There's No Life Without Books

Reading and writing about books. For fun.

Books read in 2016

Hello. Since April, I’ve spent 2 hours on buses every weekday. There have also been a few train journeys to visit family and friends, meaning that this year, there has been A LOT OF READING TIME. What else are you supposed to do on the bus? You can’t talk to the driver, it says you’re not allowed. My book journal is also still in use, and I’m still attempting to be a more active reader. It’s a lot of fun to think about what you’re reading while you’re reading it, and to think about how it relates to other things you’ve read. When I was a teenager I used to write essays about the Harry Potter books for fun. Maybe I should start again but with books that I read in 2017.

Here are the books I read this year! in order of when they were read:

  • Sandman Overture – Neil Gaiman
  • Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Phoebe Gloeckner
  • The Unknown Unknown – Mark Forsyth
  • Down The Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos
  • Night Fisher – R. Kikuo Johnson
  • Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa
  • The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
  • Hansel and Gretel – Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Eddie Campbell
  • The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë – Daphne DuMaurier
  • Matilda – Mary Shelley
  • Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle (The same John Darnielle as The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle)
  • After The Quake – Haruki Murakami
  • Ulysses – James Joyce
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (including Pearl and Sir Orfeo) – J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Object Lessons: Glass – John Garrison
  • Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
  • The Encyclopedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton (illustrated edition with introduction by Philip Pullman)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Notes From Underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Villette – Charlotte Brontë
  • A Nervous Breakdown – Anton Chekhov
  • There A Petal Silently Falls – Ch’oe Yun
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
  • Room – Emma Donaghue
  • How Literature Saved My Life – David Shields
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
  • Why We Broke Up – Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
  • To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  • Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli (re-read)
  • Love, Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli (re-read)
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • The Parasites – Daphne DuMaurier
  • A Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (re-read)
  • The Nakano Thrift Store – Hiromi Kawakami
  • The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J. K. Rowling (re-read)
  • Odd and the Frost Giants – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddel
  • Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne DuMaurier
  • Love – Angela Carter
  • Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – Max Porter
  • A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
  • All That Man Is – David Szalay
  • A Book of Dreams – Peter Reich (re-read)
  • Walk Through Walls: A Memoir – Marina Abramovic
  • The End Of Mr Y – Scarlett Thomas
  • Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
  • Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffeneger
  • Amrita – Banana Yoshimoto

There are also a couple of comics I’ve been keeping up with: Giant Days by John Allison and Snot Girl by Bryan Lee O’Malley. John Allison is great and everyone should read his webcomics.

There were lots of firsts for me this year, and lots of things that I wouldn’t normally read, some of which were very rewarding. Her Fearful Symmetry and The End of Mr Y were two books I never expected to read, having not enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife and being uninspired by the blurb of the latter. After having them recommended to me by a good book recommender, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed both. The End Of Mr Y was followed by Hard Boiled Wonderland, which was a fun coincidence as both books have large portions of the story told from within the subconscious of one of the main characters.

What were the best things I read this year? Definitely Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. It made me thankful to live with someone, as it meant that I didn’t have to sleep downstairs with the light on. Normally I don’t enjoy being scared; I’m not a fan of jumpy things, or gory things, or ghost stories in general. The stories in this book were none of these things, but there was a general unease to them, very similar to the unease you get when reading some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. It was very much like reading Daphne DuMaurier’s The Doll; there might not be anything strange happening, but it still feels very uncanny. Villette, There A Petal Silently Falls, Hotel Iris, and Love were some other great books that I’ll probably re-read eventually. I had enough fun with Ulysses to write a blog post about it. And Daphne DuMaurier’s biography of Branwell Brontë was amazing. Lots of interesting insights and facts I hadn’t known before mixed with some really bizarre suppositions on DuMaurier’s part  (her descriptions of Aunt Branwell and ruminations on her character are a great example of her strange assumptions – I won’t spoil it though!).

At Christmas I received A LOT of books, plus some book vouchers, which means that I have a lot more Virginia Woolf to read (To The Lighthouse was also one of the best books this year!), plus The Tale Of Genji and a very nice pocket-size copy of The Story of Art.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (Books are great.)

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Kate Bush Made Me Read It: James Joyce’s Ulysses

 

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My copies of Ulysses and The Sensual World.

