Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Highly Recommended

If there's one thing more confusing than the slightly unsettling emotion of loving someone who doesn't get one of your main passions in life, except to love the fact that you have a passion, I find, it's the feeling created when someone of whom you are very fond recommends you a book - and you cannot muster any enthusiasm at all to read it.

There's a certain school-like pressure about being urged to read something, regardless of who by. 'You'll love it,' friends or family say. 'I did.' And so you should: you love them, so why wouldn't you love reading what they've loved? Sadly, it's not always the case.

My main objection to recommendations is feeling deprived of the book-buying experience. I could take a hundred books home every year from my local bookshop - savouring the smell of new paper and print, the careful balancing up of the merits of one book over another, the heady last-minute decision to buy something I've never heard of instead of the well-reviewed something I've been eyeing up for weeks.

In all this, editing is crucial: I have neither the time nor the shelf space to buy every book that catches my eye, so difficult decisions about what to take and what to leave are necessary. When a book's recommended by a friend, I may already have mentally rejected it - and strangely, that's a decision that's hard to turn back from. The pile by my bed is already quite tall.

If it's not already been rejected, it may simply be a topic that I find uninteresting. However good a book may be, if it's about Queen Victoria or her reign, chances are I don't want to read it. I couldn't watch the film Young Victoria, although everyone said it was wonderful, on that ground alone. I can't be alone in having this sort of irrational taste block.

My mother has a maddening habit of recommending or buying for me books she's merely heard are good - but that's just too tenuous. Her friends' tastes aren't necessarily mine. It's such a kind impulse, but they lie unopened for months before being taken to the charity shop.

Writing this makes me think of the way the New Yorker drops relentlessly onto the doormat in so many American homes, a weekly pleasure that becomes, by its very regularity, an obligation as well. Ever more intimidating piles of beautifully-selected and -edited, high-quality, highly-enjoyable writing tower besides loos and beds. It's like having a book recommended to you, and then before you've even had the chance to open it, another arrives, and then another.

Perhaps this is what it feels like when your friends - or even your wife - write books and expect you to read them.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Dear Reader

The opening essay of Anne Fadiman's charming collection, Ex Libris, entitled 'Marrying Libraries' is about her and her husband's efforts to 'mix' their books together. Their other effects had happily cohabited for years, but five years into their marriage her Billy Budd remained at the north end of their apartment, his Moby-Dick at the south. When their shelves were finally collated the ensuing arguments - Fadiman is a 'splitter', George a 'lumper' - made her husband seriously contemplate divorce.

I labour under no such pressures. When I moved into my husband's flat I had a wall of bookshelves installed, and they easily accommodated my husband's spare and random collection of books (an ode to his school; a not-very-good novel by a comedic National Treasure; miscellaneous Australiana; a dictionary of wine bigger and more detailed than the OED).

Here, I've given him a few little sections of his own: a row of books about his family history, mostly gifts or in waiting for our sons; a few books I think he might like, and have put aside when requested to wait for him to notice them (this is the section that grew steadily by his bed for 4 years in our old flat, and includes 2 books by me published since we've known each other, but which, to my knowledge, remain unread, apart from the dedication pages); and journalistic books about the state of the nation or the modern world - Who Runs Britain, Freakonomics, that sort of thing.

The problem (if it is a problem; perhaps situation is a better word) is that he hasn't ever, to my knowledge, finished one of them. One of my mother's few pieces of advice to me when I was a girl was not to trust people - men was the implication - Who Didn't Finish Books. That won't be something I need to worry about, I remember thinking. You may have chosen badly on this account with my father, a delight in other ways but not, in his youth at any rate, a sticker; but I won't make that mistake. How could I possibly fall in love with someone who doesn't read?

And so sure enough I find myself with someone who not only has barely any books to contribute to our shared bookshelves but someone who never finishes a book - not even a book he likes. I tell myself that it's because he's too obsessed by current events, and that anyway it wouldn't do to be competing on the same field - another reader might not have given me the space I need. The strange, and extraordinarily touching, thing is that he's almost more wedded to the idea of me being a writer than I am.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

New House... New Bookshelves

A new house... and new bookshelves to fill. What a treat in store. Several years ago I met A.A. Gill who told me about the person he had coming in to organise his library for him. It was a job of which I hadn't heard, but one I fondly thought I might be good at.

