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.