As has been established in a previous blog entry on Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams, I have a severe Kate Bush problem. One of the ways in which this love manifests is a desire to read the books she has written songs about. I had already read Wuthering Heights and it is one of my favourite books, so I concluded from this that I would love all the other books she loves enough to write songs about. I’ve read The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, which inspired the film (The Innocents) which inspired the song (Infant Kiss), and also A Book Of Dreams. That left only the book which inspired the Sensual World: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For those who haven’t experienced the Sensual World, you are in for a treat:

On her album Director’s Cut, released in 2011, Kate Bush completely changed the track. Here is an excerpt from a Guardian article explaining the change:

The Sensual World is perhaps the most changed of these tracks – it has not even retained its original title. Now called Flower of the Mountain, the original lyrics have been replaced by a passage from James Joyce’s 1922 novel. “Originally when I wrote the song The Sensual World I had used text from the end of Ulysses,” Bush said. “When I asked for permission to use the text I was refused, which was disappointing. I then wrote my own lyrics for the song, although I felt that the original idea had been more interesting. Well, I’m not James Joyce am I? When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes … I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfill the original concept.”

(An Aside: I am now a bookbinder, and as part of my training I have had to learn how to use a hot foil blocking press on different materials. I set A LOT of Kate Bush lyrics, including some lyrics from The Sensual World on some material that looks very much like the dress she wears in the music video. Here it is: img_4819

End of the aside!)

I have owned this copy of Ulysses since around 2010/2011. My housemate at the time took me to the Oxfam bookshop in Headingley, in Leeds, because we lived close to it and she had learned fairly early on that I love books. She does too. She has an amazing talent; by feeling the pages of an old book, she can tell you what kind of printing press it was printed on. We were once asked how an arts person makes friends with someone with a physics background: cake. And books. We went to the Oxfam bookshop one day, and because it is a beautiful copy and only cost £10, I bought it. Here is a better view of it, including the spine. I have no idea why there is a bow on it.

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My copy of Ulysses. Why is there a bow on the spine? I do not know.

Having owned it for five(ish) years now, I decided to finally read it. To get to and from work, I take a bus, and during the lunch break, almost everyone is quiet and reads. I get a lot of reading time during the day, and it is wonderful. Ulysses came on the bus with me, and we had a good time together.

I approached this book almost completely blind. Here are the things I knew about it in advance:

  • It is based on the Greek story of Odysseus (whose Latin name is Ulysses), of which I know nothing.
  • James Joyce wrote obscurely on purpose to make sure that scholars would still be studying it in a hundred years? (I don’t even know if this is correct.)
  • All the action takes place over the course of one day.
  • Bloom’s Day is a thing that happens every year in Dublin.
  • Every section has a corresponding body part.
  • Kate Bush wrote The Sensual World based on the final part of the book, Molly Bloom’s internal monologue, a single sentence that lasts for around 100 pages. Therefore, to greater appreciate the song and Kate Bush’s intentions, I would need to see the whole thing through to the end; no cheating and skipping ahead.
  • It’s a difficult book to read.

And that was literally it. I decided not to use any resources while I read, to hold onto this blindness. I didn’t want to have any expectations about what I should be reading into it. Any questions I had could be answered after reading (if I could find the answers). The copy that I have does not have any of the extra material that newer editions have. For example, the Everyman’s Library copy has a table in the back which looks a bit like this:

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Ulysses Cheat Sheet in the back of the Everyman’s Library edition (I live in a house in which there are two copies of Ulysses. PRETENTIONS are okay sometimes).

This table splits up the sections of Ulysses into the corresponding sections of The Odyssey, gives the hour of the scene, along with some of the important symbolic references present in the different sections. (After reading the book, and discovering this table, I found out that I had got Kidney, Genitals and Ear correct. I was very proud of myself.)

Previous to this reading, I had tried once before, and hadn’t even made it to the introduction of Leopold Bloom. This time I found it much easier; that was the first instance of realising that a second read is probably necessary. As is forgetting that this is supposed to be a difficult book! Once I had got used to the initial style of the writing, I began to really enjoy it. There were some really wonderful sentences that I held on to long after finishing the book. Here are two of my favourites, from the first section of the book, which follows Stephen Dedalus through his morning:

On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.

He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly before his voice spoke.

