Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities, or Learning to Like London After Falling in Love with Berlin

My complicated love for the city of Berlin is, I fear, unrequited. I was drawn there unwittingly, relocated there almost without warning, not exactly against my will but contrary to many logical factors which told me to stay where I was: financial, practical, romantic. But having ignored all of these, arriving fresh off the ICE train with all my worldly possessions in tow (in a suitcase so heavy that I had to enlist the help of a good friend, already in situ, to help me across town to Moabit and my new abode). At first, Berlin was no great shakes. It was huge, just another big old place. In my first couple of weeks, I compared it to what I knew (London) and very soon realised that the two are such obvious opposites. London is a twisting, turning maze, enormous and sprawling but full to the brim and so claustrophobic it hurts to breathe. Berlin is also enormous, but it's full of space. The trains are big enough, the streets are wide enough, there is water, there are lakes. Berlin is an open-air festival every day. It's scruffy, down-and-out. It has its upmarket areas (Prenzlauer Berg, Charlottenburg), but these are still kind of rough around the edges in that slapdash European way - they retain a ramshackle, reminiscent despair that resists all the gloss and patent of cities like London.

Even though it can't help but be effortlessly cool, there's still an overriding sense of functionality about Berlin - it'll never shake off its Germanity, and it doesn't want to. But enough has been written about the enigma of Berlin as a city (to which I'll come back later) - I want to talk a bit about my Berlin, what little of it I can claim. The reason I loved the lady from afar is because she never really welcomed me with open arms the way, say, Edinburgh did. I always felt that Berlin was too much of a good thing for me. In Berlin I was too much like how I wanted to be, life was how I always wanted to live it. I was too carefree and jubilant, the weather too good, life too simple. It was almost a challenge to live up to Berlin, and it was bound not to last.

For a whole month, my friends had suggested I get a bike, but I resisted, making one excuse after another: I'm only here for two months, I'm leaving in six weeks, it's totally impractical... Finally, I saw sense and rented a set of wheels for my last few weeks. My cycle ride to work was an improbable one which took me past Tiergarten, up towards the Reichstag, directly through the Brandenburg Gate, up Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz and finally up into Prenzlauer Berg. These were moments when I was just contented in the simplest of ways: cycling through the city on a choking, hot morning; enjoying a lingering dip in the Plötzensee after sweltering in an office without air conditioning, then racing across town to an open-air cinema to recline in a deck chair watching Where the Wild Things Are while storm clouds amassed overhead; dancing till the early morn to klezmer beats in a squatters' basement, fuelled by a couple of litres of beer; lunchtime picnics in the park with my intern colleagues. I was on a little voyage of discovery - one girl on a bike (a common sight in Berlin) chirpily pedalling my way through the world.

I always knew I was going to be a Prenzlauer Berg girl, as soon as I knew even a little about the city. I'd read about Prenzl'berg's various histories, its association with swathes of Russian immigrants who lived there in squalid conditions in the postwar years in cavernous empty buildings with no heating or water, before any of the grand façades and courtyards had been renovated. Arriving, I found that these days it is one of Berlin's premier locations for the up and coming, the professionals, the young families (the latest trend on the Hill, apparently, is to push an empty pram around). It was once on the margins of civilized society and thus by Berlin standards a good place to be, but now gentrified and so far from the cutting edge of some of the more chaotic neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, to which it handed over its kudos long ago. Nevertheless, I loved it. It's beautiful, affluent, cultural, leafy, grand - and it has a zillion different cafés, not to mention smoothie bars, cheap restaurants, expensive restaurants, second hand bookshops and toy shops (for all those kids sprouting up everywhere). And let's face it, I've never really been one for slumming it anyway.

During one of my Edinburgh festivals, long before I had any real prospects for moving to Berlin but a faint idea that I might like to go there one day, I briefly met a German girl who told me that while Berlin is enormous, it's easy to live there - you just find your 'Kiez' (area) and bunk down, discover all the bits that you love, and your Kiez becomes your Berlin. In the short space of time that I lived there, I think managed to do this, to discover a tiny little bit of the city. Berlin tipped its hat to me, I smiled back, and we moved on.

Now, having permanently relocated, in one fell swoop, to the great roaring, stinking, hooting, filthy animal that is London, I'm going through a long and complicated process. Sometimes (usually on the tube), I get a strange feeling and wonder how it is that I got to be here, now. I think it's probably best described as alienation - London to me is a black hole full of undiscovered, unseen streets and unknown places, full of promise, but towards which I'd have to struggle and claw my way up from a dark underground tunnel to make any sense of. In Berlin, travelling by bike or tram, or up on the elevated U-Bahn looking down over the city, you're not so hemmed in.

But I want to make a real effort, because this is my Home now, and I want it to feel like it. I'm slowly, slowly, building up a tiny arsenal of London Experiences to arm myself with when I have to do battle against the mean reds that decide to pounce upon and attack my homesickness every once in a while. For instance, yesterday I took a stroll around Borough Market with my best friend. Sampling all the free cheese we could get our hands on as we went and accompanied by a brass quartet doing their Christmas numbers, we discussed life's big questions. It was wonderful - I'm in love with markets anyway, and this is truly the market of markets. Expensive, they say, but then, I only bought oranges, and I'm sure they don't make a big mark-up on those. And when I get into the kinds of echelons of society that buy fresh seafood to feed the five thousand of a Saturday evening, I'm sure I won't notice the difference. Maybe, it occurs to me, it's because Berlin is so cheap that it's easy to live there. Of course London has its share of marvellous things, but you have to pay for them through the nose. In Berlin it's fun to live nearly on the breadline, because it feels like everyone is.

