Six degrees of separation

I found this book game on Janet Emson’s blog Fromfirstpagetolast.*  The idea is to start with a book and then see what other book it leads to and so on for six books. They don’t all have to be linked, only each subsequent one.

35529108Lying on my coffee table is Don’t Panic I’m Islamic. I’d heard of this first on Linda Hill‘s blog. Shortly afterwards, I was visiting my son at Goldsmiths, and came across “The Word” bookshop, New Cross Road. I took him inside to show him the joy of browsing in an independent bookshop – his politics are admirable but he doesn’t read enough books. Immediately, in this small one room shop, I found several things I wanted to buy. Yet in Waterstones I frequently come out empty handed, bemused by the vast choice…Has anyone else found this? I believe there’s a theory about it.

Dowd 17Anyway, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic… It belongs on the coffee table (or in the loo) because it’s a book to dip into. Very funny, in parts. Sad in others, cheeky, angry too. There are poems, cartoons, colouring pages and paintings as well as essays, commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Most contributors are Muslim, though I’m not sure about Carol Ann Duffy or Chris Riddell. My favourite essay was instructions on how to get through US immigration if you’re a gay mixed race man who’s visited Lebanon and Libya that year (the successful strategy will surprise you). It wasn’t the only article on being Muslim and gay, and it struck chords with Queer and Catholic that I reviewed recently. The Word bookshop didn’t have Don’t Panic... (small shops can’t stock everything) but they ordered it which was a good ruse for getting Rob back in there to pick it up for me.

61twx2rf9vlOne they did have, which Don’t Panic… had reminded me of, was The Good Immigrant – which I reviewed here. It also contains references to barriers for BAME travellers at US customs, a sore point well before Trump’s ban. Both The Good Immigrant, a bestseller essay collection last year, and Don’t Panic… offer timely reminders that Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) can be clever, dense, witty, irritating, funny, peculiar, maddening, thoughtful, cruel, compassionate, generous, devout, autistic, dyslexic, able bodied, queer, unhealthy, scientifically-minded, parents, violent, twee…etc…but only a miniscule minority of Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) are likely to be terrorists.

9780008191153The bookshop assistant (owner?) and I chatted about recent lively, polemical books as I placed the order, which reminded me to ask for Attack of the 50ft Women, which I want to give my son for Christmas. (I think it will be a surprise: he doesn’t read my blog. If it isn’t a surprise, this description of how/why women are STILL not truly equal will fit well with his sociology/media/critical theory/history courses anyway.) 32938157As the Sunday Express review said, “Buy it for yourself, your husband or partner. Most importantly, buy it for your children.” But much as I love them, it’s not out in the cheaper paperback until January – so I browsed other books on what I assume was the minorities/women’s table, and found Words from Wise, Witty and Wonderful Women, a compendium of extracts from Woman’s Hour interviews over the past 70 years. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s another dip-into coffee table/loo book, because on the way home I remembered my friend’s birthday, stopped for paper, sellotape and a card, and took it to her. (There was something cosy and appropriate about being saved from forgetting to buy a birthday present by Woman’s Hour.)

51kykr2uvxlThe same display table yielded Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I’ve already written about at admiring length here, and the paperback of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. When I got home I realised I’d been given (and not yet read) the hardback last Christmas, so Oxfam did well out of me that day too. I’ve started reading it today, and so far I’m thinking: blimey, this is not the Jane Austen of wet shirted Mr Darcy or gently clopping pony traps! Freud must be rubbing his hands vigorously in his grave (at least I hope it’s his hands) at how Helena Kelly interprets the thoughts of Austen’s Catherine Morland. The Women’s Equality Party could quote her in their manifesto; and Momentum members would enjoy Kelly’s interpretation of Austen’s views on wealth distribution.

32441705So there they are: six – no, dammit, seven – books, tenuously linked. Who’d have thought reading (without panicking) about Islamic drag queens and a Beirut bus driver’s thoughts on Donald Trump’s hair, could lead to Jane Austen?

My choices suggest a penchant for political, radical, left of centre sociology. They make me look like a great reader of nonfiction, but usually I read novels. So I’m tempted to start the game again, with one I read recently, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. If any of you have read that, I wonder where it led you? I bet you can’t guess where it took me…but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.

*Janet Emson found the game on three other blogs. If we add mine, that makes five blogs. Would you like to add yours, and then we’ll have six (or more) book blogs separated only by a link, all playing Six Degrees of Separation with the books they’re reading! What would your six (or more) books be?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

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Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

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Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

Older people 1
Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A patchwork of King Penguins

Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).

Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.

In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.

The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.

King p 21-24
Volumes 21-24

There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65).  Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?

There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!

King p toys 2
From “A Book of Toys” by Gwen White, 1946

But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Dirty books and dusty friends

I have lots of dirty books. They gather dust, on their “foxed”  woolly edged yellow pages and their warped covers with water marks where somebody may have read them in the bath. And they smell. Many of them are not pleasant. Yet I seem to have done nothing but chuck out books since just before moving three years ago. Of course, that’s three more years of aging, for the ones that survived the cull.

