A bookish August

With a bumper eleven books under my belt this month, and the restart of Readers’ Circle, I can’t but start this monthly check-in with a round-up of books.


From my own List of Betterment I knocked another three off the list: Absolute Beginners, Sacred Hunger and Wide Sargasso Sea. Sacred Hunger was a long time in the convincing, but then it is a long book (I’ve no problem with long books generally, Wolf Hall was a swift and breathless read for me). It charts an adventure (or perhaps misadventure) of a slaveship called the Liverpool Merchant and two men tied to its fate: the son of the ship owner, Erasmus Kemp, and the ship’s surgeon Matthew Paris, cousin of Erasmus. The ship is declared missing two thirds of the way through the book, and it’s then that the detailed knowledge that has been provided about characters aboard comes into its own. The ideology and consideration of liberty that becomes the main discourse between Paris and a ship passenger Delblanc, is stimulating.

Wide Sargasso Sea was heady right from the start – the child’s eye view of a family cast out by society is compelling and full of vulnerability, and it contains all the ingredients necessary for the ultimate madness. The perspective shifts among characters as the story unfolds, and these different windows, looking upon the same view, couple exquisitely with the frank inner dialogues that we are privy to. Light suggestions of sex as intoxicating and mind-altering become amplified in an exotic landscape, and this completes the potency and seductiveness of this brief novel.

There’s so much to say about Absolute Beginners that I was compelled to write a whole post. As for the others, four books were Readers’ Circle books, which I’ll not say too much about now for fear of pre-empting discussions about their relative merits for selection into Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads programme. They were Every day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert and Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister.

That leaves the four I read for fun, rather than betterment: Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: bookshops and the delight of not getting what you want which was admirable but (inevitably) failed to get to the heart of why Bookseller Crow, my local indie, is so wonderful; Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, which is much more fun than you imagine a non-fiction book about mental health should be, and which has some startling and provocative reflections at the end (in hindsight, with reference to her diagnosis); A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter was neither about sport, not the Qu’ran, and it got a pretty hefty drubbing at bookclub, but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible to read without thinking of Fight Club, and the bizarrely omniscient narrator, being both jealous of and desiring to possess his friend, who laughs in the face of loneliness. Its suggestion that anal sex is the height of a woman’s submission was my only grumble. Finally Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs. When I picked this up from Bookseller Crow, Jonathan said “You read some stuff, you” and I didn’t know whether to be proud or afraid. I think a good mix of both was appropriate, because it’s definitely a book that will kick your modesty to death while you look on helplessly, but is also a book that makes you feel very pleased with yourself if you finish it. Cocks, sodomy and wild masturbation aside, I thought it was a book about the mystery, and potential mysticism, of writing – the story takes massive turns each time we encounter something authored – a book, a screenplay, a stage play – the last of which seems to sum up the entire plot. Overall? Impossible to pin down, but quite a ride to jump on (ho ho).


Boyhood. Make sure you’ve emptied your bladder before you go in, because it’s long, but it’s also compelling viewing. It’s special because of the scale of the ambition – filmed over twelve years, whilst the central character, literally, grows up. It left me with so many questions about what film-making is…

The Tove Janssen exhibition at the ICA was contained in a little room, but the quiet setting seemed aptly reverent, and in keeping with Janssen’s world – remote, private, industrious.

In contrast, the Barbara Kruger exhibition at Modern Art Oxford was bold and brilliant. The first room had been totally vinyled, and I couldn’t keep my hands off the walls, nor stop myself from crawling on the floor, over huge words in black and white. In a world obsessed with stuff, where everyone feels entitled to expressing their opinion, Kruger holds up the perfect mirror to show us just how ridiculous we are.

Attending the first in a series of provocations about reading, writing and the business of making books initiated by Writers Centre Norwich, I heard Michael Rosen at an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I recommend you listen to it/read it, too. On listening back, one of the sentiments that strikes me is:

Modern day pardoners walk among us with falsenesses to sell. We need Chaucers to show the ironies of their trade.

