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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Endless Reads Review: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

A delight, this book. A tiny delight, a beautifully-made thing, that breathes, has a life to it. Instantly endearing to me -

Isabel is a woman in her late twenties living in Portland, Oregon. She works as a librarian, restoring old books, and is similarly interested in reclaiming other old and neglected objects she finds- postcards, vintage dresses, salt shakers, plates. Her life is one of awed, almost devotional remembrance, of attempting to create a narrative out of these stabilising objects and out of the memories she has from her Alaskan childhood.

As you might be able to tell, this book is not heavy on plot: it has been compared to Mrs Dalloway in terms of its limited timeline bolstered by the past, and by the intrusion of war. In fact, I wouldn’t myself compare it to Mrs Dalloway – I think it is a finer-boned thing. It doesn’t have lengthy digressions. It is spare, and precise. A slim novel, a novella perhaps (where does the line fall? Is it a matter of word count or of scope?) but it is the perfect length for itself.

Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and will probably never go.

As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at see before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafes and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.

- Opening paragraph of Glaciers

This was one of those books that entranced me in the reading of it. The idea of memory lapping at the present. The absence of direct quoted speech leaving the text with a feel of hushed voices. The childhood spent in the north of the country, moving to the south and to cities, the poignancy I understood through my own experiences of that particular kind of transfer.

And I had to take little pauses to absorb some of the beautiful sentences, because I was so awed by them. Because I was collecting them, to shore them for some later time. It was a book of sensual details, instances, looks, touch. Touch of ice, of worn wood, of an old, dust-sighing book. It seemed made to be read this way, taking the time over it. Though other reviews I read called it ‘a fast read’, it did not seem so to me. It was deceptively long. A book for reading in a garden. A book for the sunshine, for hearing the buzz of bees ruckling about in the daisies and sipping on tea. Or for the indoors, looking out on a snowy field.

The nearest thing I can compare it to is the experience I had reading The Summer Book, when I wanted to be on an North Sea island in good weather, reading it – it’s the same. Glaciers is not a collection of words but bridges (wee narrow, cobbled, lichened bridges) that hie you over into the sensual world.

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Endless Reads Review: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

'Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will'

I’m reviewing an atlas today. Perhaps it should count as my first non-fiction title, but I think not. You see, while this is an atlas of real places, with timelines showing major events on each and a wonderful topographic illustration sitting opposite Schalansky’s descriptions, this is, from the very beginning, a book that highlights the problematic ‘truth’ of maps.

In the introduction, ‘Paradise is an island. So is Hell.’ Schalansky talks about her childhood affinity for maps. As a resident of the DDR (East Germany) she didn’t have the opportunity of travel, and so walked the world with her fingertips.  After reunification, she talks about encountering an old West German atlas in school:

The first atlas in my life was called Atlas Fur Jedermann (Everyman’s Atlas). I didn’t realise then that my atlas – like every other – was committed to an ideology. Its ideology was clear from its map of the world, carefully positioned on a double-page spread so that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic fell on two separate pages. On this map there was no wall dividing the two German countries, no Iron Curtain; instead there was the blinding white, impassable edge of the page. [...]

Ever since then, I have not trusted political world maps, in which countries float on the blue oceans like vivid scarves. They grow out of date quickly and give barely any information apart from who is currently running which scrap of colour.

Maps tell us much more when they do not divide nature into nations; when they allow it to form the basis of comparison across all the borders made by man. In physical topography, land masses glow in the dark green of lowland plains, the reddish brown of mountains or the glacial white of the polar regions, and the seas gleam in every possible shade of blue, quite untouched by the course of history.

It is this stance that prevented me from quite loving this book, which is a beautiful object full of wonderful vignettes. Of course the world is touched by human history, and borders must be recorded – if only for the people living within them to be able to place themselves. I see that she is fundamentally against this. That she dreams of a world without borders. It is a utopian idea – against the dictates of nationalism, which I can completely understand as a German she is wary of. But even so, she contradicts herself. Every island she describes is owned by a particular nation, and this she records at the top of the page. Its name in various languages, and who it belongs to, and who first discovered it. She could have left this information off, and the book would not have suffered.

I suppose she is acknowledging the reality of conquest and colonisation while resisting it, through the focus on islands, who have their natural borders defined forever. Still, it sits unsteadily with me. A retreat from a political engagement. A deliberate limiting, marooning.

The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated : fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.

That’s why the question of whether these stories are  ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not altered anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and i have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.

She had me for the first two sentences. An island is a stage. Stories to congregate, singular images become distinct entities and take on elements of folklore. But then she says fact cannot be separated from fiction. If this is true on an island, then it is true everywhere. Everywhere that people are, the truth is hard to get at. History is always manipulated. And yet earlier this appeared to be something she wanted to get away from. The deliberate proclamation of herself as ‘chief fact finder/maker’ (which is it?) is something that bothers me.

This is a beautifully put together book, with wonderful descriptive passages (one that sticks out is the tale of Henry Eld on Macquarie Island (Australia) in the Pacific Ocean, disappearing into a tremendous crowd of penguins). I will continue to come back to these, to dance my fingers over the beautiful maps. But reading this will always be problematic, because of Schalansky’s introduction.

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Small Press Delights

My father-in-law and stepmother-in-law arrived today from NYC and brought my Christmas presents in the form of books (always a good choice) and in particular – books that I had requested due to their inaccessibility over here. Small press books from America! An indie literary bounty!

From L-R: Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade), Inferno (a poet’s novel) by Eileen Myles (OR Books), Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith (Tin House Books) and Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them by Jenny Boully (Tarpaulin Sky Press).

Tantalising - though right now I am digging into the Atlas of Remote Islands, which has finally arrived (ordered before Christmas). We think it floated here in a cargo trunk tossed by the Gulf Stream. Barnacle species sighted on the wood seem to suggest a lengthy detour in arctic waters.

Posts may be sporadic for the next wee while, but hopefully pictures to come, more of the sights of this country of mine. A few bits of blossom on the black-branched trees, a low drugged sky, but still I am hopeful of blue and sharp images to share.

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