Archive for the ‘books’ Tag

Simple Pleasures of Summer

From Summer by Ali Smith, published this month, the fourth of her seasons series. I picked the quotation out for its reference to Simple Pleasures.

This section is from just after the bit where this lane with its grassline down the middle appears

What a great thing it must be, to be able to make a seat like that look so good.
The best thing is, it’ll last, he says. Decades. Simple pleasures.
Simple pleasures, she says. I was just walking along thinking about them. Well, about how I tend to wish pleasures were a lot simpler than they end up being.
He laughs.
He licks the cigarette paper along its edge.
Uh huh? he says.
Oh, you know, she says. How even when things are lovely it’s like we can’t help blocking them from ourselves. What a lovely summer it is and how, it’s like, no matter what we do, we can’t get near its loveliness.

This links to another key paragraph set along the lane in the image above:

The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account – because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed.
Not even this one she’s in exists. Even though it’s apparently the best summer so far of the century. Not even when she is quite literally walking down a road as beautiful and archetypal as this through an actual perfect summer afternoon.
So we mourn it while we’re in it. Look at me walking down the road in summer thinking about the transience of summer.
Even while I’m right at the heart of it I just can’t get to the heart of it.

I call this the Beauty Stab.

Coincidence No. 544 – Kafka

The day before yesterday I start reading Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint. It is about the court case settling where Franz Kafka’s manuscripts should reside.

Yesterday I see that Facebook has added to People You May Know a certain Beverley Kafka. I don’t know her, it looks like she may be a friend of a friend of my mum.

Today I am walking in East Finchley Cemetery – it is perhaps only the second time I have been in here. (I am writing this in the shade of a spreading old oak.) At the turn to this side of the extensive mid-19C cemetery is the grave of Dorothy Kafka, born 1930, died 1988. The objective of my walk in the cemetery is to find a quiet spot out of the sun to read Kafka’s Last Trial.

I have never met or come across anyone called Kafka before.

Coincidence Nos. 362 & 363 – words

A couple of standard word ones but nice examples…

No. 362 Kabyle

I am watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance film ‘L’Armée des Ombres’ (thanks to my free 3-month trial of Mubi through the Phoenix Cinema) and the protagonist mentions that in the prison camp where he finds himself are Poles, Romanians, Jews of various nationalities and ‘Kabyles’. I’ve never come across that word. The film is set in France.

48 hours later I am reading ‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud and he refers to “a Kabyle waiter the size of a giant”. It is set in Algeria.

‘Kabyle’ relates to a Berber population in Northern Algeria.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud novel cover book

No. 363 Gimlet

I begin my second plague book for the lockdown – Jack London’s ‘Scarlet Plague’. In the opening chapter is the sentence: “In marked contrast with his sunburned skin were his eyes – blue, deep blue, but keen and sharp as a pair of gimlets. I don’t know what a ‘gimlet’ is – at least I didn’t until a few days ago.

Gimlets have been in my life recently only through Gimlet Media, the podcast outfit that make one of my favourite podcasts, ‘Heavyweight‘. I also have a vague notion of it in the realm of cocktails.

I am reading a book – ‘Get Wallace!’ by Alexander Wilson (1934) – and the word ‘gimlet’ comes up and I bother looking it up: “a small T-shaped tool with a screw tip for boring holes”

'Get Wallace!' by Alexander Wilson (1934) novel book cover

 

19 years and counting

Our book group started in November 2001 with much the same personnel as we have now (lost one or two along the way with moves out of town etc., added one or two to bring fresh blood). I’ve ended up being the one archiving the titles read so here is the last two years’ worth since I last made a record in December 2017.

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer book novel cover design

  • Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff – Feb 2018
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens – Mar 2018
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Apr 2018
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid – June 2018
  • The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst – Sept 2018
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – Oct 2018
  • Arno Geiger – The Old King in his Exile (Oct-Nov 2018)
  • Ann Tyler – Back when we were grown-ups (Dec-Jan 2019)
  • Crudo – Olivia Laing (Jan-Feb 2019)
  • I Served The King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (Mar-Apr 2019)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Apr-May 2019)
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (June-Aug 2019) [my choice]
  • To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek (Sep-Oct 2019)
  • The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Nov-Dec 2019)
  • Karoo – Steve Tesich (Dec-Jan 2020)
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Feb-Mar 2020)
  • A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (March 2020)
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (April 2020)

To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek book novel cover design

A fine plague book

 

Marilyn & Ulysses

marilyn monroe reading james joyce ulysses

Marilyn reading the best book ever written

In my last post I included this photo by Eve Arnold, shot in Long Island in 1955. If you’re wondering whether it was just a pose and whether blondes prefer Irish gentlemen as a source of reading matter, this letter from Eve Arnold contains the answer:

eve arnold_letter to Richard Brown about _marilyn monroe_ulysses

Eve Arnold to Richard Brown, 20th July 1993

The letter is a response to Richard Brown, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Leeds, a Joyce specialist. Brown subsequently wrote an essay entitled Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Postcultural Cyborg? Which is the kind of title that puts people off of academia. But his query to Arnold was an interesting one and I’m glad he asked.

