Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Books lying about

Oh dear, there are so many wonderful things on others' blogs. I feel I could just lose myself reading around and sometimes commenting and never post again here, and when I do it feels very lightweight. Though I suppose perhaps there's room in the world for drawing faces on eggs and giving them silly captions too. There's a compelling discussion on matters religious and spiritual which people may be prompting each other to or which may be erupting spontaneously in different places, or it may simply be coincidence that I'm reading things on similar lines in different places, and my over-sophisicated animal brain is seeking to find patterns and connections where there aren't any...
Whatever, I have too much and too little to say about it, and feel unequal to the task.

So I shall go on with the memes and pro-formas I've been collecting. Apparently 'meme' in it's original sense is something its originator is somewhat backing away from, as it's really quite bad science to attribute to an abstract idea the properties of a physical reality like a gene. Or so I've heard, but it may be rubbish. What do I know? I make pictures and vacillate between deep wonder and small despondency, and the world goes on in ways I generally feel I can't really cope with, understand, stomach or compete with. Ah me. Little me. Grow up.

Something I picked up earlier.

Bee writes wonderful reviews, that are clever and clear and well rounded all at the same time, and make you want to immediately go and order the book or see the film or play. A little while back, she had a tidy-up of her bedside locker, and went through each book she found there with a little succinct review and a decision as to whether it should be allowed to remain or get reshelved.
As an exercise this seemed to me to have potential. I don't read as many books as I did, and many I start I don't finish. This would have been anathema at one time, when I prided myself on not giving up on a book, even if I was struggling with it. I'd like to pretend it's because I'm more discerning, but I think really I'm too dissolute (I don't know if that's quite an appropriate word there, but I like it...) in my concentration, and just give up and wander off toward something else. This activity is of course largely the culprit, though not entirely, there are other things which distract me too, and though the received wisdom is that books are inherently superior reading matter to all else, especially anything to be found on-line, I'm not so sure. Much I've read here of late gives the lie to that, and in my life at least, poetry seems to have undergone an enormous resurgence.

However, this means I have a lot of books of uncertain status lying around, either in the middle of being read, started and abandoned, in the to-be-read category, or, occasionally, recently finished and about to move on to a different plane. They are not usually on my bedside table, as in fact I rarely read in bed, and at some point in the establishment of the marital regime, it was agreed that cluttered bedside tables were an Undesirable Thing. Instead they are scattered around, on the dining table, beside the sofa, in bags or on the shelves beside the bureau mostly occupied by teaching stuff. Some of them are borrowed, which is why they don't disappear into the black hole of upstairs, but hang around. One or two I just like having permanently to hand.

I gathered them together a week or so ago and photographed them for the record. I'll go through from top to bottom and try, probably unsuccessfully, to be concise.

