Tsundoku, or, So Many Books, So Little Time

The Japanese seem to have a word for all of the abstract, post-modern things. I like that. (And now I have Björk’s The Modern Things playing in my head. I like that, too.) If, like me, you happen to work in Bookselling (and please, do make yourself known. Hopefully we’re not exactly an endangered species, but we are rare, these days), then a state of tsundoku is an occupational hazard.

But what is this tsundoku? I hear you ask. It is, put simply, the buying of books, and not reading them. Letting them accrue, pile up, in heaps, on the floor, on bookcases, on bedside tables. And I am oh so guilty. I seem to have lost the stamina I used to have, for devouring books. The stamina, but not the appetite. It’s just my eyes have become too large for my reading belly. Also, the depression thing is a bitch for making it impossible to focus on reading. Hence I am months* behind. And then there’s the tiredness thing. Last night I decided I’d go to bed early and read. And I fell asleep about a third of a way down a page (just one page!). I woke up with the book on my chest. I’m beginning to think that my chest is better read than I am.

I stopped in the middle of composing this post to go around the house collecting my unread books. And I’m a bit worried now, there are so many of them. So, I refuse to count them.

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But, this is just a small selection of what is waiting to be read. I have recently begun William Gibson’s The Peripherals, and Katherine Heiny’s collection Single, Carefree, Mellow (I tend to read short fiction when it is quiet at work). And each week, when I go to work, I swear that I won’t buy any more books, because God knows I have more than enough. But then, something gets a glowing review, or is released in paperback after I restrained myself from buying the hardback the year before, or someone I know rates a title highly, or my curiosity is piqued… etc. You know how it is. I seem to be an addict. Ah well. It could be worse. All I need is time. Anyone know where I can buy some?

*years, really.

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On Endings – a rambling post where I rant a bit and try not to be too guilty of spoilers.

More than genre, more than subject, it is the ending that defines a story, and defines how we will remember it. Sometimes an ending will exceed our expectations. Sometimes, it will derail us. And sometimes, of course, we will be disappointed. Sometimes we get to laugh, sometimes we get to sob uncontrollably and wonder what on earth we could possibly bring ourselves to read or watch next.

Sometimes, I think, people have unrealistic expectations. The ending they want isn’t necessarily the right ending for the story. Not all endings should be of the fairy-tale variety – but more about that later. ‘The end’ is not always a guarantee of closure (and where would sequels and series be if closure was de rigueur?). Charles Dickens knew this. When he wrote Great Expectations (1860-1) he came up with two endings: the right ending for a realist novel, and the fairy-tale ending he knew his readers would want. Personally, I prefer the original ending: it is far more satisfying than the too easy fairy-tale variant. And really, beyond having unrealistic expectations, what did Pip do to ‘deserve’ Estella? Far better that Estella should reclaim her personal agency from the legacy of Miss Havisham’s sense of vengeance, and from her disastrous first marriage, by finding happiness with someone outside of the story, than by ‘rewarding’ the boy she used to tease. On the other hand there are those in whom the words ‘Reader, I married him’, inspire a deep rage. Is it not enough that Jane Eyre holds on to her principles, her virtue, her hard won sense of self worth, and then gets to marry the man she loves on her own terms – not his – and as an equal? Her fairy-tale is tarnished by the madwoman in the attic, and everything she stands for; why should she not marry her psychologically and physically scarred love, and have babies? Why should she not retain her own agency and follow her heart?

Similarly, the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe (2013) seemed to garner a less than favourable response for the final episode. Judging by the reactions in my Twitter feed, the preferred ending would have seen all the untidy loose ends neatly tied off in double knots and the threads snipped. Not wanting to be spoilery, I will only say that for me, the ending made sense. In a story dealing with seemingly senseless acts of violence, and the aftermath of grief, how do you write any meaningful kind of closure? Grief is messy: it lasts as long as it lasts. To underscore this point, one of the main characters (played by Rory Kinnear) is shown to be be still dealing with the bullying he endured a child. Again, what meaningful kind of realistic closure can there be for him? In the real world, vengeance should not always be enacted  – indeed, the very point of the main story: the burning need for personal vengeance meant tragedy for too many other people. There are always consequences. But resolution is far more rare.