Why did I enjoy these sentences so much? Sometimes, descriptions are so vivid that the images you get in your head is like looking at a photograph, and that’s what these sentences said. The first sentence is describing the light as it falls through the trees and lands on Stephen’s shoulders. You could say “spots of light moved across his shoulders as he walked beneath the trees” and you would understand the image, but James Joyce has written the sentence almost entirely using metaphors. The spots of light are “sun flung spangles”; his motion is described in terms of the movement of the spots of light, the “dancing coins”, rather than in terms of Stephen’s movement.

What about the second sentence? “Beating the air oldly”; again, this could be said in an entirely different, more straightforward (and much more boring?) way. He has avoided using the clichéd phrase usually used in this situation, in which a figure with more authority “shakes their forefinger” at the (typically younger) less experienced character. And I think that is the thing I really loved most about this book. Cliché has been avoided (apart from where it has been used in a satirical sense, as in the section where he parodies romance novels as Gerty MacDowell fantasises about love). In both of these sentences that I picked out, the action has been described from a point that we aren’t usually familiar with (movement of the light instead of movement of the person; beating the air as opposed to shaking a finger). Having never read anything like that before, it made me think a bit more about what I was reading; if the author had been lazy and used lazy clichés it wouldn’t have made such an impression.

The last two sections of the book are definitely my favourite sections. The second to last is structured in a question and answer style. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus have been out with friends/acquaintances and are fairly drunk and tired. Bloom feels a fatherly protection for Stephen and wants to make sure that he is okay; he tries to offer him a place to stay for the night, and really wants to be the kind of person that Stephen can admire. At first, the way it is structured makes it seem like it will be very dry, but the questions are such that you want to know the answer. The answers are often full of deadpan humour:

Did Bloom accept the invitation to dinner given then by the son and afterwards seconded by the father?

Very gratefully, with grateful appreciation, with sincere appreciative gratitude, in appreciatively grateful sincerity of regret, he declined.

These two men, one old enough to be the father of the other, have stumbled back to the house of Bloom. It’s about 1am and they have been drinking. This question and answer made it very clear to me that they are both very tired and very drunk. In the stages of being overly polite and familiar, and genuine, and friendly. And he does all that with just two sentences. The whole book was a joy.

There were a lot of parts that went completely over my  head too; I have very little idea about what happened in the chapter in which Bloom is at the maternity hospital and meets up with Stephen and his friends before they head out. An article about the most worthwhile parts of Ulysses describes this particular section  much better than I can:

I do love the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, in which Joyce writes chronologically successive rafts of prose that replicate the stylistic evolution of English writing from Chaucer to the present. It’s skillful and funny and offers a tapestrylike illustration of the progress of language and rhetoric, style as content.

Completely baffling to read, especially as it gets into the heavy slang at the end of the chapter. But just as you start to struggle with or get bored with a style, it switches to a completely different one. And you have to go through the process of getting comfortable with the style again, which I really enjoyed every time.

What did I think of the final part of the book? The part that Kate Bush wanted to turn into a song? This was the final part of the books, and one of my favourites, along with the question and answer style section. The whole chapter is from Molly Bloom’s point of view, who, it seems to the reader, has not left her bed all day. She started there when we first joined Leopold when he took her breakfast in bed, and she was still there when he got into bed at the end of the evening. She has spent a large portion of the day in that room, and also presumably with Boylan, the man who is managing her current singing tour and whom Leopold is suspicious of being his wife’s lover.

After spending a book with boys and men who are concerned with hamlet, advertising, medical school, death and lovers-from-a-distance, the change to Molly’s abruptness and directness throws you off-balance at first. She seems much more decisive and sure of herself and of her husband than Bloom or Stephen are of anything. Where Leopold is indecisive and almost unwilling to think about it when it comes to his wife’s potential admirers and lovers, Molly thinks she knows about the nature of Leopold’s affairs. She assumes that he has had meetings with the woman who writes to him (Leopold thinks he has very cleverly kept these letters secret), and also assumes that he has affairs all over the place. Having followed him for the day through the book, the reader knows that each instance of Bloom being attracted to or noticing another woman leads to him thinking of Molly, or being disappointed. He watches these women from a distance.

Both of them project something of themselves onto each other. But the creativity of the language and the way in which it is used to tell the story elevate the book from being a simple story about a day in the life of a man in advertising who is worried about his wife’s fidelity into something about how well you can ever know another person. You spend most of the book in Leopold’s head. You spend some if it in Stephen’s, you spend some of it observing how others observe and feel about Bloom. And at the end of it you get the opinion of his wife. How does how Bloom sees himself compare to all these different perspectives? How do they fit together to build one person?  How would the reader feel about him if they didn’t get Molly’s opinion at the end? These are the things the book made me think about, and I don’t really have any answers yet! Not ones that I could write about coherently and interestingly anyway.