WH Auden, Selected Poems.
Auden is a wall I have been chipping away at intermittently for years. 'A rather well-made wall', as I remember an old Devonian saying saying of a solid and imposing but rather austere piece of road construction, and one with few extraneous adornments to distract the eye. The well-known and accessible lyrics like 'Funeral Blues' and 'Lay your sleeping head, my love'(sorry, I'm not going to do any more links, it takes too long and I'm too fussy about getting nice ones without annoying pop-ups and ads in them...), or charming lines taken out of context, like
'...when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.'
rather fail to show just how much work Auden is, but it is worth it, because just sometimes a chink appears in the wall and I see something wondrous I've never seen before.
I was carrying this back and forth to the hospital. Reshelve, but accessibly in the bedroom.
Everyman's Pocket Library - Rilke
I only came to Rilke in the last year, given the impetus to do so by way of blogging. I keep this one around to dip into. I like it, of course, but I'm uncertain about the translation, by Leishman. He uses words like 'vouchsafe' which may or may not be appropriate, but which grate a bit. The Duino Elegies are partly translated by Stephen Spender, and I fell they've got more juice somehow. Somebody last time I mentioned Rilke recommended another translator, so perhaps I'll look back and follow that up. I wouldn't mind a parallel German/English edition; my German's not strong but I might be able to read it like that.
Perhaps reshelve to bedroom.
Bill Bryson - Shakespeare
My lovely sister sometimes uses her waiting time at the airport when she comes here to buy paperbacks which she reads then leaves with me. It's rather nice, as I get things I might not normally. Here the cheery polymath turns his hand to Shakepseare's life, which he spends most of his time telling you we know next to nothing about, but what he does tell you is interesting an amusing, not least the surrounding facts about life in London and England generally at the time, and especially about all the words and expressions Shakespeare apparently introduced, or failed to. One of his notable innovations was the use of the un- prefix to words where it hadn't been applied before, such as 'unmask','unlock', 'untie' and 'unveil'. Also amusing the words he tried that didn't make it: undeaf, untent (to get someone out of their tent? Achilles perhaps?), unhappy (as a verb!), exsufflicate and insultment. The last sounds to me like a Bushism.
Bryson also does a good job of taking apart all the ridiculous 'Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare' arguments and theories.
Finished, into storage, or lend it to J who expressed an interest.
The Gnostics - Andrew Phillip Smith
I've had an interest in Gnosticism and dualistic heresies for a while, certainly since reading Stephen O'Shea's 'The Perfect heresy' about the Cathars, a subject which seems to go in and out of literary fashion. I've never really been able to make head nor tail of the Gnostic gospels, and reluctantly came to the conclusion that perhaps the Council of Nicea had its reasons, but this overview does shed some light on them, if not a whole pleroma-full of it.
There is a certain appeal in the idea that the world is a flawed and vile creation of a lesser god, but that all life contains a seed of light which seeks to return to its source in the true god. Although that's only one element of the whole Gnostic shebang. Some of the imagery of their ideas is intriguing, and opens up imaginative possibilities, and the whole matter of the transference, cross-fertilisation, spontaneous emergence and sub-currents of ideas is always fascinating. It's readable and conveys the author's enthusiasm and personal interest in his subject, while keeping on the right side of scholarly integrity and not sliding into New Agey wishfulness. And it gives plenty of opportunity for raging at the intolerance, brutality and tyranny of the dominant religions.
I was very surprised to learn how many modern Gnostic churches there are about, and have been for a hundred years or so, even before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, presumably in the wake of the re-invention of the Western mystery tradition, Golden Dawn and all that. Though quite what they actually do in practice I'm not sure, and in a way the whole notion of a Gnostic church is something of an oxymoron...
Also perhaps worth a look if you're a big Philip Pulman fan, which I'm not especially, but it was an interesting angle.
Finished, shelve upstairs.
Tess of the d'Urbevilles
Another one my sister left. I said I thought perhaps I ought to read it again, but so far I haven't found myself gravitating toward doing so. It was my third A level novel text, the others being 'Middlemarch' and 'Bleak House' and the one I liked least. I preferred, and I think still do, my novels very character driven, and/or with an epic scope so lots of different characters all doing different things at the same time. I actually think Hardy's characters are fairly thin, they're too busy being either the wretched victims of fate or its stupid or nasty agents. I quite like 'Far from the Madding Crowd' because the main characters survive and have to go on sadder and wiser but healed, though there's still that awful bit with the kindly dog that helps the distressed and pregnant girl to the workhouse then is 'stoned away' by the warden. I hate that kind of thing in Hardy. I know it's how it is and I know how much it hurt him ('but he could do little for them...') and that's why I hate it. The there's the whole rape/seduction-innocence/experience conflict, his textual changes and general confusion about it, I don't think he had quite emerged from the Victorian denial about it himself.
Also, I'm a bit put off by the photo of the girl who played Tess in the BBC adaptation on the cover, as I didn't really care much for that, and thought the main parts were badly miscast. Though the Polanski film also misfired in many ways - it simply wasn't English enough, Normandy cattle etc, don't get me started on authentic livestock and scenery - I though Nastasja Kinski and Peter Firth were actually better in their roles. Although she was rather oozing exotic sultriness, you had much more of a sense that her beauty and sensuality was fatal and dangerous and more than she could manage, and he was a wonderful prissy prig.
