Category Archives: book cover

Endless Reads Review: A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

a winter book

 

The cover is grainy in the dim light of my living room. I long for the light of longer days. But this will do, for a book on winter -

 

I started this story collection on the 30th of December, so it’s a cross-over from last year’s Endless Reads to this, and so occupies disputed territory. Liminal. The book in question is not at all an uncertain book in its prose, in Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s matter-of-fact sentences, her wry peering at the foibles of human nature, but in its form – the way it is frustratingly not enough of one thing or another. And where I would accept this in other, more experimental authors, I felt let down by Jansson who is otherwise so steady.

 

It is composed of stories taken from Jansson’s childhood experiences, and then with a sudden lurch, those of her late adult life. There are also fragments of fan letters and personal correspondences which Jansson has tinkered with to make the speaker seem more or less needy. This was my least favourite section. It does lead into the letters from a Japanese fan, but that part was so sad, lacking the paired responses from Jansson herself. Later, there is even a purely fictional story about a young man on a ferry to England, forced into a painful, burdensome empathy with every one he meets – people are always showing him photographs of their relatives – I can’t help reading this and feeling a little like it is the literature of an exhausted, famous writer.

 

However, I’m neglecting to mention the earlier tales of childhood, which are full of wonder. ‘The Iceberg’ is a beautiful story of a night-time encounter with the ice. As Frank Cottrell Boyce says in the afterword, it lingers, is touching, precisely because of its smallness, because ‘She does not go out and conquer the wilderness. She does not return home with trophies of antlers or wild flowers. She gives away something of herself and somehow gains.’

 

Another favourite was ‘The Dark’ in which the young Tove delights in tormenting her friend Poyu over the darkness that encroaches on a public outdoor skating rink. They play with the snakes in the carpet, the dark lines of the fabric which cannot be stepped on for fear of a writhing mass attacking them. It’s also an insight into Tove’s artist father, who would take her out to see housefires and reveled in their chaos, the chaos of storms. And Tove’s mother, who would paint images of Moses in the reed basket, and with her ‘gentle and grave’ profile, tells Tove stories that charm back the dark. The whole piece illustrates the ferocity with which children see and fight back and latch on to places and people of safety, against the vastness of the world.

 

In the end, I much prefer Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I read last year. It has more continuity, more stability – something which suits the inherently calm, definitive blocks of her writing. A Winter Book is a companion piece that doesn’t quite match the predecessor. It is not a white crust of it, deep enough to come over the top of your boots and crumble wetly into your socks – its is only a light smattering of flakes, nothing that will lie too long, but lovely nonetheless.

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Endless reads review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus

 

Suitably grainy I hope, for this book – the story of end-of-the-19th-century aerialiste Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’ and a woman apparently endowed with six-foot wings. A freak or a con artist – Jack Walser, all-American reporter, is out to uncover the sordid truth. Call it ‘Interview with the Valkyrie’. Nights at the Circus was recently named best ever winner of the James Tait Award – the oldest literary prize in the UK. The book came out in 1984, making it slightly younger than me, but the prose has an exuberant, antique style that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever read The Bloody Chamber (my review on Goodreads here).

 

It can be a little irritating at first to slip on Carter’s cloak of furs and whalebone – all those adverbs, and exclamation marks, and the word ‘surmise’ every few pages or so. She breaks about every writing rule on any of the fine puritan lists there are out there. She throws big words at you like confetti, allusions to philosophy and politics and feminism and theories of language bubble up through the velvet soup.

 

So too, do the biases of empire (this is very much a book of old empire, of the magic of acquisition, manor-houses, the dreamy, rotten, lost glamour of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, the Shamanic Siberian wastes of a richly English imagination. Native Americans are alluded to as scalp-stealing barbarians. People of Mongolian heritage and Chinese-made automata alike are ‘inscrutable’. The Kentucky Colonel ringmaster is straight out a child’s colouring book of stereotypes.

 

But for all these faults, this is one of those books that attempts to both tell a story and truly bewitch you. Invites you in and will, if you let it, sweep you into a magical world that might just be frayed tapestry and candlelight and incense – but with the curtains shut tight, and your eyes locked in to the rhythm, it seems churlish to reject it altogether. Nights at the Circus is, in this way, a perfect book for Winter, for reading over hot chocolate, as the wind howls or the snow falls, and midnight strikes three times in one night, just for you.

