Dublin’s fair city

Isn’t it funny the way life works? Just over a month ago, it had been over a year since I’d last had a holiday. I was getting a bit antsy and tetchy, and everyone I work with can attest that I definitely needed a break. Fast forward five weeks and I’ve been on three holidays in three different countries! What a jet-setter am I? Holidays, who knew they were just like buses?

The third and final trip was to Dublin, a surprise for Steven’s birthday, and the first city break we’ve done since Amsterdam four years ago. I’m now thoroughly broken thanks to three days of trekking across the entire city, making the most of all that Dublin has to offer. And what a lot it has to offer!

Temple Bar, Dublin

Temple Bar, Dublin.

Dublin is a fantastic city. The people are friendly, the tourist attractions are varied and plenty and there is food and booze everywhere you turn – my kind of city! It reminded me of the best parts of London, New York and quaint villages, all blended together. We found out all about the political uprisings and troubles that Ireland went through, drank a lot of Guinness and as if that wasn’t enough, we discovered that there’s a huge literary heritage in Dublin.

Oscar Wilde monument, Dublin

Oscar Wilde monument, Dublin. 

Jonathon Swift, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (to name a handful) all have roots in, or associations with, Dublin. Many attended the beautiful Trinity College, others grew up in the urban hub, but all were inspired by the city and Ireland’s rich and tempestuous past.

Strolling through this vibrant and stunning metropolis, with tales of revolutions and civil wars ringing in our ears, it wasn’t hard to imagine what had inspired these literary greats. The beauty of the city itself, the impressive and courageous feats that had come to pass among those streets, the buzz and hubbub that form the pulsing heart of the city are inspiration personified. I could feel my creative juices a-bubbling and I was only there for a matter of days – imagine if you lived there?!

Dublin’s not just the home of talented writers, it’s also host to multiple libraries. I know, that sentence sent my heart a-flutter too. We visited two but only had the chance to go into one in our brief sojourn. I’m certain I could waste an entire weekend just going round Dublin’s libraries. Did I say waste? I meant invest. We admired the outside of Trinity College’s Library and pored over the contents of the Chester Beatty Library – which were particularly fascinating. There were books and manuscripts from all over the world and throughout the centuries and I spent a very happy couple of hours drooling over them.

In short, if you are a word/book nerd like I am, you should definitely go to Dublin. You can indulge in your literary obsessions and top it all off with a good pint and Irish cheer. What more could a bibliophile ask for?

 

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing

One of the things I love most about a good holiday is the unadulterated reading time. If it is expected of you to sit by a pool for hours at a time, you might as well make the most of it and devour some great literature as you do so.

In the last week while I was away (on Skiathos, which is a beautiful Greek island) I read four books. I like to mix up literary with lighter when I’m away, to keep my brain on an even keel, and I started the week off with ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.

This book came highly acclaimed. Not only did it win the 2013 Goldsmith Prize and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, it was also personally recommended to me and, as the cherry on top, it’s a set text for one of my MA modules. Reading this book has been a long time coming and finally, I could procrastinate no more.

It perhaps wasn’t the best choice to begin my holiday with. Everything about this book is a challenge. The structure and style are completely atypical, as the first person narration mirrors the age of the main character all the way from being a tiny baby to a twenty-something. Throughout the novel, you are dealing with incomplete sentences, only the bare essentials of grammar and no demarcation of speech whatsoever. Throw in some pretty grisly and gritty subject matter and you’re in for a tricky read.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’ve just touched down on holiday, it’s not exactly ideal.

A standard 200-page book usually takes me three or four hours to read. This took me three days. I’m a self-professed skimmer, but if you try to skim ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ you will not understand what is going on. At all. Seriously. You have to read every single word, and I think that was a very intentional decision on McBride’s part.

Aside from the brutal subject matter, the structure and style make ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ a visceral reading experience. It’s quite clear that McBride wants her readers to be utterly immersed, to feel everything that the narrator is feeling (including confusion) and by taking such an unusual approach, she has given the reader no choice. You have to take in every tiny detail, you have to be inside the narrator’s head, you have to take what she is taking.

