the summer months, but at the back of the library there is an enclosed garden.

The back of the library with an enclosed garden

Denton Burn Library may be closed by Newcastle Council in 2013.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - Jane Gardam

The People on Privilege Hill - Jane Gardam

 Jane Gardam's collection contains fourteen stories that deal with memory (a mother remembering her daughter's wedding in The Hair of the Dog and former class mates reminiscing about their time at university in The Last Reunion), relationships (a lonely old lady and her love for a gorilla at the local zoo in Pangbourne and the end of a marriage in Snap) and sons leaving home to go out into the wide world (Lester on his last night at home before his first term at university in The Fledgling and Jim Smith attending an interview for medical school in The Flight Path).

My favourite stories were The Fledgling and The Flight Path. The two stories are similar in that they both deal with young men on their first trips away from home, The Fledgling is set in modern times and The Flight Path follows Jim Smith from the North East of England as he journeys to London for the first time in his life in order to attend an interview for medical school. It is winter 1941 - the Blitz. Jim's mother has arranged for him to spend the night of the interview with Nell, a cousin of hers, who lives in Wimbledon with her husband, a former dentist. Jim successfully navigates the Tube to find a train heading towards Wimbledon. I loved the description of the crowded carriage of the Tube,
"Fore and aft he was pressed into a host of silent people pointedly looking away from each other and clinging to leather nooses that hung down from the roof." 
Jim's intended destination is on the flight path of the bombing raids, but when he arrives he finds tranquil, suburban streets lined with large Victorian houses. His Aunt Nell and her husband Bob live with Cissie (Nell's aged aunt) and two long-term lodgers. There is also Mac in the kitchen, who seems to be their cook or, perhaps, another lodger who pays for her board by cooking the meals. Jim is absolutely famished, when at last,
The door behind the denstist all at once banged open and a cloud of warmth flooded in with a glorious smell of cooking and a goddess filled the doorway. She bore a big blue oval cooking pot. She was tall and blonde. A figure of gold."
She may be beautiful, but to an eighteen year old boy, she was old, "She might even have been thirty.". That made me laugh, as I did many times throughout the collection. Although the themes developed are not amusing: mutating relationships, loss, nostalgia, the vagaries of old age, Jane Gardam's characterisation is deft and frequently comic.

As soon as the household Jim is visiting finishes dinner the air raid sirens start. I won't tell you how it finishes.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Blakelaw Library

Since 2004 Blakelaw Library has been housed in a shared usage building. Blakelaw Neighbourhood centre on Binswood Avenue hosts: slimming groups, a senior cinema club, the history society, many other local groups and initiatives and the local branch library.

There is ample free parking at the centre and the building is warm and modern. There is a reception desk as you enter, where, unfortunately, I was greeted with a grimace and my cheery "hello" was met by silence, and the entrance to the library is just around the corner.

When I visited, the library was very busy as the weekly 'coffee and conversation' event was underway. There were other people coming and going to borrow and return items and the few computers that are available were all occupied.

Blakelaw Library is a vibrant meeting place and an important resource for the local community. Newcastle Council plan to close Blakelaw in 2013.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A Single Swallow - Horatio Clare

I haven't read any nature writing for several months, so a couple of weeks ago I headed to the 590s section of the library to see what I could find.

I stumbled across A Single Swallow and was immediately attracted by it's colourful, orange, green and blue dust jacket and the vague feeling that I would like to read something about birds. I had a quick flick through and could see that it was a travel book, but seeing as the hook for Horatio Clare's journey was to follow swallows from their winter migration grounds in South Africa back to Wales, I thought that the book would focus extensively on swallows - migration patterns, physiology, mating behaviour, etc. Obviously, the cataloguer was having a bit of an off-day, as A Single Swallow is clearly travel writing (it even says 'travel writing' on the back, next to the bar code). Having said that, the author displays his interest in the natural world with really beautiful and perceptive descriptions of: sky, land, river, trees and animals.