Berlin in literature has got to be about as fascinating as the real deal. I've just read Christopher Isherwood's first instalment of the Berlin Stories - Mr Norris Changes Trains. Ironically, I read most of it on the train. I find that my reading material for the tube has to be of outstanding quality for it to keep me entertained for forty-five minutes underground; it must be of a high enough calibre to banish the familiar dread that accompanies the morning commute. This book more than hits the mark - it's brilliant and witty in its creation of a ridiculously endearing focal character. Reminiscent of Holly Martins in The Third Man, the narrator is strangely hollow and serves as a mere platform for the bumbling, foolish, inarticulate but ultimately conniving and scheming Norris - who gets his just desserts in a final humourous twist. Funnily enough, it's not really about Berlin as a city. Or, more accurately, I was expecting lots of architectural description, of which there is little in this novel. What the author does do really well is capture, through the personae and actions of a certain few key players, the particular atmosphere of Berlin in the inter-war years, the political knife-edge that was the city in the 1930s, the tensity and dark and coldness of it all. Reluctant as I am to dig up the train metaphor again - next stop: Goodbye, Berlin.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Mostly books.

I once read a book called... I forget what it was called and who it was by, but it was about a little Jewish girl who emigrated from Canada to Israel with her parents to live on a Kibbutz. In Canada they were overtly Jewish, totally devout, adhering to every custom, ritual and ceremony. But on the Kibbutz all those things that had seemed so important elsewhere suddenly became redundant - everyone knew that their Jewishness was the thing that bound them together, so there was no longer a need to shout about it. They had an automatic collective identity. The rules were relaxed, the rituals abandoned, they stopped eating Kosher. They were there, and that was enough.

This is pretty much exactly what's happened to me in the last five or six weeks (well... minus the Jewish bit. It's an allegory). You could say reading is my religion (though my living-room performance on Uni Challenge earlier this evening would tend to suggest otherwise), but I'm on my Kibbutz now. I'm In Publishing - I don't need to prove to anyone that I love to read. I'm no longer struggling to showcase my literary tastes. I don't have to read the Booker longlist in preparation for some interview or other. It's as if my voracious literary appetite has got me this far, to where I want to be, and has thus served its primary purpose. I have no further use for it - like Lyra and her alethiometer, the gift has left me.

A much more sensible explanation of the facts is that these days I'm just too bloody tired all the time and, except for on the commute, I haven't found the time to pick up a book. And there's something just so soothing about the candyfloss-for-the-brain, medicinal quality of bad TV in times of heightened stress that I surprise myself time after time by collapsing lazily into its embrace for lengthened periods whenever my brain is overloading, running on empty. Nothing will ever, ever be as grim as the days in the fateful Final Year when I'd lie, comatose, on my my bed, just vegetating in front of repeats of Britain's Got Talent. But the New Job phase is something akin to it. New Job is Final Year's older cousin, maybe. Older, quieter, more mature and not quite so emotional or prone to a tantrum.

What I'm trying to say is that I don't seem to have been doing much of the stuff that I really love to do lately - reading, writing, listening to the radio or good music in similarly arcane formats. I don't want to sit in front of a screen for hours after work writing a diary that nobody will ever read. My brain capitulates at the thought anyway, my synapses clog up like chewing gum and the mission is aborted in favour of something altogether more relaxing: "Strictly's on!" the brain cries. "Turn me off for a bit and settle down to watch some shite. You'll feel better afterwards." So since I got to London and started proper work, I've spent every evening doing my best impression of a layabout on the couch, putting off any remotely intellectual, creative or cognitive activities until "tomorrow", which in this context is an abstract time phrase and is guaranteed never to arrive.

...

I've now let this lie for twenty-four hours and, as unlikely as we all thought, it is now "tomorrow" and, after having spent the evening trying to keep up with my fellow altos at the South London Choir  I'm feeling recharged, revitalised and in writing mode. It's not a total transformation, though - the telly is still on in the background. So here goes.

Tonight's line up begins with the great Jeanette Winterson, tragically another of my only very recent discoveries. Lighthousekeeping is a delicious salty sea-shanty of a novel. It's like pieces of a long, dark and fragmented story, entwined to form a heartbreaking and beautiful tale about the pain of life and love and making mistakes. Reading this, you feel as though you are perched atop a cliff, the winds blowing a gale, the clank and grind of the beacon a constant companion. I was living in the dark until I read this. Of course, it's also the story of a woman - a woman's woman - a brave cartographer mapping the uncharted waters of herself, her heart and head. She hears stories told, she is carried by the stories, she becomes the storyteller, and finally she turns her life into a story. I loved reading where she ended up. I loved reading how she got there, and was helped along by the tortured, enigmatic Babel Dark. But most of all I loved reading about how she started - in a place called Salts, on the sea, with DogJim and blind Pew for company ("There's always been a Pew at Cape Wrath"). Apprentice to the lighthousekeeper, eternally transmitting, the port in the storm, with a steaming mug of Full Strength Samson in the morning to take away the chill. Ah, home.