I can see why this novel has won awards. I can see why it’s a set text for a module examining 21st Century Storytelling. I can see all of the merits. But I can’t say I’d recommend it. ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’ is fascinating and it is a triumphal achievement on Eimear McBride’s behalf – there is no second-guessing that woman’s talent. But it also feels like an academic experiment. It’s the kind of text I could pick apart and examine in minute detail, but I’m not itching to read it again and I haven’t passed it on to anyone else to read.

This is quite a rare experience for me. Generally I’m quite black and white when it comes to books – I either love them or I have good reasons why I don’t. But this novel is a conundrum. It’s clever, it’s bold but it didn’t elicit very much from me. I was relieved to finish it so that I could go on to something else. Maybe it was the wrong time, maybe I’ll read it again for my studies and suddenly find that I’m intoxicated. But for now, my reaction is a half formed thing.

My kinda spa day

So last week I wrote a post that mentioned my Reading Spa experience. What is that, you ask? Well, it was back when I was living in Bath, it was utterly divine and it completely deserves a blog post of its own.

Bath is a particularly lucky town, for many reasons, but the one that struck me the most is that it has more than one beautiful independent bookshop. Alongside Waterstones and WHSmith, there’s also Toppings (which I waxed lyrical about a couple of years ago in a blog post of its own) and Mr B’s Emporium. While Toppings is airy and bright, Mr B’s is a rabbit-warren of a place, with tiny rooms over three floors, all packed to the gunnels with books, cosy armchairs and even private reading rooms. Seriously, they’re about the size of a phone booth, with a chair and a lamp so you can have a read before you buy in peace – genius! They also have a bath in the window that’s filled with books. I’m assuming this is a play on words with the town’s name, but I have no idea.

I first found out about Reading Spas when a colleague was gifted one. She told us all about it and I was smitten with the idea instantly. I dropped not-so-subtle hints around my next birthday, et voila! Mum and Dad prevailed with the most wonderful gift.

And it really was the most wonderful gift. I cannot thank Mum and Dad enough for it!

I took half a day off work and spent it in my dream world. Nestled by a fire (I know, a fireplace inside a bookshop!) in what they call their Bibliotherapy room (genius) with a slice of cake and cup of tea, Danielle and I chatted books. When I’d booked, they asked about my reading preferences and paired me with the most appropriate member of staff. They chose so well, about five minutes in I wanted Danielle to be my friend, IRL. We were so like-minded and got on so well, we’d read a lot of the same books and she was expertly equipped to suggest new-to-me titles and authors.

After an hour or so of book chat, Danielle left me to peruse Letters of Note by Shaun Usher while she gathered suggestions and piled books around me. Letters of Note is a lovely coffee table book, full of interesting letters of all kinds – ranging from a cute note from the Queen to President Reagan in which she gives him a recipe for scones, all the way to a really eye-opening missive from an ex-slave to his previous master, explaining why he won’t go back to work for him – it’s a fascinating book and great for flicking through with a cuppa.

Eventually, Danielle came up with 40+ possibilities, ranging from popular fiction to memoirs and historical non-fiction. She did such a good job that I wanted to buy every last one of them. When she’d talked me through them all, she left me to leaf the pages and make my selection. As part of the Spa voucher you get £45-worth of books so I (somehow) had to whittle it down. I would have bought them all, but, you know, rent and whatnot.

In the end I went away with The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton), Burial Rites (Hannah Kent – which I’ve already raved about), Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada) and The Portable Dorthy Parker (so not portable, it’s brick-sized, but beautiful). I also got a free mug and a book mark because Mr B’s know how to do things right. I’ve read The Miniaturist and Burial Rites in full, dipped in and out of Dorothy Parker’s poems and short stories and have yet to finish Alone in Berlin. Obviously, I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees (as with any book purchase) but more importantly, I’ve been pushed outside of my usual reading zone, been introduced to new authors and got to spend an afternoon indulging in my favourite pastime.

