50 years a reader
An exploration of half a century of reading.
50 years a reader
An exploration of half a century of reading.
Smashed it! Finished my 50 years a reader project with more than a month to go! That won't be the end of my reading Scottish books though... so many good books still on my to be read list for 2017 and beyond.
BOOK 44 Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
I really enjoyed this book. I’m not sure of its Scottish credentials, it was on a list of Scottish books but Kate Atkinson is more of an ‘adopted’ Scot than anything. I’m not sure if she would self-define as Scottish. And the book has no obvious Scottishness about it – however, I was loving it from early on, so I just continued reading – one out of 50 with a dodgy pedigree isn’t bad is it?
The conceit of this book is excellent. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ Kundera states: ‘If I had two lives, in one life I could invite her to stay at my place, and in the second life I could kick her out. Then I could compare and see which had been the best thing to do. But we only live once. Life's so light. Like an outline we can't ever fill in or correct... make any better. It's frightening". This conundrum forms the centre of his excellent book – but Atkinson takes this to another level. Her story looks at the many possibilities of a life (lives as they obviously become intertwined) and really got me engaged and thinking. It’s no criticism to say that it’s the kind of book that gets you hooked all the time you’re not reading it, and it deserves to be read in a couple of sittings, not, as I had to do it, spread out – because it’s easy to lose where you are and not get the full impact. Of it’s type I’d say it’s the best one I’ve read this year since Crumey’s Secret Knowledge and it was a wonderful oasis after a load of crime/thriller and award winning literary fiction types (which I’ve realised are not for me). While they may be clever, it is profound and profoundly moving. I remember reading Atkinson’s ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ in 1995 and I seem to remember it had a similar effect on me.
Certainly I remember it was the last book I read before leaving London, and I remember sitting in the London library reading it. I’m not sure why I’ve not read any more of her work in the interim twenty years (though I will body swerve her detective fiction in my search for more) and I will rectify that next year. For a book that gets you thinking about possibilities of life, this is one I strongly recommend. This is my definition of a ‘gripping’ novel.
BOOK 45 Merkland – Margaret Oliphant
Oliphant was something of a struggle. J.M.Barrie’s mum may have rated her, but to me it was another example of late 18thcentury aspirational fiction. I couldn’t get fully to grips with who was whom, mainly because they all seemed to be Austeneseque and I’m really not interested in the trials and tribulations of the landed classes – give me a good working class peasant any day – so that kind of washed over me. I couldn’t find sympathy for the feckless heir who squandered the estate. But that said, there was some interesting subversive commentary in it – issues of feminism and equality of the sexes reared its head – enough to keep me reading, and it was a long, hard,read. I’ll try some of her later novels as well, because it’s not fair to judge on one early outing but at present I’d say that Mrs Oliphant, at least in this novel, is a great advert for S.R.Crockett. He does everything she doesn’t, the stories are more exciting, the characters more appealing, the social conscience more ‘real.’
BOOK 46 The Bookies Runner - Brendan Gisby
This was the prize I set myself for finishing Merkland. I’ve read it several times before and each time I find something new (and each time it breaks my heart!)
This time I wanted to read it this time at the same time as its recently published companion – to see what that brought to the party. The thing about The Bookie’s Runner that always impresses me are the layers of narrative voice, and once again I was not disappointed. What did surprise me (it being over a year since I’d read it) was how much there was about Brendan’s mother and family as well as his father in it. It made me realise something quite profound about the way that relationships exist, the sort of tendrils that entwine so that we cannot always distinguish our relationship (or feelings) for one person from that of another. I love this book and I read it in one sitting, then proceeded straight away to The Rebel’s Daughter, As with Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona, despite being some 6 years between the two works, this is, I believe, the most effective and enlightening way of reading them. So without more ado…
BOOK 47 The Rebel’s Daughter - Brendan Gisby
In ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ Brendan cannot help but hold his mother responsible for some of the consequences suffered by his father. This biography of his mother doesn’t so much as redress the balance, but offers an insight into what made her the woman he knew as his mother. It’s an object lesson in understanding that we are all made of the sum of our experiences and that as children we only have partial awareness or knowledge of our parents and while it is in one sense obvious that we judge them from that perspective, there is also another, deeper story.
Brendan isn’t playing a blame game here, more seeking to understand the circumstances that created the woman he knew and loved, despite, I sense, the fact that she must have been a difficult woman to love.
What we have in both of these biographies is an honest, poignant portrayal and a genuine attempt to come to terms with love and loss and the difficulties of lives lived in pain and poverty. What is beyond reassuring and into the realms of remarkable is that Brendan is able to contextualise and portray these ‘ordinary’ lives with both objectivity and deep emotion. That’s a hard thing to achieve. It also gives something of an insight into the man. While at the end of The Bookie’s Runner the fifteen year old boy determines never to be a soft touch, and we fear, never to fall into the ‘goodness’ he so valued in his father – the sum of both of these books (and the autobiographical The Percentages Men) suggest that Brendan (like his father) was unable, in the final analysis, to be anything other than a good man. Not a hero, not a saint, but a real, warts and all man who seeks to make the best of his lot and to be fair in an unfair world. Respect! Having read so much of his work, I feel like I know Brendan well, when in reality we’ve never even met. Some writers put their hearts into their work and Brendan is certainly one of them. He has the passion of Steinbeck and an honesty I so rarely find in fiction that I am lost for the moment to offer a parallel. But it makes for good reading.
BOOK 48 Robert Falconer – George MacDonald
I started reading this after coming across a lot of promotion for the ‘english translation’ text. That shocked me. Anyone patting themselves on the back for ‘translating’ Scottish dialect in a book to make it more ‘accessible’ to the English reader deserves a good gubbing in my opinion. Hardly an expression of pride in our Scots tongue. That’s what got me reading it. I had read some MacDonald in my youth –The Princess and Curdie and the Back of the North Wind – but I’ve steered away from him in latter years because of the ‘religious’ overtones everyone goes on about. I decided that with only a couple of books to go in my 50, it was time to find out for myself.
I have to say I toiled with it, but not with the Doric dialect, more with the religious message. There were some things that engaged me – and early on I was deeply moved by the burning of Robert’s violin by his grannie, illustrating to me all that is wrong in religion. Now MacDonald isn’t offering an in your face moral tale of goodness, the story is all about people who don’t believe in the standard version of God and there are lots of interesting parts in the life of Robert – how he develops his own theory of goodness and how he practically helps ‘the poor’ and those whom society rejects. It was the underlying but oft repeated theme that God is there, watching and will ultimately win out that got me. Perhaps that’s unfair as a description but I find the whole religious aspect of it so irritating I can’t even be bothered to analyse it properly.
I will read more MacDonald and give him the benefit of the doubt but I suspect this zealous, unique view of God will permeate all of his writing so I’ll give myself a decent break before I try him again. There are other writers of the period I find more engaging without the degree of difficulty. However, I can say I still think it’s outrageous that the book is deemed needing a ‘translation’. I mean, if I suggested cutting out the overly religious parts everyone would be up in arms, but the dialect, written that way for a purpose after all, that should be left as it is. It’s for the writer to choose to do the work or not. However, a redeeming feature is that the 'shock' value for me at least of the grannie burning the violin will live long in my memory. So MacDonald has a power as a writer, I just wish he'd used it differently.
BOOK 49 The Azure Hand. S.R. Crockett
As I’m nearing the finishing line, I re-read The Azure Hand. I couldn’t pick a ‘favourite’ Crockett but it seemed only right to include him at least once in my 50 picks and this is the one I’m working on republishing right now so it was sort of a busman’s holiday. (See Sneak Preview of the new cover!)
The reason I’ve read so many (or what felt like so many) crime/detective/mystery books this year is that I have been trying to contextualise Crockett into this genre about which I know so little. I’d read The Azure Hand before and never guessed who it was till it was revealed very near the end. Reading it again, knowing who the murderer is, is of course quite a different experience, and for me actually made me read the book more carefully and enjoy it even more. I guess that for me, reading a mystery type book I focus only on what I think will be relevant ‘clues’. I’m not sure this is a good way to read these kind of books and certainly in the case of The Azure Hand there’s much more to it. It has a lot of the classic Crockett elements to it – social commentary – he attacks racism head on – and romance – there are several parallel romances going on so that if there weren’t a few murders you might well think that it’s a romance novel out and out. There are familiar type characters (though of course they are all individual enough to be interesting) and Crockett’s familiar 4 girls which he employs in several of his earlier novels. I’ll be reading it again at least another couple of times before it goes to print and I know I won’t get bored of it on the re-reading. While there are shades of others – Sherlock Holmes, The Red Thumb Mark and the like it also in some way presages Agatha Christie, showing I suppose that Crockett played his part in the ‘journey’ of crime fiction and had something to offer the ‘Golden Age’ in terms of innovation. Certainly, in my opinion it can hold its own with others of the time and emerging genre.
Book 50 Brand Loyalty - Cally Phillips
Ending with a book that never will and never wants to be ‘bestselling’ or ‘award winning’ because if it could be it could never have been written!
I long ago promised myself that I would read one of my own books as number 50. I had been a reader nearly 25 years before I became a writer and while I must have read somewhere around 100,000 books in my life (as a conservative estimate) I have written only around 10 (probably up to 100 if you include screenplays/plays and various ‘treatments’ and aborted projects). I’ve discovered that writing and reading are quite different experiences. I enjoy both, but if I could only do one it would be read. Writing one’s own story is quite different to reading anyone else’s story and it takes quite a distance before one is able to read one’s own work in any way objectively (by which I just mean reading it as if it wasn’t written by oneself, so that the ‘insider’ experience is less important than the narrative itself).