Next up: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It's written in three voices, to keep interest piqued, and each character is engaging enough to make this a really entertaining read. The plot's great, too - there's so much to be said for good, old-fashioned storytelling. The basic premise is this: several suppressed black servants in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement in the American South get together with a forward-thinking young white girl to write the first unbiased account from the "coloured folks'" perspective about what it's like to work for a white lady. It sounds perhaps a little contrived, but Kathryn Stockett's writing is of such a high standard in terms of spinning a good yarn that she not only makes it believable, she really pulls it off. The Help is touching, funny, tense, smart and vicious (aided on that front by the obnoxious it-girl Hilly Holbrook and her silly, short-sighted tagalong friends). It's also such an insight, and there are some sobering, sombre moments to drive Stockett's inescapable message home.

And, finally, Emma Donoghue's Room (Warning: spoilers). A freebie, hurrah - my first perk of the New Job, and signed to boot. It's the first hardback I've read in a while - these days I only read hardbacks if I get them for free. Room was on my To Read list because of its Booker shortlist status, and it does not disappoint. Donoghue has created an incredibly, surprisingly rich world within one small space - she describes it through a child's eyes, and as a result is able to inject so much more substance and meaning into the life that these two, mother and son, share in their soundproofed cell. Genuinely scary at some points (you feel Jack's fear when his mother - the only person he really knows - tells him what he's got to do to get them out of there), it's also entirely palpable, un-sensationalist and well-conceived. Mother's frustration at son's inability to adapt to life outside Room (because he's never been anywhere else) is interesting. They are as close as can be, but their perspectives are so different: she's been imprisoned since her teens, held back, and wants to start her life again. He's been plucked from the Room that was his home and dropped in an enormous, loud, light, bright, cold, questioning, unforgiving place and he wants to go home. You empathise with her frustration and can even understand why and how this reaches such an extreme that she is prepared to do what she eventually does at the end of the novel. A slow burner, and ultimately worth it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

I was much further out than you thought... (warning: explicit content)

"London calling... "

That's right, the night on impossible has actually happened: I'm employed. And not just anywhere, no - these days I am mainly to be found at a successful London publishing house in King's Cross. Every aspect of my life has done an about-face, a roly-poly, a great jump into the dark unknown.

What the experts don't tell you is that these dramatic life changes aren't actually empowering or exciting, even if on paper it looks like your dreams are coming true. I don't want to sound ungrateful because I know that in a year or so I'll know how bloody lucky I've been and that this was my Big Break. But at the moment, I feel like everything in my life has never been so wrong. I'm inside out, upside down, I'm too cold, too hot, too alone, too surrounded. I'm homesick. I hate this place and I don't understand how anyone could want to live here. But the strange thing is that every so often I get sudden flashes of excitement, and I know that one day I'll love it. It makes the whole thing even harder: I know I've got to persevere, stick with it, fight on through the first few months (or however long it takes), and not submit to the urge get on a train straight back home when I emerge from the underground at King's Cross every morning, because this is What I Wanted.

So much has happened in the last month or so that I quite honestly haven't had time to keep this thing up to date. I'd been starting to get used to the pleasing, cathartic experience of writing about things that were on my mind - even if they were totally inconsequential, as they usually were. But I've been bombarded by life's pivotal moments so heavily in the last few weeks that I've been too tired to start thinking about writing. I've been bottling things up, and I fear it's going to take a wee while to siphon off all the negative energy. Perhaps what follows is the best way of trying to explain how I feel about living in London (bearing in mind that I used to live in a village with a total of somewhere between 50 and 100 inhabitants, and the largest city I've lived in before is Edinburgh - the capital city, but not the largest city, of a country which has half the number of people in it than London). I wrote this today, in a cafe, in a notebook I bought for 70p across the road because I had to Get It All Out and Write It All Down (and this is the edited version):

I bought this horrid cheap thing for a number of reasons... what a negative start... but mainly because earlier on I thought that writing about things today might help me loosen this tight, awful feeling of general malaise that's been brewing over these past few weeks... Now I'm sitting here in what I know I'll recognise in the future as a fabulous coffee shop, possibly my new local, drinking the most medicinal cup of chai I've ever drunk, and that's because tea hits the spot wherever you need it.

I also bought a cake, God knows why because I hate cake. It's chocolate chilli cake though, which is soul-warming, and also it reminds me of my indulgent winter days wandering through the cobbled streets in Germany with a Hanseatica chilli hot chocolate in hand, warming me up on the way home.

I need the familiar at the moment like it's oxygen; without it it feels like I'm (Not Waving But) Drowning. Every part of this strange situation that used to be my life has done a U-turn. Even a foreign country where the people are rude and you have to pay for every efficient kindness is more familiar to me than this place, this vast, hectic and fully crammed right up to the skirting boards rabbit warren of streets and buildings and people people people. Yes, there's lots to do, but it's too much - you can only ever do one thing at one time, so why would you ever need a trillion things to do? It's overwhelming.