Now I may move again. Every time I move, bookseller’s daughter that I am, I take care to pack my books alphabetically and by classification, with directions on the box for their destination. (Years ago, a removal man burst out laughing: “French Drama in the Back Bedroom eh? Can I come round when you’ve unpacked?”)

books - ductionary uses
New uses for a dictionary

Yesterday, on a whim, I organised and shelved them properly. You could call it fiddling while Rome burns, as I should have been tidying up for the estate agent to take his photos (despite that old Anthony Powell novel, Books Do Furnish a Room). In this house, there had been so much decorating to do, the books had travelled economy class straight into the loft and been unearthed haphazardly as I felt the need of them. It suddenly seemed important they should take their proper place at this address, albeit briefly. So I had the usual experience of meeting and greeting old friends, despairing how they’d aged, reacquainting myself with loved ones I thought I’d lost, regretting the dear departed, and wondering what I’d ever seen in others.  

Here too were books inherited from my parents: a lovely set of Virginia Woolf, my father’s Proust. Why keep that? I was supposed to read it in French at university (I managed volumes 1,2, and 9), and anyway the Scott Moncrieff translation has been superseded by a new one. But he did persevere with it, because my mother was taking her French degree at the same time and if he couldn’t beat her he’d join her (he never beat her in any sense of the word.) Here’s his “Catch 22” with some original publicity postcards inside it, and my mother’s childhood “Just So Stories” with Kipling’s mesmerising illustrations. 

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Shelving alphabetically gives happy accidents. There’s an MA thesis waiting to be written on what besides the first two letters links MArquez and MAugham, or JM COetzee and Wilkie COllins. (Taking out the Collins, I see it cost 6s 6d and the front is inscribed: “EVERYMAN, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” That’s timely.) Meanwhile the juxtapositions remind me of my own attendance at the Great Amazon Dinner Party.  Oh NO, here’s my book, sitting to the right of my father’s.

Here’s a full set of “King Penguins”. I think I’ll save them for a blog post of their own. Here are all the Virago Modern Classics. Books King Penguins 2Here are my travel guides and phrasebooks. My dictionaries are redundant, arguably, since the Internet, but they have other uses and it would be sad to offload them after so many distractions in their alphabetical juxtapositions. Here are some old children’s books, also agog for their own blog post, and my father’s novels which I don’t imagine anyone will ever read now. Here are novels that have come with me from London to Brighton, to Paris, back to Brighton, to Dijon, to Sheffield, and then through three moves within London. I can almost hear their fragile pages sighing, “…not again! Don’t move us! Only the dust and grease is still holding us together.” From some: “Why not re-read us, while you’re at it?” And from one or two, despondent, quietly, almost not daring to utter: “Why didn’t you ever open me?”

Books Castro
A book I’ll never read…

Here’s Kafka, sneering in a corner: the move won’t work, first you have to negotiate chains and gazumping and bureaucracy and surveys and searches and gazundering...Here’s Dickens: The house you like squats on a seeping marsh, held up only by the will of the long dead builder, mouldering and grimy and repository of of voluminous secrets and scandals… Here’s Jane Austen: The elegant bow window in which the company took up position with a view to examining the panorama, was thinly glazed and afforded  considerable draughts... Here’s C S Lewis: In one empty room there was nothing but a huge wardrobe, perhaps left behind by previous owners for whom it had been too large to move….Bill Bryson chortles as Dorothy Parker raises a glass sardonically. 

Books in the bedroom…the “children’s” rooms (the ones they left behind), art books in the living room, their reproductions poor by modern standards, their colours dated, their outlines blurred, and yet…this is how many people only ever saw great art, when we travelled less. Even books in the kitchen – the estate agent shakes his head. But surely he won’t mind books in the study?books and art 3

Like the ghosts of old retainers or clinging family my books accompany me from house to house, and I only manage to exorcise a few each time. Those “grown up books” first read and misunderstood as a teenager, those university textbooks, those introductions to teaching theory and translation theory, the light relief novels, the silent books that haunt you, the beautiful writing that’s as satisfying as a picture in an art gallery that pulls you in to look.  The new editions of the few books I loved so much I replaced their worn out predecessors. The relative newcomers (Dunmore, Tremain, Zadie Smith) ask  the old hands: “Is this the start of a lifetime climbing in and out of boxes?” 

Books replaced
Books I replaced with newer copies

The estate agent arrives to take pictures. He’s a chatty man, and his words donate me a new character for a novel I may write : “I have to watch politefully, you know, when my wife’s on the muscle shows.” He prowls, an animal poised for hunting. He crouches in peculiar positions, his camera at odd angles. I must have a querying expression. “Just trying to keep the books out of shot,” he says. So, dear readers, if you don’t like what you see on Rightmove, please find below this blog post an alternative brochure of house particulars, and contact me if you’d like to arrange a viewing.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017