Tag Archives: Reading

Recharging Creative Batteries

13 Apr

A week at the writing den soon passed. I made far less progress than I’d hoped for on my almost-finished manuscript. On the other hand, I recharged my sadly depleted creative batteries. I read Michael Krüger’s highly entertaining ‘The Executor’. I went on some wonderful rural stomps, including a stroll around the surreal sculpture park below. I saw a green woodpecker and a raven. I ate lots of good food too.


I also returned to a remote and inaccessible bay. It’s quite possibly my favourite spot on earth. Being early April, the waters of the Western Channel were far too cold to swim in. I had to settle for sitting on a rock and dipping my welly boots into its jade green but icy water. It’s a place where all cares and worries go whistling away, if only for a short while. The photo below does no justice at all to the beauty of this place. Ho hum…


I also explored some new places. I had sailed out of Dieppe countless times but never looked around the town. From the ferry it looks uninteresting. Closer to, it turns out to be a ramshackle delight, with grand old churches and a cliff-top medieval castle. By sheer coincidence, I have just picked out Henrik Stangerup’s ‘The Seducer’ as the next read from my bookshelves. It’s subtitled ‘It’s Hard to Die in Dieppe’… Now I’m looking forward all the more to reading it.


So now it’s back to the grind of the day job and of life with all its hassles. Hopefully, somewhere in amongst it all, I’ll find the time and energy to complete my manuscript this year. In the meantime, here’s a tiny extract. I’ve been much concerned with games, perhaps because my children and I have played numerous games of Cluedo during the holidays…

The Kaffe Muzeesmis is another haunt of the old chess players.  A number of barstools have been crammed against a counter at the end of the compartment.  This leaves room for a single table at which games may be played.  More often than not, the combatants will be Vikktur Kiirilavnas and Valentiin Krutt.  They seem to be working their way through the same restricted and highly symbolic set of moves, as though playing a handful of games from memory.  Are these exhibition matches, then?  Perhaps.  Certainly, they will frequently draw the attention of the other customers, who watch in rapt silence from the bar. 

In the first game, Kiirilavnas plays black.  He undertakes a ruthless demolition of his opponent’s forces, removing piece after piece in rapid succession.  This opening has become known as Kiirilavnas’ Defence.  The older man seems to take particular pleasure in the early capture of white’s bishops and in his deferred pursuit of the queen.  But it is those black rooks, the kjerntuurr that appear key to every move.  In the second game, Krutt is red.  Now it’s the younger man’s turn to go on the offensive.  In a breath-taking display of attacking play, he deploys his knights to deadly effect and the red king or krevnkunikk in an unusually advanced position.  His opponent offers little resistance.  It’s maat in eighteen moves.  For the third game, Kiirilavnas is white.  He plays a highly skilled, counter-attacking game, combining his knights and bishops to destroy his opponent’s defences and soon the black king is staring defeat in the face.  The fourth game sees Krutt draw level again, providing a textbook demonstration in the offensive possibilities of the board’s most powerful piece.  This is Kruut’s Gambit.  The white queen or bjeldronikk controls the game almost from the debut to its endgame, supported by the merciless thrusts of her bishops.  The opposing pawns are soon under her command and then, for black, the game is up.  The old men include in their repertoire a few examples of the modern game, played at irregular intervals – one where Krutt wins swiftly as black, another in which Kiirilavnas sweeps to victory as red – nevertheless, you’d only have to spend a few afternoons observing play at the Museum Café before you’d find the familiar patterns re-asserting themselves, the same four exercises being played out, with minor variations, those sequences to which the players always seem to return.  History repeats itself as tragedy then farce, cataclysm then slapstick, catastrophe then stand-up… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Tolstoy didn’t have to paint his own ceiling

30 May

If there’s one thing that we can say for certain about Count Leo Tolstoy, it’s that he didn’t have to paint his own ceilings. I don’t suppose he had to decorate his hallway, staircase or landing either. I, on the other hand, have spent the past week doing exactly that. That’s one of the differences between the count and me. As a consequence, I’ve written nothing during a week off work. It’s one of the problems of being a writer who also has to work for a living, in a job that doesn’t pay very well. The great Russian didn’t have to worry about DIY or the day job while he was cranking out Anna Karenina. There’s a further difference (and it’s not just my lack of an heroic beard). Tolstoy also happened to be a literary genius, whereas I merely claim to be one in moments of arch, exulted self-belief/delusion.