And I feel so weird - I'm the new girl, the weird girl, no friends - enemies already though - when did people get so mean? Always some sort of agenda, you can't be nice just for being nice's sake.

I'm itching to get writing again, to share bits of my life like I've been getting used to doing, I feel like I've been too silent. But also I feel like I can't yet, because all that will emerge are toxic thoughts.

In retrospect, this is quite personal. I wrote this only for me, to see if it would help. I don't write a diary, and usually I write firmly with an audience in mind, like a mask, a thin sheet of silk between my psyche and my words. But this is all raw emotion, and if you don't like it, I don't blame you. I don't like it either.

That's all for now, I'm afraid, because I get the feeling I could go on forever. No books this time, but there will be - I've read some really great stuff recently and I'm excited that I might feel positive about it soon.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Latest train of thought: all aboard to Ramblesville

As I type, I am lounging on a cat hair-covered sofa in front of a log burner (behind which the feline, aptly named Mog and responsible for the abovementioned deposits, also lounges), balancing my laptop on my knees and throwing frequent yet unavoidable glances at the telly which is spewing out guff at roughly the same rate the fire is radiating warmth. I have to ask myself why Anne Robinson might have taken it upon herself to wear leggings and pumps on television (or at all)? Anyway, the quiz show in question which has inexplicably found its way into our living room has reminded me of two things, neither is important or interesting, this is just where my train of thought happens to be taking me. (If my train of thought were a real train, I'd like to think it would be a nineteenth century steam train chuffing and hooting through rural English countryside, pulling in occasionally at quaint little places like Candleford so the ladies on board might alight for tea and cream cakes).

The first thing is that I actually got some questions right on Uni Challenge last night (a far superior quiz show, unfortunately my quota of correct answers never exceeds four or five per episode, despite having gone to university myself). Three of them were on Tennessee Williams plays which I've never actually read, just seen the films, philistine that I am, but no wonder I got them all - who could forget Paul Newman and the young Marlon Brando? The second thing is that I recently saw a vacancy for Editorial Assistant with a respectable imprint of Bloomsbury (my new favourite publisher) but decided not to apply because it's for the division Whitaker's Almanack, a general knowledge and current affairs publication, and so a knowledge of and interest in both of the above is highly desirable for the role. You even have to take a test at the interview. I toyed with the idea and even tried to persuade myself that I could do the job, until I told my dad that I was considering it, and that there was a current affairs test, and he laughed out loud. Loudly. "There's no way you'd pass a current affairs test," he said, and thus the matter was closed. I must confess that he's right: a good friend of mine recently despaired when, upon his instigation of a discussion about the Koreas I felt it necessary to ask, "North Korea - is that the evil one?" To which he replied, "Bloody hell, Lottie... Oh well, at least you'll never get pretentious about your knowledge and opinions."

So I won't be going for the general knowledge gig, but on the upside I do have an interview this week for something else pretty cool. I'm supposed to be genning up at the moment, but instead I've decided to update my Recently Read list, starting with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. A master of the short story, the sparse prose, the quintessentially American and the subtle emotion, is Carver. I was amazed to find myself rediscovering something I'd read in English lessons at school ('A Serious Talk') and liking it this time round. No, loving it. And then I silently cursed my English teacher for his grumpy disinterest and lacklustre shoving of Carver photocopies under our noses with a curt 'read this.' No excitement, no enthusiasm, no signs of enjoyment in having the honour of introducing eager young minds to one of the finest American writers of the twentieth century. This is the kind of stuff I would have lapped up back then but, perhaps unsurprisingly given its soulless introduction, I was as unenthusiastic about A Serious Talk as my teacher. Schools need a kick up the jack, if you ask me, need to learn how to excite kids about things. They should employ me to sit in front of a class and talk about how great Carver is. After all, I need a job (although I would've gone for Why Don't You Dance? - much more intriguing and sweet and sad).

A writer who has elicited strong comparisons with Carver is Wells Tower, who wrote Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The front cover quotes include an enticing snippet by The Times: "Sentences so good you want to cut them out and pin them to the wall." A friend recently picked up my copy and was agog at this. Her thinking: It must be good. My answer: It is. Albeit heftier and somehow with a greater sense of despair and hopelessness than Carver, the comparison is a very valid one. And to reel you in, here's a great example of one of those cut-them-out-and-pin-them-up sentences:

"Well, I had this boss. I'm telling you, if you asked me for an asshole, and I gave you that guy, you'd have owed me back some change."

Another highlight is the title story, about a nice young everyman among a hoard of raping, pillaging, havoc-wreaking vikings. A guy just tryna make his way, get back to his woman and his farm, live the easy life, etc. It's a story about the typically Viking told in such a typically modern, American style that the unusual combination shouldn't work, but it somehow does. Like this:

"But after Pila and me had our little twins, and we put a family together, I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It's crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But you still wake up at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home."

