Friday, March 26, 2010

Books I'm reading # 7

I could do a very short post by saying, 'not a lot'.  For the trouble is, I often find writing and reading to be incompatible. This might seem counter intuitive, but it is not unique - a writing friend of mine once told me she had to give up reading entirely if she was to produce anything serious - 'too distracting' she said, and I empathise.

I've also been learning to play the banjo - so there is a pile of instruction manuals on my desk: Banjo for Dummies; Absolute Beginners; Learn to Play...  Do these count as proper reading?  Not really, but I've enjoyed them nonetheless. I have always wanted to play a musical instrument though quite how it ended up being a banjo I'm not sure. Anyone want to hear my ten thousandth rendition of Cripple Creek?Believe me, you don't; you really don't.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is non-fiction at its best. Holmes tells the story of the pioneering scientists of the Romantic era: William Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, Michael Faraday. It is also an account of a time when the quest for knowledge was an exciting project worthy, of widespread public support - and a reminder too of just how much progress we have made. Admittedly, the grander projects were largely the preserve of a wealthy elite, but not exclusively so. What chance that our Monarch would pay for today's equivalent of Herschel's forty foot telescope and give its inventor an annual salary so they could use it to the full? George III did just that. An inspiring book, superbly written - my only irritation is the small font size.. 'where are my glasses!'

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers is my type of novel. Set in small mid western town, it is the story of two old friends, both dying, and two young men, whose lives are inexorably drifting and influenced by factors they cannot control. It's underlying tone is sad and reflective; the sense that 'ultimately, we are all alone' is the bass note of a story that grinds towards an inevitable, unstoppable conclusion. Slow, sensitive and heartfelt.

The Fall by Albert Camus. I had wanted to read this for years - but boy, is it dull. It is so dreary I had to force myself to finish it. The story of a self absorbed solicitor who has given up everything and lives in an existential quandary. It is written as a monologue, the lawyer talking to an unnamed stranger over a number of night.  I can't imagine why he came back; Camus says very little and what he does say is zzzzz...
The Set Up by Joseph Moncure March was an unexpected gift from fellow blogger Carol (Not Only In Thailand) in return for a very small favour. And like all the best gifts, I was delighted to receive it but probably wouldn't have bought it myself - not because it isn't excellent, but because it is very difficult to find. Carol introduced to Moncure Marsh's furiously rhyming prose poems by recommending his better known book, The Wild Party. The Set Up is equally good; the tale of a faded boxer who is expected to throw a fight, but he doesn't know it...  Here is a an excerpt from page 1:

He was supple of build,
Heavy above,
With legs slim.
Light as a cat on his feet.
His neck was solid.
His arms were long.
His bones were heavy,
And his hands were strong;
And whenever he moved, you could see the lithe
Muscles under his skin writhe.
He was slick:
Each movement was like a trick.

Brilliant. Thank you Carole.

Nocturnes is the latest book by Kazuo Ishiguro. A series of short stories on the theme of 'turning points', all linked by music and with an underlying sense of regret and lost opportunity. As you would expect from Ishiguro they are skilfully written and the book gradually comes together in a way that is more satisfying than any of the individual stories. And yet I was disappointed. Some writers (Carver or Chekov for example) are masters at the short story; I didn't get that sense with this book - simply not as good as his novels.

Grays Anatomy by John Gray is book I have mentioned before. I have been rereading large sections of his essays: on politics, on the folly of progress; on Green Conservatism. Gray is one of the very best political a philosophical writers; not everything he says is comfortable but at times it seems impossible to escape his logic. What astounds me most is that many of these essays were written fifteen or more years ago - and yet they are so relevant today; almost prophetic at times. His analysis of the issues facing society is absolute top drawer. Intelligent, serious and tough - but worth the effort.

And lastly, Flat Stanley, Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh.  All read with Dylan of course. I only read them for him.... honestly, believe me.
So not a great deal, but some ideas perhaps.


  1. What you did meant a lot to me which is why I went hunting for the book :-). I am so glad you liked it (and I have to confess that I did read it before sending it to you because I don't think I would have been able to track down another copy and I didn't think you would mind!)...I thought it was wonderful!

