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ElizabethIsMissingI’ve recently finished reading Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey. This book won the Costa Award for best first novel, and it is certainly well-written and an enjoyable read. And, gratifyingly, she’s got the ending right. I was expecting all the way through to be disappointed by the end (which happens so much these days). Anyway. The story is about Maud, who has dementia. It’s told exclusively from her point of view, and switches between her present and her past. In the present, she is becoming increasingly confused, forgetting what she’s doing from one minute to the next, writing herself notes all the time to remind herself what’s going on (these notes are often a source of even more confusion), and trying to deal with her daughter and her carers, who are well-meaning but just don’t understand. She believes her friend Elizabeth has gone missing, and devotes a lot of time to trying to track Elizabeth down. In the past, she is about eleven years old, and her sister Sukey has gone missing. This is followed by various disturbing events, which the young Maud struggles to understand. Emma Healey weaves both strands together skilfully, never missing a beat or losing the reader, which is quite a feat for a new writer.

The book made me think (as most books do…). I’m already scared of losing my memories – I always have been. It’s why I take photos of so many things – I don’t want to lose the images. It’s why I’m ambivalent about going to the theatre – unlike films, you can’t get the DVD. Once the final curtain comes down, it’s all gone. Try as I might, I can’t recall all the details, all the wonderful moments which I desperately wanted to hang on to. It’s why I buy books rather than going to the library. When I was a kid living in a TV-less house, I visited the library at least once a week and always took out at least my allotted six books. I read some favourites over and over again, and since then I’ve gradually stocked my bookshelves with as many of those favourites as I can find. I’m desperate to get hold of the astronaut series of books by Hugh Walters, but they’re only available at ridiculously high prices… My bookshelves are my memories.

So much of our memories are external these days. We keep diaries (electronic or paper) – I used to hold all my appointments and events in my mind, now they’re scribbled in pencil in a Moleskine diary. We keep phone numbers and addresses on our mobile phones – I used to be able to remember all my friends’ and relations’ contact info, now I don’t even have to try, because the act of writing an address or phoning someone is simply selecting an entry on a list rather than actually typing or writing the number or address. I make notes of every single meeting I have, because I know I’ll forget not just details, but often important big-picture stuff. It worries me and scares me… if I lose my diary or my notebook or my phone, what will happen to my life? Will I become like someone with dementia, who just can’t remember any of the essential details of how to live, or even how to find those details out?

In the meantime I’ll just get on with everything as normal, and hope for the best.

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SOD2I’ve been very much enjoying listening to Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Science of Discworld series. The first book covers the history of the Earth in some detail, digressing into all sorts of interesting sidebars. The second, which I’m halfway through at the moment, looks at human psychology – discussing how we came to think the way we do. A key factor is our need to explain everything, to make everything into stories, which has developed for all sorts of very good reasons. For instance, if you’ve observed a pride of lions hunting zebras, you’ll have noticed they stampede the herd(?), cut off one or two, and ambush them. Hey presto, dinner for the lions. But if you make this into a story in your head, you can replay it, and add or change aspects. For instance, what if your best hunters happen to be positioned so that some of the stampeding zebras run into their line of fire? Abracadabra, dinner for the humans…

On the Discworld, there is an element which doesn’t exist on our Earth – narrativium. It embodies the law of story. There are rules in stories, and these rules are fundamental laws of the Discworld Universe. The good guys always win in the end, after surmounting almost-insurmountable obstacles. The princess always marries the prince. The eighth son of an eighth son is always a wizard, even if she happens to be a daughter. As we don’t have narrativium, just about anything can happen. The wizards find this difficult to understand when they end up on Roundworld, and it’s only brought home to them how important a distinction it is when they foil an Elvish invasion of prehistoric Earth, leading to a distinct lack of evolution in human psychology. You’d have to read the book to find out why, I don’t have time to explain it here…

So, yesterday, I was driving to work along Wollaton Vale. A number 35 bus was parked at a bus stop, showing no signs of moving on, despite there being no-one waiting to get on or off. Further down the road, at the next few bus stops, people were standing, looking in the direction of the bus. At the last bus stop before Priory Island, a lone man lifted his arm, peeled back his sleeve, and looked at the back of his wrist. I automatically made up a story in my mind to explain these observations: The bus driver was texting his girlfriend to tell her he was sorry for the argument they had before he left for work. The people waiting at the bus stop were impatient because the bus was running late. And the lone man was looking at his watch.