The first chapter, which describes the starting point of his journey in South Africa, focuses quite heavily on the birds, so it wasn't until I had read a bit further that I realised that this wasn't the sort of book I was hoping to read. I continued on for two reasons: a) travel writing is one of my favourite genres, so I thought I would probably enjoy it anyway, and, b) the language was wonderfully lyrical and so vivid that I kept stopping to read sentences out loud.

One of the figures of speech which kept jumping out at me was the author's liberal use of alliteration - "The light is peculiar, melted pewter and there is a penumbra around the sun." My favourite snippet described travelling along a river and keeping close to the bank, "we stuck to the steep-shelving shore, no more than a foot into the flow". His description doesn't feel forced to me, at all, and out of all the other ways he could have described this simple action, this repetition of st-, st-, sh-, sh-, f- f- made me declaim this sentence out loud about four times. The necessity to stop, at intervals, and sing snippets of the text, meant that this book took me much longer than average to finish. 

I also found the author's use of simile and metaphor refreshingly inventive. For example, in describing the dangers of choosing a window seat next to the metal frame of an overfilled bus, he says, "I will collect a fat bar code of bruises down my right side."

The first two thirds of the book that dealt with sub-Saharan Africa were enjoyable, but after Algiers the book started to go down hill for me, reaching the depths when the author suffers an episode of melancholy in Gibraltar and chucks his rucksack (containing all his supplies, notebooks and souvenirs) into the sea from the top of a cliff. He then proceeds to discard his wallet and passport en route to Madrid. This last section of the book was mainly about 'the journey' rather than travel. On return to England and in trying to make sense of his journey and readjustment to British life, he says,
"And because I am a romantic, and because perhaps I really had been knocked sideways by the journey, I imagined that what had happened to me would be met with universal rejoicing by my family. It was not."
I found it easier to understand his journey as a whole, both pre- and post his manic episode/period of enlightenment, by changing the lower case r of "romantic" to Romantic.

Was this book the best travel memoir I have ever read? No. But, Horatio Clare's writing is enjoyable enough  for me to consider picking up another one of his books in the future.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - Julie Orringer

How To Breathe Underwater - Julie Orringer

I had intended to ration the reading of this collection throughout the week. Once I started to read though, I polished it off in a couple of days, which is a testament to Orringer's skill as a storyteller, and her ability to authentically portray the thoughts of young women, as I didn't enjoy most of the stories.

Orringer's debut collection consists of nine tales which focus on girls and young women (from ages 9 to 20) as they deal with the 'complicated' parts of life: how to handle a mother's terminal cancer, bullying at school, jealousy, religious identity, sexual awakening and betrayal, grief, guilt and drug addiction.

I found the themes and plots of most of the stories either too bleak or too salacious. At times, some of the stories seemed unnecessarily sensational and I think the collection as a whole would have worked better with more low-key stories.

However, I did like the second story in the collection, When She Is Old and I am Famous. This story centres around the animosity and jealousy that Mira, the twenty year old, overweight narrator,  feels for her fifteen year old cousin, Aida, who is a successful model - "Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity".

Mira is studying art in Italy and, despite their mutual dislike, her cousin, who lives in Paris, comes to stay for a holiday, interrupting Mira's friendship with her classmates Joseph and Drew, who drool over Mira's beautiful cousin and ignore her.

The story deals with themes of female rivalry, career ambition, insecurity and unconventional family life. The dialogue is witty and sharp, and the less sensational story line lent this tale a subtlety and sophistication that I thought was missing in some of the more dramatic stories. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Library File Goes to the West Midlands

Part Three - Chester House Library

The library seen from the high street.
A trip to Chester House Library in the village of Knowle, just outside Solihull, was the highlight of my trip to the West Midlands.

As you can see from the picture above, when seen from the high street there is little indication that this wonderful building is actually the local public library. The entrance to the library is at the side of the building by the south wing. It would not be feasible to have the entrance on the high street as the pavement is rather narrow.

I entered the library from the other side as there is a free car park on a parallel road to the high street with a connecting alley which goes right by the library entrance. Accessing the library from behind also gives you the opportunity to visit the recreated, Elizabethan knot garden (commissioned by the council and opened in 1989).

