Festive Reading, Thinking and Doing

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I love reading books recommended by readers and writers which means my to be read pile just keeps growing.

These days I’m reading a lot on the kindle. Having ‘turned’ the last page of Stephen King’s The Outsider last week I’m now almost finished with the truly wonderful Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. 

After that I’m going to move through the pile above – yes. I will be revisiting books already read, re-reading and analysing, reading fresh stories, typing, baking and cooking.

I will be allowing my mind compost (as Anne Lamott might say), letting my body rest. As much as I can. Intentions are part of the trick, I think. Oh yes and at some stage over Christmas I will write.

And give and receive presents. And be grateful. And make plans to get that new to be read pile down. Joy, I say, the joys of reading. That ‘portable magic’, as Stephen King calls it. In today’s world of inequality, extreme politics, and violence, we need this magic more than ever.

 

 

The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life….My Pile of Reading

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The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life

(Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text)

It is often difficult for me to get to events and launches so reading and chatting is how I try to stay connected to the literary scene. I’ve recently chatted to Nessa O’Mahony about her debut novel The Branchman and Nuala O’Connor on her feminist Becoming Belle.

I’ve just finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People which was long-listed for the Booker. Now I’m deep into John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, enjoying recognizing streets in Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Next up is Milkman by Anna Burns (not pictured as it’s on my Kindle!) followed by the wonderful new collection from Doireann Ní Ghríofa Lies which launched yesterday (alongside Jessica Traynor’s The Quick – which I will shortly add to my pile). And then the moving memoir Twelve Thousand Days by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

What a choice. In these leafy Autumn days instead of writing days, it’s reading days. I may even light a fire.

On Reading: Alone and in Book Groups

This week I welcome Frances Clarke who talks about her experience of reading for pleasure, for academia and for a book group. In particular, she discusses reading the first two books in Karen Lee Street’s Edgar Allan Poe’s trilogy.

SG: Frances, Welcome to Writers Chat which, for this session should really be called Readers Chat!

So, you’re a member of a crime book group in Dublin. Can you start by telling us a little bit about the group – for example, your scope of reading in terms of how the group might define crime, and also how you might go about selecting a book to read – catering for different tastes within the group – and finally, what’s the timeframe around that?

FC: Well, the book group was started in work about 5 or so years ago. A lot of us are keen fans of crime writing, so a colleague suggested we start a book group with a crime fiction focus.

We’ve had a conveniently broad interpretation of this, so to date it’s taken in espionage (John Le Carre has been selected a few times), true crime (In Cold Blood was an early choice), new writers like Jane Harper alongside the 19th Century classics like Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle.

Selecting a book is pretty straight forward – someone pitches for a preference and if we like the look of it and think copies will be easy to locate, we go with it.

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SG: Oh that’s interesting – the fact that the look of a book and if it’s easily found comes into play. So, for writers, distribution is key! And what a great stack of books your book club has read (photo above).

Having studied English at university, I’m sure you’re familiar with the types of reading we do – for pleasure, for analysis, for critique and so on. Would you say reading a book for a book group discussion differs from reading a book on your own? And if so, how does it differ?

FC: Our group is very much about reading for pleasure. I’m a very keen reader and most (but not all) in the group are too. However we don’t take ourselves too seriously, because it’s as much about meeting up with colleagues after work as it is about the reading. So I try to keep the English lit graduate in me at bay. This works best when I’ve enjoyed the book – my enthusiasm won’t be so analytical. If I haven’t liked the book, there’s a temptation to forensically pick it apart.

SG: It’s funny, I think that once you’ve been reading with an analytical eye that type of reading (or skill, if you will) never really leaves you.

So one of the recent reads was the second in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy by American writer Karen Lee Street – Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru. You also read the Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, the first in the trilogy. How did you find reading them as part of a continuum and also, perhaps, discussing them as stand alone books?

FC: Our group did read the first two installments in Karen Lee Street’s Poe trilogy – The London Monster and The Jewel of Peru. We looked at them as stand alone works though, purely because we expanded our membership between the release of both novels and not everyone had read The London Monster.