The first of these points is pure imagination. I really had no idea why the bus driver wasn’t moving on. The second is more plausible. Given the time of day (around 8.45am) and the town-ward direction of the bus, it’s likely that many of the people at the bus stops were on their way to work. Some of them might have been going shopping though. One or two might have been on their way home after a one-night stand. And even those on their way to work might not have been impatient. My final invention, the man looking at his watch, is the most likely. But even that is open to question. Perhaps he’d just had a tattoo done, and he was checking how it was healing.

Humans have an automatic and unavoidable need to explain everything – to turn everything into a story. The sun is pushed across the sky by a dung-beetle (well, it can’t just move like that on its own, can it?). Someone having an epileptic fit is possessed by a demon (that’s obvious, surely?). The world was created by an omnipotent being (it’s far too complicated to have simply come into existence and evolved to the state it’s in now). Everyone who looks like a Muslim is a terrorist (better safe than sorry?).

I have nothing against curiosity and imagination. If Newton and Einstein and Pasteur and every scientist that has ever lived didn’t have curiosity and imagination, we’d still be living in trees and chasing those zebras for food. I also have nothing (much) against generalisations and stereotyping, which are also elements of storytelling. It’s vital to observe, categorise and recognise patterns to inform our behaviour. We are unlikely to have perfect knowledge of every single kind of gun in the world, but if someone points something that matches the ‘gun’ pattern at us, we need to be able to react appropriately.

The problem arises with unquestioning acceptance of stories, and over-reliance on generalisations. If no-one had questioned Galen‘s medical teachings, we’d still be treating illnesses according to which humour was out of balance. And if we (Daily Mail readers, for instance) insist on seeing every single Muslim as a terrorist, or every single Catholic priest as a paedophile, or every single woman as a baby-making machine, rather than a person who is different from us but equally important and valuable, how are we ever going to reconcile the human race to itself and stop people killing and torturing each other?

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The first chick-lit book I read was Janice Gentle Gets Sexy, by Mavis Cheek. I spotted it in Oxfam, and the combination of the title with the author’s mildly amusing surname persuaded me to shell out a quid or two. I have no idea what the plot was, but I do remember that reading it felt like scoffing a bar of Dairy Milk – sweet and sickly, temporarily satisfying, but leaving a faint aftertaste of something not-quite-right. I’ve read a few more since then, and had pretty much the same reaction. Girl is desperate for bloke (usually the wrong one), girl has lots of hilARious misadventures, girl drinks lots of white wine, girl eventually (often accidentally) falls into arms of right bloke, everyone lives happily ever after. I have so many problems with this type of book, but I have to admit I usually enjoy reading them.

It's Not Me, It's YouI went to the Five Leaves Bookshop writers’ party last month, and had a lovely time. I couldn’t decide what to buy. (Of course I had to buy something, I can’t go into that shop without buying something. It’s a rule.) So I asked Ross for a recommendation – an easy-read novel. I didn’t hold out much hope. Ross doesn’t do fiction often, and doesn’t really do easy-reads either. So I was surprised when he leaped over the counter (no, of course he didn’t) and picked out this gem.

I read it over Christmas, in three greedy chunks. Yes, it’s an easy read, but it’s also clever and funny. Whether or not you’re interested in chick-lit, if you like smart, well-observed mainstream/romantic fiction, you’ll probably enjoy it. The story is about Delia Moss. She proposed to her longtime boyfriend, who then sent a text to his girlfriend saying he didn’t know what to do. Only he sent the text to Delia by mistake. End of relationship… you’d think. Delia spends the rest of the book working out that it wasn’t her fault that Paul was shagging around. Oh, and having hilARious misadventures too. Slightly more chewy than run-of-the-mill chick-lit, and leaving a much more pleasant taste in the mouth.