Chester House consists of five different buildings of different dates, styles and construction: the south wing was built  in 1400 or earlier, the north wing dates from 1500 - 1550 and, finally, around 1600 a two-storey  block was built linking the two original buildings to form a substantial house.

Not much is known about the original inhabitants of these early buildings, due to a lack of records, but from 1810  to 1910 the house was owned by the Kimbell family, from 1910 to 1925 it was occupied by H. Blundell (a farmer), in 1925 Mr Pickering took possession of the house and it was from his descendants that the council bought the house. Solihull Council started restoration on the house in 1972, although at that time there were no plans to make the building a library. Thanks to the creative-thinking of some of the council's senior officers, it was eventually decided to use Chester House as a library. Until 1975 - when Chester House officially opened as a library - the library facilities had been housed in a shop in the high street.
Plan of the ground floor and garden.
Even though Chester House is not a purpose built library, the space is used well to make a library which is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. The library is well-lit thanks to the velux windows which were added to the east wing roof. And, it is nicely partitioned with one area for adult fiction, non-fiction and reference material, a separate, cosy room for the children's library which leads through into a separate teen section.
The roof of the east wing with velux windows and lovely wooden beams.
The teen section.
There are stairs in the foyer and the teenage section which lead up to the gallery. The first floor is used for library events and also houses the local archives and a local history display.
The fireplace and filing cabinets containing the local archives.

Display cabinets with local, historical information and the back stairs leading to the teen section.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Library File Goes to the West Midlands

Part Two: Solihull

Although only 9 miles from Birmingham, the pleasant town of Solihull feels a world away - it feels middle class, calm and small-townish. The large modern shopping mall, in the bustling centre of the town, had the most interesting interior I've seen in such a building. There were art deco style lamp posts with wrap-around leather benches at the bottom for resting on and curved fretwork ceilings with recessed lighting. The interior embellishments were subtle, but once I started to notice them I could see how nicely designed the mall was.

Although there are plenty of older buildings in the town (Solihull escaped the WWII bombing raids which destroyed parts of Birmingham and Coventry), the library, which shares a building with the arts centre, is housed in a utilitarian seventies block.

Solihull Arts Complex and Central Library, opened 1978.
Despite the slightly depressing exterior (not helped by the grey, drizzling day and bare, winter trees), Solihull Central Library is, what I would call, a 'proper' library. When you enter on the ground floor you come across an enquiry desk, and then the room opens out displaying the circulating collection of: fiction, non-fiction, CDs and DVDs, a large sheet music collection and an extensive collection of language learning resources. The children's library is situated in a large area to the right of the main area. The reference library, local history section, national careers library and special resources for the visually impaired are located on the first floor along with plenty of PCs. 
The ground floor lending library.
For a first time visitor, the library is very easy to use and it is also very well stocked. I was pleased to see such a comprehensive reference section, and I went a bit mad photographing encyclopaedias and dictionaries: they had everything from encyclopaedias of military uniforms to reference works on oriental rugs and English goldsmiths.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Woman + Noteworthy = Actress

"Mummy, I don't want to be an actress or a singer!"

I came across this display for International Women's Day in one of the Newcastle branch libraries. I like displays in libraries -  it makes a change to see the front covers of books displayed prominently, and it's nice to use a collection of books to commemorate events of regional, national or international importance.