For me, each book really works well as a stand alone piece of fiction anyway. What I liked so much about the first book, The London Monster,  is how you cut between the 18th and 19th centuries (and the tone for each is so spot on) whereas The Jewel of Peru is very much a work of Victorian Gothic.

SG: Yes, though they are both period pieces, and in many ways tick the boxes of Historical Fiction, they are quite different in tone and timeframe. So how did the group classify Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru? The group described it as “essential reading for lovers of historical crime writing, Gothic fiction and urban noir” (on the jacket cover).

Did you find having some knowledge of Poe’s writing helped you appreciate the complexities of the characters and plot or does it matter whether readers are familiar with Poe’s works?

FC: Well, we frequently pick historical crime fiction and I think Karen’s book proved so popular with the group in part because of that. It’s a great genre – if you get it right.

 

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SG: How did Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru differ from other books you have read as a group? How was it similar?

That’s interesting. We did read Murder in Rue Morgue some time before we read Karen’s reimagining of Poe’s work. So inevitably when we talked about Karen’s writing we harked back to our reading of Poe and other early crime writers. I think because Karen recreates the tone and mood of Victorian writing so well (which is not down to research alone but a certain literary or visual sensibility) we ended up talking as much about 19th century gothic writing (comparing it with Uncle Silas, The Woman in White etc) as crime fiction. The focus of the discussion went down that route.

But since that we’ve picked books that are wildly different; I think our next choice was The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. I found that a bit of a macho read, which seemed the opposite of Karen’s vision of Poe.

SG: What a wide range of reading your book club does. I must re-read The Woman in White. 

To end our chat, Frances, some fun questions:

One favourite character in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

Everyone took to Muddy. It’s a lovely portrait of someone who discreetly keeps everything ticking over.

One favourite scene in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

We’re a book group of librarians, conservators and archivists so everyone had something to say on the scenes in the library, which are beautifully written. Anything to do with book theft or books of uncertain provenance would have to come up for a mention.

One favourite period detail in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

It has to be Miss Loddiges’s bird jewellery. No question – we all loved that little detail. It conjures up such a bizarre image – a bit steam punk really.

What’s next on the list for the book group?

Next Up is Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange. It’s gotten great reviews in both the Guardian and Irish Times so I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

SG: Oh I loved that book. It’s been a while since I finished a book and wanted to start reading it again. Bitter Orange did that for me. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks again for the Readers Chat, Frances. I wish your book group all the best of discussions and words!

 

Writers Read: On “Vampire in Love” by Enrique Vila-Matas

NOTE: This post was first published on my blog in October 2016

There’s a radio advert for a book festival in Dublin which tells listeners that you never know what will happen when you open a book. The selection of stories ‘Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas is testament to this. Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa and published by the innovate Andotherstories this collection showcases some of Vila-Matas’ finest stories. From the opening ‘A Permanent Home’ which is as unsettling as it is disturbing, to the witty ‘I’m not going to read any more emails’, the play with language and play on words forms a thrilling part of the read. The way in which Vila-Matas uses time to keep us (as readers) on our toes puts me in mind of the work of another Catalan writer, Jaume Cabré, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño.

 

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Vila-Matas has stated in an interview with the Paris Review that

What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures…

This interest is clearly evident in ‘Vampire in Love’ where the narratives flick and flash back and forth between reality and truth, with the questioning of perception prominent throughout the collection. Yet his use of language is also poetic. In one of my favourite stories, ‘Rosa Schwarzer comes back to life’, a sinister painting comes (or seems to come) to life, creating creates an epiphany moment for Rosa who is grossly unappreciated by her family.

The coffee brought her almost savagely awake, and, for a moment, as if it were a brief foretaste of what she would experience at the museum today, she saw in her mind the remote landscapes of that dark foreign prince’s country.

It is this beautiful mix of the every day sensory experience with the dreamscape seeping into the reality of both the character and that of the reader that I found so special. In another scene in this story we are presented with a picture of Rosa’s plummeting emotions where the landscape echoes her inner state:

The sky was a grubby opaque white colour, and, in her mind, a similar opaque whiteness began erasing the memory of what she had experienced with the night owl, whom she had abandoned in the park.

