Weekend coffee share – April 23

If we were having coffee I would tell you how excited I was to be out of the house on my own having coffee with you. Somehow I am assuming my children aren’t with us. Not that I don’t love my children nor enjoy their company, but coffee without them is nice too. After the general excitement of adult coffee and cake selection (there is always cake) I would tell you how nice it was to have posted my first blog post in years. Years! How when I first moved to the UK, somewhat friendless and jobless, I expected to have loads of time (though back then I would have said ‘heaps’ of time) to tend to my blog, to nourish my writings. I’d be one of those hip but unassuming types sitting in a cafe banging out posts, paragraphs, chapters and tweets, paying too much for a flat white, wangling free cake out of the waiters I knew by name and birth order. But it didn’t work out that way. And that’s okay. Other things happened. Good things happened.

But now I have written one post. And I’m very much looking forward to writing more. On books and reading, editing and writing, readers and stories and all the balloon-shaped swell of reading joy that surrounds me. That surrounds us. And maybe some writings on other things too. Maybe in a different place. And certainly in some time to come. But the scratching and bubbling of thoughts and ideas to communicate are suddenly alive in my brain, and this and the previous post have flowed  from my fingertips like an ooze of letters that have been building up behind a dam. And all these things feel very good indeed.

#weekendcoffeeshare

Three shelves up

I moved house recently. Again. For someone with a steady career history and mostly sensible decision-making twinkling in my past I seem to have relocated with a pace akin to someone in the witness protection system. I am not in the witness protection system. But I am a renter, and I live in an expensive city, oh and I have 17-month-old twins and until a month ago the husband, kids and I were still living in a (lovely) one bedroom flat. Ever wondered how long you could share a bedroom with your two offspring before seeing the hall cupboard as a legitimate alternative boudoir? The answer is 16 months.

So we have moved. Again. And with us have come all the books. Between us, the husband and I have many, many books. And it’s not really all the books as 90 per cent of my  books are back in Australia, and a good percentage of his books are on the other side of England in his mum’s basement. And yet there are still many books. And as a four-person family in a (lovely) small flat trying to squeeze in all the things a young family has… Well. Book-space is at a premium. And yet we have hung on to the books. We have relocated a sofa, sacrificed a dresser, shoved DVDs under the bed, sold off unnecessary baby-related items, and perform contortions to sit around the dining table. But the books and their wooden houses are in place and the shelves they do groan.

Except for the bottom two shelves of any bookcase that are accessible to two small, over-curious children.

Because inquisitive 17-month-olds who love books, and love the sound and feel of paper, and love exploring, really, really, really love to pull books off shelves and “read” them. By which I mean  erratically flick through the pages, fling them about by their covers until said cover detaches from the rest of the book, stand on them to attempt to make one taller to reach yet more books, maybe have a little nibble on them for some daily roughage. And it drives the husband crazy.

Because to the husband, every book is precious. Every supermarket paperback, every airport buy, every 3 books for the price of 2 when you can never choose a third book but it seems like poor value to not take up the deal. Every. Single. One. He values an action novel written by three authors because the original author died a decade ago but there was a franchise to maintain, as much as a first edition. And he buys first editions. And signed editions. And he tucks them in next to grey-tinged paperbacks that cost £1 with a cup of motorway-services coffee. And when his (lovely) children start mangling them with affection he near hyperventilates. Because the husband values the physical copy of every book as much as he values the reading experience. To him, they are interlinked and both maintain the other.

I don’t tend to be quite so bound (ahem) to my actual books. I get rid of books I didn’t enjoy, I consider whether each is worth keeping. Sure, there are special copies of certain titles that I wouldn’t want the demolition duo to use to explore their aching hunger for literature and recycled tree products, but I am much more at ease with the idea that the value is in the story, rather than the pages. Much more at ease.

Well, perhaps not as completely as I thought I was. Because when  we tried to make a pile of lesser paperbacks that could go on a bottom shelf as a biblio-sacrifice to our voracious pint-sized overlords, the pile was very small and when the husband added to it with a couple of my bargain-basement, only-bought-it-because-everyone-was-talking-about-it paperback possessions I too wanted to protest and hide them away on the higher shelves that are currently out of the reach of tiny hands.