Restoring my house rather than writing the next ‘War and Peace’…

It’s been a poor week for writing, then. But while I’ve been decorating, I’ve been listening to the radio. I’m currently re-reading Max Sebald’s Vertigo. The late German writer is one of my literary heroes, so I was delighted to chance upon a programme about him presented by Iain Sinclair (another writer whom I admire). I enjoyed it so much that I listened to it again on BBC i-player later the same day. And since then, I’ve been digging into the BBC Desert Island Discs archive. This remarkable treasure trove goes all the way back to the 1940s. It’s symptomatic of the moronic times in which we live that there’s a clamour to stop publicly funding the UK’s state broadcaster. It’s the same impulse that has seen libraries closed down while the richest in this deeply unequal society have been receiving tax cuts. Rant over… I’ve been rummaging through the author interviews. So far I’ve listened to Stephen King, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jan Morris, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Umberto Eco and it’s been a fascinating experience. Guests get to choose eight pieces of music and then are asked which one they would keep if they were allowed only one choice. King and Ishiguro both kept something by Bob Dylan, McEwan and Eco selections from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Morris’s choices were almost all by Irving Berlin, Amis’s by Oscar Peterson. Odd, but there you go… McEwan also chose something by Van Morrison, usually a give away that a guest isn’t really interested in music at all. Listening to writers talk about their lives and work is a great way of learning. All of those self-promoting authors out there on social media, tweeting and messaging about themselves and their books, are missing the point. More listening and less shouting would be a much more productive way of moving their work forward, always presuming that’s of interest to them.


Stubborn damp patches in the hall resist treatment…

I actually find decorating immensely satisfying. You stand back at the end of a job and look at what you’ve achieved. When I bought my current house in the English suburbs five years ago, it was a total basket case. It was the only way that I could afford to buy somewhere. It had been in the same family since it’d been built in 1925. Nothing had been done to it for decades and every single room needed stripping back and starting again. I’ve only just got around to the mammoth task of redecorating the hall, stairs and landing. It’s an elegant old house with a hint of Arts and Crafts style about it. There’s a pleasure to be had in picking out its detailing. I’m sure that there’s a parallel to be made here with the care and craft required to produce great books.

I’ve also been prevented from writing by an excruciatingly painful infection and an invasive test due to a health scare. Fortunately, I appear to have come through it all. It seems that I may live to write another day, after all. Ah well, I must count my blessings (ouch, that pun is dreadful…). Here are my Desert Island Discs (since Kirsty Young won’t be asking me for them):

1. Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield

2. Norwegian Wood by The Beatles

3. Wonderful Life by Black

4. Love Song by The Cure

5. Sound and Vision by David Bowie

6. No One Knows by The Queens of the Stone Age

7. Sinfonia Antarctica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

8. More than a Feeling by Boston

Maybe I’ll explain why in a future post. What would yours be?

All text and image © PSR 2014

One Star or Five?

24 May

Six years after everyone else, I’ve got around to joining Goodreads. I’m rapidly discovering that the site is crammed with people from around the world who are genuinely interested in books rather than those on certain other sites who are there just to push ‘product’. And among the reviews, all manner of books are presented as works of genius..

One of the most noticeable aspects when you look at members’ reviews is how certain books seem to polarise opinion. A five star review will be followed by another with one, often stating that the reader couldn’t finish the book. These are books that ‘get a reaction’, and in general that must be a good thing, surely. And it seems to me, that it’s books at either end of the spectrum that provoke this sort of response. Books that I love (by inspirational writers like those in the photo below) will receive eulogies from like-minded readers only to be dismissed by other readers as ‘boring’ or ‘pretentious’. Examples of ‘kidult’ fiction, on the other hand, will be declared literary masterpieces by the critics of Calvino and Borges.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever... It  could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever… It could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I belonged to a writing group, my own work would receive a similarly split response. I tend to think that you must be doing something right if your writing pleases kindred spirits while annoying those with limited horizons and no work ethic when it comes to writing. I’ve remarked before, which side of the divide you’ll find me on. There’s no sense in standing on the sidelines of your own blog. I’ll be manning the barricades in defence of complexity and depth, ambition and experimentation, throwing metaphorical Molotov cocktails at writing that’s lazy, juvenile and shallow.