I lived with Brand Loyalty in one form or another for some 15 years before I wrote it in novel form and it’s been a good 5 years since I read it at all. But recently I gave it to someone else to read and they raved about it, and wanted to discuss its nuances with me (something that is as rare as hen’s teeth in readers it seems – though I can think of nothing finer than talking to a writer about their own books!) I thought I should re-read it if for no other reason than to be able to talk about it sensibly, not just from a dim memory of the whole narrative (by which I mean that beyond what made it to the pages of the novel). So as the final days of the year come along and I’m going to ‘smash’ my 50 books in a year target with more than a month in hand, I sat down to re-read Brand Loyalty. With some trepidation as I always have re-reading my own work. Stories do have a tendency to change with one’s own life experience and this is nowhere more true than with one’s own stories. I was, I’m glad to say, pleasantly surprised. The editor in me has obviously ‘grown’ in the last five years as I can spot a lot of editorial changes I’d like to make (nothing major but just typesetting issues mostly) but that aside, I found that I still rate it. I still feel proud of it. I still feel that George Orwell wouldn’t have turned his nose up at it. I still feel it has a unique perspective and says something quite important if that doesn’t make me sound too self-important myself. In fact, it feels like myself, living in the pages of a book. You want to know me – read this book.
Written before Twitter and smartphones became ubiquitous, technology has progressed in ways I didn’t imagine, but the basic issue of ‘productive work’ seems more real than ever in our contemporary social media world. I still feel that it’s a good exploration of a post-dystopia world – this year there’s even a word for it ‘post-truth’ which has gone into the dictionary. It was a good way to end my 50 Scottish book reading experience. And it may kick me into progressing with the novel that’s been sitting idle for the past four years while life got in the way. Aptly titled ‘The One that Got Away.’ In 2017 I hope to finally reel it in.
So the 50 Years a Reader project is complete, but the reading goes on...
It's been a bumper of a month for me - 7 books read and 2 more half way through. Thanks, largely to the library. Where would I be without free books? I can't claim they have all been the most enjoyable. I've been reading out of my 'comfort' zone perhaps, trying to make sense of some contemporary (and award winning) writing. Generally I'd have to say it's not really for me. There is something about it - too clever, too smooth, too weird, that doesn't quite appeal to me any more. In my youth, perhaps, when I was exploring new styles and ways of communicating and when my identity was less fixed so that books helped me explore myself. I don't really do that any more. Books now help me to explore other people and their lives (and lifestyle choices) and I'm not sure that I'd really want to engage with many of those I read this month. But it was an interesting experiment. And as I said, the library offers me the chance to read books I certainly wouldn't spend money on!
BOOK 38 Margaret Ogilvy – J.M.Barrie
I started the month on familiar ground. I've enjoyed all the Barrie I've read this year and this one was no exception.
I loved this book. I could write so much more about it, but I’ll leave it at that. I read so many books this month that brevity may be welcomed. All I’d say is, read it with no preconceptions, really read it, and I hope ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry it’s better than Cats!’
BOOK 39 The Sunlight Pilgrims
Not my cup of tea. I didn’t find anything in common with any of the characters and couldn’t understand how it is supposedly reflective of contemporary Scottish rural life/culture. I also had a few issues with the
Okay, cold, very cold, very very cold, I get that. But the kind of community living far enough north in Scotland to be dark at 2.30pm in depths of winter (that’s got to be a good 100 miles north of where I am) would be used to cold, to snow, and would not need a bunch of nuns to come and teach them how to deal with it – or the kind of community pep talk that happens in the book. I’ve lived in rural Scots communities for the last 20 odd years and none of them have remotely been like this one. I’ve been in Vermont in depths of winter and seen how North Americans deal with snow. Something just didn’t gel for me. Nor did I really see the ‘magical realism’ in the story. Is this just used as a term when something isn’t ‘real’? Because it was realism that was lacking in this story for me. I’m clearly not the target audience but it doesn’t encourage me to read more by up and coming young Scots writers, that’s for sure. Maybe I just need to admit my day is over and be put out to pasture with my ‘old’ books. I’ll be happy enough there, believe me.
BOOK 40 So I am Glad - A.L.Kennedy
Sorry to say, this one totally passed me by. Back blurb suggests it’s ‘funny, strange and almost entirely wonderful.’ I didn’t find it so. I found it shocking really, and it just reconfirmed to me that 25 years ago when I quit the ‘rat race’ ‘urbanity’ or whatever the hell it was I quit when I took up my own rural life, I made the right choice. I have some vague recollection that the world can be like this for people. But I decided there was no way I wanted my life to be anything like any of the experiences any of the characters in this novel face – and now, 25 years on – it’s like a spectacular vindication that there are multiple universes – or at least a load of parallel possible worlds – no, not possible – real worlds – and that we choose which one/s to inhabit. This is not my world. I don’t recognise it. I don’t want to. And I don’t enjoy reading about it. Not blaming A.L.Kennedy, just revealing that if this is (and I’m sure it is) Scottish literary fiction then I’m clearly out of my depth. The good thing is I have no shortage of fantastic Scottish fiction to read (past and present) which bears no relation to this kind of novel. And I’m not sorry to be out of this ‘market’. It’s my world too and I am happy to say that there are obviously books out there for everyone – any experience, any view of the world – but we do have to find and pick ones we like if we don’t fall within the bell curve of the canon of Scots Literature which as a reader, I clearly no longer do! But this month I’ve been trying hard to engage with the ‘modern’ Literary Fiction of Scotland. Never mind the past being another country – the Scottish fictional landscape seems to be a completely different world to the one I inhabit.
Book 41 Summer’s Lease – Sara Clark
This was read on recommendation. I didn’t take to the first chapter, but was told to read on. I’m glad I did. It did finally draw me in to the world of the main character – Alex. Though I’m still not exactly sure what I read. I’m unclear as to how Alex came to be as socially anxious as he is – I wondered whether he and his brother George were on the autistic spectrum with parents who ‘protected’ them from the world or whether he had become this way because of their woeful parenting skills. Nature or nurture, I never discovered. Perhaps I was looking for a simple solution and that was wrong of me. The key thing is that Alex views the world very differently to a ‘neuro-typical’ person. Is this because of class snobbery as has been suggested to me? I don’t think it’s that simple either. Certainly he came from a really dysfunctional family. It was an engaging read, but I left with more questions than answers which slightly frustrated me. Of course that’s the author’s prerogative and I don’t criticise her for it, just wish there had been more contextualising of what was going on (for personal taste) My personal taste of course is and should be irrelevant to any author. As a communication between author and (this) reader, however, I felt there was something missing. Which could of course just have been my lack of understanding or trying to make sense of something that isn’t there to be made sense of.
BOOK 42 Dirt Road – James Kelman
I’m not hugely familiar with James Kelman, think I’ve tried one or two before but they never really ‘took.’ This is his latest and I have to say that it had me wondering if he’s attempting a modern, Scots version of The Grapes of Wrath. As such it was an interesting concept, though to my mind not a patch on the original. But it did raise a lot of really interesting questions.
The central character Murdo, is also socially inept (not to the extent of Alex in Summer’s Lease though) and the same sort of stream of consciousness element runs through it. I’m totally unmoved by the artifice that sees apostrophes removed from words like didnt, couldnt etc. Don’t know why. And the use of indirect speech. It all seems a bit like smoke and mirrors to me – the sort of thing that if a lesser writer did it would be criticised or sneered at – but from a ‘master’ like Kelman just adds to his ‘genius’ or ‘mystique.’
It had some interesting things to say about relationships and music, but I found the plot less than interesting and found my way plodding through it a lot of the time.
Book 43 His Bloody Project Graeme Macrae Burnet
My short reaction to this book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize was underwhelmed. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. I do like a good authorial/narrator/editor transgression and so it sort of started well for me. It is ‘constructed’ quite interestingly – and I suppose if you generally read straightforward thrillers it may seem quite different. But for the ‘unreliable’ or fictional author/narrator/editor type thing S.R.Crockett beats this hands down. Straying from Scottish Fiction ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the most perfect example of unreliable narrators and Crockett develops this (beyond Scott) into playing with the authorial role within (and outwith) a text. And I suppose it is within this framework that Burnet is working. But I found it a bit irritating – perhaps patronising. We are supposed to ‘believe’ that the ‘story’ is an original one but methinks he protests far too much. Roddy’s ‘story’ is far to ‘constructed’ (I use that instead of ‘well written’) to be ‘true’ per se. The artifice that surrounds it crumbles as one is so painfully aware of this being a cleverly constructed work of fiction – maybe it does draw from some real sources I don’t know – but fiction it most certainly is. And as a ‘psychological thriller’ it leaves me cold. It does raise some interesting issues regarding the nature of ‘sanity’ and ‘reason’ and delves into history regarding how society impinges on the life of the individual, but the reader is left to consider any depth of this themselves – the story just moves on stage by stage. There are a number of ‘voices’ of course, the ‘editor/author’, Roddy, a psychologist and an account of the Trial. For me it’s all just too well packaged to be believable and I feel like an attempt at ‘gulling’ is going on. Which is a good way to alienate me as a reader. I want to have a conversation, a communication with the author and/or characters not to be made to feel I am the butt end of some clever joke. But that’s just me. It was an interesting enough story, but again, for me, looking at 19th century society is best done through reading fiction written at the time. You get a different (and I think more important) insight without the ‘clever, clever.’
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy this kind of playing around structurally. I know the complexities all too well from my own ‘Another World is Possible’ which does something not exactly similar but also plays around with the various roles allotted to those involved in fiction.
I’m not damning the book – it was a service able enough read, but I couldn’t get excited about it and all the quotes vaunting its brilliance left me cold. In that respect it was like the Forever and Brilliant which I read some months ago. I guess I just don’t see fiction the same way that the ‘cultural elite’ see it. And I make no apologies for that.
I'm coming close to the final countdown, with less than 10 books to read to make it to 50. Part of me wants to make them 'significant' but another part of me says that I know I'm going to be carrying on reading Scottish books for the next year and beyond, so it doesn't really matter - just read what takes my fancy (or the library provides) as the time comes.
BOOKs 34 and 35 A Study in Scarlet
This was a bit like a Chinese meal. I read it at the beginning of the month and by half way through, not only had I forgotten what it was about, I’d forgotten I’d even read it. This may be the charm and indeed strength of Sherlock Holmes. They can be read again and again and you still come back for more (or don’t) I remember reading the whole oeuvre in my teens and I suspect I should just have left it at that. I suppose it’s clever in that it is in two distinct parts ‘the study’ the first of which introduces us to the great Detective (and sidekick) and the second of which gives us some background to the story. It was okay for the length of time I was reading it, but it didn’t satisfy me in any real way.