Perhaps surprisingly, given this vague hope (I don't think AA would appreciate it, anyway), I made a desultory attempt in our old flat to organise my books by the colour of their spines. It's a pretty silly idea in retrospect, especially since I only ever managed to do about a third of them, but what I liked about it was the randomness of how the books fell into place: a particular favourite was one of Jilly Cooper's early heroines, Harriet or Emily, all soft-focused, girlish romanticism, next to Nicholson Baker's pretentious ode to literary eroticism (or was it pornography?), The Fermata. Also, in finding a book, I had to remember where it was geographically on the shelves - a game as good for the memory surely as pelmanism.

Everywhere I've lived, I've had the problem of not quite enough shelves. When Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble put their house up for sale a few years ago, one of the things considered notable by the selling agent was the yards and yards of shelf space. With a great deal of flair-filled drilling and many bustling visits to the local hardware store, my father put up a wall of shelves for me in a cottage I rented on the Welsh borders some years ago. It was a huge success for some months... until I went away on holiday and returned to find my sitting room floor covered in a sea of books and the shelves collapsed.

Here's no different. It's a big house, but the shelves are more for display than use. Still, limitations aren't a bad thing. I'm trying to think of having to choose which books I really need out, and which can be piled at the back of a cupboard, as like choosing a capsule wardrobe: the skill will be all in the editing.

I'm definately going to sort them by author and into fiction and nonfiction categories, though. At least I think that's how I'll do it. I worry a little that having them organised will detract something from searching for a book, like mini-cab drivers with tom-toms who have unlearned all their navigational skills, and I'll be sad to lose happy mixed marriages like that of Jilly Cooper and Nicholson Baker, but the merits of knowing where a book should be and being able to find it instantly will outweigh all that.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Scratch + Sniff

The other day I ventured across London to The Book Club in Shoreditch to provide a bit of historical context to a stunningly original way of thinking about - well, about loads of things: history, culture, gender - and last but not least, scent.

It's an event called Scratch + Sniff, compered by the fabulously named Odette Toilette. The theme for the evening was the 1920s - a time when synthetics took over the perfume world, rendering classics like cologne and rose and lavender water hopelessly old-fashioned. Modern men and women in the 1920s wanted to smell like cigarette smoke, aeroplane fuel, leather, imaginary flowers - even each other. Famously, Charlie Chaplin wore Mitsouko - one of the few 1920s fragrances still easily available today, a potent oriental that today is seen as a woman's fragrance.

My favourite was Habanero (I think), which was created to drop onto cigarettes like a room fragrance, though I think Odette told me in one of our talks before the evcnt that the perfumers were trying to make a smell that evoked Cuban maidens rolling cigars on their virginal thighs. There were bowls of coffee beans on the able to smell when you got nasal overload, the olfactory equivalent of crackers at a wine tasting.

The best thing about the night was the way it provoked conversation, and made you think anew both about what you were smelling and why you responded to it as you did. One especially celebrated 1920s scent made almost everyone think of vintage shops, but in a good way - it was the most popular on the night. The scent was intended to recreate the smell of a brothel.

I haven't got out much over the past few years (as the fact that Shoreditch is foreign territory to me proves), but I can't remember when I was last in a room so buzzing with common interest and enthusiasm, and wonder at experiencing something new. Somehow looking at things through the prism of scent gives new shape to them - the 1920s is a relatively obvious one, but upcoming topics include the Movies, Scent & Creativity, and Scent and Masculine Identity. Bravo Odette Toilette.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Carter Beats the Others

The hands-down winner of my informal holiday reading contest was Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. Unputdownable. I was left marvelling, almost out of breath with the effort of devouring the pages. And that was from about page 100 onwards.

Actually, non-swanks, I chose well: The Hare with Amber Eyes was wonderful too, and even my rather silly Indian mystery did excatly what it said on the tin. What a joy to have had the luxury of enjoying them fully.

The one I barely attempted was The Slap, which I dipped into rather gingerly because a friend had said the characters were unappealing and the book as a whole was off-puttingly crude. Is that the right word? Off-puttingly graphic about sex. The pages I flicked through at random confirmed this and made me, pathetically, squeamish. Is it something I should perservere with, more to experience the power of the writing than anything else? Is it wet to want to like one of the characters in a novel? Perhaps it can wait until my next holiday.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Book Group

On Friday morning I was taken to a book group meeting by a friend who'd asked the others to read Liberty, my book about women and the French Revolution. The discussion was great - ranging from everything from the mystique of French women (and how the French in general love to be difficult) to the balance between state and sovereignity, and what happens when a vacuum is created (generally, if it's too violent a change, the status quo ante is quickly reasserted; the French revolution is a great example of this) and the Prague revolution of 1968 (witnessed, in fact lived through, by one of the group as a 21 year old).