Curiously, even as I type this post, sitting in Caffe Nero, there’s a man, clearly on a blind date, slating The Great Gatsby as preposterous and pretentious. Fitzgerald’s book is far from being my favourite book, but I can appreciate its craftsmanship and originality. I suspect that Romeo’s one star review is a reflection of his philistinism and intellectual laziness. She seems to think he’s wrong too. It must be his chat-up lines, rather than his erudition, attracting her five star reviews…

All text © PSR 2014. Image found on Goodreads – its provenance is unknown to me.

Readers and Writers

10 May

This site is all about reading and writing. I’ve had little time or head-space for either recently. As a consequence, both my work-in-progress and this blog have been somewhat neglected. My life has been going through one of its periodic phases of turmoil. And so the same has been true for reading.  I have, though, managed to finish re-reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a book much concerned with the relationship between reader and writer, a theme beloved of semiologists from Roland Barthes onward. I’d already been thinking about this relationship as a result of joining Goodreads. Initially, my membership was just as a reader. For me, reading’s every bit as important as writing. Noticing that just about everyone else there was listed as a writer, I thought I’d better join the bandwagon. Curiously, for a site of this nature, some members have thousands of friends but mention not a single book that they’ve read… Odd. Everyone is a writer these days, it would seem, but often not a reader. I’ve just written a review of Calvino’s novel on the site, where I described it as an ‘event book’, one of those that divides your reading into a before and after. It’s a book that’s had an enormous influence on my approach to writing.

Readers don’t need to be writers. Writers, though, it seems to me, must be readers. Having engaged with the writing community from time to time over the last couple of decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some talented writers who are passionate about books. The worst work that I’ve encountered has always come from those who don’t read. Either such writers read nothing or they read and re-read the same safe, genre-restricted books. There’s an entire world of great writing out there from which we can choose to learn, or not, as the case may be. And when it comes to their own work, bad writers tend not to re-read and they don’t revise. That’s where the real work of the writer takes place, of course. Craftsmanship, painstaking attention to detail… it’s all too much trouble for those who are more concerned with the vainglory of authorship and artefact than they are with the written word.

And talking of reading and Goodreads, I found a the list on the site compiled from the votes of some 37,000 readers and entitled ‘Best Books of the 20th Century’. The top fifty comprises titles that make me despair for the future of the novel, the product of what we might term the infantalisation of the intellect in the 21st century. That J K Rowling (nos. 6, 22 and 37) could teach Calvino a thing or two about writing, apparently. Georges Perec (I couldn’t find any of his works in the top 600) has much to learn from Richard Adams (no. 41). At the same time, some great books have been voted for too. A genuine divide does seem to be opening up in the world of books, like that between the resistance and the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 (no. 11),  between the revolutionaries and the police in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (no. 174). I know which side I’ll be fighting on. How about you? Exciting times indeed…

05-10-2013 17;56;13

All text and images © PSR 2014

Goodreads, badspellings…

25 Apr

Setting aside for a moment, the illiterate title of a website dedicated to reading and writing (is it a horror of messy hair extensions that I’ve subscribed to?), I’d like to consider the merits of the ‘social cataloguing’ site Goodreads. Friends kept on mentioning it, so I thought that I’d give it a look. I allowed Goodreads to import my Twitter account followers and within three days I had almost 200 friends on the site. I suppose this illustrates that the more you work on your ‘internet presence’, the more the interconnectivity of the web kicks in. Does all of this serve any purpose, though?

I’m also an author-member of Library Thing. I have to confess that I’ve hardly looked at this site and have found it intrinsically uninteresting. Whether this is due to my not having explored its possibilities or its innately boring nature, it’s difficult for me to say. If Goodreads enables the individual to connect with like-minded readers and writers, that has to be a good thing, I think. I’ve linked up with fellow admirers of Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, for example, so maybe this will lead me to other authors that I’ll like, of whom I’m currently unaware. We shall see. And it’s interesting to discover the books that other people are reading and what they have to say about them. I’ve detected the rot of self-promotion seeping in, though, with one writer/reader listing his own work as his favourite. Hmm…

A large quantity of books hidden behind the Christmas tree in the author's front room...