However, I was rather shocked by the books that had been chosen for the display as the majority of them were biographies of actresses, with two popular singers (Rihanna and Jessie J) and a royal. Where were the politicians, the explorers, the craftswomen, etc? As the library (which will remain nameless) is a branch library, I understand that they are limited in their choices by a small circulating stock. But, with a bit of imagination  it is possible to make a more fitting display from the titles readily available in that particular library. From the books I noticed on the shelves whilst browsing and from a subsequent search of the catalogue, I have made my own virtual display:

  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England  - Ralph V. Turner
  • Liberty Belles: Six Women and the French Revolution - Lucy Moore
  • Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers - Dea Birkett
  • Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War - Virginia Nicholson
  • Women of the War Years: Women in Britain 1939 to 1945 - Janice Anderson
  • Ingrid: A Personal Biography - Charlotte Chandler
  • The Catherine Cookson Companion - Cliff Goodwin
  • Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait - Andrew Norman
  • Moral Disorder - Margaret Atwood
  • Letter to my Daughter - Maya Angelou
  • What Makes Women Happy - Fay Weldon
  • Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female - Sarah Vine and Tania Kindersley
  • Tate Women Artists - Alicia Foster
  • Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 - Stella Rimington
This is not my castaway choice of women's writing/ writing about women, as I could only choose titles that were available in that library. I tried to make the list varied and populist, and I think these titles would celebrate the spirit of International Women's Day much more than the current uninspiring display.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Zoladdiction - The Emile Zola Reading Challenge

Zoladdiction, hosted by Fanda at Fanda Classiclit and O at Delaisse, will be my first ever reading challenge! As I have never attempted a reading challenge before, I thought I would start small. The event takes place throughout the month of April and you can join Zoladdiction  at varying commitment levels:
  • 1st level: Maheude (reading 1 book)
  • 2nd level: Gervaise (reading 2-3 books)
  • 3rd level: Nana (reading 4 books or more)
I don't know why I haven't read any Zola before. My favourite literary movement is realism and as far as I can tell, naturalism, of which Zola was the master, is an extension of that movement. Bearing this in mind, I have a feeling that Zola is going to be absolutely fantastic - I hope I haven't set my expectations too high!

I intend to attempt the second level: Gervaise, and read two books. I have already managed to find a second-hand copy of Germinal and if I can't find a copy of The Masterpiece I will borrow it from the library.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - Truman Capote

Truman Capote - The Complete Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)

This collection contains twenty short stories. They are ordered chronologically and span the years 1943 to 1982, with over half of them being written in the 1940s.

I have not read any of Truman Capote's other works, but I don't think I can say that I approached the stories with a completely open mind. I read very few modern classics (with a particular lack of interest in titles from the 40s and 50s) as I generally prefer novels from either the late nineteenth century or the 1990s and 2000s.

I started at the beginning and planned to read the whole collection chronologically. By the time I had finished A Tree of Night (the eighth story), I gave up and decided to flick forwards to dip into a few more stories from the later years.

Many of the first several stories focused on female characters and had an eerie atmosphere, but when the stories came to an end, I was left thinking, "Well, what was that all about?". In The Walls Are Cold a disturbed, teenage coquette throws a strop; in Miriam a lonely widow is scared; in A Tree of Night a young, female college student is frightened by some ne'er-do-wells on a train. The only story which I enjoyed in the first section was Jug of Silver which is about a poor, young boy called Appleseed and his attempts to win a guess-how-many competition of a jar filled with nickels and dimes.

I'm glad that I didn't just give up with this collection, as the autobiographical stories: A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor and One Christmas were worth wading through the strange stories about perturbed and disturbed women.

Truman Capote's parents divorced when he was very young and he was sent to live with elderly, distant relatives of his mother's in rural Alabama. He becomes great friends with one of the elderly relatives, Miss Sook.
"I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together -well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child."
The descriptions of rural life in the South during the Great Depression are very vivid and although the relationship between Miss Sook and Buddy may be a bit saccharine sweet for some, I thought these three stories were really beautiful. Unlike the rest of the collection, they had plot, moral and well-crafted characterisation.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Library File Goes to the West Midlands

Part One - Birmingham

I have just returned from three, library-themed days in the West Midlands. I spent a day in Birmingham visiting the Central Library and I saw the outside of the new Library of Birmingham. As you can see from the pictures, the weather was very bad and during the odd occasion when it wasn't raining, it was really foggy.