I think I prefer Hardy as a poet. But perhaps I ought to read it again for the scenery.
Leave it on the shelf.
Jeanette Winterson - The Stone Gods
My sister left this one too. I'm still not quite sure what I think of it. It was very compelling, and for the first part I was transfixed and enchanted, I couldn't imagine how she had thought it all up, the whole dystopic world was totally engrossing. I felt slightly dissatisfied when I finished though, not sure why; the narrative devices and stories within stories seemed a bit arch and made me feel a bit toyed-with. But it was still quite remarkable and very good.
It's wrapped up in plastic here to be sent tarif livres et brochures to my brother, whence it has gone.
small stones, a year of moments - Fiona Robyn
A blogger's book! Very nice, lovely to dip into, recommended.
Keep it around, or maybe bedroom bookshelf.
Fact of a Doorframe - Adrienne Rich
I got this really for the ghazals, or that's what prompted me. Her ghazals strip the form right back to simply dissociated couplets, no radif, no rhyme. Interesting. Overall, though, it's another brick wall, only I'm less inclined to take the time to chip than Auden. I'm not certain why. Perhaps it's her Americanness that puts up a barrier, perhaps her sometimes separatist feminism, her engagement with the world, society, politics. I admire it, but it leaves me cold.
Perhaps I just came to her as a poet too late. I don't know.
I'll keep it around; I might pick it up at the right moment and find a way in...
Unleash the poem within -Wendy Nyemaster
This was something I came across at Crafty Green Poet's place, when decided I ought to study poetic forms more. As such it is useful, but I wish she wasn't so bloody patronising. It's written to encourage women to write formal poetry as therapy, and she seems to think the way to do this is exclusively in cutesy terms of clothes-shopping, chocolate and babies. I have to work very hard to ignore this to extract the useful information from it. It's all the more irritating because she is clearly a much more intelligent and competent poet than this would indicate; her advice not only on how the forms are constructed but also on the kind of content and subject matter suited to them is very sound, so why she assume she has to talk down to the rest of us...
Keep it around for reference regardless.
Peter Hoeg - The Woman and the Ape, and Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Someone lent these to me, or was throwing them out, perhaps. I've not read 'Miss Smilla' yet, but I do mean to, perhaps now the winter is coming on. I'm a strong believer in climatically appropriate reading. I started 'The Woman and the Ape' but wasn't moved to continue. It has a horrid trashy picture on the cover. Both rather shallow reasons for reading and not reading - the weather and the cover picture.
Keep Miss Smilla around, store or pass on/give back the other.
Alec Guinness - My name escapes me.
J lent this to me, and seemed very determined I should read it. But I hardly ever read (auto-)biography. Real lives, even the most unusual, are almost inevitably boring for large stretches, and actorly lives interest me very little. Though I did once rather enjoy Joyce Grenfell's memoir, and that of Lutyens daughter (Mary?), whose mother was in with the Theosophist crowd that brought Krishnamurti to Europe in the belief he was the messiah or similar, only in the event he turned down the job.
Storage, or pass it on.
Jan Struther - Mrs Miniver
One of my all-time favourites. I know it depicts a ludicrously priviliged world, and the wartime spirit thing and the propaganda aspect of it should be regarded with suspicion, but her way of looking at things, her originality and zest, the word that she felt summed up the way life should be approached, are infectious and wonderful, and bear reading and rereading. Don't confuse it with the film, with Greer Garson, which is popular, and which Jan Struther was involved in the making of, but which bears littel relation to the original stories.
They should really do a blog of it, like Pepys and Gilbert White et al, for it has something about it that the best blog writing does, a delight in the ordinary and a vision that makes it extraordinary.
Jan Struther died quite young, and requested that her corneas be donated, so someone else could see the world through her eyes. Wish I'd had them (needless to say without the painful business of going blind and being operated on).
Got it out to read in hospital, but didn't in the end. I'll keep it out to dip into.
Flaubert - Bouvard and Pecuchet, and the Dictionary of Received Ideas.
I keep this around for several reasons: it was sent to me by a dear friend I've never met, at a time it gives me much pleasure to recall, and it contains a handwritten postcard and a bookmark cut from a pretty card with the end folded down. It is a beautiful old edition in French from 1910, and it looks, feels and smells like only such a book can.
I read, I'm afraid, very little in French these days, but if I feel like doing so this is a good one do pick up and dip into, particularly the Dictionary of Received Ideas, which is an ironic reference of stock opinions, responses and pieces of quite possibly spurious information which would equip one to move safely in Parisian society of the period when it was written. In fact, many of them are still quite applicable, for example, 'Celebrities: Concern yourself with every smallest detail of their private lives, in order to be able to denigrate them.' And 'always mistrust draughts(courants d'air)', still a French obsession.
The novel, 'Bouvard and Pecuchet', which I did start to read, is about two men whose relationship and exchanges consist of such received ideas. In fact, compared to some of the modern French novels I applied myself to a few years ago, it reads really quite clearly and easily.
As I said, I keep it to hand.
That'll do for now, that's a horribly long post. I didn't end up throwing many out.
I invite others to pick up this theme, as I'm sure you have all kinds of interesting tomes littering your homes, happily digested or paving the road to hell with good intentions...