It really was such an incredible afternoon. The staff at Mr B’s are all so knowledgeable and friendly, they make this experience what it is. Without them, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as genuine and warm. I honestly felt like I could stay there forever. As it was, I was there for around five hours so I definitely made the most of it.

If you know any bibliophiles, or are one yourself, I can definitely recommend a Reading Spa. Plus, a jaunt to Bath is never a bad thing, right? They also do book subscriptions, for a year’s worth of books sent direct to your door, which you don’t have to be in Bath for and I now really want. Damn you pesky blog research! You’re teasing me!

What are you guys reading at the moment? Any gems you can’t stop recommending? Do you have a favourite independent book shop I should check out?

#savetheculture

A few months ago a friend of mine shared a Facebook status that read as follows (don’t worry, this isn’t a massive invasion of her privacy, it was an international campaign and its entire purpose is to be shared):

We need at least 6 people to participate in a book exchange.
You can be anywhere in the world, the further we get, the better!
All you have to do is buy a book and send it to one person. You will receive approximately 36 books back.📚
If you are interested click “Like” and I’ll send you the details
‪#‎savetheculture‬

Seems pretty simple, right? I liked her post and she told me who to send a book to. Then I shared the same status and told anyone who “Liked” it to send a book to her and share the status as well. Anyone that liked their post sent a book to me and so on and so forth. Make sense? (I know it’s complicated but sit and think about it for a mo and it should make sense. If not hit me up and I’ll draw a diagram or something.)

At first glance I had a naive giggle to myself. As a notorious book nerd, I didn’t think of books as a culture that needed saving. Surely everyone has bookshelves bursting with novels? Doesn’t everyone adore getting books for Christmas and birthdays? Do books actually need saving? Surely not!

But it sounded pretty fun nonetheless. If there’s anything I love more than a good book, it’s a good book that’s completely new to me. A few years ago I had a wonderful book spa (which I’ve just realised, I never blogged about, check back for that!) and, among others, I was recommended Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I had never heard of the book or the author but my god what a fantastic novel. It’s so unexpected and so fascinatingly written. But before I wax lyrical about that fabulous piece of literature (perhaps I need to review it in full) I will come back to my point: excellent book + I’ve never heard of it = winning.

Burial Rites is actually the book I decided to send to my book partner, precisely because it is relatively unknown but bloody brilliant. I will admit, a few months passed before I eventually got round to sending the book, but it is now in the hands of its new owner and hopefully being gratefully devoured.

But I haven’t received a single book.

Not one.

Perhaps it’s because none of the people who were involved (that I could see, at least) got the full six “Likes”, maybe it’s because life gets away from us and people forget, maybe those who did “Like” couldn’t really afford to buy a book and then pay for P&P to send it to someone. Or maybe the reading culture really does need saving? Perhaps it was innocent of me to think that people would send a book to a random stranger out of the goodness of their literary hearts.

I will never know. But no matter what, the way I see it, I’ve introduced a fellow book worm to a fantastic read. And even if they never actually crack open that book, at least I gave Hannah Kent a few more quid in royalties. That’s something, right?

So even if we aren’t sending books to one another, I live on in hope that people still settle in for a good read every now and then. Don’t you?

Modern marvels

As part of the Master’s in Contemporary Literature I’ve been studying this year, I’ve been reading a lot more. Obviously. If I wasn’t, then there would be something seriously wrong with this set-up.

What I’ve loved more than anything, is the chance to really scrutinise and engage with modern texts. My undergraduate degree was in Classical Studies and English Literature at an old-school, red-brick university – enlightening and fascinating for sure, but also stuck in the past (way, way in the past in some cases). One of my lecturers even had the audacity to state that anything written after 1960 could not be considered literature. But then, he was a knob, so what can you do?

Picking up books that have been written in my lifetime and discussing their literary worth has been such an invigorating experience. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking old = good, new = dross, and because of that we can miss some truly exquisite literature that’s sitting right at our fingertips.