I came out of the meeting feeling far friendlier towards Marie Antoinette than I have done before. I've generally found it hard to sympathise too much with her, viewing her as a spoilt, blinkered woman incapable of seeing past her own interests. That miserable David sketch of her on the way to the guillotine is too cruel, but it's only in the accounts of her last months that I've read her as beginning to be aware of what had taken place over the previous five years (five years! such a short time for everything you thought you knew to be destroyed). Now, writing that, I see I've been wanting to detect remorse in her, before I could forgive her - but what the others made me see on friday was how seeking that was utterly impossible. This was a woman brought up in a world where everything, including her understanding of religion, was shaped to reinforce her sense of herself at the centre and top of the world. There was no way she could have taken any path other than the one she chose, and this, finally, allowed me to empathise with her.

I was also riveted to speak to one of the women before the proper discussion started - as we feasted on the most delicious homemade ginger cake and blondies, an American type of cocoa-free brownies, something I haven't tasted since my teens - about how her book groups (she's in two) make her read books she'd otherwise avoid, but once read, would hate to have missed. She recommended Koetzee - someone whose books I stand in front of on bookshop shelves and tremble - and after her encouragement I'm determined to force myself to make difficult reading decisions and trust that the rewards will be worth it. It's what literature's there to do, after all - challenge one's world view, take one to new places - they can't just be comfortable ones. There is more to reading than Georgette Heyer.

But friday's biggest revelation wasn't anything to do with feminist history or the French revolution, or even any specific book chat; it was much more personal. First, it was wonderful to be around people who love and value books - and by extension, writers. They were choosing such a fascinating array of books for their upcoming meetings and I was hugely flattered to have been included on their list. Usually I find myself hating being the centre of attention - a disastrous event at the History Society of Peterhouse, Cambridge springs agonisingly to mind - and I deflect, desperately, wherever I can, but these women were so generous about how much they'd enjoyed my book - and I've been feeling so greatly in need of kindness like this - that the whole morning was a balm to my injured, anxious working soul. I went away feeling for the first time in months that perhaps I do have something to offer with my writing, and that deciding simply to throw in the towel might be premature. I also had a bag full of blondies.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Holiday Reading

I've sometimes felt that packing for a holiday can be almost more fun than the holiday itself - working on the theory that it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. It would be pretty disappointing if things really were better in anticipation than reality, but that doesn't stop me enjoying the anticipation to the full. If it wouldn't freak the boys out, I'd have my suitcase open and at the ready now, and we don't leave for two weeks.

This theory holds true for the books I'll take on holiday, too. I'm hoping that I won't really have time to read - so busy chatting, wandering aimlessly round markets, lying rose-sodden and dead to the world in the sun - but from now until we go, I'm playing a happy game selecting the ultimate 4 books to take with me for my few days away, just as once I would have fretted contentedly about finding the perfect bikini or some impossible-to-procure salve to protect my hair from sand and chlorine. These days as long as the bottom of my swimming costume hasn't worn through I'll wear it, but finding myself without the right book could ruin everything.

I like a bit of variety in my holiday reading, not just a pile of the latest releases or whatever's on the Booker shortlist: something old, something new, perhaps something recommended, something that's been hanging around on my bedside table for a bit (though that can feel like homework). You have to take in where you're going, too, and what you'll be doing. A holiday that might involve wafting around the pool in a cutaway swimsuit, costume jewellery and heels makes me think Valley of the Dolls and fruity martinis; viewing mosques in a crisp white kurta and with a string of turquoise worry beads in your pocket could only be accompanied by Robert Byron and The Road to Oxiana; and a slim volume of Coleridge's wilder poetry would be just the right thing for muddy hikes in the Lake District, alongside a sneaky supply of Penrith fudge.

At this stage, I think I'll be going for something that caught my eye in my local bookshop by Tarquin Hall, a mystery set in Delhi billed as an 'Indian Poirot', for the journey - light but absorbing. Once there, a family history tracking a Chinese snuff bottle called The Hare with Amber Eyes, when I'm feeling enthusiastic about diving into something; for when I need more narrative pull, The Slap - the most gripping sounding of the novels I've seen reviewed recently (and set in Melbourne, to boot); finally, for when I've almost ground to a halt but want something idly to flick through and muse upon poolside, Seamus Heaney's collected poems. I was in the library the other day and listened to him reading Mint and The Call and was utterly captivated - I can't wait to read more. Then, of course, I'll need one spare - just in case I'm caught short on the way home. But I'm only allowing myself 4 (got to carry my own bag). Back to the drawing board... and another few days of planning pleasure.