It made me think a lot about reading, about ‘how we are educated as readers and writers’. I don’t have much memory of English at school, about how I was taught to read and write (though I do remember that my school thought me slow to complete such tasks), and know that most of my development as a reader happened off my own bat, as a result of enthusiasm and curiosity. That made me think in turn about how, as a society, we understand the need for writers to develop and hone their craft: we know it takes time to play with ideas, to develop a style and a voice, to put things down on paper, to consider them, reflect on them, edit them and fashion them in the best way to serve the story; we know writers will mature, and that time and space is essential to that; we also know that great writers don’t just spring from the ground – they nurture their talent, either in isolation, or more likely through the judicious use of a network of peers that can engage critically, intelligently and above all sensitively to the text. But what about readers? I guess that I’d be shocked to learn how many people in this country, let alone the world, can’t read. When we can read, what then? Reading is an active, imaginative, creative and empathetic act, one that takes practice, and sometimes hard work. I think conversation can be a critical part of working out what we think (as I try to elucidate here)*. But I don’t think we converse nearly enough about the craft of reading, nor how essential readers are to the business of making books. Michael Rosen praises the ‘slowness of literature’ – its ability to solicit contemplation – but I notice a fetish, in public discourse about books, for reading first, and fastest, and more prolifically than everyone else. So, I welcome this National Conversation about reading, writing and the business of making books, and I encourage you to join in and add your voice to the debate.


This month’s crowdfunding wasn’t, strictly speaking. But it was a pre-order of a Fairphone from a socially-minded company that want to change the way phones are manufactured, reducing the damage to people and environment. It’s really important work towards a worthy cause, and I encourage you to check it out.

*With immense gratitude to Sam Ruddock, whose conversation in the last few months has helped me understand what I think about reading, and how essential it is to my life (and, for the featured image). Thanks also to Andy Miller, who, without meaning to, has become the national spokesperson for quiet, reflective, contemplative reading.

My three favourite films

I finally got around to buying Monty Python’s Life of Brian this month, which is a film I really enjoyed as a teenager but haven’t seen in about five years. Fortunately, it was as brilliant and funny as I remember (perhaps even more so), and I can say with confidence that it ranks in my top three favourite films of all time.

The other two films in my top three are Amelie and A history of violence. Amelie is simply refreshing – a film that delights in the little things that make our lives different and quirky. A history of violence was a surprise love – I almost refused to go and see it at the cinema. Happily, I went and was blown away by the rich portrayal of emotion felt by the characters, and by the visually stunning violence (!)

I wonder what an analyst would make of me given my favourite films are so different (slapstick and language-based comedy, lighthearted and endearing drama, and emotional drama coupled with uber-violence). What I find interesting is that I can’t do a similar thing with books – and the book I considered my favourite until recently did not bear up under repeated reading (Microserfs by Douglas Coupland). I wonder if this is because the last Coupland I read hit a nerve and Doug fell out of favour?

I sometimes think that I read to discover something, but what that is, I don’t know. I am always disappointed to finish a book (with the possible exception of the latest Adrian Mole book by Sue Townsend – Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction: the ending was wonderful and left me satisfied and happy). I don’t know if this tendency to continue searching is reflective of the deep (and possibly dependent) relationship I have with reading and books; perhaps it is easier to select favourites when one is less inclined or able to be critical. I am reminded of a Sharon Kivland quote published in Transmission: Speaking and Listening – volume 1, which I have used in an essay on more than one occasion:

“Loss is implicit in making a work of art because, as Louise Bourgeois once remarked, you wouldn’t make work if you were happy… loss is important… it’s what makes one make something because one doesn’t have it, and the thing one makes is never enough… there’s a next one and a next one.”

Substitute loss for lacking, and making a work of art for reading, and perhaps we come close to the mark. Maybe there is little distinction for me between making a work of art and reading, because reading forces me to create things – images, worlds, people… One thing is for certain – there is always the next read.

The Secret of Lost Things

This book appealed to me because of my memories of Hall’s, an antiquarian bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, once worked in by both my mother-in-law and a friend. The bookshop in the book is called the Arcade, and it is situated in New York, where our female protagonist arrives at the tender age of 18 and finds employment. Essentially a coming of age sort of novel, The Secret of Lost Things introduces Rosemary Savage around the time of the death of her mother. Inheriting debts and little else, Rosemary is saved by a fairy godmother of sorts, who buys her a ticket to New York, setting her loose in the grown-up world.

Written in the first person, one can quickly find Rosemary’s naivete endearing, and appreciate her sensibilities. As captivating as it is to see a 1970s New York through the eyes of a lonely and innocent Tasmanian, the plot becomes too blatant and too ‘Hollywood’ to maintain the romantic and sensitive perspective of the protagonist.

The mismatched plot and style notwithstanding, one thing I adored about the book was the way it described the appeal and purpose of the notebook. One of the bookshop employees consistently chronicles and records information and observations, almost to the exclusion of living – something that Rosemary attempts to imitate thinking she will become knowledgable and intelligent.

Though ultimately disappointing, the book evokes a pensive and exploratory tone and is suggestive of how open our eyes can be when faced with the new.