 

 

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Book Christmas

 

 

I received all these books today (after a few days of missed connections) – all three volumes of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, Restoration by Rose Tremain, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell.  And a little slip that reads ‘Vintage Books – with compliments’. Spectacular. Thanks so much to the lovely people @vintagebooks (who tweet delightfully). Endless Reads 2012 continues finely apace.

 

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Autumn Endless Reads

 

I look outside and cannot understand why the leaves have not already turned.  I’ve set my mind on Autumn and now I’m impatient for the season to make a clear announcement of its arrival. It’s already cold and damp now, the hours are drawing in (sunset before 9pm, now, a sure sign of the year heading towards late middle age), the festival is winding down, and Winter coats are coming out. Come on, decay, we’re ready for you.

 

In the mood for this chill turn, I begin planning autumnal reads. Not that I stopped reading over the Summer, but I think it’s good every season to pause for a moment to see what’s on the cards. Up for September:

 

 

 

NW, of course. Maidenhead I received today from Canadian publisher Coach House. Lots of people on twitter recommended this book to me after I decried my embarrassing lack of Can Lit reading. Coach House very generously sent it my way. The package brought with it an interview with the author, Tamara Faith Berger, and an insight into the themes of the novel – sexual and political awakening, feminism, slavery, art and pornography. That’s a promotional condom that was included with the book. I’ve just finished The Listeners by Leni Zumas which was, while well written, full of imagery of injury and blood (of which I am very phobic) so Maidenhead, while likely to be graphic and very challenging, is less likely to make me nearly faint every few pages.

 

The other book is one I’ve had for a while and have yet to get to – Now Trends, a collection of stories by Karl Taro Greenfield. The cover design and portability is meant to imitate a travel guide, and the stories themselves range across the world. Armchair travel for a dreichit time of the year.

 

I hope to review the latter three books on PANK in due course, and NW some time later here.

 

What do you have lined up to see you through the warm weather’s disappearance? That’s if it’s ever Autumnal in your part of the world.

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Endless Reads Review at PANK: Zazen by Vanessa Veselka + Another Book Spine Poem

Here’s my latest review over at PANK! As ever, let me know what you think of it (and if you like the sound of Zazen, which I hope you do after this) down in the comments, if you’d like.

Further, Paul Lamb of Lucky Rabbit’s Foot has sent in a lovely Book Spine Poem, one that I think fits the tone of the wonderful Zazen quite well:

Waiting for Aphrodite
Far from any coast
A great current running
the message to the planet
Hard Scrabble
Passage of Darkness
I’ll be away from Friday, up in the North West Highlands, staying in a luxury bothy (an old stone cottage for walkers), and spending time with D and my friend A, stomping around in the bogland and on mountainside, hopefully snapping away pictures of it all. Look out for a probably picture-swamped post later in the week.

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Book Spine Poems

Over on The Millions Tumblr, they have been posting some lovely poems made up from the titles of books arranged in sequence. Such a wonderful idea that I couldn’t resist joining in. This despite the fact I own only about 20 books (though some more are in storage at my parents) and D’s book collection is mostly limited to legal textbooks and theory (one of which I did manage to incorporate). Here’s my effort:

 

Green girl,

 

Stop what you’re doing and read this,

 

True things about me,

 

Who was changed and who was dead,

 

Remembrance of things past -

 

The final problem,

 

No easy fix,

 

The sense of an ending.

 

 

Who’s up for joining in, either on their blog or sending one over here? If you’d like me to post yours here, send me a photo and the poem to wheresthebread[at]hotmail.com

 

Can’t wait to see more, either in my inbox or across the web.

 

 

* UPDATE*

A book spine poem from Chris J. Rice:

 

The Art of Subtext Beyond Plot
Becket the Three Novels
Home to Roost
A History of Women
Soulstorm: Stories
Ulysses
*****
And have a look at this gem by Tiffany Gibert.

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This Reader’s Manifesto

Today my first book review for PANK is up.  Please go and have a peek, if you like, and if you have opinions, let me know what you think.

 

In a moment of furious over-reaching I have decided to come up with a manifesto of what I want to achieve as a reviewer. Yes, I know this is only the first review, and I am getting a little ahead of myself. I want to come at this from a good angle. I want to sort of dive in and be a bit brave. There will be bullet points to make this official. So before I start apologising in advance, here we go.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

There are many ways to be a reader. As a reader I have always read with my eyes half-closed, listening and running my finger along the words, stopping, letting the air rush in and out. Because I am not as much an intellectual, systematic reader as one who seeks out the textures of the book, the images, the scents of grass and sickness, the cobblestone and cold high room. How this is achieved in chains of sentences one after the other until the end.