Now, having written all this, and pondered happily over it for so long, I have to admit I rather hope I'll end up not reading a thing... and I've still got my holiday wardrobe to consider.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


I was on Newsnight the other evening. It being August, there weren't many historians about - most of them are on holiday in St. Tropez, I expect, decompressing from the library. The idea of historians on holiday does prompt the most marvellous (if unfairly stereotypical) mental images: white and bespectacled men wandering through the 555 Club, tweed jackets over their speedos.

The subject was protected and memorial sites, prompted by Unesco's choice of Bikini Atoll as one of its World Heritage Sites. Pondering this before and after the programme (not much chance during, due to brief period of airtime and momentary paralysis in the face of Kirsty Wark's jabbing hand motions) made me think of how memorials begin: a shot-out building or abandoned prison left as it is, and gradually fossilised or made into a museum selling tshirts; the site of a car crash is commemorated first with dead flowers wrapped in cellophane and fading ribbon, then with a stone; a charity raises money for scholarships, a ward, other victims, a plaque.

There was some talk before the programme about 9/11 and Lockerbie, where a memorial is specifically for the victims' survivors - a way of helping them deal with ther loss; and of course the converse, where what happened on a site was so powerful that it becomes universally resonant - what Unesco is seeking to recognise by putting sites like Auschwitz and Bikini Atoll on its list. But in a sense every death, especially but not necessarily every tragic death, requires a memorial for the survivors.

Two years ago I'd never heard of Motor Neuron Disease, but my grandmother died from it earlier this year: now, if I had a charity to support, a marathon to run, it would be for MND. It's a universal instinct. We simply don't care enough about abstacts like speed limits, a disease, a malign twist of the legal system, an accident that affects people we don't know, until they touch us directly.

But there are ways of commemorating loss that have nothing to do with tragedy and everything to do with the person being remembered and the person remembering them - little rituals that become a kind of homage, a tribute or offering. My sister's bought a mug like the ones Gran had, and drinks a cup of tea in bed in the morning from it, just as Gran always did, and as we did with Gran when we were with her. I'm planning to give up chocolate for Lent in her memory, eating her favourite violet creams on her birthday which falls in the middle of Lent, as she always did. We're all planting flowers that remind us of her. The best reminder of her though is being with each other.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Somewhere over the Rainbow

Since I wrote about Hopkins the other week, I've seen or heard references to him everywhere. My aunt wrote to tell me how much she loved him, and sent me a link to a naturalists' blog (strangely, called The Butterfly Diary) with pictures of 'pied beauty' in nature, and then Jarvis Cocker read out Pied Beauty on his BBC6 show... and it's been on my mind like a pop song, somehow merging into E.E. Cummings' 'i thank you god for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirit of trees, and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes' (I paraphrase) a bit like that lovely Hawaiian version of Somewhere over the Rainbow turning into What a Wonderful World. Thinking of how E.E. was able to write that - 'i who have died am alive again today' - after his time in the bloody mud of Flanders is spine-tinglingly moving.

I'm always vowing to memorize more poetry, and weeks like the one I've just had, permeated by words I love, make me realise anew how much pleasure a mental library can bring. The only one I actually managed to learn last time around, I think when I was pregnant the first time, was Yeats's Leda and the Swan (we have an Eric Gill print of a sinuous Leda embracing an elegant swan, so it seemed a good one to have ready to quote) but I hope I'll get back round to it. The next one was going to be Sylvia Plath, You're clownlike, happiest on your hands, for the baby. But naturally the babies preclude much memorising.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Poetry Please

My father emailed me with a link to 'Pied Beauty' the other day. Poetry has always been one of our shared passions - he introduced me to Yeats, and I think 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' was read at his wedding to Mum - and we love Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose high Anglo-Catholic spirituality appeals to us both.

I sat at my computer looking at it on the screen. It was the first time I had seen a poem I know so well not on a page, and I wonder if this is how everyone will experience poetry in years to come. There's been a lot in the news recently about ebooks, ipads, kindles etc - they worry me but I like the idea that instead of electronic media replacing books they will just be different, running in parallel to a smaller, more efficient print industry but not really competing with it, just as radio, television, film and theatre coexist and develop in their own connected and complementary worlds.

I read it aloud. It's a poem I know well and love, but hadn't seen for a while, and reading it the words and rhythms were as comfortable and easy as old slippers but absence had bestowed on them a new freshness. It felt spring-cleaned, new-minted. Susie Boyt was writing in the FT the other weekend about how her relationship with Larkin had developed over the years from suspicion to understanding to almost nostalgia, and it's true that with each reading a poem can change, especially if the readings are years apart. But perhaps our attitudes to the truest favourites, like the truest friends, never really change.