Chilling.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Blue Skye Thinking

My my, what a month. That publishing job still evades me (can you believe it?) but the search is, as ever, ongoing. I've been lucky enough to go to some gruelling, nerve-wracking interviews recently though, and was encouraged just enough by my performance for a glimmer of hope to begin to flicker tantalisingly in my subconscious: You might get this one. You might just... Only to have it thoroughly doused by the awful, blood-freezing bucket of ice water that is the rejection e-mail. "Whilst it has been a difficult decision..." "We have had to agonise..." "It was a very close call." This time I let myself wonder just for a moment what an acceptance e-mail would look like. Presumably there's none of that "tough decision" bull, they just jubilantly welcome you into their arms like the genius you are, as if you'd consummately blown all the competition out of the water. Round no. 87 of Operation Getting into Publishing During Economic and Employment Crisis commences shortly.

All is not a simmering cauldron of despair, however - last week, when I wasn't mentally picking apart my interview performance and agonising over the outcome, I was hiking, eating, drinking, avoiding midges and generally distracting myself with family and friends on Skye (thank you, you lot, for helping me do this and for putting up with my insufferable angst). I've fallen in love with Scotland again. Even in the rain, which is in no short supply, Skye is incredible. And I hiked - even with my knees. In fact, I got a snazzy pair of bright red walking poles to help me on the downhill, and now I look like a real pro.

We stayed in a small cottage with a stepladder for stairs - anyone who ever had a bunkbed years ago will understand my childish enthusiasm when I got to choose an upstairs room. The quarters were simple but cosy, and we ate like kings and queens thanks to the hearty fare of the local establishments and, of course, Mel's skills in the kitchen, which produced such wonders as whisky bread and butter pudding with Talisker custard. The company, needless to say, was second to none, and we were complimented by a pair of delightful Yorkshire terriers - to coin a phrase, a much-needed good advert for their breed! Of course, in the cold, wet evenings with the rain lashing the windows, the coal smouldering in the grate and the dogs curled up on our laps, much, much reading was done. I practically inhaled page after page as if it were going out of fashion (which it might). Everyone read a lot - even my dad, who doesn't even read a newspaper. In fact, the only thing he reads are aeroplane manuals (he's a pilot, not a weirdo).

Before my super-scary interview, a publishing contact told me to read something on the Booker longlist, so in my naive enthusiasm I plumped simply for something that looked cool. I haven't read the entire list (which has now been reduced to a shortlist of 6), but I'm pretty sure that the title I picked (The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas) is the worst of the lot. Typical. Shit title, and the novel follows in the same vein, I'm afraid. Misogynistic, shallow waffle is the best I can say for this book. It's my own fault, really - as an aspiring editorial assistant the Booker longlist is something I should probably be familiar with inside out, every year. Maybe this is where I'm going wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is the latest addition to my current favourites. I was a first time reader of his (I'm still catching up), and am now looking forward to getting better acquainted with him. The book's narrator is a boy verging on adolescence, in that awkward place between childhood and teenagerdom, and the book expertly depicts a summer in his life. The characters are vivid and real - fickle friends, boys it'd be uncool to be seen hanging out with, a warring family, a bitchy big sister who turns out to be a gem, some of those weird recluse figures who live in dark, musty houses on the edges of forests and never venture into society, who take on a sort of mystical quality in childhood. And many more. The language is not exactly vernacular but very definitely that of a young English boy growing up in the 1980's, complete with dubious slang words.

Stasiland, by Anna Funder: I read much non-fiction since university, but after this, I'm entirely not sure why. Funder brilliantly recounts stories of ordinary people who had first-hand experience of the Berlin Wall and DDR. She relates to them on a personal level, too - for the most part these aren't just interviewees, but real people with personalities (sometimes brittle), little tics, difficult mentalities, political leanings, music taste and dress sense. She gets to know them over a long period of time - she lives in Berlin whilst researching the book - and Germany, Berlin, the Wall, the DDR, the Stasi, get right under her skin. She makes wonderfully astute observations about the German way of life, the people's psyche, and their clichéd yet still valid need for order, regulation and adherence. She's got a love-hate relationship with the country that I can completely relate to - more than that; some of her comments are written as if she'd pulled them straight out of my head. A writer with a real gift for mingling investigative journalism with compelling narrative.

And, against my better judgement: Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This was the book of the summer at Bloomsbury in Berlin, but I scoffed at it because I'm too literary to read blockbuster bestseller paperbacks, oh yes. But I picked it up on Skye out of interest, and Gilbert has put me in my place and really pleasantly surprised me with her thoroughly amusing style and excavation of faith, relationships and the world. I'm not sure about its religious message (at the moment she's in an Ashram in India and I have yet to see where this section is going, mantra-wise) but it seems to be written in fairly layman terms, so as long as it doesn't get too deep into the mechanics of meditation and go over all sickly and self-improvement on me, we'll be OK.

There are more, of course, but I've run over with the word count again, and, having failed dismally to get a job writing about books, all this writing about books is making me strangely melancholy. Until next time, then.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Why Christie is a mystery to me, and other stories

I want to ramble a little about crime fiction because, though I'm no expert, I've got a bee in my bonnet about something and it needs to be outed. I'm just going to take the plunge: I don't like Agatha Christie.

Phew, it's out. First off I should make it clear that I've never read Poirot, only Miss Marple, and even then, only one of them. I should probably widen my Christie horizons but I'm not sure now whether I'll bother: after all the hype I was expecting her to be great and, frankly, I was disappointed, for one main reason: The Plot. "What?" you cry, indignant, "is she crazy?"