So. Why am I writing about this book? I guess it’s the title. It’s been racing round my mind for the last week or so. I thought I might share some of my thoughts – and these are thinking-out-loud type thoughts, rather than analysed-and-fully-thought-through thoughts, so might well not represent the final destination of my little whirring brain.

It ought to have been obvious to Delia that it wasn’t her bloody fault her bloody boyfriend was having an affair. She shouldn’t have had to go through all those misadventures to get to that conclusion (although how would she have met the gorgeous but initially irritating journalist otherwise?). It seems to be a common reaction to something going wrong… “What could I have done differently?” … “If only I hadn’t said such-and-such.” … “I shouldn’t have done this-that-or-the-other.” It’s a very self-regarding attitude, in some ways. As if “I” am the only person who could have influenced events, the only person who could (or should) have made a difference. I suppose it’s the opposite of the denial position exemplified by “I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s everyone else who should have behaved differently.” And I suppose it’s a continuum of blame-assignment – somewhere along the line connecting “It’s all my fault” to “It’s all their fault” is the point representing the true state of affairs, the location of which may or may not be easy to determine, or to agree upon.

There are two questions chasing that around inside my skull. First, what if it’s someone else’s fault? or no-one’s fault, just pure chance? And second, what good does it do to assign blame in the first place? Oh, and third… what if it’s all much more complicated than that? What if the blame is not 50-50, but 60-60, or 110-95, depending on your point of view?

I think it’s kind of like trying not to get angry about things you can’t do anything about, because it’s only yourself you’re hurting. Very hard to do, but mostly true. And thinking about it a bit more, the act of blaming someone (yourself, a specific someone else, or the universe in general) for things going wrong is often a significant cause of anger – in my little head, anyway. So perhaps the answer is to avoid trying to assign blame. Or to assess the situation calmly and accept the results. Or at the very least to be self-aware enough to know if you’re a self-blamer or an other-blamer, and to take any conclusions on blame you might come to with the appropriate level of scepticism.

I guess the most healthy response is to simply accept the situation and work out the best way to move on. Which might, of course, involve working out that the bastard man is the one to blame, and getting back together with him is probably not a good idea. There you go, the whole premise of a novel covered in a few hundred words. You’re welcome!

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How on earth did that happen?

111O/3

111O/3, with letterpress poem/print insert

I might have mentioned earlier this week that I have had four poems accepted for Obsessed with Pipework. These are not my first published poems – I’ve had some included in the Nottingham University student anthologies, a couple in the Nottingham Poetry Society‘s 70th anniversary anthology, and my poem Horseflies was published (at the editor’s request – thanks Eireann Lorsung!) in 111O/3. But this was my first actual letter that says, ‘Yes, we like your poems and we’d love to publish them.’ So exciting! And it does make me feel like a real poet.

Horseflies

My first non-anthology published poem.

I spent most of yesterday at Southwell Library Poetry Festival. As always, Sheelagh Gallagher and everyone at the library have done an amazing job, bringing some wonderful poets to this neck of the woods. Sadly I had too much work to be getting on with to go to the events during the day, but the evening was magic. More of that later.

At lunchtime I put on my (metaphorical) chauffeur’s cap to take Sheelagh to the Maggie’s Centre at Nottingham City Hospital – I should possibly have taken an amphibious vehicle, there was so much water on the road. I sat and worked while she gave a creative writing workshop, until the end of the workshop when she called me in to talk to the group about ‘being a poet’ and read a couple of my poems. It felt quite strange, a bit like I was an impostor*… but it was fun and they were lovely people who had written some interesting poems themselves.

[* NO! I am a real poet!]