Hopkins has shaped my understanding of the numinous as much as any writer, although it's not a coincidence that I first read him at the same time as I read those other pillars of my canon (Salinger, Eliot, Dante) and it does beg the question - do the things one reads in one's late teens/early twenties colour everything else one ever reads? It's definately been true for me. Nothing until my wedding rehearsal managed to compete on a spiritual level with a reading from Watership Down at a Unitarian church on Cape Cod at Easter c.1987.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The World of Interiors

I suppose this entry should be about the interior world reading opens up... but really it's about how the latest copy of World of Interiors dropped onto my doormat last week, and I haven't managed to do more than flick through it yet. It gleams at me from my bedside table, insistent, inviting. In an ideal world, I'd sit immersed in it with a cup of tea and a pile of gingernuts, or a Kitkat straight from the fridge, beside me; on second thoughts, since this is an ideal world, perhaps a glass of champagne and a box of Rococo geranium creams.

It's the only magazine I subscribe to. For years I pretended I read Prospect, but after the boys appeared I couldn't keep it up any longer. Intelligent Life caugh my eye in the Gatwick W.H. Smith and I took a subscription as a present for my husband's stocking (I know, generous), but as a regular read I found it pretentious and smug. Nothing to do with the fact that they weren't interested in my article about the Museo Regionale de Oaxaca for their series on wonderful, little-known museums. Not intelligent enough, clearly. It still rankles.

But back to Interiors. Principally I use it for what I like to think of as 'practical' purposes: planning our dream house. Pictures of tiles or light fittings or fabrics are cut out and fanatically filed away. By the time we actually have a house - I estimate sometime around 2027 - we'll need acres of floor space and 7 bedrooms if I'm to put all my ideas into practise.

This is fantasy, of course, but it's not quite as hallucinogenic as the fantasy lives, or even just moments, one can inhabit in the pages of Interiors: life as a solitary poet, living in a cube of whitewashed wood and glass on a Brazilian cliff; entertaining sn old lover - or an old enemy - to a feast of dry martinis and caviar in an aubergine-lacquered drawing room. Actually the idea of an enemy sounded more glamorous in my head than it seems, really thinking about it. I wouldn't want to waste that sort of decadence on someone I didn't love.

I have several fantasy careers on the boil at the moment, all vaguely similar in that they're visual, rather than wordy, and fed by my Interiors obsession. I imagine myself a florist, an architect, a decorator. My interest in these alternative lives rises and falls as my faith in my writing, and my ability to make a living from it, waxes and wanes. At the moment seven years to train as an architect seems no time at all.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Reader by Robert Bringhurst

Who reads her while she reads? Her eyes slide
under the paper, into another world
while all we hear of it
or see is the slow surf of turning pages.

Her mother might not recognise her,
soaked to the skin as she is in her own shadow.
How could you then? You with your watch and tongue
still running, tell me: how much does she lose

when she looks up? When she lifts
the ladles of her eyes, how much
flows back into the book, and how much
spills down the walls of the overflowing world?

Children, playing alone, will sometimes
come back suddenly, seeing what it is
to be here, and their eyes are altered. Hers too. Words
she's never said reshape her lips.

(A poem I'd never read before reprinted in the FT on Saturday.)

Friday, 16 July 2010

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri's new book is similar to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (see below), and not least because both contain stories published previously by the New Yorker. Both are concerned with the children of Indian and Pakistani families making new lives in the US, but Lahiri's stories lack the bleakness of Muenuddin's. There is hope for her characters - for most of them, anyway.

Partly this is because she doesn't try, as Muenuddin does, to make her work reflect the whole of society, at all levels, rich, poor, old, young, male, female, urban, rural. His book is also more specifially located in Pakistan, whereas her world is the US, with the Calcutta/Bengali background of her characters as a unifying backdrop. As a result it's more affluent, and therefore by definition more optimistic, less bleak.

She writes about successful immigrants, who on the whole have accepted their new lives, marrying Americans, feeling American, at least in part. This must be one reason (apart from her extraordinary talent) why her writing is so praised and successful there: on one hand her experience as an immigrant speaks so powerfully to Amerian readers of all backgrounds, but she doesn't make non-immigrant Americans feel bad about themselves - there's no blame, no bitter social commentary, none of the angst than can characterise British Asian writing.

I found it interesting though that the one trait she can't relinquish, as an author, is her sense of herself as a Bengali, and a middle-class, immigrant Bengali at that. Her protagonists can be young or old, male or female, but they always have that identity at their core.

