Sunday 26 December 2021

Ho, ho, ho

I got to the end of Christmas Eve, but no, why would I want to go home and start the holiday if I could offer to go back to work and sort out the late driver's vans before the weekend collection risked taking all the keys away. Exhausted is one word, and none of its synonyms seem to quite capture the need to sit down and not get up again for quite some time. So, having drunk quite a bit of Bailey's and watched everything from Die Hard to Muppet Christmas Carol I feel utterly unprepared to reflect on the passing year. 'I am past caring' seems to be the expression that has passed my lips most often in recent months, and yet I still found myself searching boxes of unprepared mail for people's Christmas cards and tracking down missing packages. We had a small win when a house full of young men denied all knowledge of a mis-delivered package and Jason had to threaten them with the police, suddenly they managed to find it. But Covid has gone round the office again in the last fortnight so mostly I have spent several weeks just apologising to people that their mail has not arrived. 

Books this year (will have to list them first then debate the favourites):

Books that I borrowed and returned to the library: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (didn't like any of the people enough to pay the fine I would have gotten to keep and finish it) and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (very much not in the mood for fantasy, if that is what this was). 
38 books is a step up on last year, and lots of translated fiction and poetry this year. For the second time, I give the fiction winner's title to Anthony Doerr, closely followed by Ocean Vuong, but the best book of the year must be The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, that I loved every page of and which gave me a very necessary lift and renewed positive outlook. Am thinking maybe some reading challenges might push me to read more next year. Or maybe I just need to disable facebook.

Stay safe. Be kind. Read more.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Three postmen chatting on Palatine Road

Prefer to stay in?
Yes, why not.
Other people can go out in the rain.
It's their job after all.
In fact, why leave the house at all.
We will call and collect
that crap that you bought
but now want to return.
Like magic we will just absorb the extra load
and whistle cheerfully
as we come down the path
(not forgetting to close the garden gate).
And if the service begins to slide
through the sheer exhaustion
of the workforce
it's ok
you can come in 
and accuse us of not working hard enough
and I will politely say
Yes, of course you can speak to a manager
and then you can tell her
how you saw
three postman chatting on Palatine Road,
which is just not good enough.

Friday 3 December 2021

Some other things

I went to a Literature Festival poetry event, mainly to hear Andrew McMillan, but came away with a copy of 'A Blood Condition' by Kayo Chingonyi. It was interesting that the ones he read were mostly 'set' in the UK, when in fact the collection reflected much more on his Zambian roots. Many are very brief, like memories encapsulated. I like this one, the word ginnel is very northern:


an interstice
a quarter tone
last known
of missing persons
the world over
From the Old English:
the coast's open maw
pointing the way
to the whale road
gap in the teeth
of a terraced street

Currently enjoying 'The Souvenir Museum' by Elizabeth McCracken, short stories to read in between other longer things.
I ordered 'The Small Backs of Children' by Lidia Yuknavitch and was very disturbed by it. It is an interesting technique where a writer does not give characters names, but identifies them by other means, in this book they are called 'the writer' 'the photographer' 'the artist' and so on. It allows you to stay a step back from their experiences. There were a lot of fucked up people in this story. I did not like it and wished I had not read it, to the extent that I was not going to mention it at all, but decided that the blog is supposed to record all my reading. I don't think I am in a place right now to cope with the darkest side of humanity in my reading. Having said that she is obviously a very well respected writer with interesting things to say.

I found 'Natural Novel' by Georgi Gospodinov in the Oxfam bookshop, where all the best European literature can be found. And who doesn't like a nice self referential storyline, where the writer himself is the main character, and he observes through the novel his own disintegration. Or something like that, I'm not sure to be honest. But a bit of experimental writing never hurt anyone. This is a quote pulled at random:

"My father's ashtray is Finnish, with a lid. It looks a bit like a cask with a single-cigarette indentation. I always liked the idea of a personal ashtray, as personal as only a toothbrush or razor can be. Some completely unfamiliar letters are engraved on the side of the ashtray (my father didn't know what they meant either). Much later, when somebody translated them for me, I was struck by their bluntness: 'Everything is ashes.'
When I smoke, I unconsciously copy my father's gestures. The energetic tapping of the index finger on the cigarette, the knit brow as you suck on it, all the concentration and importance of the gestures. The hardest thing to learn was the natural slight bending of the index and middle fingers. Mine were always artificially straight." (p.75)

Stay safe. Be kind. Read weird stuff (occasionally).

