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.

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