A friend of mine once told me that she loves Agatha Christie's mysteries so much because you can never tell how they're going to end. Good talent for a crime writer, I thought, I'll give it a go. And then I discovered that the reason you don't know what's going to happen (and I'm taking A Murder is Announced as the blueprint here) is that she plucks some bizarre twist entirely at random from thin air and plonks it in at the end - I could do that, for goodness' sake. Kudos for fashioning an intricate plot which weaves off in eighteen different directions, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat dying to discover the culprit (again, no pun intended), but flummoxing everyone at the end by bringing something totally bizarre and new to the table at the last minute? Doesn't work for me. And then everyone goes, 'Oooh, I never thought of that' - no, of course you didn't, there's no way anyone possibly could have, because it doesn't have anything to do with the entire rest of the novel.

Now, I don't want to be all hatin' up in Agatha's grill, and I'm open to suggestions for any other of her novels that are more satisfying in their conclusion. But I also wanted to laud the praises of some crime writers I do like, because there are many, and it's a pretty cool genre.

I'm a big fan of Italian crime fiction, namely Andrea Camilleri who writes the Inspector Montalbano series. They're set in Sicily, but it's heavier on the lifestyle, the weather, the mentality of the island, than on Cosa Nostra clichés. Great mysteries too, and with endings that make sense. Another one I've come across is Carlo Lucarelli, who's more serious and more political, it seems, but those Italians do write good crime. As my rather-prone-to-national-stereotyping father once said, it's the only thing they know how to organise. Oh, and for some meatier Italian sort-of-crime fiction, you cannot go wrong with Niccolo Ammaniti's The Crossroads.

At this point I feel I have to mention something that came to my attention recently: staying with friends who have more books lying around in overflowing shelves than you can shake a stick at, I was directed to the section 'literature without integrity,' where I found the first volume of The Mike Hammer Omnibus by one of the great 20th century American crime writers, Mickey Spillane. Leafing through, I'm afraid for me it was the kind of narrative that goes in one ear and out the other and just doesn't stick, so I didn't even attempt it, but I wanted to share this:

"She twisted away and there was a loud whispering of cloth and the gown came away in my hands. She went staggering across the room stark naked except for her high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings. She rammed an end table, her hands reaching for the drawer, and she got it open far enough for me to see the gun she was trying to get at.

I had mine out first."

Racy stuff, if you ask me, and it nearly tempted me to read on, but I just couldn't, as my crime fiction standards have in the last month been raised to great heights by the superb Patricia Highsmith. Ripley Underwater (I didn't even start the series at the beginning) is a masterpeice of characterisation, and one of many, I'm sure. Ripley's an evil, slimy, cunning, murderous bastard with a beautiful wife who innocently knows nothing of his misdemeanors, and yet I was on his side the whole time, egging him on, against my better judgement, going 'Come on Tom, don't get caught, for goodness' sake,' to myself. This is all testimony to the woman's genius. There are some pretty horrific scenes involving a dredged up corpse (that horrid word, dredged, says it all really), but the plot's just so exciting and the characters' minds so fascinating that you don't want to stop. (And just as an afterthought, in terms of film, I know there's been a Hollywood blockbuster version and all, which I haven't yet seen, but if you want to gen up on some classic French cinema while experiencing possibly the best casting decision ever made in the history of the movies, check out the 1960 film Plein Soleil, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, with Alain Delon).

Monday, 23 August 2010

Simon Armitage and the Green Knight

Now that I've finished uni and have been released from the clutches of modern and classical German literature, I find myself fairly often being made aware of an author I've never heard before and realising that they're quite big news in the English speaking literary world. I suspect my lack of knowledge on these matters wouldn't really be any better if I had studied English Lit, but I sometimes get the feeling I've missed out a bit, you know, on the English 'canon' or whatever.

Anyway, the other evening I was revelling in my right to watch the iPlayer (Reason why I love the UK No.1) and went a little documentary-crazy. First I watched a programme written and presented by Simon Armitage about the Legend of King Arthur and its transformation from the subject of medieval Welsh poetry to the stuff of Norman legend. I'd never heard of him before last week, (Armitage that is, not Arthur) - I know, I know, shoot me, but for another *checks watch* four weeks or so I'm still only 22, and most Germans are only just leaving home at my age and don't even know how to cook beans on toast, and even if they did, they wouldn't, because they think it's disgusting (Reason why I love the UK No.2).

So, Simon Armitage. Turns out, he's a genius, with his lilting Yorkshire brogue and talent for translating medieval Arthurian poetry like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the modern generation. This documentary was fascinating, it really appealed to my Faustian quest to know absolutely everything in the world, starting with a dose of European legend (I got hooked on medieval history and went on to watch a four-part documentary about the Normans. It's probably testimony to my greater affinity for Germany than France that I feel pangs of regret that our Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage and language was all but wiped out by the Men from the North, and now we say 'country' (French) instead of 'land' (German) and 'royal' (French) instead of 'kingly' (German). The Anglo-Saxon has the feel of fairytales about it, and makes me think of damsels (Damen?) up in high towers with conical hats and long, flowing golden hair).