Take it from me, you don’t have to trawl through an epic Dickens novel or transliterate a Shakespeare play to read some really good fiction. Although, of course, there’s still a place for Charlie and Will on your bookshelf.

Of course, there’s also a lot of stuff I didn’t like. But that’s part of the fun. If a text makes you angry or miserable, it’s still making you feel something and leaving a mark on you as a reader. I’m glad I read all of the texts on this degree (well, all but one) but I’m not going to wax lyrical about each and every one – some of them can only be appreciated by a literature student and some will push you to the brink of suicide (I’m not even exaggerating. I’ve read some seriously bleak stuff in the last 10 months).

But there were a few that I would recommend to anyone who likes a good book. Of the 17 texts I’ve demolished so far, here are my top three, in no particular order.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran-Foer

This beautiful story, of a boy coming to terms with the loss of his father, is honest, touching and incredibly powerful. Told through a triple narrative, comprising the voice of 10-year-old Oskar, the diary of an old man, and the experiences of Oskar’s grandmother, we see the journey of a family coping with grief in the frame of a national disaster. Thomas Schell, Oskar’s father, died in 9/11 and as the nation grieves, the Schell family are trying to come to terms with their own personal loss.

I often find multiple narratives jarring and disruptive. Just as I’ve got into the flow of one narrator, I find myself shoved off onto another one, starting the relationship from scratch. But in this instance, the structure of the text is one of the features that embeds it in the Trauma Fiction genre. The stilted storytelling echoes the disjointed manner in which trauma memories intrude on a victim’s life. We cannot simply be told the story step by step, because it is too painful to tell so plainly. Instead we must discover scraps along the way and piece the whole together from the separate parts.

This book made me cry. So many times. The threading together of early 2000s New York with war-time Germany, and in particular the Dresden bombings, demonstrates the way in which horror haunts humanity through the ages. Safran-Foer presents us with disparate protagonists who have all and are all dealing with awful things. His writing is sensitive, powerful and bold, and I can’t wait to read his other books, especially his new novel, due out in September.

Read this if: you are in the mood for a good cry.

Tales of Innocence and Experience, Eva Figes

Another of my set Trauma Fiction texts, this novel follows a grandmother as she tries to work out how best to share her traumatic past with her small granddaughter. A German-Jew who lost her family to the Holocaust, the grandmother treads a fine line between sharing her story with her granddaughter and passing the trauma onto her.

This story is told intertwined with fairy tales. Deftly and expertly handled, the truth mingles with folklore until the reader feels imbued with the reality of what happened, without having to read the bald facts. As much as this is a story about the Holocaust, it is just as much about preserving history, remembering our race’s mistakes and learning from them to work towards a more positive future.

But when you look again, this is a book about a woman and her granddaughter. The scenes of tenderness between them are wonderful and it is their relationship, their representation as a pair that I was so touched by. The two of them ground the lofty aspirations of the novel and reinsert them into the human experience. It is their love and bond that exemplifies the goodness in humanity, despite the horrors we have committed. The granddaughter in this text is about the age I was when I lost my nana, so maybe that’s why I was so drawn to it and convinced by it, but besides that fact, this is still a beautiful novel.

Read this if: you miss your grandmother.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell

In this powerful, intelligent novel, Maggie O’Farrell shines a light on the lack of impunity with which women have been treated in recent history. Following the lives of Esme Lennox and Iris Lockhart as the two are thrust together, we discover how little control women had over their lives in the early twentieth century and how far society still has to go in order to give women any real agency in their own lives.

This novel is quite tricky to summarise without giving away some of the juiciest bits, so I’m going to be quite vague in that area. What I will tell you, is that the mystery and intrigue in this book (part of what earned it a place on my Contemporary Gothic module) is riveting. When I worked out one particular plot point I literally buried my face in the pages and made inarticulate noises of revelation, understanding and satisfaction (a kind of unghsfpuah noise). You will be gripped, you will be shocked, you will totally get it.

