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.