As soon as I had finished reading I wanted to read it again, and it was very heartening to discover that I could open the book to any page, read what I had previously considered to be impenetrable text, and read it with ease. I felt like I could read anything. I’ve read Ulysses, so why not? No book is impenetrable now! And I have Kate Bush to thank for that.

In 2013, I went to Paris. I was there for five days, for a workshop. The evenings were spent wandering around and getting lost, and accidentally getting the queue for the Arc de Triomphe. One thing I knew that I had to do, however, was visit Shakespeare and Company, a famous Paris bookshop that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it. Please give me a second while I retrieve the journal I was writing in at the time!

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This journal came with me to find Shakespeare and Company. It is the same green as my copy of Ulysses. Coincidence???

Tuesday 17th October 2013

21:14

I’m sitting on some stairs outside Notre Dame, and I just saw a man do poi with fireworks. I couldn’t find the bookshop, and then I got lost (how do you lose a cathedral after just seeing it?). But I found it. The night show is just a film about the history of Notre Dame, and you had to pay. I can’t get back too late either, so I just had a look inside.

Later, after losing a cathedral, I find Shakespeare and Company:

21:50

I found it, and I am IN in it. They have a library upstairs where you can sit and read books that aren’t even for buying. There is a piano to the right with a Bishop on it. There’s a girl on the bed to my right, listening to music and writing. There’s a woman opposite me, reading a book of horror stories. In the room next door is a book group. There’s a typewriter in a dark little cubby hole, and a place for children to sit and read books. There is a wall of messages. I might write one.

Someone just sat next to me, and is playing the slightly out of tune piano. I have no idea what he is playing. I don’t think he does either. He has gone from jazz to … silent movie style music, to something else entirely. I wonder if he comes here a lot. If this was the UK, nobody would dare sit at the piano, even though it is there to be played. They’d be scared of annoying the people around them.

I’m a little scared of going through the creaky gate to the poetry section. It is separated from the rest of the shop by an iron gate (piano man is now playing the Pink Panther theme). This place is open til 11, by the way, That’s amazing.

Why talk about Shakespeare and Company? After finishing Ulysses I read a bit about it, to put the book in context, learn where it had come from, how something like that had ever been published at the time. And it was first published by James Joyce’s friend, Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris who founded Shakespeare and Company in 1919! Without knowing it, I had visited a historical literary destination; it was a very satisfying discovery! And the shop continues to publish and sell things that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention. While I was there, I bought a copy of the Belville Park Pages, which contains some amazing prose and poetry that I never would have been exposed to if I hadn’t gone into that bookshop.

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The copy of Belville Park Pages no. 9, purchased from Shakespeare and Company.

Making connections is one of the best things about reading, and it turns out that there are tons to be made from Ulysses; with places, other authors, other books. Other styles of writing! It’s the kind of book I will be able to read and re-read and take something new away from each time. Well, that happens with almost every re-read, but Ulysses is so dense with information and connections that I can’t imagine ever feeling like I know everything about the book.

As I wrote earlier, I felt like reading Ulysses had made it possible for me to read anything else that I wanted to. So I decided to have another go at The Lighthouse by Virginia Wo0lf after being told that her writing style also resembles thought processes and that she writes very much from inside characters’ heads. Those are both things I enjoyed about Ulysses, so approached The Lighthouse this time round with the belief that, no matter how difficult the book would be to get into, it would be worth it and, more importantly, I would be able to do it.

As I found when I went back to re-read passages of Ulysses once I finished it, the text made much more sense to me now. And I want to read everything she has written. The book is written as if you are an observer in the characters’ heads, and often you aren’t given much warning about when the perspective is going to shift. But it isn’t difficult to follow, and it never feels crowded or claustrophobic.