The Central Library opened in 1974 and certainly looks of the era! I would describe it as modernist, but I'm sure others might refer to it as 'industrial' or 'depressing'. Despite the somewhat severe exterior, the inside used to be a warm and inviting place to visit. I once spent a memorable afternoon in the children's section reading Michael Morpugo's Private Peaceful and hoping that no one would notice the tears rolling down my cheeks. 

The remains of the lending library: half empty shelves, self-service machines and  not much else.

The services at the Central Library are currently being wound down in preparation for the opening of the new Library of Birmingham in September. The children's section, or Centre for the Child, as it used to be known, is now closed and the lending library is a paltry affair on the first floor. The other four floors of the library (arts, social sciences, sciences, archives, black history) are all closed; however, the IT services remain open and there are still plenty of study places available. The Central Library will close forever at 5pm on 29th June 2013.

The new Library of Birmingham
The new Library of Birmingham building looks a little bit like a huge ship moored in between the existing buildings in Centenary Square. It was designed by the Dutch architectural firm, Mecanoo and it is, by no means, their craziest design for a library building. Mecanoo were also commissioned to design the library at Delft Institute of Technology in the Netherlands, which looks like a cross between a grassy knoll and a strange, new age temple.

The new website for the library is now up and running and provides plenty of information about the building and the services it will offer. It seems that the golden rotunda (I think I'll refer to it as the funnel of the 'ship') is designed to hold the city's Shakespeare collection of 43,000 books and the original Shakespeare Memorial Room (designed 1882) has been moved in its entirety and rebuilt in the rotunda. I hope I get a chance to visit Birmingham again, some time after September, as the Shakespeare Memorial Room sounds marvellous.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - George Saunders

Welcome to the first installment of Short Story Sunday!

When I first thought about increasing my reading of short fiction I envisaged reading one collection per month. I thought I would read a couple of stories per week as a fifteen minute Book at Bedtime and then post a review here on my blog. After reading my first collection, which I devoured in one afternoon, I decided to make Short Story Sunday a weekly event.

The Tenth of December

"An astoundingly tuned voice - graceful, dark, authentic and funny" - Thomas Pynchon.
 Tenth of December, released in the UK in January 2013, contains ten short stories of varying lengths (the shortest just shy of two pages and the longest sixty pages).

Of the six snippets of critical praise on the back of the dust jacket, four refer to Saunders and/or his stories as funny. I don't know what book these, black-hound humour, litterateurs read, but I didn't find any of the tales in Saunders' new collection funny. Dark, caustic, wonderfully crafted and eminently readable -  but funny? No. The 'voice' Saunders gives his characters is, in many of the stories, witty (for example, Ted in My Chivalric Fiasco), but the situations in which his characters find themselves are so grave and depressing that these comical turns of phrase don't really succeed in lightening the stories.

Being completely new to George Saunders, I wasn't sure what to expect when I read the first story: Victory Lap. I was slightly lost initially until I realised that the strange writing style of the first few pages represented the thoughts of a flighty, teenage girl. By the time her neighbour and fellow teenager, Kyle Boot, appeared on the page (with corresponding change in style), I was really impressed by Saunders' ability to craft dialogue which expressed the teen sound (female and male) so clearly. By the end of the collection I learnt that Saunders' can create an authentic voice for all his characters: young, middle-aged, middle class, poor, etc.

The stories I enjoyed reading most were: Victory Lap, The Semplica Girl Diaries and Tenth of December. Many of the stories in Saunders' collection are set in a not too distant dystopian future, where there are drugs to make you depressed (Darkenfloxx), or enable you to get into a role (KnightLyfe), living-human decorative features for your front garden (Semplica Girls), and mysterious consumer gadgets (MiiVoxMAX). Victory Lap and Tenth of December, however, are both set in a recognisable present.

The Semplica Girl Diaries is written in epistolary form: the forty year old protagonist gets a new journal and decides to write every evening for a year to leave a record of his life for his descendants. Although the main character is male, there is something very Bridget Jonesy about this story as he blunders through life trying to keep his family afloat financially. I felt increasingly frustrated by his inability to break free of the demands of the community to which he wished his family firmly belonged, i.e. wealthy consumers, and as pointed out by his father-in-law, he did seem to lack moral fibre. These financial ups and downs acted as a vehicle for the heart of the story which was the relationship between the parents and children and how the actions of one of the children ultimately showed the mettle of the father figure.