Roderick Robinson said...

Astonishing. I have never met anyone who speaks enthusiastically about Hardy's novels (The Trumpet Major, for GCE, did for me). Are we all part of some silent conspiracy? On the other hand, everyone is pro the poetry.

Bouvard et Pecuchet very much an acquired taste. A thousand kilometres away from MmeB. Good luck.

Miss Smilla disintegrates two-thirds way through. Good - and unusual - up to then. If you flew from Rennes and took the tube into London you'd have finished it by South Ealing. Zut alors, what am I saying? You'd finish it in the Baggage Collection hall at Heathrow. A place where many a good book has ended in despair.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post, Lucy! You've touched a nerve here. I used to read a lot but now have many books lying around partly read, too. Blogging has cut into reading time. Tastes and concentration have changed, loved Hardy back in school days but could not read it now. I make long lists of books to get from the library on blog friends' recommendations, only seems to get longer. Maybe I need a long holiday in a cottage somewhere without modern conveniences and distractions.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow but would put its disintegration at 3/4 of the way through. It was one in a series of books I read at the time in which the author seemed unable to resolve the plot without descent into the ludicrous. Mind you I've neither read it again nor read anything else by Peter Høeg so it can't have been *that* riveting.

christopher said...

I recently went on a reading jag. Much more lowbrow, but not bottom feeding. Well written novels. Recent American stuff. I couldn't bring up the titles right now, being at work, but I haven't done this much reading for years. I am going through a change. But there are books of all sorts all over my bachelor house, going back decades.

I am well educated enough to trust the history I get from historical
novels, meaning that I can sense most of what is "true history" and what is not. Someone said history is written by the winners. I have been in incidents that deserved news writeups. I often don't think that actual history books are much superior to really good fiction.

One writer I really like is Martin Cruz Smith, who writes police thrillers that happen in Russia. His character Arkady Renko is just terrific.

Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting pile of books. I love Thomas Hardy's novels! I agree with your comments about Unleash the Poem. As to Adrienne Rich, at her best she is awesome but i think her problem actually is she's too prolific and there's so many mediocre poems to wade through to find the wonders. I usually see American as an advantage in poetry, given the banal understatement of so much mainstream British poetry.

Lucas said...

I really like this post and will return to it - what I like is the honest and insightful way it chronicles the books as experiences. It is refreshing to find this, as opposed to the more commonly found tendency to analyse literature too much, if not out of existence.

Rosie said...

I associate reading with guilt at the moment...for things I should be doing during the day. It is still the closest thing to pure pleasure a girl can have in her life. As I get older I find the time when I used to read, before sleeping, is denied me because my eyes are too tired to focus...I take refuge in digital radio and listen to plays!

christopher said...

Lucy, I replied to your comments today at my blog in case you aren't tracking. Something about "don't flinch" and another about "formless".

Catalyst said...

I just finished "Picasso" by Norman Mailer. Moderately satisfying. SWMBO has gotten into mysteries and just discovered Lawrence Block . . whose "Hit and Run" she could not put down.