Undeterred (and because I’m trying to learn more about early Detective Fiction for a work related project) I moved on to a later story (Wisteria Lodge) Now I’m claiming this as a ‘book’ when in fact it’s only a short story, but believe me, my life is now far too short to go reading a whole volume of short stories by Conan Doyle. For people who like it, I’m sure it’s the kind of thing they like. I’m just not one of them. I just don’t have that much time to kill in pursuit of learning about murder and detection.
Interestingly enough, I found something of an answer in a TV programme where Andrew Marr is ‘dissecting’ a selection of popular fiction – detective stories. As he explained the ‘mechanics’ of the genre I realised that this was one big reason I didn’t warm to it. I don’t want to read the same thing interminably with varied plots, nor indeed do I see reading as part of a ‘game’ played between the writer and reader. Some folk obviously like that but that’s not why I read. I read to communicate/connect emotionally with the writer/his world and his created character. It’s quite a different thing from reading to ‘solve a puzzle.’ And I have no interest in police, murder or crime either. So I can say I’ve tried but I really need to give up on this sort of writing Scottish or otherwise. Guess I may not be reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s ‘His Bloody Project’ any time soon. Not my cup of tea. (and I don’t like tea either by the way!)
Moving on from Sherlock Holmes I had only my first FAILURE in this 50 books. I had promised myself to read some Iain M.Banks sci fi. The first book I got from the library was Feersum Endjinn. I tried. I really tried. But 12 pages in I had to give up. Even Andrew Marr’s programme on Fantasy fiction couldn’t get me back to it. (He said a bit about Sci-fi in it) I’ve been remarkably lucky that this TV series has been on as I’ve been trying these genres because it has really helped explain why I can’t come to grips with them. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what they now call ‘fantasy’ in children’s fiction (though a lot of them I don’t think I loved because they were fantasy, I loved them for the version of reality or the subversion of reality they painted) but I’ve never never got to grips with Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. In my teens I explored sci-fi ‘classics’ like John Wyndham, Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. I even picked a sci fi book as a prize when I was 14. But I guess I outgrew them too. We all come to find the things we love to read and the things we can’t be bothered with. I think my tastes are pretty eclectic but anyway, I am appreciating more than ever how people have very different tastes and there’s no point trying to persuade someone beyond their own boundaries and preferences. It’s a diverse old world out there and while challenging oneself is good, time is also precious and once you have worked out what you like I don’t think there’s a lot of point trying to force feed yourself a different diet just because it’s fashionable. If you know what you like and you can explain that to yourself (and maybe others) that’s good enough.
BOOK 36: Fortunately for me in an otherwise disappointing reading month, I found something remarkable when I opened The Little White Bird by J.M.Barrie. Another one I’ve overlooked and in my exploration to find the origins of the character of Peter Pan this was an absolute goldmine. It’s funny, it’s complex, it’s confusing and it has immense depth both emotional and psychological. Now this IS my kind of fiction. I will be re-reading it again as soon as I can get away with it – for now the relentless goal of the 50 prevents that, but I will be thinking about it for many months to come. Result.
After my Little White Bird Experience, I was ready for some more Barrie. I came across an online copy of The Boy Castaways. Can’t claim to have read it because it’s a picture book. But well worth looking at the pictures. Bit of a cheat to count it as one of my 50 though, so I won’t.
BOOK 37: The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. I tend to think of him as one of the contemporary Scottish ‘establishment’ in writing, so yes I was a wee bit prejudiced to begin with. But I like to pride myself on opening a book and bringing an open mind to the page. And I have to say, I quite enjoyed it. The ‘shades’ of James Hogg hung heavy over it in a way, but I like the duplicitous narration thing, and while 10 years ago I would have had no interest in Presbyterian minister turned bad, years of reading Crockett have got me more interested in this part of Scotland’s history. So it was interesting to see another man’s take on the Church of Scotland. There were times when I felt it went on a big – I’m loathe to say I found it self-indulgent in places, because someone once accused one of my novels of this, and my response was that they simply couldn’t appreciate the depth. So let’s leave it that I didn’t appreciate the full depths of the book. I mostly enjoyed it, but I did feel I was ploughing through it at times.
BOOK 38: But all books aren’t designed to be ‘easy read’ of course. I moved on to some Andrew Lang. I intended to read Modern Mythology because I simply couldn’t bring myself to read Fairy Books and wanted to know what Lang really felt about fairies etc, but on starting it, I realised that I should read at least Custom and Myth before it. However, I also found it a bit heavy going so I’m saving Custom and Myth for later. Lang deals with some interesting things I’ve never really thought about – to whit whether mythology is caused by a ‘diseased language’ or something indigenous in the culture of a people and their thought. We are looking at philology and anthropology here – interesting topics but my brain wasn’t up to it right now. So instead, to make sure I succeeded in reading a Lang this month, I went to The Library reckoning I might feel on safer, more comfortable ground. Not really. Again, I discovered that Lang is not the easiest of reads, but I learned a lot – it was not really what I was expecting – more about book collection and bibliophiles than I anticipated. However it really was interesting (between the lines) because there are all kinds of things to do with book production – binding and the cutting of pages – which are fairly alien to me and which I hadn’t considered as vital to an appreciation of books. Along with the definition and use of libraries in Lang’s time – we are talking of a time when public and ‘circulating’ libraries were in their infancy – I discovered something about myself. Which is that while I would always say I like books, what I really love is reading. It’s something I’ve often thought about. I’m a fan of paperbacks. I know this is scorned by ‘real’ bibliophiles. I’m not a fan of hardbacks in that it seems to me an unnecessary thing to do to a book. Old books, rare books, yes I have quite an interest in them, but primarily for the content. Of course I thrill at a first edition of Wuthering Heights (I own an early American edition with Ellis Bell as the author) but I don’t READ from it. And for me the most important thing about books is the reading not the physical entity. I prefer paperbacks to ebooks simply because I find it easier to read them – ebook readers are too small for me to read at the pace I like to read, especially with the font at a size I can decipher. But screen reading or paper turning is less important to me than the world of the text. The emotional world not the physical entity in my physical world. And in this I think I may be worlds away from Lang’s notion of a bibliophile (but then he says women can’t appreciate books anyway!!!) All of this goes to illustrate just how much has changed in 150 odd years and reminds me that it is important to read from the past, not just what you ‘enjoy’ but work that can give you insights into worlds now long past, that it’s too easy to take for granted our current narrative. Today everyone is caught up in a) the imminent demise of libraries and reading itself and b) whether the ‘real’ book has had its day. These were also concerns in Lang’s time (he saw ‘real’ books as those being well bound of course, I hate to think what he would have made of Penguins, never mind ebooks)
But as I head towards what feels like the home straight in my 50 books project, I'm taking a moment to reflect on all that reading means TO ME and remind myself why I do it. There are days when I wonder if anyone else in the world reads for the same reasons I do, and some days when I realise that even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because my relationship with reading is my own, personal, unique one and I do not need to apologise for it or try to shape it into a more Bell-Curve normal format. I love reading. I love the worlds it takes me to. I love the creative thought it sparks in me. Are these not reasons enough? Oh, and it keeps me off the streets and out of trouble (mostly!) But as to persuading others of my views, I’m becoming less and less comfortable with that as a concept. The question what is a review anyway? Is one that lurks behind all of this reading – and the writing about the reading on this blog. I don’t seek to persuade, simply to bear witness to my own experience of 50 years a reader.
There is a quote from Lang which I’d like to leave on: ‘Books change like friends, like ourselves, like everything; but they are most piquant in the contrasts they provoke…. The vanished past returns when we look at the pages… It is because our books are friends that do change, and remind us of change, that we should keep them with us, even at a little inconvenience, and not turn them adrift in the world to find a dusty asylum in cheap bookstalls. We are a part of all that we have read, to parody the saying of Mr Tennyson’s Ulysses.’
Or as we might say in today's parlance KEEP CALM AND READ A BOOK
BOOK 29: Whisky Galore
I straddled August into September by reading Compton Mackenzie’s ‘Whisky Galore’ on a recommendation – although the recommendation was more of a ‘what the???’ But I wanted to see for myself. Long ago I saw the film and didn’t rate it –I’m not into black and white comedy – but with the new film about to come out and folks talking about it, I thought I’d go back to the source. It was an interesting book, and much less of a comedy than the film. There were a lot of serious points made about the war and its impact on rural and especially island communities. I’m not claiming this is some kind of classic novel, but I suggest it’s well worth reading before you see the new film version.
BOOK 30: The Quarry
I haven’t read any Iain Banks before. I’ve had a compilation of Wasp Factory and a couple of others over a decade ago, dipping into it and never going any further. This is rare for me. If I buy a book I tend to read it. Anyway, I thought I’d start afresh, so reading his final work seemed as good a place as any. (One day I will also investigate his science fiction writing but sci-fi, along with thrillers, feels like revisiting a mis-spent youth so I keep putting it off)
I don’t know how representative of his writing The Quarry is but I did enjoy it. Though enjoy probably isn’t the right word. I appreciated it. The central character is a boy on the Autistic Spectrum, pretty accurately portrayed. And the character ‘behind’ but in essence dominating, is his dying father. Given that Banks knew he was dying as he was writing the novel, it’s hard not to see fact in the fiction. There is something compelling about trying to understand what one may feel like knowing one is about to die – and that in itself drew me into the novel –which I’ll confess I read in two sittings. I don’t know whether Banks is given to the ‘diatribe’ but the dying Guy launched into a couple of those and it seemed very likely this was Banks throwing caution to the wind and saying what he thought, now that he had nothing to lose. It’s interesting how he chose to merge author with character, and for me, that merging is an interesting aspect of fiction in its own right. In this case I felt he had every right to, and I reserve judgement on whether I think it was indulgent or not until I’ve read more of his work and know more about his style. Even if it was indulgent, I feel he had every right to be so in his dying work. It reminded me so much of Dennis Potter’s ‘legacy’ works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, which ‘get even’ with so many of his perceived demons and enemies. One can only feel glad that at least both men got the chance to ‘have their say’ unfettered before they died. I suspect it wasn’t possible for Terry Pratchet to do likewise, at least not in fiction (but I’ve never read any Terry Pratchet so I really don’t know what I’m talking about here.) Anyway, The Quarry worked for me on a number of levels and it’s certainly got me eager to read more of Iain Banks work. He’s on the list.