A large quantity of books hidden behind the Christmas tree in the author’s front room…

All social media have their limitations. They’re about the people that you meet and how able you are to interact with them, given the obstacles that each of the sites inherently places in your path. I enjoy blogging and reading the posts that my friends write (please take note, WordPress!). Once you reach a certain number of followers/blogs followed, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Twitter’s USP of limiting communication to 140-word characters ultimately undermines the ability to connect. And that’s to say nothing of the constant stream of self-promotion that makes it all but impossible to pick out anything of interest. It’s the same needle in a haystack that blights your blog feed. I find Facebook pretty boring in the main with the same quizzes and YouTube clips endlessly recurring. And I just can’t get interested in Pinterest or Instagram.

I’ve actually discovered an interesting new social medium. It has connectivity pretty much the world over. There are no advertisements or outages. It’s called RealLife. You go to a café or bar and talk to people. If you don’t like what you find in your news feed or comment box, you walk to another café or bar and talk to someone else. Then when you’ve had enough, you catch the bus home.

The fact that Goodreads is now owned by Amazon strikes me as worrying. That one, hyper-capitalist corporation should have so much control over a vital cultural activity is a disturbing development. Democracy and government, communities and national boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the corporate age.  Kautsky got this aspect of society right, it would seem.

Any thoughts?

All text and images © PSR 2014

Strange Events at the Bookshop…

26 Mar

The last two times that I’ve been into my local book store, the shelves have assailed my eyes with unsettling apparitions.

The first strange phenomenon was a notebook. As with many writers, notebooks are of great importance to me and I’m never found without one. There’s been a vogue recently for notebooks dressed up to look like vintage paperbacks. My children bought me one packaged within the original Penguin Books cover to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which I planned out most of my current work-in-progress. And now here was another one in its orange Penguin cover. Nothing so strange about that. Except that it was from a novel by Rex Warner. Rex Warner? I’ve mentioned before that Warner is one of my favourite writers. Most people that I meet have never heard of him let alone read any of his books. It’s their loss. But then that’s the random nature of what’s be found in print and what isn’t… The Aerodrome is his best known novel. But this notebook utilised the cover from The Professor. In the quarter of a century or so since I first read it, I haven’t met anyone else who’s done so. I’m willing to bet that I was the only person in the bookshop – perhaps even the whole town – who’d read it. Before the Internet ruined things by making it too easy, I used to enjoy collecting Warner’s books, all of which barring The Aerodrome were out of print. Covers from my collection were even borrowed by Book Collector magazine for use in an article about him. And yet there it was on the bookshop shelf. How odd.


The original 1940s cover of the Penguin version, as seen on the notebook

The second strange phenomenon that I encountered was in the non-fiction section. Prominently displayed was a biography of one of my favourite musicians. I already own a biography of him so I looked to see who had written this new one. And it was my erstwhile bosom buddy. We used to share a publisher. Our bands used to support each other. We even had a joint musical project for a few years. While I’ve ploughed my furrow toward obscurity and relative poverty, he has become relatively wealthy and well known. I don’t resent him his success – he’s worked hard for it. These days, though, we’re estranged. He took exception over the break-up of my first long-term relationship and never really forgave me. I love the guy but there are only so many times that you can be rebuffed. Seeing his book there felt odd. I find myself wondering what I shall discover in that book store, the next time that I visit…


A later, 1980s reprint from Lawrence and Wishart

It so happens that I’m planning a third strange bookshop phenomenon of my own but it’ll have to remain strictly under wraps for the time being… All will be revealed in time.

All text © PSR 2014, images photographed by me and © the publishers

Have We Reached the Final Page?

13 Mar

Over the past week, a couple of news items about books have caught my eye. Putting the two together, they didn’t make good reading. Might the book have reached its final page? The items seemed to suggest so. If this turns out to be true then I fear that civilisation might well have reached its final page too. Welcome to the Age of the Yahoo.