Although I loved the stories they are very much vignettes - not the great novel I'm always looking for. Her writing is exquisite, deceptively simple, totally penetrating, but I found myself wishing that she would give me more than just glimpses of the characters she uncovers with such subtle understanding. But perhaps her talents are simply more suited to portrait miniature than history painting.

It made me wonder, though, why readers - I know I'm not alone - so long for sweeping, compelling narrative as well as fineness of detail and characterization. What needs does it answer in us? Although Muenuddin's and Lahiri's style of writing is very much in fashion I can't help wishing they could work on a larger scale. The last book I read that had all these qualities was Wolf Hall, and it felt as though I'd waited years to find it. Then again, it was well worth the wait.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Is the Pen a Phallic Symbol?

For every writer with Nigel Slater's reserve (see below), there are several, it seems to me, who cannot write a word without powerfully imposing their egos on it. Every sentence they compose seems silently to proclaim, 'What I have to say is Important - simply because I think it.'

You'd think that good writing should be more about insight, imagination and empathy than ego but there are reasons so many writers fall prey to this particular form of hubris. First, as for politicians, thinking that you're cleverer than other people can be a key reason for ambitious kids to want to be writers in the first place. For the record, I don't think it's an especially good one, in either case. Believing that what you have to say is somehow more valid or weighty than anyone else's opinion is the kiss of death in writing as in life generally. Early success can be a crucial intensifier of this trait; desperately trying to succeed in a overcrowded fishbowl is another.

On a more subtle level, though, there's no point trying to be a neutral writer. Objectivity is impossible to achieve anyway and subjectivity in everything from the choice of a word or a fact to the perspective of a fictional character is everything. That's why readers love their favourite writers so much, and see their books as friends. And it is also why so many readers love the writers I'm criticising here, because they love the intensity of their gaze, regardless of where it's directed.

What's interesting is that the worst culprits seem to be men - often good writers, but (for me) such rampant egomaniacs that their preoccupation with themselves can actually override their talent. I can't think of a woman I would include in this category, except (judging by their journalism alone; I haven't read their books) perhaps Germaine Greer or Jeanette Winterson.

So, the men: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie. I tried Rabbit Run in my late 20s, couldn't get into it, and put it down to not being ready. Some years later - feeling more mature! and having greatly enjoyed Updike's reviewing in the New Yorker - I bought the Rabbit omnibus, anticipating with delight an entire holiday spent in Rabbit's company. But I was disappointed. Despite the exquisite writing, at times excruciatingly so, at others luminescent, some of the best descriptions I have ever read - I found Rabbit himself, and thus Updike, so unpleasant that I couldn't finish the first installment. I couldn't have cared less that he would one day rise again, and still later actually be rich.

There does seem to be a fiction/non-fiction split (Paul Theroux being the exception that proves the rule). I've never even bought a Martin Amis novel, because simply reading the dust jacket in the bookshop makes me want to shout out, 'Unreadable Wank!', and yet Experience and his literary criticism are dazzling. Is it because he's harder on himself when he's trying to tell the truth?

For purposes of research I seek out my disdainfully uncreased volume of the Rabbit novels. He is just as small a character as I remembered, though the writing seems even more incredible to me now than it did when I last looked. Now I wonder, why do I blame Updike for Rabbit's nastiness? Or do I just not get it? It must be something I lack, not to be able to put aside my scruples and enjoy the virtuosity. Or perhaps I'm just jealous. Maybe there's something to Freud, after all.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Nigel is my Inspiration

The idea behind this blog is Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries. It's first and foremost a wonderfully useful cookery book - the sort that helps you learn to cook almost as if you're watching someone whose taste and skill you trust implicitly do it in front of you, hearing their internal monologue about what they're choosing, how they're cooking it, how long for, with what. Somehow much better than actually watching them, or even him, on telly, and almost as good as watching someone you love cook for you.

It's also a complete delight to read, so sensual, so compellingly intimate, that it's entirely possible to pick it up off the shelf looking for something to make for supper - opening it, say, in mid-June - and find yourself still there, half an hour later, deep in October, anticipating autumn and cool enough weather to eat Nigel's 'sweet, slightly hot and absurdly sticky' pork ribs with honey and anise or macaroni with fontina and mustard, followed by a spinach salad and chilled Conference pears. It's a wonderful insight to the mind of someone who's extraordinarily knowledgeable about his subject and completely enthusiastic about it: just his daily thoughts on something that he knows a lot about and thinks a lot about.

