Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Read, read, read - William Faulkner

The Olympic Games are on.  In case you hadn’t noticed. I don’t feel I can blog without mentioning them. 

I don’t have a television, so I’m not watching them.  But I do like to catch up with events over the Internet.  There’s something really exciting about following big sporting events.  Makes me want to be sporty.  And I am so not. 

But thankfully, I am not alone in my dreams.  I heard a radio programme today discussing the merits of the Games which are inspiring nations of youngsters to take up sport. How wonderful is that? 

Now all the world needs is a literary Olympics.  Seriously.  Imagine the most talented wordsmiths coming together from across the globe to show their wares.  Imagine 24-hour discussions of the finest writing ever.  Imagine a nation of youngsters inspired to read. 

Not just books competing with one another.  But poetry, plays, scripts.  Letters.  Whatever would get people reading.  Even comic strips.  Yes, even comic strips.  I used to read comics as a youngster.  Not very cool ones, I might add.  Bunty, Mandy, Judy.  Girls' stuff.  But my sister and I loved them.  My mum would buy them for us every Friday.  With a bar of chocolate into the bargain.  She was so good to us.  A nice light read after a long week.  And let’s not forget that the comics kept us quiet for a good couple of hours too.  Good for everyone. 

Here in France comic strips are big business.  This may be the case elsewhere too.  I just don't think I've ever paid attention.  It's a whole new world for me.
Shops, clubs, even festivals are devoted to them.  And adults here love them too.  It’s popular practice to litter conversations with references - if not direct quotes - from comic strips. Very annoying when you’re not in on the joke. But a great cultural richness. Pop into a bookshop here during the lunch break and see rows of business men in suits engrossed in a comic strip annual of choice.  It's a stunning picture.  The boy in them plain to see.  
But maybe comic strips are not just for children.  Indeed, evidence tells me the contrary.  And let's face it, the limitation to children is all in my head. All the more reason we need these Olympics.  To break down the barriers. To take away the prejudices. To experience new perspectives on reading. 
Just like London 2012, a literary Olympics would have something for everyone.  Nations sharing their treasures to inspire us all.  We need nations to read.  We want children to read.  The literary Olympics is my suggestion.  What's yours?  

Sunday, 29 July 2012

A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend - Author unknown

Last weekend, I found a book that I don’t ever remember buying.  “Found” is a bit much.  It was sitting on my bookshelf, quite open and accessible to all who would look.  With all the other short story collections I have.  And yes, I do classify my books.  But that’s for another time. 

I recognised it when I saw it.  It has a rather uncouth cover: blocks of pea green, purple and black.  But it’s old and I have no recollection when or from where I acquired it.  And I know that I’ve never read it.  It's entitled simply, almost arrogantly, Famous Short Stories.  Nothing to attract you.  Indeed, almost everything to repulse you.  But at the moment I’m trying to be all-embracing, open to new things.  And to cut down my spending on new books when I haven’t read all my present library.
So I started to read.  It’s wonderful.  An easy, entertaining read that brings together some of the big names of literature to share their brief, often quirky tales.  Saki, Maugham, Dylan Thomas, Kipling and the late Ray Bradbury. Perfect for the long, slow summer evenings we’ve been having. For a week up to last night, at least.
Each author has so much to offer in so little space.  I was totally absorbed. To the point that I actually gasped and my hand flew inadvertently to my mouth in dismay when I finished Waugh’s Bella Fleace gave a party. The mark of good writing, methinks.  You see, never judge a book by its cover.
Now I am left only to lament the fact that this book sat overlooked for so long!  It’s inexcusable.  I really must revisit my bookshelves more frequently.  What other gems are sitting waiting to be remembered?   Good thing books don't hold a grudge.  They sit so beautifully, nobly, filling space and never complaining of the negligence of a spoiled owner who does not read or touch or even peruse them for months on end.  Or indeed years. 
Like really good friends. Some of my very best friends are those from my youth.  We can go months, sometimes years with only the tiniest of contact between us.  Yet, coming together, we simply pick up where we left off.  There’s nothing like that sort of comfort.  The safety of knowing and being known.
Good friends are much harder to make with age.  I have no real idea why.  But my purely unscientific analysis tells me it is so.  And thus we cherish good friends all the more.  Maybe we love the nostalgia.  Like perusing the shelves of a bookshop. Or your own library.  Finding lost memories.  Rediscovering moments shared, surprise recollections. It's heart-warming. It's enduring. It's food for the soul.

Friday, 20 July 2012

He who lends a book is an idiot. He who returns the book is more of an idiot - Arabic Proverb

Another grey, rainy day here.  And I’m full of cold.  Again.  The trials of a weak immune system following my prolonged recuperation.  Patience, patience.  But my compensation was a quiet afternoon curled up with my cats and 84 Charing Cross Road.  One of my comfort films.  Till now.  One of my comfort reads from here on in. 

As mentioned previously, I love books of letters.  And I am in such awe of Helene Hanff.  She must have been one of the coolest people ever.  A tangible enthusiasm for reading.  An extensive knowledge of authors and books.  Such passion, warmth, generosity.  Such talent.  

I dream of those days of writing letters to a bookshop in Charing Cross Road to source my wish list.  Or rather the 5th arrondissement in Paris, my equivalent of HH's much beloved London.  Luxuriating in the anticipation of the arrival of old, used books that "open to the page some previous owner read oftenest..."  Much as I love Amazon, it's not quite the same somehow.