I remarked in a recent post about how incredibly narrow the UK literary scene has become, largely concerned with the lives and interests of the London-based metropolitan elite. Novelist and creative writing professor,  A L Kennedy is well placed to comment. The newspaper, i reported on a talk that she gave about the state of UK publishing. Although Kennedy’s writing has never really captured my imagination, when I heard her speak at a city library a few years ago I was enormously taken with her wit and intelligence. The article quoted her as saying that the novel here is “bland, dull and repetitive”. It’s hard to disagree. The industry, she suggested, is telling readers that “you want the novel about thirty-something people in Kensal Green, again… for the twelfth time.” Kennedy is, of course, the woman who won the Costa Prize with her novel about a World War Two bomber crew while I’m the man whose novel about a World War Two bomber crew can’t find a publisher, but we shan’t hold that against her…

And then there was the survey carried out by Booktrust and reported by the BBC that found that 45% of Britons prefer watching TV or a DVD to reading a book. 36% of respondents started books but got bored and didn’t finish them. 64% of 18-30 year old Britons think that the Internet will have replaced books within twenty years. Hmm… cheerio, then, civilisation. It seems that in the UK, at least, we’re dividing into readers on the one hand and watchers and surfers on the other. I can’t say that I’m greatly surprised. Most of the graduates with whom I work seem to talk about TV much of the time. The reading groups to which belonged had a preference for chick-lit and graphic novels. Their members proclaimed the novels of Italo Calvino and William Golding to be trash. Okay, then…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly no Luddite. I enjoy looking at Wikipedia and the BBC website and my friends’ blogs. I own a Kindle and I write a blog, after all. But surfing the Internet can in no way be considered an experience comparable with reading a carefully crafted novel. The immersion in a fully realised world, the depth of characterisation, the joyous use of language, the ideas that can be explored… skipping from one flippant article on the web to the next provides none of these things. Nor does the passive experience of watching TV. The programmes that I see generally resemble a series of edited highlights. Just watch this trailer, they seem to say. There’s no longer any need to make properly thought out programmes. Read the blurb, flick through the pages and you’ve read the book. Job done. It’s that same inability to stick with anything requiring more than a moment’s focus that ends with the idea of the novel written in thirty days. It seems that we’re growing ever smarter and yet immensely more facile too. It’s okay, though, because we have 140 characters to say what we want to say, a sentence to provide our status update. And who could be bored by that?


A random selection from the author’s bookshelves…

The more I see of where things are headed, the more I find my mind returning to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those who don’t know, in this splendid novel of ideas, a group of outsiders have each committed  to memory a book in its entirety in order to save it for posterity and from the flame-throwers of book-burning ‘firemen’. Could it really be that in the near-future, only a few of us will remember the value of books? Certainly, in my country, if the gatekeepers continue to allow through only the smug outpourings of a distant elite, it may well turn out to be so. My way of passing books onto the next generation has been to nurture a love of books in my children. We visit the library often and I’ve bought them countless books. As mentioned in my post last week, I always read to them at bedtime. And so far, so good since they’re both avid readers. As far as my own stories are concerned, I can’t find anyone to publish them let alone to burn them… Ho hum. I shall leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress, which touches upon the barbarity of a world without books:

Some centuries ago – texts differ as to when – a warlord and his horde arrived from the north on horseback and lay siege to much of our country. Little has been written down about the period. Our invaders had no use for writing. Books were an impediment to their nomadic lifestyle.  And so they piled up all of the volumes from our libraries and abbeys and erected giant spits above them. It is said that the goat curry that night had an especial piquancy, its ingredients having been smoked over parchment. Consequently, accounts are confused.  Some say that the great warrior marched in accompanied by two tame white tigers. Others tell of the warlord’s personal guards, riding in the van of his army, mounted on the backs of armour-plated mammoths. Their chargers were said to be scions of the wild horses that roamed the steppes. They were remarkable beasts. Most remarkable of all were their muzzles. Rising above the flared nostrils – from which smoke was said to issue – was a distinct hump.  Some saw in this the stump left behind when a rhino’s horn has been hewn off for use as an aphrodisiac. And in their abnormally high shoulder blades they saw further vestigial remains. Had these steeds, then, formerly possessed the power of flight?  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Leaving Moominvalley

6 Mar

I’ve mentioned before my fondness for the writing of Tove Jansson. As a child, I loved the Moomin books with their strange characters and evocative landscapes. They played a large part in igniting my passion for reading. Later on, I discovered the memoir and fiction that she’d written for adults. Initially, there were only two books in translation, both of which I tracked down in second hand book stores. Since then, Sort Of Books has been publishing her back catalogue and I’ve been buying and reading them with a great sense of anticipation. Only once have I been even vaguely disappointed. The True Deceiver, for example, is a superb novel, dealing in part with the disappointment experienced by the author as a serious artist dismissed as a ‘mere’ children’s writer. At its best, Janssons’s adult fiction is the equal of her stories for children.