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Here is one of my favourite passages from the novel. One of the guests invited to the holiday home, Lily Briscoe, tried to paint the mother of the large family, Mrs Ramsey, while she sat with her son earlier in the day. A tree in the painting is causing her some trouble. Lily is at dinner with the family and all their guests, feeling slightly patronised by one of the male guests there, who believes that women cannot paint and cannot write:

He has his work, Lily said to herself. She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash, she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the three further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

The conventional way to describe a character would be to illustrate how they interact with other characters, their facial expressions, what they look like. Here, we learn that Lily is very dedicated to her own work, and often finds it difficult to remember that her own work and her own opinions are just as valid as those of the people around her. The action of moving the salt cellar to a different place on the table did the same thing to my mental images as those two sentences from Ulysses; I was there at the table, I was in Lily Briscoe’s head as she zoned out of the dining table conversation for a few seconds to observe the patterns in the table-cloth and think about her painting.

The salt cellar comes back later in the scene, and this time it reminds her that she must hold on to her belief in the importance of her work:

Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort? She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else. Could she not hold fast to that, she asked herself, and not lose her temper, and not argue; and if she wanted a little revenge take it by laughing at him?

The salt cellar makes another appearance, in a later section of the book set a long time after this dinner. Lily goes back to the house with some of the family members and previous guests, and remembers her painting and the table-cloth. It is very hard to describe the power of memory in a story, and Virginia Woolf does it in a way that is very easy to relate to, because it is something that everyone does. For some reason, it is rarely included, because who wants to read about the way a character remembers something? But just like James Joyce avoided clichés to describe even the act of walking under a tree in a new way, Virginia Woolf used the simple act in which a character associates a significance to the placing of a salt-cellar to illustrate how memory works. The word “elegant” is overused, but I think in this case it really is the only word to use.

Another book I read that I never would have attempted to read if I had not made it though Ulysses and enjoyed it: A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.

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The whole book is written in fragmented sentences, as if you are reading exactly what the protagonist is thinking as soon as she thinks it, before she has even formed it into sentences for herself. It took a while to get used to reading in the style that your subconscious puts thoughts together, but it is impressive that Eimear McBride has managed to capture that. I can relate to it, anyway, and all the people who have praised it so much and given it awards must have been able to also.

If you’re going to read Ulysses because you want to, because you feel like you have to, or because you need to for academic reasons, I urge you to go in blind. Avoid reading about it. Don’t read any reviews (though if you’ve already read this – sorry!), and prepare to read something entirely different to what you were expected. Prepare to be surprised by how progressive some of his ideas were for the time. Put the effort in to stick with it and try to follow some of the weirder sentences because it is worth it. There’s more humour than I thought there would be; it is a fun book. It feels like James Joyce set himself massive challenges while writing, and it is just a lot of fun to read the results of those challenges.

And best of all, you’ll come away feeling like you can read absolutely anything. After you’ve finished re-reading Ulysses. (You will definitely want to re-read it!)

June Book Photo Challenge Day 17

All The Feels

  
From Lyra’s Oxford, by Philip Pullman. 

“Will – Will – be like Will -“

June Book Photo Challenge Day 16

Book Stack

 My temporary bookshelves are one giant book stack right now. 

June Book Photo Challenge Day 15

Makes Me Happy

There are lots of books that make me happy, and I have written blog posts about a lot of them. One I haven’t written about before is Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. All of the artwork is by Brian Froud, and the text has been written by Terry Jones (the Monty Python Terry Jones!). 

Here is my miniature version:

  
When I was about twelve years old, my mum’s friend brought this round to the house and let me read it. I read it all in one go, and she let me hold onto it for a while. Goodness only knows how many times I read this. It was the inspiration for many short stories that I wrote as a young teenager too. 

Angelica Cottington is the only child of Lord and Lady Cottington, and instead of pressing flowers, she presses fairies. The book follows her from her first fairy at age four right up until her last, with wonderful accounts of her life and her relationship with fairies throughout. The premise of the book is that it is being represented as an historical find, having been uncovered by squatters and protestors trying to protect what was once the Cottington family home from being demolished in favour of a “Prestige Office Block in an unspoilt country setting.”

 
At age 12, the fact that the whole thing was written by Terry Jones went completely over my head. For a while, I believed that the impressions left by the fairies were real and that someone had hired Brian Froud to render artist’s impressions of the fairies themselves. This was encouraged by my mum and her friend, and started off a lifelong obsession with Brian Froud’s drawings and also the work done by his wife, Wendy Froud.   

This miniature copy was bought for me by my mum’s friend; I think she felt bad asking for her copy back! I also have the wonderful 10 3/4 anniversary edition, containing a DVD with instructions on how to press fairies, given in a rare interview with an elderly Lady Angelica Cottington (Terry Jones in a dress). 