Good news and sad news

Our family descended on south London last week to celebrate the wedding of my nephew Matthew to Harshi. She is a Hindu and as such the ceremony is unlike anything I have ever attended; it lasted about three hours and entailed quite a lot of participation by all the attendees (I missed the beginning so didn't get to walk him in with all the other women family members). Much throwing of flower petals and rice and so on was followed with much eating and my dad coaxing several young women to join the dancing. It was a beautiful and joyful celebration. Wishing them much love and happiness together.

The week ended with the sad news of the death of my children's paternal grandmother Mary. It was not unexpected but her decline had been very rapid. I hope that the presence of Ady in her life gave her joy in her final months. She was a lovely woman, a kind and caring grandmother, and a good friend to me during my marriage. A sad loss for the family, we will all miss her.
Stay safe. Be kind. 

Threads of Ruin

I (very) briefly mentioned Anthony Doerr back in 2019 when I finally got around to reading 'All The Light We Cannot See' and I have been promising myself for several days that I would try and do justice to 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'. I will fail to. I keep trying, and reading, and planning to sit and reflect, but then remind myself that I am not supposed to beat myself up about it. I want writers out there to know that their efforts are appreciated. That their stories are making life better. 

In many ways Cloud Cuckoo Land is similar in structure to All The Light, although it revolves around a story written by  Antonius Diogenes and the impact that it has over the centuries. The two young people in this story drift inexorably towards each other during the downfall of Constantinople in 1453; Omeir having been forced to join the invading Ottoman army and Anna inside the city, working as a bad embroiderer and trying to learn Greek. In other parts of the story Zeno is a soldier in the Korean war and then an old man, also learning Greek and sharing his love of Diogenes' story with some local schoolchildren. Konstance (I just realised, appropriately named) lives in the future, on a centuries long space journey to a new world, who's connection to the story saves her life. Again what I loved most about the book was the characters and how I became involved in their various fates. It is essentially what I want from my reading, to care about the people and their story, to feel invested in what becomes of them, to feel their joys and share their sorrow. 

Soldiers arrive at Omeir's home, and take his oxen, and himself as their teamster:
"Little whorls of sawdust rise through the lamplight and melt back into the shadows. 'When they saw your oxen,' he says, 'their heads nearly fell off their necks,' but he does not laugh and does not look up from his work.
Omeir sits against the wall. A particular combination of dung and smoke and straw and wood shavings make a familiar warm tang in the back of his throat and he bites back tears. Each morning comes along and you assume it will be similar enough to the previous one - that you will be safe, that your family will be alive, that you will be together, that life will remain mostly as it was. Then a moment arrives and everything changes." (p.64)

Zeno, after he returns from a year as a prisoner of war:
"In the dresser drawer the Plywood Plastic soldiers slumber in their tin box. Soldier 401 marches uphill with his rifle. Soldier 410 kneels behind his anti-tank gun. He gets into the same brass bed he slept in as a boy but the mattress is too soft and the day keeps getting brighter. Eventually he hears Mrs Boydstun go out and he creeps down the stairs and unlatches every door in the house. He needs them unlocked at the least, open at best. Then he tiptoes into the kitchen, finds a loaf of bread, tears it in half, puts one half beneath his pillow and divides the other between his pockets. Just in case.
He sleeps on the floor beside his bed. He is not quite twenty years old." (p.340)

In the prisoner of war camp Zeno meets and falls in love with Rex. After years of yearning and searching he finds him again, but when he travels to London to visit he is unable to tell him, and leaves without speaking of it:
"Horns honk and Rex glances behind them. 'Don't be so quick to dismiss yourself,' he says. 'Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to to rediscovered.'
Zeno gets out of the car, suitcase in his right hand, books under his left arm, something inside him (regret) thrusting to and fro like a spearman, pulverizing bone, destroying vital tissue. Rex leans over and puts out his right hand and Zeno squeezes it with his left, as awkward a handshake as there's ever been. Then the little car is swallowed by the traffic." (p.408)

Stay safe. Be kind. Read this book.