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts (sort of?). Having read all of the Moomin books several times over as a child, I’ve had the pleasure of reading them again as an adult to my children at bedtime. There are only one or two evenings a week when I’m able to read to them, so we get through books slowly. Our journey through Moominland seems to have been an ever-present feature of their childhood. We started reading Comet in Moominland, the first of the eight Moomin books widely available in English, way back in 2010. As we came to the final pages of Moominvalley in November last week, I was overcome by a sense of melancholy (Jansson loved that word). Like the Moomins themselves, we’ve left Moominvalley behind. I no longer have an excuse for partaking in the Moomins’ world and I’ve been forced to recognise how quickly my children are growing up. Now we have to decide what we’re going to read next. And then the day will come when they don’t want to be read to any more.

05-10-2013 17;54;09

This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with Moominland except that it’s taken in Scandanavia with my two great friends from university days

Aside from any indirect effect Jansson’s crystalline prose may have had on my own writing, I’ve previously managed to sneak reference to the Moomins into my work (follow this link for an excerpt). And then there’s the epic poem posted on this site. I’ve made some obscure allusions to them in my work-in-progress. But the question of what to read next to my children still remains. We’ve considered the Narnia books, but having been read a couple at their mother’s house, they weren’t convinced. Oz is also a possibility. Which magical world to visit next, then? I may just have to write something for them myself…

All text and images © PSR 2014

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Six

31 Jan

And so we come to the fourth of my guests to take up the challenge to rescue just eight books from their collection, the Canadian writer, Lisa Pellecchia. As with my previous guests, she found that the choice was a hard one.

“My books are the only material things that I treasure, and listing only eight of them would be a gross understatement,” Lisa says.

Ah, but that’s the whole point, Lisa. She explains what books mean to her.

“They were the only luxury my parents would allow despite the wrath of poverty we endured for several years. The library became my refuge, where I could change my mind as many times as I wanted, and the librarian would smile patiently. Books were my companions during the lonely hours of my awkward childhood. The stories that poured out of the pages put things into context for me, and gave me time to sort out what mattered. The ideas I read about could not possibly exist only in these pages, my mind would say. I could feel these emotions too. I used the characters in the books I read to help me understand people, and it became easier to make friends because kids were interested in what I had to say. I was more confident.”

There are a couple of writers who might have made it on to my list – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut – had I compiled it on another day. And there’s also a John Irving title on there. I have to confess at this point that I’ve never got around to reading Irving, even though he’s the favourite author of several people whom I know. Here are Lisa’s choices.

After my sixth grade teacher told me to read a real book (she saw me reading one of the Sweet Valley Twins serials), I felt ashamed that I had chosen such a frivolous novella to feed my brain.  I knew that she was right, and so I abandoned Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in favour of the kind of books that were like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Caroll) and Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery).  In retrospect, I think that Anne Shirley is the literary character with whom I most identified, because she was naïve and curious, cherished friendship and had a wild imagination. The Canadian landscape made her even more accessible because I played in it every day.

Heeding my teachers’ advice, I went to the library and found a tattered copy of Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë). The English countryside and wild weather bewitched me, and would forever hold me in its clutches, not to mention the torturous life circumstances and emotions that Jane experiences gave me a different perspective. I believe that my capacity for adversity stems not only from my own life, but also from a deeper understanding of how much more difficult many others lives’ can be, thanks to this story.

I loved watching the Italian news, soaking up every bit of vitriol and controversy that they could squeeze out of the bespectacled figures hurriedly making their way from one old building to the next, pressed by reporters for comment on the latest topic. I read everything about government and philosophy that I could find, trying to make sense of De Tocqueville, Plato and Hannah Arendt while sinking into Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird as though his words were quicksand.  It was this book that created a sort of ethereal mystique about Harvard College, and the way Vonnegut writes is why I felt that I could engage this story. His sentences can be short, but they are heavy with purpose. He had no use for the excessive descriptions of Thomas Hardy nor the thought to be politically correct. Jailbird is about a guy who was involved in the Watergate scandal and is now out of prison. The story uses the main characters’ life to show how absurd certain aspects of America could be.  Sacco and Vanzetti (the Italian-Americans who were convicted of a murder and robbery in 1921 despite evidence being disproven in court) are an example of a historic event that influences the protagonists’ psyche. But this story also presents some “a-ha!” moments, such as why Urdu was developed, and the underlying taste of diplomacy is drizzled throughout, despite the presence of JD Salinger-like phoneys.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez succeeded in making me sob over a book like no other writer because he chose the most impossible love to craft a story that needed to be told. Of Love and Other Demons left me wanting more words to somehow explain the intense emotions stirring inside me.  His stark descriptions of the human condition appeal to the basest layer of my instincts, as though I could smell the rancid flesh of rotting morality. The passion that the priest feels for Sierva Maria is wrong but I want their story to go on. Then I read this book in Spanish… and I was hooked. The language is figurative and scathing in its depiction of emotion, social etiquette and bizarre beliefs held by the characters.