I have a theory that collectively we have been spoiled by the Hollywood version of happily ever after. Sure, there’s the occasional blockbuster that isn’t afraid to take the road less travelled, but for every Se7en (1995) there are too many films that are afraid to aim for anything other than the cliché. Which is fine, as far as it goes: sometimes it’s nice to see the prostitute go shopping before ending up with the wealthy business man who paid her for sex. Pretty Woman (my god but 1990 is an AGE ago) is a classic Hollywood fairytale. More to the point it’s a classic Disney fairytale, of the same vintage as The Little Mermaid (1989): a happy ending can’t be a happy ending unless the princess gets her man, regardless of the ending of the original source material. (see also, rewriting history: Pocahontas and her supposed relationship with John Smith, for which there is no evidence, etc etc)

I have a problem with Hollywood altered endings. I am aware that what makes a good novel and what makes a good film are not always mutually inclusive. There are always certain compromises to be made: events and characters cut, condensed, rearranged. But change the ending, and the story is rarely altered for the better. Compare Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1997) with the 2007 film. Both are tagged as a fairytale that won’t behave. One ending is ultimately sweetly, darkly sad. The other is considerably less so. I leave it to you to work out which is which. (I love both: they are two separate entities, and that’s fine.) But both are fairytale endings. The film The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) manages to sidestep the darkness of the 2003 novel’s ending, in favour of taking the cake and liberally smearing it right across the collective audience’s face. The text again is rendered as two separate entities, but  – and of course this is only my opinion –  at the expense of the novel’s identity: the flavour of schmaltz has never appealed less.

But sometimes, of course, we are given the unexpected ending; endings that seem to promise one thing, and give us something else.  If you have neither read, nor watched Atonement (2001/2007), then please, do.

The staying power of stories

I’ve written before about the impact of good short fiction, the meteorite punch in your heart, or mind – or better yet, both – as you read. But can anyone honestly say that they remember every single short story they’ve ever read? (Unless they’ve only read five, and have a photographic memory.) Some craters are punched deeper than others. Some stories are just a shower of pretty lights in the sky, enjoyed while the sparkle lasts, until eclipsed by other stories.

Bearing in mind that of course my opinion is entirely subjective, here is a selection of some of my favourite short stories, the ones that have stayed.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork: Helen Dunmore Ice Cream (Penguin 2001)

Set in a world where eugenic health means that natural conception is outlawed, and a lawful pregnancy needs a mortgage to fund it, it was perhaps a mistake to read this one when I was pregnant. It’s a powerful story, and a hopeful one, strongly told. I love it.

The Gernsback Continuum: William Gibson Burning Chrome (Grafton 1988)

A photographer is commissioned to document a future that was never realised, the science fiction utopia promised by 1930s American design and pulp fiction covers, the Hollywood gothic of Ming the Merciless. And then the veil between that lost future’s aesthetic, and the modern now begins to tear; Metropolis bleeds through. If you loved Neuromancer, read this collection.

Other Kingdom: E.M.Forster Selected Stories (Penguin 2001)

A girl is given the deed to a woodland by her fiance’s father. Her fiance does not understand her nature, seeking to possess her, fence in her freedom. In love as much with the silvan spirit of classicism as with him, she escapes her jealous lover in a way he will never understand. If you know your myths, think of Apollo and Daphne.

The Piper At The Gates of Dawn: Kenneth Grahame The Wind In The Willows (Egmont 1971)

Strictly speaking this isn’t a short story per se, but I read it originally in a long disintegrated animal stories anthology, before I was given my own copy of The Wind In The Willows in 1979. And it is beautiful, and mystical, and the poetic magic in it never fails to move me. Also, today is Midsummer, so it is only fitting that I should mention it now.

The Woman on the Dunes: Anais Nin A Model And Other Stories (Penguin 1995)

This was the first erotica I ever read, at the tender age of 23. My god but I was innocent then! But this is beautiful, tender, and poetic. And, obviously, erotic.

Kew Gardens: Virginia Woolf A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (Vintage 2003)

An afternoon in Kew Gardens: impressionistic, Modern, beautiful, strange. It has haunted me, I think.

Pipes: Etgar Keret The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (Toby Press 2004)

I read this on the train from Paddington. I cried. The girl next to me tried to pretend that I wasn’t there, despite the fact that I cried oh so discreetly. It’s about disappearing, and finding a way into happiness. It is hopeful, and wistful and, wonderful. And it breaks my heart.

The Cat Lover: Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World (Black Swan 2003)

I love this whole collection, where the stories are set in the here and now, while figures from Greek myth wander about and interfere. In this one, a stray cat takes over a woman’s life, in so many mythological ways… Just fabulous.