What I particularly like about the way Slater writes in this book (I know he's written more personally in others) is how he writes with such immediacy and passion about food (and the weather, intimately connected to what he's eating, as well as his garden) and yet reveals almost nothing about the rest of his life and preoccupations. You feel you know him, and you like him enormously for what's shown on the pages - humour, self-deprecation, warmth, greed (but also austerity; he's no Nigella), a wonderfully distractable quality, great and detailed powers of observation - and yet despite the intimacy of his writing you really know nothing more about him than that he likes to cook and eat. There's no glimpse of a lover, or parents or children, or of anything more than how many people's he's cooking for on any given day (usually one or 2; sometimes 6; very rarely more than that); no hints about movies he likes or books he reads or holidays he takes or stresses at work.

So I was flicking through The Kitchen Diaries the other week, as I often do, idly searching for something I thought I remembered seeing, some kind of pasta with mint and lemon zest, and admiring Nigel's writing. That made me wish I could write a book that gave as much pleasure as this one does for me, and that made me think that an author's passion, combined with knowledge, is usually a large contributor to what makes their books pleasurable for a reader.

And then I realised that the only thing I could possibly write about with which I have a similar relationship to Nigel's with food is reading. Not just books - though they have their own delights - but the act of reading. Which in its own way is as pleasurable as eating and just as vital. How can I explain the worlds it opens up for me, the thrills it makes me feel? It's strange that a mostly sedentary and solitary activity can make you feel so alive, so connected, so human. Anyway. Here's to Nigel.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Butterfly Notebook

It is a notebook - I write longhand before putting it online; writing non-fiction I always wrote straight onto the screen but for fiction writing longhand first seems to make a huge amount of difference - but it doesn't have a butterfly on it. It's more the idea of a butterfly that appealed to me: supping on nectar; moving lightly and freely, but not purposelessly, from one flower to the next. I like the thought that it's a creature of sunshine, too.

It wasn't until my sister pointed it out to me, though, that I remembered the butterfly's transformative quality. How could I forget, since one of the books I read very regularly at the moment is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who gorges himself for a week before unfurling his beautiful wings? The bit I've always loved is the opening scene, where the egg lies serenely on a leaf in the moonlight, waiting for life to begin.

Butterflies have proper grown-up literary associations, of course, too, most notably the great Nabokov, as distiguished a lepidopterist as he was a novelist. At the end of his life he wrote that he had 'hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts', and this poem he wrote in 1922 sums up all the magic of hunting moths by night:
And I go out into the garden, to its mists and wonders,
and I smear the damp oak trunk
with sticky gold, and juice drips from the brush,
trickles down into the cracks, gleaming and heady...
The saffron globe of the moon sails out from behind the cloud,
and the oak, my accomplice, looms tall and ample.
It has soaked up many an earthly dream;
I wait in the lilac gloom, and it waits with me.

I had promised myself that I would try not to just quote writing that I love, but it's impossible not to with Nabokov.

As far as real notebooks go, I prefer them plain. This one is A4 sized, covered with wine-coloured - wine-dark, even - card with a black cloth spine and ruled paper inside. I bought lots ten years ago when I was living in Kilburn, from the local newsagent, and I've never seen them since; this is the last of my supply.

I have used other notebooks, so I'm sure I'll find another kind I like. I flirted with Moleskines, but somehow the sizes they come in don't suit. For a while I kept my commonplace notes in a small, lipstick-red leather notebook, quotations and comments at the front, and lists of books to read and places to go, perhaps to live for a little while (I was free as a butterfly, then, childless and unencumbered, and couldn't imagine not being), at the back: Sicily, Istanbul, Phnom Penh. I only made it to Aix and Oaxaca, but I suppose there's still plenty of time left for the others. Come to think of it, I only read some of the books, but there's time enough for those too.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Reading as Consolation

I suppose it's not surprising that the less time I have to read the more urgent my thirst for it becomes. Reading really does feed the soul; it provides escape, perspective, mystery, consolation. At the moment I feel in desperate need of all those things.

After fifteen years making a living as a writer I'm stuck for the first time, and I feel like an insect trapped on its back. Everything's difficult: the industry's in turmoil, my agent - my guide through the publishing netherworld, my Virgil - has quit, and I'm flailing around trying to write a novel in the few hours a week I can steal from my boys and wondering if I'll ever manage it.

I'm scared about the future of books as a whole and books in particular, the books I still hope to write. I'm worried that in my first attempt at fiction (will I one day blithely refer to it as 'my first novel', or will be it a gallant effort that never sees the light of day, or will it be the first and last, the alpha and omega?) I was so intent on writing that I neglected the thinking - the planning, the day-dreaming, the made-up conversations and imagined scene-setting; all the stuff that gets left out of the final draft. I feel as though I'm trying to make a sculpture, slapping on more and more papier-mache which however hard I try doesn't quite cover up the fact that I forgot to make a coat-hanger structure inside first.