There were three sequels/companion books; Strange Stains and Mysterious Smells, Lady Cottington’s Photo Album, and Lady Cottngton’s Pressed Fairy Letters. It is a wonderful fantasy world to be engulfed by, and if you read them all in one go you’ll only be in there for a few hours. You’ll come out feeling like you’ve just been to a really great concert, or to see a film or play that temporarily affects the way you look at the outside.   

(These books are also where my desire to learn calligraphy started! I wanted to write like Angelica Cottington. It is very beautiful handwriting.)

June Book Photo Challenge Day 14

Me (via text): Hello. I need some help. I’m in a bookshop and I have £57 worth of books in my hands. Please help me choose which ones to put down. 

Friend: You just got paid. What else do you need to buy?

Me: Birthday presents. And I need to save. 

Friend: The books might not be there next time…

Me: I have a big to-read pile …

Friend: BUY THE FOCKEN BOOKS YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE

That weekend I came back from Manchester and my dad’s house with seven books. The Master and Margarita by Milhail Bulgakov, Glass by John Garrison (part of the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury), Villette by Charlotte Brontë, and then His Dark Materials and Gormenghast, which were both at my dad’s and I miss them so they came with me. 

  

June Book Photo Challenge Day 13

In The Shadows

As soon as I read the prompt for today’s photograph, a character instantly popped into my head: Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Every description of Steerpike that can be found outside of the book makes use of the word “Machiavellian”. In fact, have never read The Prince, Steerpike is where my understanding of that word comes from. 

Understandably, he is fed up of his lowly position within the castle, and spends the story slowly working his way up through the social heirarchy. By any means possible. This is a boy who is very much capable of guiltless murder, while remaining a charming underdog. You know he is doing wrong, but you want him to win, you want him to get what he wants but at the same time you want him to realise what he is doing to those around him and reform. While still getting what he wants. 

His actions are completely unjustifiable, but instead of hating him, you find yourself thinking “oh no, Steerpike, you didn’t have to do it this way. You’re clever enough to know that there’s a better way of doing things!” 
There are two things that I particularly love about this character. The first is the fact that he stands in a courtyard all night to try and figure out what is wrong with him when he suddenly feels bad about the fact that his only next progressional step is to kill Fuschia. To the reader it is obvious that at least some of his feelings for her are real, while Steerpike himself, having never received affection before, cannot even recognise it in himself. 

The second thing I love is how the reader perception of his ultimate goal shifts from the first to the end of the second book. In the beginning he is a threat with an impressive goal; he wants to have power, he wants the most power in Gormenghast. He wants to take it away from Titus Groan, the heir of Gormenghast and the next Lord Groan. By the end of the second book, Titus doesn’t want any of that.  Gormenghast to him is old and small; he wants to go out into the world. Suddenly Steerpike and his ultimate goal seem small and juvenile. But not to Steerpike. 

The Gormenghast trilogy is possible my favourite story. Possibly. And every character is as interesting as Steerpike. Is that possible?? Yes. It is. And Mervyn Peake did it. 

June Book Photo Challenge Day 12

Genre

Science Fiction. Some science fiction I cannot read; huge space operas and very technical sci-fi don’t interest me very much. Today’s prompt made me think about the kind of science fiction that I do like, and why. Below, in the picture, are books I have read but which are not mine (lots of my books are still in storage). I like these books, especially Cat’s Cradle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. If I had all of my books with me I would have included these also (at least): Valis, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, The Man In The High Castle. And now I realise that most of the science fiction I have read and loved is Philip K Dick. Who DOESN’T love him, really. I’ll never forget the typo that turned out to not be a typo in Ubik but was instead a giant plot hinge. That was incredible. 

 
What makes these science fiction books enjoyable to me?

They are futuristic. The technology is a huge mash up of outdated technology of the time and where they thought it would go. There are completely new worlds, new religions, new species. Fairly standard science fiction fare. What makes me love a science fiction story is when there are identifiable characters, sympathetic characters, who are interacting with their surroundings in an interesting how and relatable way. The story hasn’t been written to focus on a world or a government system; it has been written to show the way in which people like us might interact with it, and the advantages and dangers of such a situation. 

What I love about Philip K Dick is that there are always bigger things within the stories that can be explored, like the politics of the world in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep for example. But instead, he focuses on the morality of destroying human-like androids, and what that can do to the people responsible for that task. 