There are two stories in the collection which I really didn't like: Home and Escape from Spiderhead. My dislike is not in any way predicated on the quality of the writing; in fact, these are the two stories that I just can't get out of my head (maybe this makes them the best in the collection...). The reason I didn't like them is that the subject matter was just too dark and depressing for me.

The themes that immediately jumped out at me when I finished reading the collection and, perhaps, they seemed so clear because I read the whole thing in one afternoon were:

  • the unlikely hero.
  • the front yard as metaphor - I know it sounds strange, but it appeared in: Victory Lap, Sticks, Puppy, The Semplica Girl Diaries and Home.
What did you think of this collection?

If you would like to take part in Short Story Sunday, post a review about your chosen short story or collection on your own blog and then leave a link in the comments section.

Friday, 1 March 2013

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?

I first came across this book whilst browsing in the 027 and 028 sections of the library. I chuckled at the rather provocative title, but didn't pick it up to investigate further. However, just a short while after, I was reading Cyburbia where this book was mentioned, so on a subsequent trip to the library I decided to check it out. How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read was a bestseller in France when it came out in 2007. The author Pierre Bayard is a professor of literature and says, as such, he often talks about books he hasn't read! Despite the provocative title and Monsieur Bayard's tongue-in-cheek style, this book was fascinating  and dealt with really quite profound themes. In chapters such as: 
  • Books You Have Forgotten.
  • Encounters With The Writer.
  • Not Being Ashamed.
  • Imposing Your Ideas.
The author discusses: how we interact with texts, the importance of our own opinions and interpretations, whether a book you have read but subsequently forgotten, is really still a book you have read and other facets of our relationship towards literature which warrant contemplation. I loved his final comments of chapter 9, Not Being Ashamed,
"To speak without shame about books we haven't read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves."
Renaissance man could have read, and read closely, the literary canon of his day, but the modern reader would struggle to find the time to read everything available to us now. Bearing this in mind, I enjoyed Bayard's comment on not being ashamed as a rally call to read what you want rather than reading for cultivation.

The Author's Name Begins With N.

Bayard's book also inspired me to play with my approach to books a little bit. In Chapter 11, Inventing Books, Soseki's novel, Kusamakura is described. In this story, a painter retreats to a quiet hotel on a mountainside to paint. One day his landlady's daughter enters his room and finds him reading a book. She asks the painter what he is reading and he says that he doesn't know. The girl is surprised, so the painter describes his approach to reading, "I open the book at random as though it were a game of chance, and I read the page that ends up in front of me, and that's what is interesting."

Today, at the library, I decided to give this method of reading a try. I went to the L-Q section of the fiction stacks and hovered around the N section. I closed my eyes, reached down to one of the lower shelves and selected a book. I opened the book at random and discovered that this 'game' was not so simple after all. The first book I chose had the author's name at the top of the right hand page so I returned the book and decided to try again starting from the top shelf. This time when I opened the book (it fell open at page 149) there was no indication of the author's name, so I proceeded to read the right hand side page. I have a feeling that the book I read was not a comedy, but it really did make me giggle. Page 149 opens in the middle of a dramatic scene and as I had not read the preceding pages the drama seemed really over-the-top and consequently very amusing. From reading just one page I think the main character's name is Zac. Zac has committed a crime/ fallen foul of the law as he refers to community service, although he seems to be the hero/good guy of the story. I don't know who Mobz or Uncle Fidelis are and I don't know why Zac is at the airport or where he is going.

Page 149 of book X by author N-.
I am not sure whether I am going to extend this 'game' in some way (return to the library to find the book and   read reviews about it once I know the title and author, or, maybe, read the whole book) or just enjoy inventing the story for myself.

Have you approached books in any unorthodox ways? If so, why and did you learn anything from these experiments?