I picture myself physically stuck in my novel, standing at the centre of a bustling courtyard of an inn on the road north from Paris, in my jeans and old trainers, unnoticed by the people all around me: coachmen leading sweaty horses away to be rubbed down and fed; the landlady standing at the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron and assessing her new guests to see who will sleep where; revolutionary officials draped self-importantly in tricolour sashes, accosting travellers and demanding to se their papers. I see my heroine step cautiously down out of the coach, the basket that contains all her belongings in her hand. She's wearing a greyish cotton dress, once white but long-unbleached, with a knitted blue shawl over her shoulders, and I can tell by the slightly pinched expression on her thin face that she's nervous and hungry, in that order.

And then I lose impetus. Perhaps I've been doing it too long, without knowing whether it will work. Perhaps it's just not worth doing at all. The words and my worries spin around and around in my head. There's nothing for it but to find somewhere quiet and read someone else's words for a little while.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

More Mueenuddin

I've finished In Other Rooms, Other Wonders - raced through it on friday afternoon when I was meant to be working. Mueenuddin seemed to go up a gear in the stories which are - must be - more autobiographical, the ones about privileged Pakistani exiles feeling at home neither in Pakistan nor anywhere else.

Putting the book down I was saddened by how impossible it was for any of his characters - not a single one - to achieve any kind of contentment. Perhaps true contentment is almost impossible. Does exquisite writing make up for that? Perhaps in trying to describe things as they really are - not as we have settled with ourselves that they are, in order to steal peace with the world and our place in it - we can never be satisfied, never be happy except for an instant, never not remember others' suffering. Never not hear the squirrel's heart beat that George Eliot described. But it seemed to me that every one of his characters would die not just alone but unhappy. Maybe understanding that is the sliver of ice in the heart that every writer needs. If that is true I'm not sure it's a bargain worth making.

Friday, 11 June 2010


I wake in the middle of the night, and toss and turn for an hour before giving in, getting up, and going downstairs to have a cup of tea and read my book without waking my husband. Just past 4 it's already getting light, and though inside it's utterly peaceful outside the birds are singing their hearts out. Although part of me's worried about how tired I'll be later if I don't go back to sleep, another part's relishing the unfamiliar peace. I can't do anything constructive; there's nothing for it but to dive into my book. It's so good that I can almost believe I woke up just to read it - my subconscious mind rebelling against the mere three pages I managed before sleep overtook me.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin is a series of interlinking stories, glimpses of lives that meet in the household of a single Pakistani landowner. It's a deceptively simple way of constructing a world - I've often imagined writing variants on this theme, as have many people I guess - but here it's done with such skill and subtlety that I'm reminded anew of how complex good fiction has to be - the complexity hidden from the reader like invisible mending. Mueenuddin will have constructed family trees, timelines, maybe even drawn floorplans of his houses and maps of his characters' movements. Every detail is perfectly conceived, revealing the truth about a character with a word or an image that has the delicate accuracy of an Indian miniaturist's thinnest squirrel-hair brush.

Reading it makes me nostalgic for India. I fantasize about taking the boys there, travelling round for a few months, getting them used to eating curry rather than fish fingers. Eating runny curry with their fingers! I want to show them streets where the houses are painted pale blues and greens and pinks and violets, with bony oxen meadering around, munching aimlessly while they ignore the rickshaws screeching past them; take them to have their hair cut in roadside shacks, watch their faces as they see painted elephants leading wedding processions or try syrup-sweet jalabis cooked over fires by the side of the road.

But this is only the tourists' India, and what strikes me more than anything else is the bleakness of Mueenuddin's Pakistan. It's always a feature of modern sub-Continental fiction - I could hardly finish A Fine Balance because it was so sad. That sense of the inevitability of the individual's surrender to forces infinitely greater than himself - forces that will crush him utterly - is all-pervasive. Women are particularly vulnerable, especially in this book. I'm moved to tears by the story of Saleema, a maid who lives for a moment in her love for the household driver, almost allows herself to hope that she might be different, and is then cast relentlessly back into her preordained future: drug addiction, prostitution, tragedy.

I know some people think that the very act of writing about characters like these is somehow redemptive, that just writing about them implicitly carries a message of hope, of trust in humanity, but I'm not sure I agree. All I know is that as I sit here safely with my cup of tea cooling at my elbow, listening to my husband's footsteps as he gets into the shower and the gurgles of my waking boys, I feel undeservedly lucky.