My next choice would be The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint Exupéry). It was on the curriculum for twelfth grade French.  Our teacher had a nervous breakdown halfway through the semester, so our only course work was to read and analyse this book. I spent every day talking about the possible meanings of the short parable-like vignettes with my dear friend who is no longer with us. His ideas were so different than those of anyone I knew, and he seemed to see through the words to grasp the apple bobbing in the barrel without so much as flinching. I learned to notice how people can be graceful even though they are dealing with personal turmoil. My friend will always be a Prince. The stars at night will always remind me of his shy laughter.

I have never thought of myself as a feminist, only because I was never told that I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted unless it was rude or illegal. My family always let me be who I wanted to be. My mother let me wear makeup when I turned 12, because she realized I loved dressing up. As a result, I never looked garish because I could always ask for help. Conversely, I was encouraged to ride my bike and play in the fields with the other kids. If my upbringing had been different, perhaps my interest in feminism may be greater.  When I read The World According to Garp (John Irving), I was fascinated by the relationship between Jenny (a woman of means who becomes a single mother and later writes a book that would inspire a generation of women who don’t feel they need a man) and her son (a boy who grows up without a father, and lives the most conventional life possible). I thought it was so interesting to read a female character written by a man. I had no idea what a transsexual was until I met Roberta Muldoon in this book. Garp wanted to be a writer, like I did, but he was growing up in a very different time. I am grateful to Mr. Irving for teaching me the word lasciviousness, and to appreciate handwritten letters.  His writing style continues to appeal to me, and the stories he chooses to tell address sensitive issues with bold matter of fact simplicity.

Street hockey is a Canadian tradition. We played until the street lights came on, and even we girls were accepted by the neighbourhood boys because there usually weren’t enough kids to make two full teams. Everyone loved the Maple Leafs. When real hockey was on television, the streets were empty and we were face-first into the screen, listening to Don Cherry rant or give praise, wishing we were sitting in the first row so we could jump when Wendel Clark slammed someone into the boards. It was no surprise that when I saw The Hockey Sweater (Roch Carrier) on the shelf at school, I picked it up. It was then that I became aware of the rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens hockey clubs. Hockey had never been about rivalry, except when my older brother didn’t want me tagging along. I became obsessed with learning enough French to be able to follow the play by play on Radio Canada, learned the history of the team and soon enough, I was under the spell of the legends who were really just men who used to be boys, like the ones I played street hockey with in my youth.

The eighth book I would take is my Falcon Guide of Knots for the Outdoors (Cliff Jacobson).  I can never remember exactly how to tie certain knots, and you never know when you’ll need to have the instructions handy. That’s all I have to say about that book.

It just remains for me to thank Lisa for sharing her eight books with me. I hope that you enjoyed reading about them too.

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Five

19 Dec

When I kicked off this series of posts, I listed the eight books that I’d take with me but didn’t justify their inclusion. I didn’t think much about it. That’s the game. I just grabbed them and ran. As I’ve already remarked, there are at least a hundred others I might have chosen, but these were the first that came to mind. And my three guests so far have chosen another five that I might well have taken (Lord of the Flies, The End of the Affair, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The titles that I’ve chosen have all influenced my own writing, in one way or another. And they reflect the global nature of my reading tastes. There are just two by my fellow countrymen and they’re both from the 1940s. There are as many entries by Czech authors, which perhaps says something about the desultory state of the literary scene in my homeland. The list is completed by a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Argentinian. And yes, I do read work by modern writers too but nothing comparatively recent popped into my head at that moment (I might have taken Alva and Irva, say, or The Savage Detectives – damn it, I wish I had now…). Three of my choices are novellas and who now publishes those? Come on, all you British publishers, stop being so hidebound. Anyway, here goes.