Fifty Percent One/Fifty Percent Two: Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes Freaks (The Friday project 2012)

Two heartbreaks, a misunderstanding, a not-good-enough chance. In a collection about small  – and not so small –  strangenesses, this one, for me stood out. Tender and hopeless and hurting, yet I don’t think it does encapsulate the superpower it says on the tin, the power to amplify memories. It doesn’t need to. That kind of pain never goes away. But, read it, read all of it, and judge for yourselves. You won’t regret it.

The Tiger’s Bride: Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber (Vintage 2006)

A variant on the story of Beauty And The Beast, told in language so rich it’s almost distracting. Lusciously, seductively finessed.

Snow, Glass, Apples: Neil Gaiman Smoke And Mirrors (Headline 1999)

A retelling of Snow White, turned inside out and upside down, as only Neil Gaiman can, with a debt to Angela Carter. Beautiful and disturbing, by possibly my favourite living author.

So. I’ve shown you mine. It’s your turn to show me yours. What are some of your favourite short stories?
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Working

So the second draft is under way; five chapters redrafted, and the sixth about to be embarked upon. Bits of it have simply flowed, and other bits are a struggle – chapter four was particularly sticky. Copious notes for the third draft are being made concurrently, in my super-large bought for that purpose Moleskine. And I’m fairly happy with the progress made so far.

Last night I printed off the first draft of what is about to be the sixth chapter. And I looked at it, and looked at it. I stared at the words on the pages, and they danced before my eyes, but they would not let me in. So I went back to the beginning, to the original short story that six years ago started this narrative chain-reaction in my head. And in the file next to it I found a printed copy of an essay by Neil Gaiman. I re-read it, and when I reached the final paragraph, I realised that I had kept a printed copy for exactly this moment of uncertainty. Here’s why;

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.

Gene Wolfe

I’m going to frame that.

Books books books

Here’s a sort of review of my year in books, in reverse order.

First, books that are still waiting to be read…

Next, the books that I’m still in the process of reading. It was only once I’d gathered them from around the house for the purpose of this photograph, that they really began to reproach me. Now I’m suffering book-guilt…

And lastly – and quite satisfying it is too – the books I have read, or reread this year. Not included in this picture are Jane Shilling’s The Stranger In The Mirror, because I’ve loaned it to someone, the first four Harry Potter books (I’m working through them with my daughter), or The Hobbit, which I’ve read to my daughter at least twice this year.

I enjoyed ALL of them. I can recommend all of them too. Thoughts have been provoked, wonder evoked, and one of them (Nik Perring‘s Not So Perfect) even staved off the onset of madness while I was stuck at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting to find out if Heathrow would become sufficiently unfogged so I could return home. (It didn’t, but we eventually flew anyway.)

What have you been reading this year?

First post of the year – it’s a bit random

The year has begun; Christmas is almost over, normality – or at least my version of it –  will resume soon. In the meantime, I continue to cultivate the art of foozling at my desk, and pottering in the kitchen. Once the Not Quite So Small Daughter goes back to school and we regain some sort of routine, then writing can begin again. Chocolate continues to be consumed, as do cranberry and orange muffins, and the by now ubiquitous sloe gin. There is one bottle as yet unopened; I intend it to remain that way until the end of 2011. And in the next few weeks I will branch out and have a go at making Seville gin…

On New Year’s Day I cut my own fringe. Didn’t make too much of a fist of it either, so that’s quite cheer-making. My hair has a tendency towards idiosyncrasy if left too long (in both senses). Perhaps it’s my age? At least my hair does respond to pruning/treating/styling, unlike the wondrous Neil Gaiman‘s. It is a thing he freely, ruefully, admits on his blog at semi regular intervals. Or hang on, perhaps, Samson-like, his talent is connected to his willfully unruly hair? I wonder how many of my other writerly-deities have a similar relationship with their follicles? Margaret Atwood has wondrous hair like a dandelion clock haloing her fine-boned face. Tolkien (born 119 years ago today) had wispy grey bits that blew about. What about Audrey Niffenegger? <having Googled> Hmm. Not exactly wild, but her hair looks as though it could have unruly tendencies when no one’s looking… I might not be utterly wrong you know – consider Coleridge in Kubla Khan, eulogising the creative imperative;

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

I know I’m right. Or I think I am. It’s a theory, that sort of works, on the highly selective evidence that I’ve presented. Then again, Hilary Mantel has incredibly neat hair. Or she’s just found the perfect style to keep any incipient unruliness in check. I think I’ll leave it there.