We made it back to Southwell – just. Didn’t stop to look at Lowdham, which was completely closed off and flooded. I then spent a happy couple of hours with Cathy Grindrod and Frances Thimann eating cake (thanks, Frances!). Oh, and discussing the event proposals for the Nottingham Festival of Words. Some interesting ideas, lots and lots of talent… over fifty proposals submitted so far and a few late submissions still trickling in… it’s going to be a brilliant festival. The website is under construction, but you can subscribe to the mailing list on the front page – I recommend you do that if you want to be kept up to date with the news.

Lovely hour or so preparing for my reading chatting to some friends I haven’t seen for a while and incidentally identifying some more opportunities (some people call it networking, I call it fun). Then read four of my poems (along with Carol Rowntree Jones and Simon Kew), which was awesome. I love reading my poems aloud**. It’s even better with an audience! Not so sure about the radio mike though – not used to that sort of thing at all.

[** See! I really am a real poet!]

Valerie Laws

Valerie Laws with her horse skull…

The day was finished off perfectly by a couple of hours listening to Ophelia’s Sistas – billed as:

Prize-winning poets Char March and Valerie Laws are both fabulous and experienced performers and – as Ophelia’s Sistas – they make a formidable team. They take their audiences on an exploration of pathology, wild sex, dementia, lost pigeons, flirting at funerals, dogs in space, insanity, all in poetry which is deeply moving and very funny. […] a high-energy evening of performance fireworks, belly laughs, dirty laughs, and pathos – forging through darkness with wit, determination, and panache.

Char March

Char March (she didn’t wear the Viking headgear for the whole show)

And they didn’t disappoint. Funny, touching, profound, silly, raunchy… sometimes all at the same time. I recommend you catch either or both of them if you get a chance. Clever, interesting, generous women, and bloody good poets too.

As I walked back to my car (my heroic car which took me carfully(? boatfully?) through rain and rain and rain all day) I was accosted by a very strange woman who wanted to know whether the 100 bus stop which said the bus went to Lowdham was also the bus stop for Nottingham. I assured her it was, and as a reward was treated to her life story. It seemed to involve theatre (in a cellar?), a door somewhere in Southwell which just opened for her (which I think was a literal door), travel around the UK (possibly involving London), a son who studied philosophy, and lots and lots of incomplete sentences which ran on and on, punctuated by, ‘I do ramble, don’t I?’ and, ‘I don’t mean to keep you.’ Turned out she’d been to Ophelia’s Sistas – didn’t think much of it as the poetry didn’t rhyme, but appreciated the mentions of allotments and still-birth in the poems. She had very strong views about Char March’s frequent mentions of the fact that she’s a lesbian, but I’ve no idea what those views were! Bless her – I could have listened to her all night!

The sun was losing its grip on the sky as I drove home, without my usual audio-book. For once, I enjoyed the silence and time to reflect on what was a truly wonderful day.

(then I got home and did a couple of hours work…)

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Here’s the last installment. And yes, finally, some poetry. I have to admit I don’t read an awful lot of poetry in comparison to fiction – reading is usually pure escapism, I want to dive into another world and totally immerse myself – but when I do dip my mind into the poetic pool I find some mighty fine fishies.

TS Eliot's Four Quartets

TS Eliot's Four Quartets

I’ve been involved in Southwell Poetry Festival for two years now, and it’s been a fantastic experience – inspiring workshops, talks and readings by library staff and poets famous and not-so-famous, poetry pub crawls… but for me the most memorable event was a reading in Southwell Library by the Nottingham Stanza group of the whole of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. There were 13 of us in four groups, each taking one Quartet and dividing it up into sections. An oboist played at the beginning and end of each Quartet while we shuffled on and off the stage. The whole event lasted over an hour, and it was absolutely amazing. It was the one event I heard people talking about again and again for the rest of the festival, and it was a real privilege to take part. I’d read bits of the Four Quartets previously, and listened to a recording of Burnt Norton, but to hear the whole thing from start to finish in a variety of voices was just… there aren’t the adjectives to describe it.