BOOK 31: Jackie Baldwin Dead Man’s Prayer.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said that crime thrillers are not my thing. Crime, particularly I think I overdosed on Agatha Christie as a teen. I always feel that one is faced with an impossible task, that the author is deliberately manipulating one as reader in order to maintain the suspense and surprise ending. And I guess what I like from fiction is a feeling of complicity with the author and characters not pitting my wits against them or being led up a garden path. But I continue to try with both classic and contemporary thrillers in the belief that perhaps I’ll see the light one day. I need a reason to read them though. At the moment I have a good reason in that I’m trying to make sense of some very early examples of the genre (1907-1908) and so getting an overview of how the genre developed seems part of that journey towards understanding. Still. I need another reason to read them. And in this case I knew the author from my days as Writer in Residence but in the context of dramatic writing, so I wanted to see how she had developed into novel writing – something I’ve done myself but off in completely different paths.
I really rate Jackie as a writer, and I don’t want to say anything bad about the novel because, like I say, if I find fault it may simply be that she’s writing a very good example of a genre I don’t like and/or don’t understand. So it’s not for me to praise or damn it. I can say I enjoyed it more for the local flavour than I did Aline Templeton’s Galloway police novels. It seems more rooted in the reality of the place. It’s the start of a series and it does read like a novel that has its eye on the commercial market. Again, not usually my cup of tea. So whether I enjoyed it or not isn’t really relevant to anyone else. I can confess that I ‘got into it’ after a while, but that the most significant thing for me about the experience was that it clarified why I don’t read murder/police/thriller type books in general - something I’ve struggled to put into words. I realised that it is because what I like in books is a sense of empathy with the characters (or at least one of them) rather than trying to solve a crime or engaging in some kind of psychological game – or seeing into the eye, or soul, of ‘bad’ or ‘damaged’ people. We all read for different reasons and this book very much helped me come to terms with what it is I like to read.
BOOK 32: So it’s interesting that I moved on to Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Even more obviously than the previous read, but I found some simliarities, it is about duality of identity. That, when it came down to it, was what finally engaged me with Dead Man’s Prayer. It’s another story I’ve known for ever but not read as a book (or at least not for a long time, but I think , never) I didn’t start ‘enjoying’ it until it came to the first person narrative, the explanation of the events by Jekyll himself. Which sort of consolidated my position. The rest of it was truly interesting, not just for the social context and commentary, or the narrative structure, but it was Jekyll’s attempt to explain himself which captured me. I’m not saying I could empathise with him, but I was captivated by him and his situation. Maybe that’s what is supposed to happen with all crime/thrillers, that you get into the mind of the ‘killer’ but in Jekyll’s case it was less about the crime and more about the destruction of a man – as I say, compelling if not ‘enjoyable.’ And I began to wonder what it is about first person narrative that grips me – perhaps it’s the immediacy which draws me into the story, in my quest for empathy (or at the very least sympathy) for the characters. It’s something I will think about when reading subsequent novels.
BOOK 33: Straight after Jekyll and Hyde I read John Galt’s Sir Andrew Wylie of that Ilk. It was a struggle I can tell you. I like Galt more than I like most 18th century fiction, but I still falter with the turgidity of the style. To be fair to him, Galt, and especially here, gives lots of humour and in dialect as well – the story is one of a lad o’ pairts who goes to London and rises in society. It’s obviously somewhat autobiographical. However, I resist all the way these stories of 18th century social manners whoever the author and this one was no exception. I have to admit I found myself skipping parts in order to get more of Andrew himself and his humour – life was just too short to give total attention to each and every word. I guess it’s just a fact – I don’t like the style of 18th century writing whereas, in general, I love the style of 19th century writing (which I know some modern readers find equally impenetrable). Galt is an important (in my view) writer for the development of Scots literature – and he is (just) more readable than Scott, but I still struggled. I just write this off as being a Romantic rather than a Neo-Classicist in taste and don’t worry about it. It’s not Galt’s fault. Along with Scott he is the father of the kind of fiction I enjoy most – but give me Stevenson or Crockett or Barrie any day.
I made my quote by the skin of my teeth - again... and if my calculations are correct then it may well be that The Thirty Nine steps was the 25th book - half way through my list.
It’s John Buchan’s birthday on August 26th. I didn’t know that, or more precisely, I didn’t remember that, when I started my Buchan-fest of the month. I sat down to read The Thirty Nine Steps (for the first time, unless my memory is really a lot worse than I think.) Like most people I’ve seen the film, or several versions of the film on TV and in cinema over the years and think I ‘know’ the book. Earlier this year I watched the 1935 Hitchcock version and found it sadly lacking. I have seen the 1959 version too but for me the most memorable was the 1970’s version with Robert Powell. I think I may have missed the most recent remake in 2008.
And I think that, over the years, I’ve started reading the book on more than one occasion. I find reading Buchan a strange experience. It’s a problem I have with thrillers in general, I find that while reading them my mind wanders and I miss the subtle nuances of what’s going on – fatal in the kind of thriller that requires you to work out clues from the twists and turns. And for the life of me I can never remember (I’m not sure I ever worked out, or maybe I just keep forgetting) what the significance of the 39 steps themselves is.
So this time I determined I was going to read the whole thing - and ended up doing so in one long sitting (it’s been that kind of wet summer!) I made sure I read it carefully and didn’t allow my mind to wander. It was quite a new experience. The style and particularly the language are quite different from the earlier Buchans. But actually, it ended rather abruptly for me, as those earlier ones did. He’s not a man to hang around at an ending, Buchan.
I did enjoy it, but as much as anything for the growing awareness of the propaganda element of it. A couple of weeks on I think I can even remember the relevence of the steps – but I have long ago accepted as a fortunate boon that I have the facility to forget the endings of even the most memorable of stories, soon after I have read them. I may be unusual in that respect (though it’s handy when you want to re-read books) but I suspect many people share the ‘don’t remember the detail clearly enough’ syndrome I also suffer from. When going back to a book years later (same with films) I could swear the narrative worked in a different way, often a different sequence, from what the words on the page tell me. I think this is less a significant point about my personal memory (and its failings) and more about the way narrative works – plot and story can get all mixed up in one’s mind once one has read or experienced a narrative the first time – it’s that thing of once you know something you can’t unknow it. You can forget it, but it also seems you can re-order it to make a sense of story which can actually be at odds with the plot in favour of the overall narrative. Anyway, it’s something I find very interesting and is another reason I’m more than happy to read works several times.
BOOK 26: But Buchan ends abruptly. I have the complete stories of Richard Hannay in one BIG volume so I moved straight on to Greenmantle. It’s a book I know I’ve never read, but one of my brothers (the one who reads) has always rated it. Though I didn’t know what to expect, still I was surprised by it. It was published in 2016, so it’s celebrating its centenary. Buchan’s style is very much of the period – which I don’t mind – as someone who reads a lot of 19th century work its ‘modern’ in style without having the density of modernism or the terseness of contemporary. The ‘Britishness’ of it I find a bit personally cloying and indeed Greenmantle is about the Eastern Front during the First World War. As such it is riddled with the propaganda of the time. But a century on its central themes still have much relevance. The Greenmantle of the title is a ‘dangerous’ Islamic fundamentalist prophet (or is he?) and the novel is very concerned with the Middle East and ‘what we should do about it.’ !! At times I found the propaganda quite jaw-dropping, but it’s fascinating to see what was ‘acceptable’ fiction a century ago. Maybe Buchan thinks he’s a master at ending on a cliff-hanger but I have to say I was mightily disappointed at the end – it was the open ending to end all open endings and even as I was reading the final sentence I knew I didn’t understand what or who Greenmantle actually was. Will I forget the ending? Maybe not, because I’m still so aggrieved that I can’t work out what the final sentence means. I feel like I’ll have to read it again, even more slowly, to do that. But not now. There are plenty more Hannay stories to work my way through, but I’m giving myself a wee break from Buchan now, having paid my homage to him on his birthday month.
BOOK 27: I moved on to another book I realised I’ve never actually read – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Another revelation. I’m not sure I’ve even actually seen a film version of this – certainly not a cartoon – but it’s one of those stories that are almost embedded into the psyche. I remember from childhood the immortal lines ‘Take this Black Spot to Blind Pew,’ which in fact is never actually said – Blind Pew is the one who brings the Black Spot. And of course, she who pays little attention never really managed to work out what the significance of the Black Spot was. I know now! I think Treasure Island was like Batman and Biggles for me as a child – we played games around the basic stories, but we made them our own and the books never really came into the equation.
Reading it as an adult, in the 21st century, I’m baffled by how this could ever have been considered acceptable fare for children in the 19th century. Indeed, perhaps that’s part of its ‘fame’ – that it was rather too edgy to be good for children and that’s why they loved it. I’m not a big fan of pirates – had my fill of them with Barrie’s Peter Pan to be honest – and as I say, I’m not really the target audience for the book so I won’t lie and say I loved it – I appreciated it for what it is and was glad to have read it properly in its entirety for what it teaches me about Stevenson in a broader sense – and how much more of his writing I really must explore. For me these days, no reading is ever wasted. I’m not just reading for ‘enjoyment’ or ‘escape’ but also to find out more about writers, about narrative, about history, about Scotland and its place in the world, and, it seems about the workings (or otherwise) of my own memory.
BOOK 28: As always, coming up to the end of a busy month, I cast around for something short to read. I found it in David Humes Autobiography ‘About My Life’ I feel like a real cheat because you can’t call this a book, it’s more an essay. And it doesn’t give a lot of detail (there isn’t time and he doesn’t have the will) about anything. It does give something of a sketch of his life and times and how and why he published his philosophical works – which were my entry some 30 years ago. My intention then is to re-read (and read afresh where necessary) some Humean philosophy – a thing I haven’t done since 1982. I still own a couple of his ‘texts’ but huge sections of pages have fallen out and indeed fall out on the floor every time I pick one up. So I’m going to engage with Hume in September and beyond through the delights of Delphi Complete Classic ebooks.
In the meantime I leave you with an 'you've worn the tee shirt, now read the book' moment!
