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Am waiting for hugely better photos than I took to wend their way from my brother-in-law before embarking on Italy and related subjects, so will meanwhile say what I’ve read the last few weeks:

1) The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak): at Valerie’s suggestion (or rather, insistence!). I fell right into this book, almost against my will, and found the narrator unusual and compelling. Liesel was a superb character, and Rudy, and Max and Papa especially. They were full of depth, colour and breadth immediately. It’s quite a feat I think to maintain strong character and nearly omniscient narration; one is often sacrificed for the other.  It was a journey. I loved the visual aspect of the book, and its typography too, and more than anything feel real relief that such an unusual book, with so many different components, can meet with real success. Like probably everyone else in the whole world, I wept all the way through the last 50 pages. I then passed it onto my sister-in-law. I could tell when she reached the same part, from her sniffing on the sunbed next to me…I was oddly disappointed by the ending, though, the very ending, as in the last couple of lines. They felt flat. Sorry to be so picky.

2) The Gathering (Anne Enright): Booker prize winner last year. I liked it alot. Can’t say that I loved it, but I thought it very well written, extremely so, subtle, enticing, troubled and troubling. The narrator here is very particular, specific first person, and the play with time and memory was very, very effective. However: once again I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. I felt that it didn’t quite hold up to the writing. The book was actually about elusive things, so it is no surprise that much of the book felt elusive… Yet, yet… I’d be curious to know what others think. I wonder if it never really, really got down to brass tacks? The constant veering away from subject by the narrator made the book feel veering away? Maybe. However, I am delighted that for once a rather slim volume, with a limited framework and canvas, made it to the Booker table. As a general rule, ‘limited canvas’ books are my favourites — and not the British public’s or Booker judges’. With John Banfield’s book two (?) years ago, room for variation seems to have started with the Booker, for which I am relieved….

3) Engleby (Sebastian Faulks): well, a different order of book I thought. Almost French somehow, in its methodology. There is a fundamental mystery here, but the book is not a mystery book. There is a oddball character here, but the book is not about that either. Somehow. Somehow — despite flagging a little, the narrative loosening in tension to the point of near collapse in the middle — the book becomes about how certain minds work at the edges of certain worlds, certain points of extremis that few if any of us know or understand. Yet the character, caught in this, being this, is also compelling, human, and strangely sympathetic. The book achieves this balancing act through near technical acrobatics I thought. I can’t give it away, but suffice to say that once a certain aspect of its creation is revealed — the whole endeavour takes on a completely different and more complex and gripping quality and motive. It’s impressive. It’s also funny — very dry, ‘smart’, almost cringingly so — throughout. And unlike the previous two books, the rather anti-climactic ending didn’t bother me. Where the other books I think are despite possible intentions dependent upon the narrative — Engleby isn’t. So I didn’t feel its lack in the final pages.

4) Noughts and Crosses (Majorie Blackman): young adult book passed to me by E, who read it for eight hours straight, barely stopping to eat. This again was quite compelling reading, though for different reasons. Its premise is one of the world being ‘reversed’ in discrimination, e.g. people of colour being powerful (‘crosses’) and white people being powerless (‘noughts’). It’s a star-crossed lover tale at heart, with politics, money, parenting and growing up thrown into the pot. The interesting aspect of the book is that the characters’ X or O status is rarely pointed up: there are few physical descriptions, and the world is close enough to ours such that as a white reader I had to remind myself many times of the ‘reversal’ of this imagined world. I was mortified and chastened time and again to realise that in my head I always imagined the people with power to be white — and the people without power to be black. Of course, I am liberal enough to know and think I understand that we are all complicit in our society’s racism. However, I have never read anything that so effectively brought me face to face with my own paradigms. The writing itself I felt was inconsistent — some wonderful moments, but also some rather weak ones (lots of adverbs, point of view slippages etc). Plot-wise though I couldn’t fault it. The writer set something up and followed it through, even if we didn’t want to see it…

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Of course the reading pile has no end. And much of what I read on holiday was just that — good holiday reading. I find that I am always trying to balance ‘keeping up’ with ‘reading off-centre’. Holiday time is where I do the former.

I’m now reading one of R’s books, given to him by  student, and one he read on holiday: The Life of David Debrizzi (Paul Micou). So far, it’s frankly hilarious.

And I’m desperate to read Sue Guiney’s Tangled Roots. And a writer E is now reading, who I think is just superb from my snatched evening reads to him: Siobhan Dowd (Bog Child and The London Eye Mystery). AND I read Caroline Smailes’ In Search of Adam some time ago and still haven’t reviewed it here! Not fair! I WILL.

 

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Have a guest blogger today: my (oldest) friend Valerie Gregg, now in Lilburn, Georgia, USA. Welcome! She’s seeing things I can’t from here of course, right in the middle of it. Here’s a peek:

 

Back to present curses, like the state of the American government.

I co-sponsored a bake sale for Barack Obama this weekend with a good friend that is also a reader and writer.  Our local county is very Republican and we were harassed and an angry man stopped his car and ripped up one of our Obama signs into a million pieces and tore off in his car. Several other white men drove up to our sale and burned rubber out, presumably in anger?!  I felt very threatened and afraid. But we had so many baked goods that local Obama supporters had entrusted us to sell to raise money for his campaign, that we felt we had to persevere. So we went to the Unitarian Church on Sunday (a bastion of pagan liberalism), I told our story and cried, and people bought everything and threw 20 dollar bills at us.

Gotta go. Someone just yelled “Mommy!”

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Thank you, Valerie. Iron-willed or what?! And a mother. Somehow stands to reason.

This time of year is not at the top of my list of favourite times. With Christmas over, all you can do is wait for the mornings to get lighter. And keep your head down.

Saying this, it is a time for considered thought somehow. I think of people who’ve died, who I’ve lost touch with, or things I’ve let slip. And I am grateful for those who’ve reminded me just by their friendship and steadfastness of what’s important: Nancy, Lynne, Lisa, Katherine, Deborah, Helena, Valerie. Not to mention relatives, again whose consistent and unconditional presence has been life-changing: David, Janet, Hugh, Bridget, Anna, Howard, and my mother.

And don’t even get me started on the children, or R.

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I feel a need today to write for Valerie. From the ages of 10 to 12, we were each other’s best friends. Bestest friends. Times change though, and we moved on, and lost touch, and…to her credit she searched me out last year — after 25 years. It’s been a treat to talk to someone who is ‘from where I’m from’ and who — still, all these years later — is interested in what I’m interested in.

Anyway, today I heard that Valerie’s much-loved dog Luna had died. The memory of holding our 17 year old moggie as he died last year is always close to the surface, despite our two new lovely kittens. Like everything we lose or lose track of, they stay with us.

The title of this post is taken from a poem by Yehuda Amichai called ‘Ballad on the Streets of Buenos Aires’. It’s a love poem, really, and the whole thing is one of my all time favourites, but this particular line keeps me breathing this dark time of year: and the light is always there to serve all loss. (I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation, so have used his version of this line.)

I HAVE MOVED

From January 2010, my new blog is Waving and Drowning

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Who am I?


A writer born in Texas, who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (yes, like the song), and who's been living in the UK since 1988. I've published two books (see below), and teach creative writing at the University of Kent. I'm married to a composer, and we have two young children. See About for my full profile.