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.

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