Oh yes... but fiction gave me an endless supply of friends for life!
Short and sweet turns long and wordy…
BOOK 20: Sir Quixote of the Moors. This is John Buchan’s first attempt at a novel. The 39 Steps it ain’t. Of course he was only 19 when he wrote it and he was still at University, so probably had other things on his mind. I’m not dissing it or him, but it does make me laugh both with this and the next attempt ‘John Burnett of Barns’ that he later criticizes the likes of S.R.Crockett when, writing in a similar style, he can’t come within a country mile. Of course, he’s entitled not to like the style, to want to write differently – though actually if it’s style you’re looking at, The 39 Steps (and other later Buchan novels) don’t seem to be that stylistically different - of course the language is updated but the sort of ‘feel’ of the text, the pacing and the character interplay, do seem remarkably similar. I like Buchan’s pacing in his later novels – it suits his themes and content – but somehow it doesn’t hold water when trying to write historical novels set in Covenanting Times. Well, at least, Crockett just does this so much better (better even than Stevenson and mightily better in my opinion, than Scott) Crockett just lets it flow. Buchan seems to rush it – to be out of sync with the time he’s portraying whereas Crockett seems at home there. So Crockett is more believable – and to boot ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ (written the same year) is an accomplished feat which is both gripping and easy to read, whereas Sir Quixote reads like a novella being tried out by a lad who thinks he ‘can do better’ but actually can’t. Not yet. Does this do much more than show that writing is a craft that has to be learned and that it’s not a good idea for a young writer to be overly critical of a more established one. Am I going to be hoist on my own petard of course. All writers criticize all other writers. I guess it’s how we do it that matters. I just don’t like how Buchan denigrates Crockett - it reeks of the green eyed monster. When what, I suggest, Buchan really had to do was ‘find’ his own voice rather than try to ape anyone else’s. And I think he did that. Not in this novella though. It’s clunky. And to say it ends abruptly… did he have a tutorial to attend in short order which was more pressing? Or did he really (as I’m sure we all did at 19) think he’s written a work of rare genius? Well, it’s worth reading if you like Buchan and (like I have already confessed) me are something of a ‘read one book read them all’ (reeeed not red I mean – present tense –otherwise you’ll think I’m a right arse!) And it is, some might say, mercifully short.
BOOK 21: As far as even short novellas go, Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills wipes Sir Quixote of the Moors off the map. It’s wild, it’s weird, and it’s like reading a prose version of Coleridge or Blake, but it IS well worth a read. I’ve read and re-read it several times over the last few years. It always disturbs me, it always makes me wonder how, what, why Crockett wrote it – and because of that I think I can allow myself to make it number 2 on my books for July. Though that feels a bit like cheating. It is packed with religious allegory, much like medieval paintings. Unless you know the allegorical side of it you are probably missing a lot (as I fear I do) but the sheer Gothic madness of it – yet Gothic Romance taken out of the castle and spread out wild on the Galloway moors – repays the reader more than enough. You take your hat in your hands and have to just give yourself up to it – you can’t sit down critically analysing it (unless, of course you really do get all the allegories, then perhaps you end up having quite a different experience) But for me, it has the passion that Buchan lacks in Sir Quixote, and an originality that is both frightening and impressive.
BOOK 22: With those in the ‘bag’ I also determined to finish the Grampian Quartet by Nan Shepherd. I had never finished the one I started first a couple of years ago which was The Living Mountain. It’s another short book. You’ll know when the sun’s come out here because then I will be out in the garden with a BIG book. I’m not sure what to say about The Living Mountain. I come to it with a range of problems and prejudices I suppose. None of which should detract or discourage anyone else from reading it, because I think it’s well worth a read. It’s just perhaps not ‘for me’ at this particular moment. Because I’m not able to get out into the mountains for myself, I tend not to read too many things about the ‘experience’. It just reminds me what I’m missing. I miss being out if not in mountains then in the hills. However, the Cairngorms have never held much interest for me beyond skiing (another curtailed pastime.) I’m not the greatest of fans of natural description – at least not without characters and plot attached – and Shepherd’s ‘descriptions’ of the minutiae of flora/fauna/weather etc didn’t really do much for me. But she does offer something more profound with which I am in agreement. It is that mountains are not just for climbing. The significant ‘living’ part of them is actually that part which connects with ourselves. This I can relate to. Knowing a place well rather than striving to conquer or control is something I am attuned to. It doesn’t need to be a mountain. It doesn’t even need to be that remote. One can see things in depth as well as in breadth. I do this every day myself. I go to places, and see things, and experience them which are of no moment to anyone but myself. And that’s perhaps where I didn’t engage with The Living Mountain. I felt that a lot of it was Shepherd’s life, that personal part of life that cannot (or perhaps is best not) communicated to others.
The relationship between words and nature is a strange one, and something, as a writer, I think about a lot. Sometimes even write about – well aware of the irony of the process.
However beautiful the prose (or poetry) I find that words are not the best medium through which to experience being one with nature. It’s the moments beyond words that are truly important and, by definition, these are beyond words. For literary people it is something of a jolt to accept that there are things beyond words. My life and my identity are hugely bounded by words – but my most profound (and enjoyable ) experiences in life have not needed them. The desire to communicate experience through words is perhaps essential to a writer – if I could paint, believe me, I’d paint rather than write – but even as we rely for our identity on words, nature (and, in my case, non-literate people – and animals) offer something even more significant with which to engage. Being in nature, be that mountain or any solitude, is about experience beyond words. Words emerge when we try to share or communicate that experience with another person.
Some may find The Living Mountain profound. I connected best with Shepherd in ‘A Pass Through the Grampians.’ I didn’t feel a connection with the Cairngorms in ‘The Living Mountain’ but it did make me reflect on the significance of mountains/hills/wild place and ‘nature’ in general on the human body and soul.
While I’m not sure I agree with him, personally I prefer Norman Maclean’s view of nature in ‘A River Runs Through It.’ It is also a place I’ve never been, but his prose takes me there in a way Shepherd’s just didn’t. No more than personal preference (and prejudice) I’m sure. In it he says ‘Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.’
He believes that the words are under the rocks – I take it to be that the profound words are hidden to us - they certainly are for me when trying to communicate what I feel about nature. Even when I can walk the walk, I can rarely talk the talk about it.
It all makes me wonder whether we can ever really share our experience of nature. Or anything. I’m coming to the conclusion that actually EVERY man is an island and communication is a way we try to build bridges or causeways. But fundamentally we are all alone
BOOK 24: Moving on. Having enjoyed Sentimental Tommy, though I did take my time to finish that one as I recall, I finally progressed to the sequel, Tommy and Grizel. It’s given me re-found respect for Barrie. Worried about timing this month, in case I didn’t get round to it, I re-read ‘Better Dead’ first, a sort of warm up if you will, which is basically a short story but boy, it shows you Barrie in a completely different light. Once you’ve seen the way he uses satire in ‘Better Dead’ you are in a much better place to be able to justify that ‘Tommy’ is indeed a satire and can appreciate it as it was intended.
‘Tommy and Grizel’ is, I suggest, a book without precedent. I cannot say I have a proper grasp on it yet, and I will definitely go back and re-read both ‘Tommy’ stories. But even while wading around in it, there are loads of interesting things to point out. Firstly, the playing around with narrative voice, which I really enjoy. And secondly the presaging of Peter Pan as character which is to be found in the novel. Barrie’s notion of ‘flying’ as the natural state of boyhood which is lost when feathers are plucked as one grows to manhood is explored through Tommy. His views on sentiment and love are more complex for me as a modern reader to understand – firstly because the word ‘sentiment’ has now changed almost beyond recognition – though perhaps today when people say (as too often they do) ‘it was emotional’ in the sort of hushed tone that makes you think that they are shocked that people should ever express an emotion, never mind be able to distinguish one from another – all simply classed together as ‘emotional. Secondly because the whole ‘love’ thing is very complex. The problem for a reader with a writer like Barrie, who toys with his role as narrator, is that it’s hard to know how much is ‘real’ and how much is fiction. This indeed I suspect is the whole point of ‘Tommy’ and the problem is that as reader we perhaps derive meaning to suit our own narrative of the author. I can quite see how Barrie became smeared with the term paedophile, how everyone became obsessed with his small stature reflecting his impotence etc etc… he is playing with the second (but not the first) throughout the story. Barrie’s notion that children are cruel and that love is somehow constraining and part of the cruelty is part of his exploration of love. I need to read and re-read and think again about this before making any kind of sense of what I think he really means - and indeed perhaps it’s all just a challenge to get us thinking – a challenge that is slightly more difficult because of the social changes that have taken place in the century or more since the book was written. But it is quite unlike any other book I’ve read – and in a good way! Barrie himself remains something of a mystery, a master of disguise, but a man I very much would have liked to meet.
In fact, if I did the ‘dinner party’ thing, I can think of few more entertaining guests to have for the evening than Crockett, Barrie, and Shepherd. John Buchan, I’m not so sure. He told a good story, but I suspect he may have been a wee bit pompous for my liking. That may just be my prejudice though, so we won’t hold it against him.
So – for some short books I’ve written rather a lot of words – and I’m about to start a new strand for this project – R&R. Check it out from the beginning of August. I'm about to start something I wish I'd done 50 years ago!
This month looked like being another mad scramble to get reading time. Don’t get me wrong, I spend plenty of time reading, but the reading for this ‘challenge’ of 50 Scottish books in a year (for pleasure). By the second week of the month I had still to open a page!
BOOK 15: I started on Mr Mee, with high expectation after the incredible experience of The Secret Knowledge. All I can say is that I’m glad I read The Secret Knowledge first. I much preferred it. Mr Mee was, a lot of the time, like wading through treacle. I guess the main issue I had was that I really didn’t engage with any of the characters. And because I was reading ‘bittily’ and the book jumps around in time, it was hard to keep up with who was who, or the clever, subtle things the book was aiming at. So I’m prepared to accept I was at fault. It’s a shame, there were some things I am really interested in (thematically) in the book – it deals with identity and reality – but I found the ‘modern’ characters of Mr Mee and the academic (whose name I can’t even remember now) to be obnoxious and in the case of Mr Mee – completely unbelievable. Maybe that was the point? Mr Mee and his sexual awakening (if awakening it can be called) I just found pretty distasteful. There was a humour in it, but it seemed like a kind of sneering, arch, clever -clever humour which I do not respond well to. It just spoiled the rest of the book for me. The characters who may or may not be Minard and Ferrand were like a poor version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – and yes, I guess I felt that so much of this book was referencing other things. I learned stuff about Rousseau I would rather not have known – though of course now I have a passing desire to find out how much of what was suggested is ‘true. But all in all, while I would read another Crumey novel, because The Secret Knowledge left such an impact, Mr Mee didn’t do it for me. I’d be more than happy to give the book away to anyone who would appreciate it. It’s not one I will ever look into again.