Bee said...

Dear Lucy, each of your descriptions could be a separate post! You always have so many thoughtful things to say. I often wish that I could pencil in comments as I read . . . or that you could somehow know of all the mental sparks your words ignite.

I read/heard recently about the Shakespearean "un" word-coining. Maybe from The History Boys? I just bought a wonderful picture/information book for my nephew that was made from Bryson's A Short History of Everything in the World (or approximate). How does he find the time?

I agree with the "Smilla" comments. The ending is a bit melodramatic, but do read it for its wonderfully snowy world and the interesting characters.

In the spirit of update, I wanted to let you know that clearing off my bedside table actually inspired me to read the Anne Lamott, both Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (loved them) and the book about the dysfunctional Thanksgiving. I might write a bit about that one! Like Angel, I abandoned Tess, though.

Yes, blogging gets in the way of books . . . but it points towards them, too.

vicki johnson said...

i sit here in awe of you and your peers...those who read around so much...and write such blog posts as this. i'm afraid i am an outsider here. As much as i love mind wanders and soon carries me out-of-doors where i collect pixels that i then spend hours with when i come back indoors. i admire you all...and so enjoy your insights.

Lucy said...

Thanks all, and for reading such long post - being slow of thought and typing skills, writing at such length always leaves me feeling I've committed far too much and too tediously, but it's interesting to see how people respond to the subject of reading matter, which most have some angle on. And thanks Bee for the inspiration to do it.

I long ago realised I wasn't cut out for razor-sharp literary criticism; even having faith in my own personal, subjective responses I find hard. I find a lot of poetry very difficult,and feel like a pygmy at times, but am prepared to work at it, because there's nothing like it when it works. The beauty of writing here is anything goes, I don't have to prove how clever I am. If I keep saying it I might believe it...

Thanks for the mystery/detective novel recommendations, Tom's been on something of a detective fiction marathon since he was ill, so it's good to hear of new ones.

Miss Smilla generally gets the thumbs up - one generally expects to have to accept artifice and suspend disbelief a bit more with detective stories, though I find it can be a tiring thing to have to do for too long, and needs to be offset by other merits in the writing I think.

I was going to add a couple more I've got on the go now, but thought enough was enough. One was historical fiction, which I was thinking about generally, and how rarely it works, so I may get onto that in a later post.

Glad to get at least one vote for Thos H's novels!

What do I mean about being put off by AR's Americanism? I think I like many American poets, and might well dislike many British ones. I think it's the particualr bleak view of American history and society that puts me off, not because it's not true, it's just alienating. But I'll persevere.

We seem to feel guilty if we read and guilty if we don't, some of us! It's not the be all and the end all; making music, raising gardens and children, taking and making pictures, talking to one another, any number of other activities are of equal validity, I think.

herhimnbryn said...

While reading a post over at Zhoen's place this morning, my cup of tea went cold. I uped and made another and then sat down to read yours. Second cup was left standing!

L. What a great post. You echo my thoughts on Hardy (Madding Crowd was my A level read) and Auden sits on my bookshelf to provide 'nuggets' of sublime poetry.

I have a small batterd paperback book of Rilke that sat in the bottom of my bag for months. There for those moments when I was waiting for Al. at the airport.

This w/e I shall go and find a copy of 'Small moments'.

apprentice said...

That's quite a stack and you've put in a lot of work on the reviews. I loved Tess at 17, nowadays I'd just want to slap Angel.

On Rich I think her earlier work is better and sits better with the period. I love "a wild patience has taken this far" but for myself it has a calm impatience!

And I would tend to agree that Auden is worth the effort.

HLiza said...

Since I gave birth to my third child, I haven't read any books at all..wait..except Harry Potter the latest one. I just gave up reading books because the only time left for myself is blogging time in the wee hours and some exercising. My sis left many books too..they are good ones..she has this habit of buying books, finishing them and leaves them in my house thinking they're too heavy to bring back. I wish I can start reading again one day..

Pam said...

I have to do Hardy (Tess and Native) with my Advanced Higher class and I have to say I feel he goes on a bit...