    I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to the end of this semester so that I will once again be able to read non-academic texts! The end of May can't come quick enough!!

    C x

  2. I love those "for dummies" books (I'm sure they've been devised with me in mind). I'm currently giving British Sign Language For Dummies a go.

  3. I've got the banjo for dummies book, great for everything you need to know, but I ended up buying a Mebay book to actually try and learn songs, I think I may have hit that wall now where I need lessons to push me on a bit though.

  4. Reading to my son as he was growing up was a great pleasure and one I looked forward to every evening. As he is dislexic I'm sure it helped him develop his volcabulary and recognise words in a relaxed setting. As a 20 year old, he now reads well and enjoys it.

  5. The Richard Holmes sounds right up my street: for pleasure, that is. I've posted today about reading for writers, but that's different. And as for those classic books for children... well, it's our duty to read them, surely?

  6. I'm glad you are enjoying the Richard Holmes book - I'd been wondering whether or not to get it. I've got his book on Keats and I like the Holmes' bio style very much.

    I'm reading something which seems to have passed me by when all the fuss was around - Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy. I see what you mean about reading not being compatible with writing - I feel like giving up (well, not really because I have a few more marked essays to do, but my heart is not in it like it used to be).

    Is the banjo having a revival? We've got a few mandolins but don't know how to play them.

  7. I'll order the Holmes...we would bioth enjoy that.
    Camus should have stuck to football.

  8. Carol - I agree the summer break wil be nice. wouldn't it be great to write poem like Marsh. The blogger! perhaps!

    Steve - sign language could be useful in our house at times

    TJ - I have tutor, not sure how much it helps, but I like the discipline of going each week

    FF , Fly and Dotteral - You will all like the Holmes book I'm sure. He writes a lot about the link with the Romantic poets too, but I think the most impressive part of the book is the sense of ambition he conveys.

  9. (rushes back in to correct error)

    I was eating my lunch when it suddenly dawned on me ' Keats? What book on Keats? It was on Shelley!

    (rushes back out)

  10. Grays Anatomy appeals to me, I will check it out.
    I have just read the Behaviour of Moths which you recommended to me. Thanks, I enjoyed it.

  11. BANJO???! I stuck to the piano...

    Gray's Anatomy and Clock Without Hands appeal to me. Though the latter no doubt full of tristesse and probably not good for my state of mind...
    I was meant to read La Chute for my French degree. Am completely sure I never did - and if I had, it would probably have been in English! Did read L'Etranger, though, and have to admit that I enjoyed it - although rather nihilistic - because I have a certain empathy with existential angst.

    Gosh, this is all a bit much for a grey Tuesday morning - think I'll go and put the kettle on and throw in a pants wash!

    Ps: love Pooh. Have you ever come across Mary Plain, a little bear from Berne. My mother read them as a child and, though rather more old-fashioned now than they even were when I was a chld, they still have a lovely innocent charm.

  12. Pps: completely agree about reading others being distracting for your own writing. This is why I never read other people's blogs if I'm about to write a post myself - a) because I'd be meandering round blog world for the whole of my 'writing slot' time and b) my head would be so full of other's lives, experiences and ideas that I would no longer be able to conjure up the words or enthusiasm for my own!

  13. I will have to think about a couple of those. I read some but it seems to take most of my wake time in bed.

  14. I discovered Flat Stanley a couple of years ago whilst looking for book prizes for the end of the Easter egg hunt (with proper clues to solve!) for my niece and nephew. My niece (then 10)was easy - introduce her to the world of Alan Garner. My nephew was proving to be tricky - 6 years old and a reluctant reader. I stood in Waterstones looking at the rows of books marked as being suitable for that age in despair. How on earth could I judge good from bad? Then I picked up Flat Stanley and knew I had the answer in my hand. I'm pleased to say my 8 year old nephew is no longer a reluctant reader and loves reading to his auntie :)

    Have a great Easter.

  15. The Set-Up is killer!
    Unfortunate that it's so tough to get hold of.

    For anyone wanting to read more -