BOOK 16: Next I read ‘This Time its Personal’ , a collection of short stories by Brendan Gisby. With characteristic braveness, he brought them out to mark the first anniversary of the death of his beloved wife Alison, and so I read them on that day. I had read most if not all of them before, but it was quite an experience to just sit down and read the whole collection in one sitting. Gisby writes with such heart, such humour and such keen observation – one truly feels one is sharing his world when one reads his work. The central story ‘Man Up’ made me cry. Again. The outpouring of grief, honest, raw and heartfelt is just the best thing I’ve read about loss. Were I the sort of person who ever thought the word ‘humble’ a good one to use, I’d say it was ‘humbling.’ But I don’t like that word. It sounds so hierarchical – a sort of passive patronising word – so instead I will say it hit me with the force of a reality we don’t often get to see, and many people don’t ever admit exists. Not sentiment (though there’s nothing wrong with that) but emotion. Emotion is an overused word these days also – people say ‘it was emotional’ as if there is only one emotion and to ‘be’ it is in some way a weakness, unless justified. To understand a range of emotions and how they are lived in reality, in a quiet way, you should read Gisby. ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ is a tour de force in this respect, and ‘Man Up’ packs just as heavy a punch to the guts and the heart – the two places we feel most strongly. Brendan’s writing is fantastic when it isn’t about grief and loss, but he has certainly a talent for being able to write the parts others of us shy away from when it comes to grief. I salute him for that.
With ‘This Time it’s Personal’ the reading flood gates opened again for me. While ‘Mr Mee’ had me wondering at times whether I even enjoyed reading for pleasure, ‘This Time it’s Personal’ reminded me of the power of the written word.
BOOKS 17,18 and 19.Ally with that the fact that I finally got the Grampian Quartet in paperback from the Library and then that the immediate post Brexit event in our house was a thunder storm that took out the phone line (and thus all internet access) I found my self with more time to read than I’d anticipated.
So I finished off The Quarrywood. I enjoyed it. I wished I had read it when I was younger. It was one of those books that as a teenager I would have underlined the ‘profound’ bits to think about – about how I could relate to them – but in my fifties I look back on it with some nostalgia (I suppose the word is) and reflect on the nature of young women – something I rarely do. I went straight away on to the next in the Quartet (not, I believe written as such but simply ‘packaged’ that way) ‘The Weatherhouse’ I didn’t enjoy as much. I think there were just too many women in it. Again there was a sense (for me) of the D.H.Lawrence and I’m sure that had I read it around the same time I first read ‘The Rainbow’ I would have appreciated it even more – and had a greater respect for Scots female writers – indeed I might have thought there was a chance I could become one – in a way it made me want to re-read The Rainbow and see how my attitudes to that have changed. There is the same internal conflict, the same struggle with personal identity, but reading it in my fifties, I was left a little bit cold with this – or if not cold – reflecting with an element of distance about the foibles of youth. Though most of the characters were older women – why, I wonder, did I not find anything to connect me to them? Maybe my reading perspective is still slightly out of kilter with my own perceived personal identity?
And with time on my side, I was able to get into ‘A Pass in the Grampians.’ I have to say I was expecting it to be ‘more of the same’ and to feel the same ‘distance.’ But I was more than pleasantly surprised. Now this is my kind of book. Whereas in the first one we looked pretty much from the perspective of one young girl, in the second we looked at the community of women (left behind during the war) in this one we had the interplay of the sexes across the community. It was worth reading the others just to get to this one, equally, if I was going to read one Nan Shepherd book, this would be it. I have always been a reader who ‘works my way through’ a writers entire collection once I’ve discovered them, but I sense a change here. Doing that was a lot about ‘understanding’ the writer and their context, but now I feel like I want to read for pleasure, I’m a bit more selective –reading for the story rather than to ‘learn’ about either the author or their context in the history of fiction. It may just be that with 50 years reading under my belt, I know I don’t have another 50 years ahead of me – and time is always at a premium. That’s a lesson that’s worth learning as a writer I suspect – that one can’t expect readers to love all of your work (or even any of it) and that reader choice is the prime thing – we should all be seeking out writing we enjoy and reading it. Sharing about it is worthwhile insofar as getting decent recommendations can help point the way in the individual search – but one’s expectations shouldn’t go further than that – reading is a unique, individual experience and we need to learn to know our own tastes and how to find things that will match them – and not get bothered when a) others don’t share these tastes or b) there’s a lot of books one just doesn’t want to read. There’s something out there for everyone – finding it – that’s the skill. That’s why this year I’ve shifted from a reviewing mentality to a more reflective one – I’m charting my own journey rather than seeking to influence anyone else’s.
By the skin of my teeth and reader interrupted…
BOOK 11: I’ve got a confession to make. I honestly didn’t think I’d make my quota of books this month. It was busy, busy, busy (but that’s usual) and then, I confess, I went off piste and read a couple of books (for pleasure) that were not on my ‘list’. The first I can’t even remember now – something about a teacher and a crime and… it was compelling but in the kind of way that I imagine gaming is addictive. It made me realise why people read these kind of books and confirmed that I wouldn’t be reading any more of them. It’s perfectly good, but not what I want out of fiction. I was reading it as fast as I could to get to the end to find out what happened, knowing that the ‘red herring’ was taunting me all along. It didn’t have the appeal of ‘The Secret Knowledge.’ Or of another book – the one that saved my bacon this month – more of that later.
I then remained off piste and not purely for pleasure (and there was no pleasure in it at all) read a non fiction book about refugees. This is really for research and so I shouldn’t be putting it in here at all, except to explain my distractions. It’s not that I’m not reading (I’m up at 5.30am each day doing so to get some extra time!) it’s just that I’m not getting time to read for pleasure to the tune of a book a week.
May went by really quickly and I have a feeling I may have read a book at the beginning of the month that I have totally forgotten about – that uneasy feeling that the pace of life is just too fast. So we’ll ignore that and say that I was ‘tag team’ reading a couple of books. The first was ‘The Lost Glen’ by Neill Gunn – following on from last month’s Highland River –and at the same time I was embarking upon the first of Nan Shepherd’s ‘Grampian Quartet.’
BOOK 12: I got the ebook out of the library. It’s a beast of a book and pretty cheap to buy as an ebook, but I prefer paperback –I ordered that from the library but there’s a queue so I got the ebook while I was waiting. But what with life, and reading it in tandem with ‘The Lost Glen’ all too quickly I found that my 3 week download had GONE and I wasn’t even fully through the first book. Which is annoying. Now I’ll probably have to go back to the beginning and start again when I finally get a hard copy of the book.
It’s an interesting thing comparative (or tag team) reading and these two books lent themselves to it quite well. The central characters might well have been right for each other which in itself was entertaining enough. But by the time I had my Nan Shepherd privileges withdrawn I have to say I was kind of overloaded on the sort of modernist Scottish fiction I tend to shy away from. I like the natural description and I liked the sort of Lawrencian aspect to Nan’s heroine (whose name now eludes me!) but I am getting increasingly more resistant to symbolic use of language and natural description – I like my nature to be described just as real nature not as something symbolic. When I was younger, so much younger than today, I really got something out of the ‘levels’ on which symbolism worked but these days I just like to ‘see’ the nature not to have to wonder what it all means. It just reminds me that re-reading books is a valuable thing to do every decade or so, because it shows you how much you have changed if nothing else.
Well, with Nan Shepherd only scratched I can’t claim that as a full book read – but the interruption wasn’t really my fault so I won’t feel too bad. But it meant that I had some catching up to do.
BOOK 13: My saviour was the Great Gisby. Brendan Gisby finally brought out his new novel (one might say novella actually- I’m not sure how many words you need to call something a novel these days, but it’s Great Gatsby length so it may more accurately be a novella if you want to split hairs) I’m lucky, I’ve been reading drafts of this along the way and it was with great pleasure that I sat down to read the whole thing a couple of days before it was finally published. Not just because it helped me approach my self imposed target, but because I really, really wanted to read it in its entirety. And I was not disappointed. I fully intended to sit and read it in one mammoth session BUT as I got half way through I stopped – I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want it to end and I decided to pace myself and consume it over two sittings. Which I did. Now when I say enjoy I don’t want you to think it’s an ‘enjoyable’ sort of book. It isn’t. What it is, is a book that tells it like it is. Brutal honesty about a bunch of very unpleasant people. And I’ll say people not characters because the lines are clearly blurred. This is fiction but it’s based on fact – and put both together and you are left with a very queasy feeling in your stomach about the way the world is. Brendan Gisby is one of my favourite modern Scots writers – and has become a close virtual friend (because of that) – there’s a directness in with a subtlety and an overall honesty which appeals to me. I can connect to his writing in a way that I can’t to the intellectual symbolic stuff of modernist Scots literature. The Percentages Men is a really cracking story – a car crash of a story – and puts me in mind of The Great Gatsby on more than one level. It’s a story of ‘careless’ people and the devastating effect they have on the lives of others. You know, you could take up the tag team challenge and read The Percentages Men alongside The Great Gatsby and see if you can work out what I mean. This is my version of comparative analysis of text.