I read a section from East Coker – the second Quartet, and also coincidentally a village just down the road from where my mother lives in West Dorset. I persuaded her to take us there on a ‘fact-finding mission’ last Easter.

Images of East Coker

Images of East Coker


We’ll hopefully be reading from Paradise Lost this year, in Southwell Minster, which promises to be even more amazing.

Nox by Anne Carson

Nox by Anne Carson

My final favourite book of 2011 is Nox by Anne Carson. This goes back to the theme of books as beautiful objects containing beautiful words. It is a printed version of an elegy she created for her brother. Originally put together in a notebook, the book is printed on one long strip of paper which is concertinaed into folds and presented in a sturdy and gorgeous box. Nox takes Catullus’s poem 101 (an elegy for his brother) as its starting point, and gradually translates it through the document. At the same time she remembers her brother, questions why she needs to memorialise him, and tries to work out how to do it. The words, the pictures, the presentation, everything about this book is stunning.

Nox by Anne Carson

I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.

Nox by Anne Carson

Wow.

Tune in again this time next year* for my pick of 2012’s reading material. I’ve already got 8 books on my list, one of which might make it to my favourites and two of which definitely won’t!

*or you could carry on reading throughout the year to see what mad schemes I get myself involved in, if you like…

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I’m going to be a bit lazy today and cover four books at once, not in quite so much depth as I’ve been doing so far. My excuse is I got 3 hours sleep last night and I’m very very tired…

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I’ll read anything Neal Stephenson writes – he’s so clever, and his novels are BIG in size and scope. Reamde is a departure from his usual speculative fiction in that it’s a thriller, but it is still satisfyingly BIG. It’s based on the possibilities for fraud and extortion presented by online gaming, rapidly descending from geek-talk into seemingly endless violence and mayhem. Basically, a bunch of Chinese hackers create a scam to extort money from T’Rain (think World of Warcraft) players, and they manage to fall foul of the Russian mafia. Then a young woman with connections in the IT industry – i.e. her uncle just happened to be the creative director of the company who built T’Rain – gets pulled into the mess by her idiot boyfriend. Then everyone starts to kill each other in the process of trying to work out what’s going on. Somehow Stephenson manages to maintain an element of fun amongst all the destruction, and although it’s a HUGE book (over 900 pages) it rattles along right to the end. Although I don’t rate it as highly as Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle, it’s a great read, and I felt quite smug that I understood most of the geeky aspects of the book. I’m not sure how readers who aren’t at least aware of World of Warcraft would cope, but luckily you don’t need to know too much about it to ‘get’ the story.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is another speculative fiction author I read obsessively. He’s not as well-known as Stephenson, which I think is unfair. Both have BIG ideas. I loved On – a rite-of-passage novel about Tighe, who lives on a world where gravity runs parallel to the surface of the planet – which is kind of like The Planiverse in that it has to imagine how a world built on completely different premises to ours would work… Anyway, like Reamde, Yellow Blue Tibia is also a departure for the author, and is delightfully bonkers. In 1945 Stalin corrals a group of science fiction writers and orders them to develop an alien invasion scenario which will provide him with a ‘common enemy’ to replace the weakening USA and unite the USSR. He changes his mind after a while and orders the writers to forget about the project on pain of death. Things aren’t that simple though… decades later the scenario appears to start to come true. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a ridiculously long time to work out what the title is about (I did get CSE grade 1 Russian, after all).

The Night Of The Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris

The Night Of The Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris

The Night of the Mi’raj was recommended to me by a friend as an interesting study of women’s life in Saudi Arabia. On that basis, it’s a real eye-opener. I knew the Saudi society is repressive but I find it hard to understand how women can accept living that way (even though the female characters in the book manage to bend the rules just a bit). It’s also a well-written mystery thriller with fascinating characters and a twisting plot that kept me guessing. I’d forgotten why I used to devour detective/mystery stories by the bucketload; and it’s nice to be reminded that there are good crime writers out there. The detective, Nayir, is a devout Muslim, but he’s sufficiently questioning of Saudi culture that I could identify with him. And leaving that aside, he’s an engaging hero who’s not too stupid or too clever, and is willing to do what it takes to get to the truth about the disappearance of a young woman days before her arranged marriage is due to take place. I’m looking forward to reading the second book about Nayir.

