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 clich├ęd 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.