BOOK 14: With Gisby out of the way I took a quick trip down memory lane to make my total 3 ½ (or is it 4 ½) Scots books in May – I re-read ‘One Man’s Meat’ by Mark Frankland. I first read Mark’s Foot and Mouth book ‘The Cull’ in 2002 and met Mark first that same year. I read ‘One Man’s Meat’ straight after ‘The Cull’ and enjoyed it. Sitting down this month and re-reading it, I felt like I was reading a different book – not that I didn’t enjoy it, I really did, but I didn’t remember it at all like that. Another reason to re-read books – one’s memory can play tricks. Add to this that I’ve read so many of Mark’s other books now over the years (I won’t say all, but definitely most) and it was interesting to see this, his first novel and think about how his style has changed (developed?) over the years. ‘One Man’s Meat’ definitely stands up against all his other work. For me, this time through, I opened it and it seemed like I was reading Ian Fleming mixed up with John Le Carre (now it’s a long time since I read any John Le Carre so I may be off kilter here a bit). I’m still trying to work out what I think has changed in Mark’s writing over the years - I shall need to re-read some more- I want to say maybe he’s gained in confidence in his own voice – certainly the Great Dumfries Food Bank Seige (which is well worth a read) stands out as a man who is no longer giving a damn about ‘how’ he should write a book and it absolutely rocks. I suppose I applaud the fact that as the years have gone on Mark has just kept writing and in the process stopped worrying about whether his books are ‘good enough’ – they are more than good enough – and just got the stories out. And maybe it shows. Or maybe I’m just analysing something that isn’t there.
The point of all of the above is to show that when I read there is so much more to it that just enjoying (or not) a story with (or without) a decent plot and some nice imagery and compelling characters. I’m sure some people just plough through books (like the off piste one I read which I can’t even remember the name of – I saw it recommended on ‘Meet the Author’ by the way ) and that’s enough for them. For me there is so much more. Books and reading are a form of communication and a form of inspiration for thought about deep issues and questions about life and our place in our world. I love to see into another person’s mind and heart and think about how they connect to the world. I like to compare people and times and styles and what writers think they are doing (or what I think they think they are doing) as well as just enjoying – or being moved by – the stories. I don’t know if that makes me unusual, but it seems to me there’s so much more to fiction than simple stuffing your face with a story, or cramming plots galore into your brain. There’s a much more active involvement. Maybe that’s why I’m not so keen on the symbolism novels any more – I can make my own connections. In my twenties I was still trying to understand how the world was, now I pretty much know what I think about a lot of things and what I like is to see how other people see them.
So. I can make some recommendations of books I’ve read this month. But the above doesn’t constitute any kind of ‘review’ because that’s another animal entirely. And my jury is out on exactly what the nature and purpose of reviewing is these days. That’s my own personal journey though… for the moment I’m just happy to be preparing for another month of Scots books in my 50 Years a Reader project. And still amazed how significant books are to my life.
BOOK 8: In what I suspect is going to become a frequent excuse, this month I was really pushed for time to read – apart from the masses of reading I have to do for ‘work.’ No complaints. When work involves reading one doesn’t even care that work is unpaid. It’s all about the reading, after all. I’ve decided once and for all that reading is a) my drug of choice and b) the panacea for the world’s ills. And I have it confirmed by one of the books I did manage to read this month. But I’ll leave you in suspense on that one.
The first book I (tried) to read this month I abandoned. It shall remain nameless as I don’t like to spread negative vibes about books simply because they aren’t to my taste. My reason for abandonment (among other things) was that a character in the book got gored in the ribs by a bull. And I read that just after I had bruised my ribs falling (or some would have it attempting to jump) from a low scaffolding platform. Low being a relative term when you hit the ground with a thump. So you see, reality does hit the world of fiction almost literally at times and as escapism the nameless book didn’t cut it.
But I did read Neil Gunn’s ‘The Highland River’ right to the end. I’ve read it before, many many years ago, something I didn’t remember till a while in. Then I wasn’t so interested in fishing and the prolonged exploration (as analogy as well as literally) of catching a salmon left me a bit cold. This time I really enjoyed its pace. I was reading it primarily in order to try and contrast it with some S.R.Crockett. I got diverted (among other things) this month on a stooshie regarding ‘Kailyard’ novels. I tried, and failed to ‘out’ anyone to actually come and debate in a textual manner what exactly ‘is’ a kailyard novel. The offer is still open. All that’s required is that you’ve read a Barrie or Crockett novel which you consider to be Kailyard and we can debate how (or not) they fit the criteria.
Reading ‘Highland River’ only confirmed to me that Crockett isn’t Kailyard. What I found interesting is that Gunn (like Grassic Gibbon) is writing later – post-war but still looks back at rural life as it was pre-war. Now to Gunn (and his character, which is his father) this rural past is seen perhaps nostalgically, but not really so – what he does show is the watershed (both literally and through analogy) of the First World War. He very much views the pre-war world in the same eyes as Crockett – from the perspective of people who lived in rural environments. There is a rural realism and of course the brutality of the War shocks and changes both life and fiction. However, Gunn never retro-fits rural life Pre-War into the ‘nostalgic, sentimental’ package that Crockett has been accused of. But take a moment to pause. The two men show recognisably similar worlds and viewpoints. Crockett’s only crime was that he died before the First World War and therefore couldn’t contextualise backwards like Gunn (and Grassic Gibbon did). But the quality and content of his description of rural life before the War stands up beside either of these. There is the obvious difference between Highland and Lowland but rural Scotland still shines through
BOOK 9: I then read (and really didn’t enjoy) ‘Greenvoe’ by George Mackay Brown. Again it’s years since I read his work and I remember really enjoying Magnus, but I have to say ‘Greenvoe’ didn’t engage me. This is not really GMB’s fault, more reflective of my distraction into Crockett – at present work but also always a pleasure - which I was enjoying so much more. I find Crockett’s ‘communities’ much more appealing and engaging than GMB’s. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been to Orkney that I didn’t find a way to engage with the Orcadian community. Perhaps it was that I was all Islanded out, having just read (for work) another two books with an Islands link (albeit Shetland). Maybe as I age I’m becoming less tolerant of ‘cleverness’ in books, and I have to say I completely didn’t understand the whole thing about the Horsemen. I remember when reading ‘Magnus’, Brown’s ability to segue between past and present impressed me so much that I utilised both his sparse style and his ‘way’ of doing this in my own first novel ‘The Threads of Time.’ So I’m not dissing Brown in any way. I’m just not in ‘that place’ to appreciate it at present I suppose. I’ll give more Brown a go in the months to come. The people were credible, just not hugely interesting to me.
BOOK 10: Things went from bad to worse – in one respect – in another respect I learned something (as I am every month) about the spectrum of reasons for reading. A small step on the path to enlightenment I think. The last book of the month (and yes, it was a light month for ‘leisure’ reading) was Alan Campbell McLean’s ‘The Glasshouse.’ The book I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. I’ve owned it for a couple of years and been promising myself to read it all that time. It was an horrific book. I could have put it down time and again. I hated it. And this was the reason to read on. It is a fictional account of time spent in a military prison towards the end of the Second World War. It is completely unlike anything else I’ve read by him. It makes me want to rush back and read ‘The Islander’ (despite my overdosing on islands recently) to cleanse myself. Don’t get me wrong, because I didn’t enjoy it doesn’t make it a good book. Anyone who said they ‘liked’ this book has spent too much time on social media and lost the capacity to understand what ‘like’ means. You are not supposed to like it. If you are not offended, shocked and horrified by it, you are probably not fit to read it. But it’s long been out of print so you’ll likely never get the chance. And that’s not surprising. It lifts the lid on all sorts of things we’d rather brush under the carpet. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of what is right (and wrong) in the world, I would recommend that you try and find a copy.
There is no happy ending BUT there is, at the end, a paragraph that made it all worth while. Having met Alan Campbell McLean (albeit briefly) as a youngster, I was all the more shocked about his experiences and how, some 30 years on he had obviously transcended them. ‘The Glasshouse’ was written on reflection of some 20 years and he’d published ‘The Hill of the Red Fox’ and ‘The Islander’ before he attempted it. It was first published in 1969 and my edition is a Pan Book from 1972. The ending is as follows:
‘The old man used to say if you can read you are free, boy: all you have to do is get your nose stuck into a book and there’s no place you can’t go. Only the ignorant stay shut in, the old man said, and no man need be ignorant as long as there is a book to read.’
And that confirms to me the importance of reading, not just for escapism, not just books one ‘likes’ but for the very purpose of keeping ignorance at bay. Read for pleasure, read for profit, but also read to be shocked, to be challenged and yes, dare I say it, to learn. Books may sometimes take you to places you don’t want to be, tell you things you don’t want to know, but sometimes it’s important to get out of one’s comfort zone. With books there are always safe places to return to as well. April has been a challenging month for me, and who knows what May will bring. As long as it brings more time to read I’ll be happy.
BOOK 5: The first book I read this month nearly saw me off! I have had little time for 'personal' reading adn Joan Lingard's Dreams of Love and Modest Glory weighs in at 150,000 words.
This was an epic read. It took me the best part of a month, in snatched moments early in the day, while cooking dinner and whenever I could get the time. It’s not the ideal way to read a book and certainly not the ideal way to read a book like this. Indeed one thing I learned while reading it, is how different the ‘contemporary’ fiction read is from this. Modern fiction seems to get away with being around 50,000 to 60,000 words – the spacing between lines and the general layout means you can read a book of 250 pages and not really have broken sweat. I’m not used to reading contemporary fiction of 450 pages – though I don’t baulk at reading a 19th century novel of that length. So interesting comparisons abound before we even talk about the book itself.
But what about the book itself. The narrative is epic in style too. A couple of young women return to Latvia in the 1990’s to connect with relatives from the past. This part of the story (and it may be the way I had to read it) didn’t work as well for me, it felt like a ‘device’ and I frequently got lost in who was who and what and why they were doing – AND the ‘interesting’ story was their family history. Which went from the 1900’s through till 1940’s and from Aberdeen to Russia and Latvia. This was complex
There were twins and that always makes for a good duality theme – and there
It was interwoven and the relationships interesting – and the sweep of history was also really engaging. But somehow I felt all too often that I was reading ‘devices’ – I never really got lost in the story. As I say, it may be because this is the kind of book you need a good few hours to sit down on a sofa, disconnect from the outside world and just READ.
I had read Joan Lingard’s Belfast Quintet probably about 40 years ago and I never knew till this year that she’d written adult fiction. I should read another one, because I can’t pass any sort of personal opinion on her adult writing – and I should probably re-read the Belfast books – I remember they had a massive impact on me at the time. Perhaps I’m blaming her because this adult novel didn’t have the same impact.