I went on to read a Pocket Penguin edition of extracts from Armitage's collection of essays All Points North; The selection is called King Arthur in the East Riding and is fantastic - it's heart-warming, touches on the good bits of nostalgia and has a truly authentic sense of setting. I loved it, and I'm not even from Yorkshire. But anyone who has the tiniest iota of pride and attachment for their origins and place they grew up, however shitty it may appear to the unknowing eye, and however oddball the locals, should definitely have a sniff at this. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

EIBF and Irregular

Two things I always forget when enjoying the build-up to the Fringe are a) it's harder to enjoy if you're broke and b) however exciting you think the atmosphere will be, the reality is that the tourists will get on your gears after a mere half an hour and you'll just have to endure it, all the way through to the end of August.

Back in July, when my bank account was suffering less, I splashed out on tickets for two Book Festival events - Scarlett Thomas and Matt Haig - on the basis that I'd most likely be making an appearance at my favourite quasi-employer Canongate in August. They don't actually pay me, but it's ok because I only do pretend work, like filing, and they make up for it in the books they throw at me in abundance every time I turn up there like a bad penny.

Matt Haig read from his new book The Radleys, a sort of young-adult crossover family drama with light-hearted love interests, teenage angst, familial bonds and abstaining vampires. He says he wrote it before we were all collectively whacked in the face with the current wave of paranormal fantasy fiction, TV and film because he saw a gap in the market. It's a breath of fresh air from everything we've seen before though, and great fun - while Twilight has its time and place, I'm sure (although it's a far, far away place), Haig's central characters are a "normal" English middle-class family - the teenagers are underconfident, dumbstruck in front of their teenie crushes, spotty with skin rashes (as a result of their contact with direct sunlight), picked on at school for being weird. We've all been there, or if you're worth your salt you have, anyway. This is first and foremost a book about family and loyalty, with the added bonus of some fantasical fun and games thrown in to liven up the story.

Scarlett Thomas also dabbles in the supernatural in her latest gem Our Tragic Universe, a 'storyless story,' a novel with no real plot about a writer trying to write a novel with no plot. She doesn't really ever make it clear whether she's just joshin' with us or whether the magical elements she includes are some sort of clue to something else unexplained... it's all very mystifying. Very good, though - her characters are convincing (although admittedly a tad repetetive if you've read her other novels) and she looks closely at relationships; how they work, why they sometimes don't work, how sometimes you have to do what looks like the wrong thing in order to do the right thing.

On Friday night at Irregular, Canongate's author cabaret event, hosted by Unbound at the EIBF Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square, the audience were collectively dumbfounded, shocked and baffled by possibly the worst compere since Jerry 'The Saint' St Claire off of Phoenix Nights. Dave Peron, a man with a hairdo styled on the most evil, mass murdering dictator ever to pick up a paintbrush, recited terrible performance poetry to a backing band with a saxophonist and a walking bass line... the band were good, the man was just embarrassing. He put the authors into perspective though, who were so bloody brilliant it was almost a relief about the compere, as there'd have been too much of the good stuff for one stage otherwise. So, who read? Emily Mackie, from her novel And This Is True, about a boy who lives in a van with his father, and falls in love with him. Janice Galloway, a legend in her own right, was very polished, professional and read with a surprising, sharp dose of comic timing, which was brilliant. John Wray caused the entire female contingent of the audience to melt in their seats with his sugary smooth tones as he read from Lowboy, his novel about a paranoid schizophrenic teenage boy loose on the streets of New York. Dan Rhodes capped it all off with extracts from Anthropology, his bizarre, magical 100-word long oddities about relationships. Music was provided by Edinburgh folk band The House of La, and frontman William Douglas returned to the stage later on to continue their good work, alas alone but armed with the best joke this side of post-feminism: "the girls have all gone home because everyone's got babies now and stuff. I've got a baby too, but... I'm a man."

Two incredible things I read today

The first incredible thing is a book, The Black Book of Colours by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría

This looks like a  children's book but is really for anyone. Written in Braille and (what's the opposite of Braille?) Braille and type, anyway... describing colours, with vivid descriptions of how they sound and taste and feel. On the opposite page of each description there's a sort of braille picture - images embossed onto the shiny black paper which you can touch and identify. It's an absolutely beautiful book, an aesthetic masterpiece, and I nearly bought it, but unfortunately, I'm broke.

The second incredible thing is a poem. I feel the same way about selectiveness when it comes to poetry as I do with novels - some of them are boring, some of them are silly, some of them I quite like and others I just connect with and they stay with me. Today I read this poem in the LRB and it made me cry, and that's never happened before (and I'm not feeling particularly emotional today, and believe me when I say I'm not the kind of person who usually cries at poetry). But there it is. 

I Knew the Bride
Hugo Williams
for my sister Polly 1950 - 2004

You had to go to bed ahead of us
even then, while your two older brothers
grabbed another hour downstairs.
The seven-year gap
was like a generation between us.
You played the princess,
swanning about the house
in your tablecloth wedding dress,
till we told you your knickers were dirty
and you ran upstairs to change.
Your hair was tied up
in plaits on top of your head,
showing the parting down the back
as you marched out of the room.