I am the person in our household who tidies and categorizes, who fills charity bags with unwanted clothes, who sorts through the filing cabinet for unnecessary papers that can be recycled, who almost passed out in pride when the husband started filling in the family planner. But it turns out I’m not entirely ruthless, and that even I am still an old softie when it comes to our books. All of our books – the high and the low, the good and the bad, the cheap and the overpriced. We don’t want to look at each book and decide if it sparks joy (sorry, Marie Kondo) – it is our collection of books that give us joy and make our bookish souls sparkle. Even if we can barely squeeze ourselves around the dining table for a family meal, and even if the collection of books starts on the third shelf up of every bookcase. It is joyful to know that our toddlers are so interested in books already, but it doesn’t mean we want them touching all of ours just yet.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

A little post on a little free library

When I was growing up, visits to our local libraries were weekly occurrences. There was a children’s library along my route between home and school and I would stop in often to switch one pile of books for another. I recall calico library bags groaning with treasures. I ended up working at that children’s library and at the main municipal library when I was in high school and found it hard not to check out for myself every book I was checking back in. Since finishing two stints at university in my twenties, I stopped frequenting libraries and I don’t really know why. Time, I suppose, that thing we claim never to have. No time to go, not enough time to read before needing to return your borrowings.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but they sure have been closing a lot of libraries in the UK over the last 12 months. It makes me angry, but I also feel guilty that I, like a lot of people, no longer frequent them, despite thinking them very important, for the community as a whole, as well as for accessing books. Maybe if more of us ex-library-goers still visited occasionally, local councils wouldn’t think they could get rid of them.

Not a ‘little library’ but a great one nevertheless. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

One of my blogging-friends this week presented her attempt to build community spirit, promote literacy and foster a love of reading. It’s called the ‘little free library’ and it’s a movement gaining popularity in the States. Participants build a small cupboard of some kind, fill it with books and leave it on their lawn or driveway for anyone and everyone to access. It was the perfect thing for Jeanne, a retired librarian, to do and you can read about, and see, her efforts here. And you should read Jeanne and Curt’s blog—Another Stir of the Spoon—anyway, especially if you like food, books or birds (and who doesn’t?!).

You can find out more about the little library people here. There’s only one in the UK so far, and also one in Australia… one day when I have my own lawn or driveway, I’ll have to add to those numbers.

Some links masquerading as a post

You know how in times of singledom, life-issue avoidance and exercise procrastination, some well-meaning friend uses the phrase ‘get back on the horse’? And you know how you kind of want to slap them but after the initial urge for violence has passed you acknowledge, at least a little bit, somewhere deep down, that they may, perhaps, kind of, in some small way, have a little bit of point? Well, my blog is the horse and I am the scowling, sighing, dust-kicking, slightly frightened cowpoke with her Stetson pulled down and her eyes shut, hoping that if I just keep wishing it my blog will write itself.

In lieu of a real post, but in attempt to put my foot back in the stirrup, here are some links I’ve been meaning to share.

In high school, while most of my friends were working at fast food establishments, I had a job at the local library. Apart from the general joys of alphabetising and Dewey-decimal organising (discussed briefly in a previous post), I have always found libraries a comfort, as well as infinitely interesting places. The London Library is a new discovery for me. A discovery of existence only, for I have not been lucky enough to visit its rooms, nor be offered a membership from a generous benefactor. But a friend has been a member from a young age and you can read his very good article on this amazing institution if you click here.

From one editor and writer’s dream to another. I have gone on (and on) about style guides before; those wondrous tools of an editor’s trade that we can’t live without and that we can’t understand why more communication-based folk don’t avail themselves of more frequently. I have particularly gone on about the Chicago Manual of Style and my love for it. And now, so has someone else.

And finally, while I am kicking back dreaming of library wonders, consistent style and a multi-million-dollar scheme where all restaurants must send me their menus to edit and proofread before they are printed, I’d like to be drinking my tea (or wine, depending on the time of day) out of one of these mugs.

Well-meaning friends are right in this case. It feels good to be back on the horse.

There’s no place like book group

It’s a funny thing homesickness. It can creep up on you in such an unassuming, disinterested kind of way that you aren’t aware of its stealthy pursuit until all of sudden you find yourself struck down with some kind of antipodean homesick blues. One moment you are ordering a pint of lager in a voice reminiscent of an extra in a 5th grade production of Oliver Twist and explaining how of course you miss certain people but that London is fabulous; and the next you are grumbling about it being so bloody cold all the time and asking how come it’s so hard to find a proper decent cappuccino and some sourdough toast in this overcrowded sunless city?

And then you calm down and try to re-embrace your sense of adventure and acceptance of experiences new; you remind yourself that moving to the other side of the world away from your regular life, comfort zones and loved ones is difficult at the best of time. And, really, I’m basically having the best of times; I can’t complain at all. But the homesickness has caught up with me of late and it seems a long road back, despite all the good things and wonderful people around me, to those half cockney/half crocodile hunter union jack waving pip-pip jolly good times. But I know it’s a phase that will soon pass. I’ll stop drudging about, buy myself a decent coat, and be all warm and keen and able to blog like a decent proper book blogger.