These emotions are later displayed  – though bluntly go unnoticed by her husband and sons:

‘What’s for supper?’ demanded her son Bernd from the sofa.

‘Death,’ she said. ‘Death.’

She said this so quietly, from the solitude of her kitchen, that they didn’t hear, just as they didn’t hear, at that same moment, a chicken having its throat slit.

 

Opening lines that hook you are another feature of the collection. Take this loaded first sentence (from ‘In Search of The Electrifying Double Act’):

One April afternoon some years ago, when my name was still Mempo Lesmes and I was very young and a starving, unknown actor, I got lost in the labyrinthine outskirts of San Anfiero de Granzara, and I came across a large mansion surrounded by an overgrown garden – the Villa Nemo.

Or consider the theme of memory that ripples through these stories: this from the fantastic tiny story ‘Indentifying Marks’ –

I remember nothing of that year except that elections were held, and someone, on a night that seemed to me interminable, swore blind that I was Catalan.

And the strong sense of place, from ‘Invented Memories’:

I remember that on my trip to the Azores, I visited Peter’s Bar in Horta, a café frequented by whalers near the yachting club; a mixture of inn, meeting place, information centre and post office.

For Vila-Matas, concepts of place and that never-ending search for something – in art, literature, cinema – as an integral part of the urban existence is often what drives the narrative arc. In the title story (‘Vampire in Love’) the vampire – our hero – thinks:

We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.

The truth about people is often intertwined with history and place, as in the subtext of Franco’s Spain that runs through the chilling (yet at times amusing) ‘Greetings from Dante’ in which the father-narrator reveals his profound fear for and hate of his son whilst maintaining his fatherly role of trying to discover why the child – Tito – is mute. In conversation with a psychoanalyst the father discovers that in the sixteenth century, in their neighbourhood, a Portuguese student was revealed to be a demon when he was seen eating a bowl of flies. Unnervingly, Tito’s sister who is patient and understanding of his muteness often proclaimed ‘A shut mouth catches no flies’ and on this occasion (without knowing the history which the father has discovered) changes the proverb to ‘Tito’s mouth is full of flies.’ Violence ensues and so the story goes on – the mysterious sense of the streets taking in and then letting out evil pervades. Similarly in ‘Niño’, where the narrator/father maintains the position of the niño’s ‘attentive assistant’ despite the uncomfortable dislike for his son who, like him, in trying to survive, searches for the truth and attempts to face the void that is life (and death):

‘We’ll find out the truth about the beyond,’ he said.

‘Be careful,’ I warned. ‘Those who seek the truth deserve the punishment of finding it.’

The collection is also very much a writer’s book. I particularly loved the sense of voyeurism, obsessiveness and vanity that peppers the characters of Vila-Matas. In the fantastical ‘Modesty’ (my favourite story in the collection), we meet an occasional spy who, in this quote, is observing the No. 24 thief (so called because he operates on the No. 24 bus):

He doesn’t seem interested in any other route or any other bus. He must simply enjoy – as I do – being a regular, or perhaps he simply loves doing the same thing over and over. He’s not unlike me in a way: we are both of us thieves. Of course, he steals wallets and purses, while I only snatch phrases, faces, gestures…

In ‘Death by Suadade’, the narrator recalls – when he was nine – how the growth of curiosity about where he lived, and what made the place itself became his sole occupation:

The street began to steal a whole hour of my homework time, an hour that I recovered thanks to the simple method of cutting down the time I usually spent after supper reading great novels, until the day came when the charms of the Paseo de San Luis proved so alluring that they stole all my reading time. In other words, the Paseo replaced great novels.

I also recall spending hours – at a little older than nine though – staring through open windows, imagining the lives of others.

I read the collection from start to finish, and although many of the characters seemed to have merged into one by the time I had finished, on reflection it is the emotional weight which carries the book. Ultimately it is the re-imagining of the lives of ‘the other’ and of others that this story collection presents to the reader. ‘Vampire in Love’ is a book which gives us an escape; enabling us to dive into the pages, the minds, and the lives of characters who might well have come from our own dreams.

You can order ‘Vampire in Love’ here and see an interview with Vila-Matas and Paul Auster here.