Friday, 25 May 2012

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading - William Styron

When I was young, I read horror stories.  A fact that surprises me still.  It's so very alien to me now.  Indeed, I even watched horror films.  I don't know why, exactly.  Although I don't ever remember taking them seriously.  They felt like caricatures of some cartoon world.  So obviously unreal. 

Today, I admit to finding the whole idea a tad more sinister.  There's enough horror in reality without searching for it in entertainment.

It was The Omen series that finally spooked me.  Scared the living daylights out of me, actually.  And set me on the road away from the genre.  Indeed, I would read it from behind the protection of a cushion.  Or two.  Totally spooked. 

I think it was because it cited the bible.  That somehow felt too real.  And then I attended Surrey University, and my room looked out onto the cathedral used in the film.  And then it was too real.  A tangible reminder of that inexplicable fear.  For another four whole years.

Then there was Jaws.  I only read the book years after seeing the film.  By then, it was an attempt at catharsis, not a search for thrills. 

When the film came out, I was affronted to be deemed by my mother "far too young" to watch it.  It was a horror story too far.  Hence, I was obliged to await the release of Jaws II.  I caught up with Jaws only after that.

But it was not a disappointment.  We came out of the cinema exhausted.  And I carried the experience with me for weeks afterwards.  Maybe it was because we lived on an island.  We walked the cliff heads overlooking the sea during our play.  We walked the breakwater, dangled feet into the crashing waves off the coast.  Waded in during summer sunshine.  After Jaws, we became wary.  Would we ever think it safe to go back in the water?

My attempt at catharsis was not successful.  The written word seemed only to reinforce the images, rather than rationalise them.  When I'm in the sea today, I still hear the music.  I still expect a fin to appear behind a nearby lilo.  Or from amongst a group of screaming children.  I look for it.  Wait for it.  

What an incredible creation.  Still uniting a generation of readers and cinema goers by the more or less powerful apprehension of what lies in the deep.  By the flurry of uncontrollable emotions enveloped in that one word: Jaws.  You're going to need a bigger boat...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning - Maya Angelou

Did you study Shakespeare in school? We did. Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear. I remember receiving my first copy of Shakespeare.  Feeling that this was somehow a momentous occasion. And an equally confusing one, when I actually opened the pages and tried to read.  Nothing really made any sense.

Yet those same confused and dull expressions came to life once pronounced and performed.  Only when the words hit my eardrum, did my heart beat a response.  Did I understand the joy and enduring legacy that is Shakespeare.

Of course, I'm talking about a professional performance.  Our classroom efforts were pretty dismal. But then, having hormonal teenagers read about unsexing a woman and plucking nipples from lips was always going to be a challenge.  Even for Mrs Drake, our very wonderful English teacher.

And, if the truth be told, reading aloud is an art in itself.  I hated it in school. I was so very self-conscious. And awkward. And I was asked to read Lady Macbeth. With the unsexing and the nipple. You may share my pain.

Still, reading aloud is an art, nonetheless.  An art that should be encouraged and honed.  Valued and promoted.  Although, I grant you, it's an art that we are rarely called upon to exercise in real life.  Understandably too, for it wouldn't do for us all to be milling around, wild and unruly, reading out books and magazines for one and all to hear.  Yet, done well, reading aloud is a delight.

Try reading to a child.  Children are simply waiting to be enthralled by a story.  They will not settle for dowdy reading. You have to let go. Release the actor within. 

Remember story-time in primary school?  I can see us now: sitting cross-legged on the floor in the reading corner, transformed by the teacher's tales.  Nothing else mattered in the world.  Just hearing the words dance from her lips, perform before my very mind's eye.  It was enchanting.  Thrilling.  My mind was electrified, my heart fired up. 

It's almost a gift.  From one person to the next.  From the author to the reader to the listener. And on it goes.  From childhood to adulthood, from the library to the theatre.  And back again.  It's a gift that never stops giving. And it costs nothing. Delightful.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are - Mason Cooley

The joy of a holiday is also the joy of another pile of books.  In your suitcase.  In your Kindle (or the like). 