 

I read not just in sympathy with the character but seeing how they are fitted and made distinct from their world. How they shape and want and touch and shake. With an eye to the layering of time like paint and philosophy and weather and landscape and hurt and thresholds and liminal states and other constructions of instability and evolution.

 

My aims and wishes as a reviewer:

 

  • I wish, then, to read well, critically, but must do so with an awareness of what my constraints are in seeing, and therefore with acknowledgement that the tackling of the text is necessarily subjective, perhaps overly colourful. Purple even. I will try not to go overboard with metaphor. Oops, isn’t ‘going overboard’ a metaphor too? Can’t win.

 

  • And now that I am going to review seriously – not much more seriously, since I am terribly earnest about words – it is important (for me) to set out what, exactly, I’m going to review. In also the hope that I might receive books to read to feed into my churning readerly writerly brain.

 

  • I will try to read new and newly translated books that are essential, exciting, fierce (my favourite word for books), haunting, nihilistic, loving, cunning, humane, clear-eyed.

TELL ME THAT I MAY READ THEM.

 

  • I will try to read well and write my understanding out. I want to make clear this hazy appreciation of the text, so that others will be intrigued. I want to be kind in the manner of a surgeon. Maybe a little sloppier.

 

  • I want to read the fine boned literary works. Dense tissue books. Books ribbed in scars. The slim sucker punches, the weird hybrid prose-poem-memoir novels combing their hair with their fingers, the hissing mess, the elegant bombs. I am aware of another Reader’s Manifesto, that struck out against the literary, the ‘plotless’. Well, I love the unabashedly literary. Something that is trying so hard to play to test to cut up to expand and blow apart cannot be elitist. The elite run the tory party, and giant corporations and banks with casual disdain.  Literary writing is effort made to look effortless (sometimes) and made for the people.

Sometimes, yes, there is writing that creates a clique and does little else, but these are not what I read nor wish to here. I also believe there are more than a handful of literary styles out there, and that it is important to seek out both the well made traditionally written works and the experimental.

 

  • I want to read books mostly written by women. Sorry, though I know white, middle class men of certain milleux receive hardly any attention these days in the press. I know! Terrible shame. But I’d like to be a little biased. I spent a lot of time at university, undergraduate anyway, thinking that women just didn’t seem to have written anything. I have years of the sin of omission to make up for. I will make exceptions for the exceptional. Two exceptions I can think of right now: Patrick Somerville and Steve Himmer.

 

  • I wish for dazzling fiction, of a type that does not always scream at you from the shelves. I want to read the strange and lyrical and yes a thousand other terms of superlatives from not just British and American authors but Australian, New Zealander, South African, Trinidadian, Irish, Indian, works in translation – a commonwealth of letters.

 

  • I ask, also, where are the low-lying Scottish female writers of literary fiction of the up-coming generation? Are you hiding in the shadow of all that crime-procedural stuff? Down a close somewhere, picking over the usual murder weapons, shaking your head at the voyeurism, the usualness of it all? Has Alexander McCall Smith cornered you, kindly, for tea and biscuits in 44 Scotland St? Or are you further North, typing away in the village coffee shop while you should be sending out CVs?

I know of prolific Kirsty Logan, who has written some grand fiction, and hope to pick up a collection of hers for review. I just went to a reading given by Catriona Child. But more! I need guidance. Step forward, young lady writers! I’m a reader and I’d like to read you!

Just in case you think me limited, young is also ‘emerging’ is also ‘new’ so age is not the key thing here.

 

  • Books and authors I have loved of late: Green Girl, The Summer Book, The Hour of the Star, most of what I have read of Virginia Woolf, of Jean Rhys, of Toni Morrison, of Anne Carson, The Way Through Doors, Season of Migration to the NorthThe Sound and the Fury, Nabokov of Pale Fire, Pnin, Lolita of course, lots of the 19th-20th century Russians (inc. Bulgakov, excluding Dostoevsky), the Odyssey, the Aethiopika (An Ethiopian Tale), The Golden Ass.

 

  • Authors for consideration so far: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Catherynne M. Valente, Zoë Wicomb, Lauren Beukes, and Herta Müller and Elizabeth Ellen (with thanks to StuckInABucket and Nouvellist).

 

  • In my reading pile, to be reviewed if they haven’t been on PANK already: Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka.

 

I would love your suggestions. Please add to this list with titles you think might fit, and I will try to acquire them (not sure how, at this point) and try to do them justice in review.

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Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, consolations of reading, consolations of writing, Endless Reads 2012, reading