One thing that I think will help a lot is that this week I went to a meeting about joining a newly formed (well currently forming) book group. It was very exciting and my potential book group members were lovely and enthusiastic, and the organisers of the wider company of book groups (my group will be no. 18 or so that they have helped put together) were friendly and organised and encouraging. I’m very much looking forward to it kicking off. Stay tuned for a discussion of the first book selection.

On the day of that meeting I was ill, over my job, tired and lacking in any recognisable features of charm or sense. By the end of the get-together I no longer felt quite as ill, nor as world-weary, nor as overwhelmed by that wispy feeling of being a long, long way from home and I cheerfully trotted off to the tube and into a pub for the night’s next appointment.  It didn’t cure my antipodean homesick blues, but even the initial manoeuvrings of a book group get-together shone a lot more light on my little world. I felt like I might be finding some of my people – well some new ‘my people’ – and it reminded me how comforting, and also inspiring, the book world is for me, and how much I miss being a part of it; even if only as one of the many who like to meet up over a drink and talk about a novel for an hour. At the new pub, when I went to the bar to order a drink, there was definitely a little more of a Dick van Dyke chimney sweep in my voice than there had been for a while.

Edge by Jeffery Deaver

I’m not usually judgmental of others’ reading habits. As long as there is some kind of decision-making process behind what they read, I don’t really mind how they spend their reading time. I like to think I’m not a superior-reader type, and you only have to read through the titles I post on to see that I’m not a hardline highbrow-literature digester. I’ve even been known to make a general-type of statement (and making general-types of statements is a sweeping habit of mine) when discussing the topic of ‘Men’ that ‘I don’t like men who read’. This, as with most of my general statements, is not entirely accurate. For starters they at least have to be able to read, and for after-starters if they do read for pleasure I do find that attractive. I think my point is more that one does not have to be a super-keen reader, or much of a leisure-reader at all, for me to appreciate them as a person. (And to be honest—back to the Men thing for a second—if I was sitting on a park bench reading Joyce and some nice-looking chap sat down next to me and said, ‘Oh, Joyce, he’s my favourite writer, what do you think of the book?’ I’d fear I was trapped in a romantic indie movie where we were all going to end up sad but appreciatively wiser at the end. It’s just not my style of wooing.)
·
This all being said, when someone – and I’m now speaking of all classifications of people – likes the same book or author as me, it does create a stirring within of a need to bond with that person. Nay, a stirring that we are already bonded. When someone really likes an author or book that I like it suggests to me that we share thoughts, tastes and ideals on a number of levels. That we have both been privy to a secret that only certain people can share. That we speak the same language. It’s perhaps why I feel so attached to the members of the book group I belonged to in Sydney, and why I feel the need to join one in London (should do something about that).
·
Of course you always need to consider the popularity or success of a book or author before latching on to your book-soul-mates. When the two of you like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird you may need to delve deeper to see if you really do share a crazy kind of book-loving love.
·
As many of you know, Jeffery Deaver is one of my favourite authors. But due to the man’s popularity, I don’t necessarily get all stirred up when someones tells me they like his books—it certainly piques my interest, but there usually has to be more to it. This could be the other volunteering him early on as a favourite, or if I refer to him or one of his books (it’s very common for me to refer to books I’ve read in the most random and everyday conversations, such is my life informed by my habit) and they latch on to his name or start chattering away about quadriplegic forensic investigators I know there might be more to this potential book-friend. I found a Deaver-friend recently (and it has turned out to be more than a passing thriller-friend-phase) and was so happy to share this with them that I leant them my copy of his most recent title, Edge.
While busy keeping up with two series and penning the latest James Bond novel, Jeffery Deaver decided to bash out a standalone thriller called The Edge.
·
Corte is a protector of witnesses who seems to work for no organisation anyone can name. Cool, calm, stoic, professional, necessarily private, also a board-games connoisseur. He is assigned to protect a family who have been targeted by a ‘lifter’, a freelance extractor of information. Henry Loving is the elusive fiend whose method of choice for extracting information is a sheet of fine sandpaper, some rubbing alcohol and the target’s bare toes. Loving also happened to kill Corte’s mentor, so this time, it’s personal.
·
As ever, this Deaver novel is a consuming, fast-paced read. You feel as if you gain insight into the main character and also into his profession. Towards the climax you feel the desired fluctuations of anxiety and fright, only to remain satisfied when you close the covers. Occasionally the witnesses were a trifle irritating, but I guess that’s the reality of being in the protection game (and of a writer creating issues to overcome in a narrative).
·
I like that Mr Deaver doesn’t limit himself to his successful series, and that he seems to continue to tell all his stories well despite the pace at which he delivers them to the world. I’m still more than looking forward to reading the next Kathryn Dance novel (I’m assuming, seeing as the last series update was a Lincoln Rhyme book), but in the meantime, standalone stories such as Edge will keep me well fulfilled.