A reminder of my eight selections…

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec is my favourite book of all time. I can’t begin to do justice to its splendours. Perec sub-titled it ‘Novels’ and it does indeed feel equivalent to about ten other novels. The characters, the descriptions of the apartment block in which it’s set, the picaresque tales and their interconnectedness, the wordplay and bad jokes… Excuse me for five days while I go off and read it again.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is the literary equivalent of a Tardis. Calvino was blessed with a rich and strange imagination. Reading the descriptions of the imaginary cities in this novella, all of which are also Venice in some sense, is a transporting experience. And the exchanges between Marco Polo (the narrator) and Kublai Khan (the audience) are extremely funny. I introduced it to the last reading group of which I was a member. They hated it. 

I’ve read two other novels by Joseph Heller, but for me, his début, Catch-22 towers above them. I know that this reaction caused annoyance to Heller but who couldn’t be happy with having written one of the most enduring works of the twentieth century? After all, that’s one book more than most of us will ever write. Hilarious and savage, angry and resigned, it’s up there among my favourite American novels along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Confederacy of Dunces

Each of the short stories in Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges could have been a novel in itself, but Borges chose to compose a vast canon in miniature instead. His tales work like those food pills that astronauts used to take with them into space. This collection bears reading again and again. The stories are surreal, funny and unique. Borges was poking fun at the very idea of writing and storytelling, yet wrote magically while doing so. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a modern masterwork – droll, urbane and moving. Reading this complex and fully imagined book proves a totally immersive experience. I got lost in it for days. I bought my mother a copy for Christmas and it had the same effect on her. 

I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell countless times. This little book is very nearly perfect. It’s almost impossible to think of any way in which it could be improved. Every sentence is crafted with beautiful economy. Though the characters are archetypes they’re also unforgettable. The intelligence behind the book is phenomenal. Even the ending is unimprovable. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. 

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner is the least well known of the books on my list. It’s a ripping yarn and at the same time a serious reflection on the nature and exercise of power. As with Orwell, the writing is flawless. Anyone who wishes to learn how to craft a sentence need look no further. And as with all of the books on this list, it’s also seriously funny. Here are my favourite lines, spoken by the Flight Lieutenant to the narrator: “I say, Roy, something rather rotten has happened. I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man. 

Like Animal Farm, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is pretty much perfect. This is dark, ultra-modern über-comedy, the meaning of which is always just out of reach. Kafka remains the undisputed master of the opening and closing sentence. Consider the beginning of Metamorphosis, at once horrific and killingly funny. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.  


Viinsbørg Smetz has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items…

And let us not forget the choices made by the man responsible for this series, Viinsbørg Smetz. ‘Whom?’ I hear you ask. Ah, well, you haven’t met Smetz yet as you’ve haven’t read my latest novel. Come to that, I haven’t finished writing it yet either.

Viinsbørg Smetz, occupant of Compartment 45D-4, has a single bookshelf, a small metal luggage rack just big enough to accommodate ten items. Like his fellow residents, Smetz left his apartment in great haste. He has copies of the Rail Noorskii national timetable and the nuunoorskiidikktjonaar (the standard reference work on our language, still as yet incomplete). The remaining books – works in translation, for the most part – are an eclectic mix of the literary and the popular. And so Steppenwolf and Anna Karenina by Hermann Hesse and Count Tolstoy respectively sit alongside Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. There are a couple of plays also, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Peetrus Paanis by J M Barrie. Two further works for children, Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales complete the collection.

Place yourself in Smetz’s position. Which books will you save? You must make up your mind swiftly. The train will be leaving soon. Time is of the essence. You’ll be given a copy of nooriisjaanrr, the sagas that relate collectively the history of our country, and a dictionary (Noorskii to English, French, German, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin). The other eight items are yours to choose. You must hurry, though. It’s a difficult if not impossible task. Perhaps you’ll still be there, long after the final call to passengers has been made, running your eye across the shelves in your apartment, running your finger along the spines, stricken by inertia, unable to choose which books to take and which to leave behind…


The only extant photograph of Viinsbørg Smetz

 All text and images © PSR 2013