Interestingly enough, it covers the period of history I was studying in school much around the same time I was reading her Belfast stories. I don’t know what any of that means except that coincidences abound in life and we like to make connections.
Anyway, this was published in 1995, which feels positively historic now in terms of contemporary fiction. I’m sure books like this are being written still – they are not the kind of books I normally read. I’m guessing it’s the kind of Dorothy Dunnett reader who would get the most out of this. Is it ‘intelligent womens’ fiction?’ I don’t know. I still don’t know what most of the ‘classifications’ of literature are any more. They lost me at ‘bonk-buster’
All in all. If you’re interested in the history of Aberdeen and Russia in the early 20th century- if you like to read about families and enjoy consuming history through family saga – then you will most likely enjoy this book. Take it away as a holiday read. Don’t pick at it chapter by chapter like I did. It doesn’t give it the best chance to impress. And that’s my fault, not the authors!
BOOK 6: Next up and In complete contrast.
The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil. Fresh off the press. And a shout out for my local library. Here’s how I found out about it. Dumfries were holding their first ‘literary salon’ (It came to my attention via social media) and Kevin was talking at it. His book sounded interesting so I looked to see if it was available at the library. It was. As was an earlier book. I reserved them both. The other one turned up first, but before I had time to read it, I got the call to pick this one up BRAND NEW and I’m the first reader. Let’s hear it for libraries folks! A free read of a brand new book.
It looks quite ‘slender’ but a word count reveals it is probably 85,000 words or so – about half what the Lingard one was. It was going to be relatively easy to read it quickly and certainly more attune to the ‘pace’ I’m used to.
While this is a ‘new’ book, it’s clearly been around ‘in development’ as there are loads of quotes by all sorts of ‘important’ people saying how great it is. They fulfil what I would call a brief of 'MARKET HARD.' The front cover told me it was ‘laugh out loud funny.’ I must confess, I didn’t laugh once. i spent more time wondering what is wrong with someone who finds this book ‘laugh out loud funny.’ The other ‘blurb’ was more intriguing. It repeatedly is sold as ‘a novel like no other’ ‘a book that isn’t like anything else’ These of course are hard claims to live up to.
‘A laugh out loud satire on what we value in culture.’ This gets closer to the point. It is a satire on what we value in culture. I’m afraid the only people I can see laughing out loud at it are the ones who are high up the food chain.
The Whitehousers and the blackhousers are relatively easy to translate. The alpacas – the jury is still out for me on who they are supposed to represent.
‘The Brilliant & Forever’ will split your sides and break your heart.’
It certainly didn’t split my sides. Did it break my heart? In a way. It offered some interesting insights into the nature of writing and literature – which I suppose might be cynical if they weren’t sad – maybe that’s what makes ‘cultured’ people laugh these days – give cynical a sadness makeover and those people will engage in the way that everyone found Dickens funny but no one recognised themselves.
I recognised plenty of folk – but that didn’t make me laugh. It fuelled my general anger. As such I found the book significant and important. Someone is saying some of the things that perhaps need to be said.
Obviously part of the author was Archie the Alpaca – but Archie was too much of a cultural outsider to be able to carry the narrative. Perhaps Archie and Macy are both parts of the author’s personality – there’s no duality in the author, more a tripartite – the ‘attitudes’ are shown from this multiple perspective. Maybe it just shows that no ‘outsider’ stands a chance against the elite.
The ‘stories’ told at the festival were all interesting in their own right, and would all certainly bear re-reading and closer reading. In that respect it’s the sort of book I like –I could come back to it again and think more about what’s in it – except. Except that come the ending I sort of felt that there had been a ‘sell out’ After all, the author himself (according to the book blurb) now seems to fall into the very camp he is criticising. And they don’t mind. I’m always very suspicious of ‘the maverick within.’ True mavericks are NOT lauded and recognised and feted by the people they criticise. So what has happened to this author? Has he gone over to the dark side. Is he ‘working’ a system. Cynicism and sadness = social satire?
I guess it is up to every reader to decide for themselves. I would agree it’s a novel like very few, if not no others. It is clearly influenced by Calvino and Borges. Is it honest or just too clever for its own good. I can’t decide. At times I feel the ‘honesty’ of the author’s views through his characters. At other times I feel it’s playing to a gallery, being a clever kid and perhaps this is the whole dilemma facing writers in our contemporary culture. He is trying to ride an alpaca facing two directions at once. It’s a push me – pull you sort of a novel in that respect.
But it’s a cracking good read, all the same. It does make you think. And I suppose I’m glad it didn’t make me ‘laugh out loud.’ It didn’t break my heart because my heart has long ago been broken by the state of literature and culture in my society. But it didn’t help mend my heart on that score, that’s for certain.
I guess what I’m trying to show in this monthly round up review is that I am NOT reviewing from the stance of ‘good literature’ or ‘quality’ because the way I’m reading at the moment is far more personal. It’s about the creative communicative connection between me and the author. Which I believe is reading at its best. And since the ‘Beautiful & Forever’ is kind of about that sort of thing, I don’t feel bad about ‘indulging’ myself in that kind of personal review. I’m not, after all, attempting to persuade other readers to go where I have gone, I’m simply on my 50 years a reader personal reflection of things I’ve read, and what reading means for me. That’s NOT a review of a book. It’s a reflection of my life. Read into that what you will.
Determined to see whether I could come up with a better conclusion as to what kind of writer I think he is, Immediately after reading ‘The Beautiful & Forever,’ I dove into MacNeil’s earlier book ‘The Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’. I can review this in four short words:
A study in narcissism.
Whether that is complement or criticism is up to you – if you read the book I’m sure you’ll have your own views. My current conclusions (which may change with reflection) are that he’s a ‘clever’ writer. Again, whether you take that as compliment or criticism depends on your own view of the point of fiction.
BOOK 7: Putting MacNeil aside, since I’ve set myself the task of reading at least 50 Scottish books this year, I needed to crack on and the Lingard set me back in a month when I was really pushed for reading time. So I thought I’d pick a modern ‘indie’ book which would be a fast read and the first one that hit my eye, being recently published was Robert Cowan’s ‘For All is Vanity.’ The title particularly appealed to me after reading the ‘narcissism’ book!
I read, but abandoned Cowan’s debut novel ‘The Search For Ethan.’ Not because it’s a bad book in any way, but because I felt like I was becoming a voyeur. Cowan’s books are not ‘easy’ reads in the respect that they get into your skin and ‘The Search for Ethan’ had (for me) the same issues that McIllvanny has – they are about a world I’ve worked hard to escape from. So to read them as ‘escapism’ would be like escaping back into a nightmare.
I don’t need to read them to ‘learn’ anything about that world, I know enough about it already. So I felt like a sort of tourist. If I said I ‘enjoyed’ it it would be akin to a kind of textual porn – so I stopped and read something more suited to my search for personal growth! That, as I say, is nothing against Cowan. As should be obvious from the fact that I was happy to pick up ‘For all is Vanity.’ A quick check of the beginning of it on the free Kindle search inside was enough to tell me that it was worth a read. It put me in mind of nothing so much as Gogol – ‘Diary of a Madman’. As I embarked upon it I thought it was kind of ‘if you put Gogol in Strathaven this is what you’d get.’
I was hoist with my own petard in the case of hoping it would be a ‘quick and easy read’ to end my quota of books for the month. It is a totally disturbing read – and I don’t mean that in a bad way! It really charts the demise of a man into mental crisis. That interests me. Not as a voyeur, but as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about personal identity and the relationship between reality for the individual and society. As such this gave me plenty to get my teeth into. Yes, there’s the same grim, bleak darkness of ‘The Search for Ethan’ and possibly none of the humour (I’ve already established that my sense of ‘laugh out loud’ humour is obviously awry – I didn’t find much to laugh about in Ethan – but I’ve only read half of it so I’m not passing comment on the book, only on my ability to read it – or unwillingness given personal circumstances which should NOT be mis-attributed to the writer or his work in any way!
But ‘For All is Vanity’ kept me really engaged. And not just like rubber-necking at a car crash. There was depth and plenty of it. It wasn’t a ‘quick’ read in any sense. It was at times quite profound. For me, the biggest moment came in what might have been just a throw away line when Jack reflects that the countryside might offer peace. Amidst the total carnage of the disintegration of his life – and it is total – there was that one moment… and I related to it, because that was my own path to salvation – if we want to be so dramatic as all that! Without being pretentious or over labouring this point, this is why I can’t comfortably read things like ‘The Search for Ethan’ or ‘Doherty’ or other books of that gritty urban realism type. Yes I’ve read ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Morven Callar’ (which I know isn’t strictly ‘urban’ but for me is every bit as urban as ‘Trainspotting’ ) and all the ‘classics’ of this school of Scottish fiction and they do have a place. It’s just that they represent everything I worked so hard to remove myself from. My success at creating an alternative life, and an alternative vision of life and its possibilities, means that while I can have pity for those stuck in the destructive urban grind, I don’t want to revisit it for pleasure or pain. But a book like ‘For All is Vanity’ rises above the ‘norm’, goes beyond the clichés and says something pretty important about the human condition – at least that’s what did it for me.
As I say, profoundly disturbing, raised quite a few ‘ghosts’ and has questions staying in my mind. And the end… well, I’m not going to give that away am I… but suffice it to say that I am impressed by Cowan’s structural coherence. It’s never an easy thing to achieve and certainly not when the coherence sits underneath a novel of dissonance and destruction. A job well done. And I will now have to pencil in re-reading of Gogol, something I’ve not done in 25 years!
Where am I going with my reading in April? Well, top of my list is Allan Campbell Maclean’s ‘The Glasshouse.’ Then there’s Crumey’s ‘Mr Mee’ which beckons. After that, we’ll see where the mood takes me. I fancy a bit of Stevenson or Barrie or something that will take me away from modern grimness… but we’ll see. One book leads to another in this journey. But April is looking to be a busy month, so I’m going to be hard pressed to find reading time outside of the ‘work’ related reading commitments.
In 2016 I will have been reading for 50 years. I'm going to celebrate this by reading even more and sharing what I'm reading.