Marilyn Monroe Reads Joyce’s Ulysses eve arnold

The Long Island playground shoot 1955

Marilyn was frequently photographed reading – which in my book is a big plus even when you are a blonde bombshell.

Marilyn Monroe Reads Arthur Miller's Enemy of the People

Close to home: Arthur Miller

Marilyn Monroe Reads walt whitman's leaves-of-grass

Turning over an old leaf: Walt Whitman

Life in a nutshell

reading books life

Enfant Terrible No. 1 sent me this the other day – it more or less captures my worldview.

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

oskar kokoschka kunstler und poeten book cover design

The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

A Day in Dublin

Sweny's chemist pharmacist drugsture Dublin Ulysses James Joyce

Following a meeting with RTÉ in the Docklands in East Dublin I had the afternoon free to wander the city. On the way in to the centre from the airport the bus passed the end of Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom lives and is having breakfast in the second chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An hour later I walked across Holles Street where the maternity hospital is where another chapter of the Greatest Book Ever takes place. After that I looked into the window of Sweny’s the pharmacist where Bloom buys his lemon soap (and they still sell it in waxed brown paper). In a couple of hours I am heading back there for a ‘Ulysses’ reading group as it is now a volunteer-run centre dedicated to the book. It is just opposite the back entrance to Trinity College, Dublin where I am due at a lunch at noon.

Yesterday I also passed the Ormond Hotel (which, if I had my bearings right, is largely a space on the North bank of the Liffey at Ormond Quay, having been pretty much demolished since my last trip to Dublin) where the music-centred chapter of the novel occurs, the chapter which is the focus of the long-running Charles Peake seminar at Senate House, University of London which I attend every month. It takes the group several years to get through a chapter as it is a close-reading approach – we cover just a dozen or so lines per two hour Friday evening session.

proclamation of the irish republic

Back to Friday afternoon, I passed the old Ormond Hotel on the way to Kilmainham Gaol where the leaders of the Easter Rising were imprisoned in 1916. There I met my younger son who was also over, meeting his cousins. I had the great honour in the course of the visit to read to him (he has severe dyslexia so I am in the habit of reading to him) one of the surviving twenty copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a poster size text printed in two sections, and then parts of the original letters written by the condemned men as their last words. These are displayed in dim light for preservation but the lighting also adds to the vibe. A particularly resonant one is by Joseph Plunkett to his girlfriend who he recognises he should have married – signed “Your lover, Joe”. My son is an Irish citizen hence the honour of introducing these things to him. Later in the afternoon we passed the GPO in O’Connell Street where I concluded my history to him of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. (Which reminded me that I wanted to ask my RTÉ colleague how the preparations are going for the tricky centenary of the Civil War. When I was over speaking to the RTÉ Board in December 2017 they were just starting to address the project with the President that same day.)

We went back into town via the Irish Museum of Modern Art, taking the Luas (tram) back to the river. My son is really interested at the moment in wild/open water swimming and imagined swimming the Liffey. I told him about Yeats’ energetic painting of a swimming race in the National Gallery of Ireland.

IMG_6382 finnegans wake 1st edition 1939 james joyce

1st edition (1939)

I rounded off the day seeing both a 1939 1st edition of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (€2,000), which I sent to Finn Fordham who leads the monthly Wake seminar at Senate House I also go to fairly regularly, and a 1922 1st edition of ‘Ulysses’ from Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1 of 750 copies, with the famous (among a small but dedicated circle) Greek blue cover (€30,000) at Ulysses Rare Books shop off Grafton Street. I’ve seen and even handled the ‘Ulysses’ 1st edition in that fabulous shop before – this one has only been in a month. If I was rich I would buy one alongside a powder blue Mark 2 Jag. My son wanted to know how Joyce had managed to fill 700 pages with two people’s wanderings around Dublin for just one day.