Even at the airport, the draw of the bookshop is too much to resist.  It's an addiction.  But holiday books are not to be taken lightly.  Choosing the right book is almost as important as the holiday itself.  You must choose carefully and match the mood of the one with the other.

I did get it hopelessly wrong the one year.  I blame the fact that, for the first time ever, I was going on a last minute holiday.  Decided one day, travelled the next.  A friend and I were on our way to the Greek Island of Zakynthos (Zante) for a week at the very start of the season.  We were both tired and over-worked.  This would do just the trick.

And it did.  The beach was practically empty.  As were the streets, the restaurants and the one tour we took.  It was perfect for total relaxation.  Except for my book.  I'd recently started A Passage to India.  Not the lightest, most frivolous of books.  But one I'd meant to read for a time.  And knowing my predilection to finish a work begun, I could not leave it behind.  Hence, it was thrown into my suitcase with the few items of clothing I thought I would need.  And off we went.

The trouble is that, when you're sunning yourself on a beautiful beach, the last thing your over-worked head needs is to have to work.  You need to match the mood of the moment.  And my moods were in opposition.  A Passage to India was not promoting a beach head.  It was a miserable situation.  All the more so as my friend had thought this out beautifully and was basking in her books.  But she's a generous soul and on that beach I was introduced to Georgette Heyer.  Previously totally and utterly unknown to me.  I was led to her through The Convenient Marriage.  With very little effort, I would go back to her for more. 

GH recreated the regency world with ease and decorum.  With humour and passion.  And, of course, with romance.  Oozes of romance.  Indeed, the best holiday romance ever.  April Lady.  Sylvester.  The Grand Sophy.  The Reluctant Widow.  Such lively, elegant and gentlemanly heroes.  Sigh.  I need to get on a beach.

But my holiday reads are not limited to GH.  As I say, options are needed depending on where I am and what I'm doing.  So I stock up on different authors in anticipation of my different needs:  John Grisham,  Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Coe. Sue Townsend and the formidable Adrian Mole, recently revisited and joyfully regained. 

I call them my trashy holiday reads.  But it's affectionate.  Methinks my holidays would be trashy without them... 

Friday, 4 May 2012

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it - Samuel Johnson

Starting a new book is always a special moment:  turning it over in your hands, anticipating what awaits you.  Opening the cover and launching tentatively into the first page.  Tension.  Will this work out?  Will the journey be a good one?  If not, will I overcome the torment and succeed in abandoning it?  Like the start of a new relationship.  Only better.

Then you feel the words wash over you.  It's a pleasing experience.  Your shoulders relax.  You allow yourself to be pulled in gently, guided over the next few pages.  Tempted in further and further.  You're hooked.  And it's simply wonderful.

Yesterday, I started my journey into Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing.  I was a bit trepidatious, I don't mind telling you.  It's on my reading list.  DL won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. And the book is said to be "a classic".  Actually, the back cover says it's a "landmark of twentieth-century literature".  No pressure, then.

Of course, the cover would read that.  It's not like the cover can be neutral.  All the same, trepidatious I was.  All the more so because I was sitting at the physiotherapist's, waiting for my treatment. In itself sometimes unpleasant, sometimes downright painful.  Nevertheless, I launched forth.  The journey began.  Well.  Indeed, I was almost sorry the physio ended.

DL is a supreme story-teller:  I could not put the book down.  And haven't since.  I've nearly finished it already and you know I'm a slow reader.  But this is a book you need to get through.  You need to know why everything falls apart so spectacularly.  You drag yourself through the searing heat, feeling your skin burning and drying out.  You choke on the dust, the oppression.  It's bleak, for sure.  And then some.  You follow the characters deeper and deeper down into their despair.  It's a strange, yet compelling experience. 

I will finish it shortly.  But The Good Terrorist and The Golden Notebook are already sitting on my shelf, waiting to take its place.  I bought the three books together because of my reading list.  I know that must sound barmy.  That I should have tried one DL book first to see if I liked her.  And then bought some more.  But I can't be sensible around books.  Or around my Amazon basket.  You must know me by now...