And, there’s nothing like recommendations.  Her recommendations, in particular.  She delights over authors whose names I know only faintly from afar. I am always so ashamed when I discover how well-read other people are and how ignorant I am in comparison”. Seriously HH, if you’re not well read… 

Finally her delight in the book itself.  The first editions, gifts from friends, special messages inscribed within from special people.  Sentimentality I fully relate to.  The words inside the covers are truly enhanced by the history attached to each single copy: a book bought for me by someone who cared, signed for me by the author (I do have one or two), books from my childhood.  And the couple of first editions I have too.  Nothing particularly exciting to those in the know.  But special to me.

And the reason why I am also utterly against lending books.  To anyone.  I cringe when someone hovers around my bookcase, having found something they've never read, and now absolutely need to.  You want it, buy it.  Or find your library card. Mean, oh yes.  But not even a pretty please will melt my resolve.  I have lost too many good copies along the way through such careless generosity.  I've also acquired a few too, it must be said.

HH says it well: “people who wouldn’t dream of stealing anything else think it’s perfectly all right to steal books”. The word “steal” seems a bit harsh.  But then so is losing your books.  Let's not lead anyone into temptation, eh.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Look, I have a strategy. Why expect anything? If you don't expect anything, you don't get disappointed - Patricia McCormick

I'm exhausted. As is anyone who's just watched the Wimbledon men's final. Such a display of athleticism, skill and power.

I'm also disappointed.  I'm an Andy Murray fan.  For which I make no apology or excuse.  I know that many don't like him.  Or worse.  And I desire neither to defend my sentiments nor condemn theirs.  Just to express my great admiration for AM and all that he has achieved.  Go Andy!

Personally, I have never been very sporty.  But I am intensely moved by anyone performing at the top of their game.  Whatever their game may be.  Still, how horrid is the disappointment and, indeed, agony of watching a sporting hero miss the mark.  Nothing like the agony suffered by the sporting hero him/herself, I grant you.  But all the same.

I am very much for avoiding disappointment at all cost.  Hence the safety - and thus delight - of reading.  Where my personal investment is normally matched and satisfied.  Normally.

Still, expectations can be too high.  Even from books.

Not too long ago, I read The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta.  From my reading list.  The cover told me it was a "poignant love story" set in Nigeria.   And Simon Mason, of my book list, said it was an "observant and compassionate account of a young girl's struggle to defy and survive tribal customs, and an upsetting tense drama of a forbidden love affair". 

I was intrigued and expectant. It would, among other things, introduce me to Ibo traditions.  I was ready for a rough emotional ride.  But I anticipated a little sunshine, for all that.  I was disappointed.  And intensely pained.

The title of the book was the key:  tribal lore states that a woman will die in childbirth if her bride price is not paid.  Aku-unna, the central protagonist, lives through turmoil and tears and struggling.  She seems to win through.  And then the tribal lore prevails.  Like fighting against all odds and then life biting you in the bottom anyway.  Or should I say, man's law biting the woman in the bottom.  Again. 

I wanted hope, and none was proffered.  I wanted justice, but it was denied.  It made me mad.  But that's possibly my problem, not the book's. 

Watching AM today, I witnessed an athlete failing against all odds.  It was hard.  But hope prevails.  Wimbledon will come again.  He will win through another time.  And we all need hope.  It sustains life through disappointment.  Even the disappointment of losing a Wimbledon final.  C'mon Andy!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life - Mortimer Adler

It’s been too long since my last post.  Time has not been my own. Exceptionally I have been working full-time to deal with an exceptional workload.  Which has thankfully now ended.  But it left my still-convalescing body needing even more sleep.  So much so that I saw barely 5 minutes of the semi-final between Germany and Italy.  And only woke up for the result.

As a consequence, during this period, the activities I love were pushed further and further down my list of things to do.  Short as that list was: get up, get to work, get home, sleep.  And grab food as possible during the day.  I was grateful to escape to the physio once during that time.  He not only made the pain bearable, but attached me to a TENS machine which allowed me 40 minutes just to read! 

And all this did make me think. What a shame that activities that are so important to us are so easily pushed to the bottom of our priorities.  The things that make us feel good and whole and human are always the things that give way to the sterile, the tedious, the inhuman.  Such is life, n’est-ce pas?

In this frame of mind, I started reading Language Death by Professor David Crystal.  A bizarre choice, you may think, but it seemed appropriate for my mood.  And is a very interesting read, albeit unfinished as I type. But I have more physio to come, so no worries there. 

Professor DC is from my home town.  An added bonus of reading him this week.  I feel a great yearning for home when life is challenging, and all that home encompasses: the beauty, the air, the sea. My roots, my family, my childhood.  Hiraeth is what we call the feeling in Welsh.  A word that has no direct translation in English.  A word that comes from the heart.  And says so much. 

Anyway, I see Prof C’s name and I think of home. And he writes about words into the bargain. So I savour his writings. 

I interviewed him once. I don’t quite remember why. But words were involved.  What I do remember was the insuppressible awe I felt before this man.  He sat in his library of wall to wall books.  A picture of great ease and comfort.  An authority on the words that surrounded him.  And all I could think was: what a good life.