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is similar. It is essentially a story about a revolution that happens to be set on the Earth and Moon of the future. Science fiction is most enjoyable to me when it is about familiar people in unfamiliar situations. Which is probably why I enjoyed the Night Vale novel so much too. 

June Book Photo Challenge Day 11

Time Period 

Arthurian Britain! The Holy Grail is, in my opinion, the best Monty Python film. They are all absurd, and that’s why they’re brilliant, but this one is special. I’m struggling to find the right words! Maybe it’s because I loved going to the Camelot theme park as a kid, who knows. And I love how Monty Python portray peasants. Swinging cats against walls, collecting the dead in carts, harvesting filth. “This is how people entertained themselves,” they’re saying, “finding good dirt if you’re poor, and if you can afford to not have shit all over you like the rest of us, you make up silly quests.”

 

I’ve only progressed about half way through Le Morte d’Arthur (there are so many names!), but what has struck me so vividly is the suspicion I had while reading it that maybe Monty Python aren’t so off the mark with their absurd interpretation. Lancelot arrives in one story, ready for a fight, and accidentally kills people he shouldn’t have. He later apologises. As expected of his own particular idiom. 

This absrdity can also be found in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (The edition here is the translation by Tolkien, which includes Pearl and Sir Orfeo. One of the really great things about this edition is all the notes on the text and all the information about the anonymous author and original text. I learned about the difference between medieval and modern alliteration.) Sir Gawain takes up a challenge offered by the mysterious Green Knight, and the qualities that make him famous and one of the most esteemed knights of the Round Table are tested. A trap is laid, and the results are very amusing to the other knights when Sir Gawain recounts his adventures back at Camelot. 

Eventually I will read the rest of Le Morte d’Arthur, and will forever have a better appreciation for the surprising accuracy of the Monty Python rebelling of the Grail quest (at least in atmosphere and attitude)!

(Photo credit goes to my beautiful assistant, who kindly took the picture for me while I am away visiting family!)

June Book Photo Challenge Day 10

Currently Reading 

One of the many wonderful things about books is that, like with music, you can sometimes go backwards through the influences. One book that you love might make references to other stories, or might make use of some strange styles that you aren’t familiar with, and you love the book so much or you become so curious that you are compelled to learn more about it in order to appreciate the experience of reading that particular story a little more. 

One book like that for me is His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I read it as a young teen, as an older teen, in my early twenties and then again two years ago. Each time I read something different. A friend of mine bought me the Folio editions for Christmas, and after reading the new author’s preface I fell into a YouTube hole of videos discussing His Dark Materials. The best one was by Jen Campbell, in which she briefly mentions research she did on growing up as a sin in children’s literature. 

After watching all of these videos and reading the author’s preface I decided that I really wanted to read Jon Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Philip Pullman cites as a huge influence. Here is my first edition hardcover copy of the edition of Paradise Lost with an introduction by Philip Pullman, signed by him too. I’m not going to ask how it was procured; I’m simply very grateful to have been gifted it. 

 

Just the other day I wrote on this blog that poetry scares me because I don’t know how to translate it into normal English. In his introduction, Philip Pullman explicitly states that it is an absolute shame that poetry is taught in this way in school, to break it down into simple banalities: “everything that made the poem a living thing had been killed and butchered.” I decided to follow his advice and read the poem as a story, to enjoy the language instead of worrying about trying to understand everything, and his advice is really helping. 

What does also help is the fact that the poem itself is, and I am surprised to see myself writing this, enjoyable to read. I am enjoying reading this. Compelling is a word I would use, and not in a clichéd “I can’t think of a better word” way. It really does command your full attention, and before you realise what is going on, you’re reading poetry and enjoying it and following the story and marvelling at how he can say so much with so few, well thought out and well placed words. 

The fact that I saw the one man production of Paradise Lost last night is totally coincidence. It all seemed to happen at the same time and I’m very glad it did. The book will always be linked in my mind with that strange and beautiful production. 

Also, I know Satan is traditionally the bad guy, but I am really enjoying him as the hero of this book. He is terrifying in his powers of persuasion and his absolute fearlessness. He is so far honest, too, and plain with his honesty. Even though I know how the story ends, I want him to win in the same way that I wanted Steerpike of Gormenghast to reform and realise that he really was in love with Fuschia. 

Once I have read this, I will go back to His Dark Materials again and undoubtedly find something else new to think about.