I dreamed about sparrows last night which I found rather sad if the only sparrows left are in dreams.
“Miners use canaries to warn them of deadly gases. It might not be a bad idea if we took the same warning from the dead birds in our countryside.”
So wrote Lord Shackleton in 1963 in his introduction to Rachel Carson’s now iconic book Silent Spring
We couldn’t see it then could we – yet now it’s here.
Reading the right books suddenly feels like a huge responsibility but which are the right books?
I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books in 2020 and to read more books about the environment, painful though it is. Suggestions welcome in the fields of poetry, memoir, biography, literary fiction, philosophy and new nature writing.
So far on my list I have:
Figuring by writer, genius, blogger and writer of genius Maria Popova.
This was a daunting looking read coming in at a cool 545 pages – but fascinating and endlessly erudite. I’m on p429 (yes, thank you Christmas). Published by Canongate. Review upcoming in the next week–
Bird Cottage by author, artist, singer, songwriter and philosopher Eva Meijer. Pushkin Press.
Really looking forward to this one on the connections between ourselves, the natural world and the epidemic of loneliness.
A Month in Sienaby Hisham Matar,
the latest book from American born British/Libyan Pulitzer prize winning author of The Return, about the author’s search for his father. Published by Viking.
Dark Enchantment by Dorothy Macardle (Tramp Press).
Not an author I know anything about but I found this reviewed in the FT Weekend and thought it sounded intriguing – a sort of gothic ghost story set just after the Second World War.
Whose Story is This? Rebecca Solnit (Granta).
Who gets to shape the narrative of our times?
Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman. (David Fickling Books).
Famed author of His Dark Materials trilogy in a series of talks/lectures about his influences including Milton and Stephen Hawking.
This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer. A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10. I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above! My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days. A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me. The remaining three titles are:
Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir
Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson
River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony
Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life. But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine. No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.
Having a week’s holiday recently I took a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.
I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it. But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone. When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf, but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page 415!
What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice? This required in literary terms a surgical examination. It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed. Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art? Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.
I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.
I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .
Ding dong bell.
Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman. Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice, even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.
I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in. I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.
But then no reading is every wasted. And reading is like life. A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty. Next please.
When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot. There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel. For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor with things to hide and axes to grind. One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.
I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.
Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables – a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.
“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted. No. I didn’t. Not really. Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.
But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the dust jacket of a new volume of prose poems
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).
“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”
The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to, a prose poem is an oxymoron. Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose. Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago. Now I have had my damascene moment. My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.
Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:
The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation. I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing. Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is. I went to the middle of a woods. Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around. Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind. The world subtracts itself in layers. Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish. Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.
(Merry Christmas from Hegel)
I love that ‘Not since childhood!’
“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern. Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”
I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness – in the Anne Carson extract I have used above. In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.
But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that poetry is sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions. All those topping piles of certainty. I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.
To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions. To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.