It wouldn't be long
till we were asking you to dance,
practising our jiving
for the Feather's Club Ball at the Lyceum.
Nobody knew so well
how to judge the turns
with perfectly tensed arms,
your ponytail flying back and forth
to 'Party Doll' by Buddy Knox.
For my speech on your wedding day
all I had to do
was read out the words
to Nick Lowe's 'I Knew the Bride
When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll.'

You put yourself together
for occasional family lunches
at the Brompton Brasserie,
appearing coiffed and chic
and on time, so that I imagined you
going about all day looking like that
and even assumed you were getting better.
You fought a five-year war
with that foul thing
which deals in hope and fear,
two against one,
like the two brothers who tormented you.
It wouldn't be long
till you had to go to bed.

You turned your back on us
to protect us from your face.
You lay on the rack of yourself,
murdered by your skeleton.
Somewhere towards the end
you climbed its rickety ladder
to your full height
and stood before us one last time.
You had ordered a white stetson
from a mail-order catalogue.
Perched on your coffin, it sailed
ahead of you into the flames.
I saw the parting down the back of your head
as you marched out of the room.

What I talk about when I talk about books

One Fyfe family story goes that when I was little, I went with my mum to pick up my brother from school and we were invited in by his teacher after the class had finished. While the grown-ups nattered and my older bro (probably) tore around the room making aeroplane noises, three-and-a-half year old me picked up the nearest Biff and Chip and proceeded to read the story in its entirety, loudly, just to show everyone that I could do it. My mum and brother knew just to roll their eyes and let me get on with it, but Mrs Harris was at once intrigued and horrified and said with a hint of apprehension, 'I look forward to Lottie joining my class next year!'

I come from a very small village and recently we caught up with my old primary school headmaster in the local drinking establishment, where he, too, jested that I was never to be seen without a book in hand, in school or out. At first I thought he was having a jibe at the village bookworm in the same vein as the cool kids who spat out bits of paper through straws on the bus, but he assured me that being such an inky swot was actually an admirable trait.

Thing is, though, I'm not really that well-read at all. Maybe that's the curse of the book-lover talking - the plaguing knowledge of not having read enough by far and there being just too much out there and not enough time to read it all... This is why I adopted the self-imposed rule some time ago never to force my way to the end of a book if I just wasn't getting into it - there's too much good stuff to bother with the ones that don't work. You're never going to like everything. Even the classics - I tried to read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller about four times and never managed it. The 'to read' pile grows ten times as fast as the 'read' pile, and this is something I've realised I'm going to have to live with until the day I die - if we're still reading at all by then, that is, and not employing some digital sensory programme that just injects narrative directly into our brains.

But I digress: I wanted to write about what I've been reading lately. I've been out of the country (only Germany, but I like saying that, it makes me sound travelled) and had to send UPS packages to myself in Scotland, full of the books I couldn't stop myself buying over there, or smuggling home from Bloomsbury's shelves as 'payment' for my services as a top-class intern. Ingo Schulze's 'Orangen und Engel' was one of them (this is going to be boring and irrelevant for those who don't know, or care, about the German literature market, I'm afraid), a collection of snippets of Italian life seen from the German protagonist's perspective, accounts of bizarre but everyday occurrences which give it a charming Italian flavour, even if the writing felt rather dull for me.

What else? I'm rooting for an English translation of Sevilla by Nina Jäckle. Sharp, raw and haunting with sparse language and an amazing sense of setting, it's about a woman on the run who finds herself in a strange new place with absolutely nothing to tie her to her old life except her memory. She slowly assimilates herself into a new culture, city and language, bit by bit, and you see and feel this happening with every word Jäckle writes. It's fascinating.

In Berlin I also tried to tackle some contemporary classics that I'd neglected - Haruki Murakami for one - Kafka on the Shore - which is weird and gripping and sad and cool, and very satisfying fiction... it's quite long, and it took me a long time to finish it because I could usually only manage to snatch a quick ten minutes on the tram on my way into work (I actually had a social life in Berlin, so on the evenings which I would usually spend in a book, I was drinking beer and dancing). Anyway, after I'd finished the book, the next day on the way into Prenzlauer Berg when I heard the electric whirr of the trams as I changed at Alexanderplatz I had a double-take, because I'd come to associate that noise with the talking cats, ghosts, transsexual librarians, runaways and other creatures of this novel, and now I fear the twain shall never be parted - every time I take the tram in Berlin I will think of Kafka.

Then there's Atomised by Michel Houellebecq - the story of two brothers and their disfunctional lives, also a social history of Europe from the 60s to the present, focusing on the sexual liberation movement and its repercussions. Really great, but I was actually almost sick on the train at one scene involving some satanists and a foetus. An Education by Lynn Barber: you might have seen the film. The book's better (usually the case), but that's a statement because the film is bloody good too. And on a lighter note, with its pleasingly alliterative title, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, told from the perspective of an old dog on his final day, recalling his life alongside his beloved master. Sounds horrendous, wasn't though - it's written more cleverly than it sounds and interspersed with some cool motor racing scenes for light relief from the emotional stuff. Provided a great literary insight into why nobody likes Michael Schumacher, even though he's the best: because he's infallible. Nobody wants a winner who's never known what it's like to lose - you're not a hero unless you've overcome the odds. Amen to that.