Great post. Some new ideas for reading material. Now can you post me some time...?

Lucy said...

HHB - Thanks, books of shortish poems are good for times like that aren't they?

Anna - I think I wanted to slap Angel even when I was 17... That is a fab line from AR isn't it? I've read the reast of the poem but can't remember anything of it. I quite like the one about the house with the recurring datura motif, makes me think of Georgia O'Keefe, which it may be meant to...

Hliza - Tom reads Harry Potter out loud to me! I'm amazed you find time for all the things you do, and your beautiful photographs.

Isabelle - poor old Hardy seems not to have worn well, they're still setting him though. You're good at lists like this...

Dave King said...

Wonderful post, Lucy. You mention 5 books that I have greatly enjoyed; "The Stone Gods", Auden's "Selected Poems", "Tess", the Gnostics and "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" - this last I thought a fabulous read. I have just begun Bryson's Shakespeare. Though I am a great fan of Rilke, I shamefully have never read the "Everyman Pocket Library". You have inspired me to put that right before too long. "Unleash the Poet Within" sounds too tantalising not to read, so I shall also be hunting that down. One carp: what's wrong with lightweight? Some of my best friends are friends with me because they find my light weight a welcome light relief. Seriously though, a fantastic post.

Lucy said...

Yes! someone else who's read 'The Gnostics'!

I shouldn't bother with 'Unleash the Poet' though Dave; you're grasp and understanding of poetry and poetic forms is clearly beyond needing it, and it dow have this awful 'feminine' angle. I think there are probably better poets' manuals around.

Setu said...

Hello Lucy, did you know that the setting of Polanski's Tess is mainly... Brittany, where you live now. The old village of Locronan (Finistère, W Brittany)is supposed to be an English village in the film.

leslee said...

Have to put my dibs in for Smilla, too. Loved it, and yes the end a bit less so but so worth it otherwise. I also read Hoeg's Borderliners, though I can't remember much about it - probably disappointed it wasn't as good as Smilla. I also loved Hardy when I was younger, though some of the most depressing passages nearly did me in in college. Far From the Madding Crowd was the first hardcover book I bought, and I wanted to marry Gabriel Oak (loved the Masterpiece Theatre version done some 10 years ago - wanted to marry Nathaniel Parker, too ;-)

My job makes my eyes tired and my brain fried, alas, or I'd read a lot more. I seem to only read books on vacations and/or when flying these days. But post like these do tempt me to get offline and off blog and try again.

Crafty Green Poet said...

A comment partly for Dave if he's tracking - Unleash the Poem is really for beginners and specific for women too. I found it very useful because it helped me to think about when to use a particular form, but in terms of poetry manuals for people who know about poetry it wouldn't make any list of mine. I was sent a review copy and wrote a kind review though i did express my reservations.

Avus said...

I smiled when I read HerHimnBryn's comment, since I was going to write something very similar myself (case of influencing an offspring in some way, perhaps?)
I can get thoroughly immersed in Hardy's poetry, yet just cannot manage to engage with his novels (he made enough money out of the novels to be able to sit back and write only poetry for the rest of his life).
As for Auden - yes, someone to come back to repeatedly and still discover new meanings.

Kat Mortensen said...

I have arrived here through Dave King's blog and am enthralled with this post. (I shall have to do one of a similar nature in the new year.)

I beg to differ on Hardy's novels, however. I adore "Jude The Obscure". This may be more due to the fact that I am a Canadian and as a student of English Literature in university was quite taken with the romance of England and its inhabitants. While I still feel a strong kinship with the UK (my father being Irish and his 11 brothers and sisters having taken up residence in England), I can see where one would find Hardy's characters a bit weak. I yet am tied to the world Hardy created. I loved the characters of Bathsheba Everdene in Return of the Native and Arabella (I think I was mainly enraptured by the name itself really - after all, I was only 20) in Jude.

In any case, I feel a bit out of my depth with the obvious caliber of writing and articulating in this group, but I would be most pleased if any of you should choose to check out my blog "Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes" (and delve into its archives).

With deference,

Kat Mortensen