The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

I’ve been meaning to read The Killing Jar for a while (Niki is the course leader for the degree I’m doing, and is a Five Leaves author – I’ve just converted The Okinawa Dragon to an e-book). As well as being a shocking yet strangely endearing story, like The Night of the Mi’raj it describes a life I find it difficult to comprehend – this time that of a girl growing up on one of Nottingham’s roughest estates. Kerrie-Ann’s story is told from her point of view and in Nottingham dialect throughout, which takes a little bit of getting into (I’ve only lived in Nottingham for – erk – 27 years) but once you’re there you’re totally there. You feel everything Kerrie-Ann feels as she tries to survive in (and eventually to escape from) a household that becomes increasingly violent as she grows up.

And that’s nearly your lot. I’ll reveal the last two books tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m keeping a proper list of all the books I read this year as I read them, so my ‘Favourite Books of 2012’ list will hopefully not have to be generated by racking my brain and scrabbling around in my bedroom. At the moment I’m reading Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili, which won’t make the list even though I’m enjoying it immensely. That’s probably a topic for another day.

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I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before the Nottinghamshire Readers’ Day on Nov 5th last year. I was a volunteer helper on the day, and as such I got a goodie bag, which contained a couple of books, other bits and pieces, and a t-shirt. Everyone else’s t-shirts featured Ian McEwan’s Solar, but for some reason mine simply said 1Q84 with the numbers in white and the Q in red. Then I started hearing about this strange trilogy everywhere, and all of it good, so I thought I’d better give it a go.

1Q84 on the Kindle

1Q84 on the Kindle

As the third book was as yet only available in hardback and the first two (published in one volume) in trade paperback, it proved cheaper to buy all three in Kindle editions. And that just goes to prove that design is totally irrelevant when the words are extraordinary in themselves. I was completely drawn in right from the start when Aomame jumps out of her taxi in the middle of a clogged expressway and climbs down some emergency stairs in her stockinged feet so she doesn’t miss an appointment to kill a man. The storyline alternates between Aomame and Tengo (a maths teacher who also writes fiction) to great effect – even though the relationship between the two threads doesn’t start to become clear until well into the story, it’s obvious they are related somehow. And Murakami writes with such skill and fluidity that you trust him to tell you what’s going on when it’s appropriate to do so, you just go along for the ride and enjoy every moment.

In summary, the story is a perfect example of speculative fiction – what would happen if there were a parallel universe where past events had happened slightly differently, and two people were somehow transferred there, after which everything becomes gradually more complex and surreal.

The year is 1984. Shortly after the murder mentioned above, Aomame realises something’s wrong when she notices policemen carrying guns and is told this is due to a massacre at a cult’s compound a few years previously, which made front page news yet she is sure never happened. Then she notices a second moon in the sky. She christens the year 1Q84 – the Q stands for ‘question’ – and is determined to work out what’s going on. Tengo is thrown into strangeness when he agrees to ghostwrite a ‘fairy story’ originally written by a teenager known as Fuka-Eri so his editor can win a prestigious literary prize. He can’t work out how much of the story is actually true. Somewhat frustratingly, we aren’t told much about this story until very late on in the book, and even then we don’t see much of it… I wonder if Murakami (or his publishers) intend to bring it out as a novella in a year or so…

The main characters are totally engaging and it’s a beautiful story beautifully told. Take this quote (which I highlighted on my Kindle – a stupidly fiddly process – but that’s a post for another day), for example:

There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, gray uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.

Is that not beautiful?

 

1Q84: hardback books 1 & 21Q84: hardback book 3I’ve bought the real books, as I will definitely be reading them again and I want to do it properly next time. These are bloody amazing. Read them. You won’t regret it.

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