img_6383

I concluded the day in another book shop, The Winding Stair, named after the other Yeats’ volume of poetry. For the last 15 years the book part has shrunk to just the ground floor and the 1st and 2nd floors up the eponymous stairs have become a really good Irish restaurant with a view of the river, quays and Ha’penny Bridge. In the past the dining room, where I enjoyed Irish duck and Irish trout this evening, used to be covered in bookshelves full of second-hand volumes. Now just a couple of shelves of books tip a hat to that literary past. The tome I acquired from here that comes first to mind is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man’, a vintage Penguin paperback. Every book becomes a friend.

iew from The Winding Stair restaurant Dublin

View from The Winding Stair

4 places worth visiting in Norwich

I was in Norwich yesterday visiting the uni/art school NUA to give a lecture on Creative Thinking and a very pleasant visit it was too. Here are 4 places I enjoyed spending time in…

The Book hive book shop store norwich

1. The Book Hive book shop

A great little independent book store with good browsing to be had. I picked up a copy of Alan Jacobs’ How to Think – and here’s what I love about the internet: I read a bit I didn’t agreed with and fired an email over then and there to Mr Jacobs in Texas with an example illustrating what I thought and he came back a few hours later with his response (polite and broadly  agreeing).

harriet's cafe teashop norwich

Proper old school

2. Harriet’s cafe /teashop

Welsh rarebit, English breakfast tea, The Times – what’s not to like? Read Danny Finkelstein’s piece in the wake of the May plan take-down. Used to go to junior school with the Fink and he lived down my road for a while (Tory blue front door though he was a Liberal at the time: we had a yellow front door back then).  Always worth a read.

jarrolds norwich lanes department store

in Norwich Lanes

3. Jarrolds

A department store, founded in 1770 in Suffolk, moved to Norwich in 1823. Situated in the Lanes like #1 and #2 above. I read the book purchased in #1 here in the basement where there is a book-encircled cafe called Chapters, with leather armchairs and rooibos tea. I remember buying books published by Jarrolds back in the day but I don’t think they still have that part of the business. Nonetheless their bookshop bit is well worth a visit, as is their art materials bit.

NUA norwich university of the arts boardman house is a grade ii listed building in redwell street, norwich, originally built in 1879

NUA Boardman House in Redwell Street (1879)

4. NUA

Norwich University of the Arts is a cool school – ranked in the UK’s Top 10 for teaching quality by The Times Good University Guide 2018; also rated by students as a top 6 UK university for creative scene in the Which? Student Survey 2018; plus shortlisted for Buildings That Inspire in the Guardian Awards 2018. NUA was founded as Norwich School of Design in 1845. Painter Michael Andrews, Monty Python’s Neil Innes and President of the Royal Academy Alfred Munnings are among the alumni.

norwich_university_of the arts logo

Same yellow as my old front door

16 years and counting

 

mothering sunday graham swift novel book cover

Had a splendid evening yesterday at the annual Dickens gathering of one of the members of the book group to which I belong (and have done since it was set up in November 2001 by David Price). We drank a Victorian brandy & rum punch made to a recipe of Dickens himself, the preparation process reaching its apex when the whole thing was set aflame (harder than you’d imagine). Besides the vigorous blue flames, other highlights included lively readings from Bleak House and Great Expectations among others. I chose the passage from Our Mutual Friend (my favourite Dickens) which gave T.S. Eliot his working title for The Waste Land – ‘He do the Police in different voices’. It culminates in…

“I aint, you must know,” said Betty, “much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”

I last wrote about Dickens in Simple Pleasures part 4 a year ago almost to the day. I was reflecting on 2016 through the lens of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Not much changed there then.

Nor has much changed in the book group. Same personnel since June 2015, which is when I last listed what we’ve read since the very first gathering – for Atonement. I seem to have become the de facto archivist so here is an update to the on-going list which is put out there in the spirit of offering ideas to other book group title choosers.

In The Country Of Men by Hisham Mitar – June 2015
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford – Sep 2015
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami – Nov 2015
Soumission/Submission by Michel Houellebecq – Jan 2016
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – Feb 2016
The Man without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates – Apr 2016
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – May 2016
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam – July 2016
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany – Sept 2016
The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt – Nov 2016
The Sell Out by Paul Beatty – Dec 2016
Autumn by Ali Smith – Jan 2017
The Vegetarian by Han Kang – Mar 2017
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis – Apr 2017
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift – June 2017
Men Without Women by Haruki Murukami – July 2017
Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo – Sep 2017
The Remains of the Day by Kasuo Ishiguro – Nov 2017
The Information by Martin Amis – Jan 2018

The first 14 years

brooklyn colm toibin novel book cover

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