O’Farrell has a delicious way with words. Complicated concepts and tricky feelings are expressed so eloquently in this novel – she manages to hone right in on the crux of messy things and make them seem clean and easy to understand. She’s an idol of contemporary storytelling and I’m so thankful writers like her exist, bridging the gulf between pulp and literature so expertly.

Read this if: you want an excellently written riveting romp.

But don’t just take my word for it, and don’t for a minute think these are the only books worth reading. There’s so much fantastic fiction out there, go forth and read!

 

How things change

When I was a child, there were about three things that were guaranteed to put a smile on my chubby little face.

I liked to play Let’s Pretend with my big brother. You know the game, right? It always starts with a sentence that goes something like “Let’s Pretend aliens are attacking and I’m Ace Ventura and you’re Lara Croft and we have to save the day.” or “Let’s Pretend dinosaurs have moved into the back garden and we want to make friends. I’ll be Indiana Jones, who do you want to be?” (I invariably chose to be Lara Croft because a) I’m unimaginative b) I liked to play the training levels of the PC game rather too much and c) she kicks arse.)

I also loved waking up before everyone else on a Saturday morning, when the house was eerily silent, and reading in bed. I’ve always devoured books, since I first learned to read, but there was something special about that witching hour – probably 7-8am – before mum got up to put the kettle on and my brother got up to watch TV, it was like the whole world belonged to me, and was offering up this peaceful time to indulge in a good book.

And finally, one of my favourite things ever, as a little girl, was to get my mum to draw a princess for me to colour in. Each time she would put pen to paper with the caveat “You know I can’t really draw” but she would always oblige and I would insist she add frills to the dress and a crown to her head before furiously scribbling with pens and crayons that culminated in a myriad of variations on a theme.

Those were the things that determined whether I’d had a particularly good day from circa 1993 to 2003 (in varying degrees, as you can imagine). You might not be surprised to hear that only one of those joys has persisted into adult life, and even that has evolved slightly. (No, I don’t ask my mum to draw princess for me, or play pretend with my brother anymore.) Saturday mornings are now sacrosanct and preserved for my once-a-week lie-in. But I still like to steal any moment when I’m home alone to read in the silence, with a hot cup of tea and my favourite blanket.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how the things that make us happy can change over time. Obviously the difference between child and adulthood is quite stark but since I’ve been back in my hometown there are other things I’ve rediscovered that I didn’t even know I’d lost.

Certain people, certain hobbies and a different quality of life have lifted me, and I didn’t even know I was being held down.

The biggest thing, though, is that I’ve rediscovered my love of learning. For years now I haven’t pushed myself academically, I haven’t stretched those little brain cells of mine. I didn’t realise that the niggling frustrations I was feeling were all because of that, until a few weeks ago. I made a decision, started doing something about it, and I feel so much better.

Since the end of September, I’ve been studying an MA in Contemporary Literature. It’s been harder than I anticipated. So far we’ve focused on Critical Theory (not my strongest suit) and it’s been quite a transition to force myself to concentrate on something fully once I get home from work.

But do you know what? Since I’ve been studying again, I’ve also been writing again, knitting again (after a few months’ break – can you believe?) and even cross stitching again. It’s as though I’ve put my brain into a different gear and now it can handle a whole heck of a lot more.

I love it.

Surprise!

I don’t know about you, but I love a surprise.

I like bumping into friends I haven’t seen in years. I like appearing at my parents’ house when they aren’t expecting me. I like coming home to find a melon on the kitchen counter with a note stuck on it saying ‘We didn’t have a vase, so I bought you this instead of flowers’.

But more than that, I like going into something with absolutely no expectations and coming out utterly blown away. That’s the best kind of surprise, and that’s exactly what happened to me last night.

As I may have mentioned before, To Kill a Mockingbird is my favourite book of all time. So when a play of the book was on at my local theatre, I wrangled together a bunch of my family to come and see it with me. We knew nothing about the adaptation or the theatre company, we just went along to see what they were up to.

TKAM

(Photo courtesy of atgtickets.com)

There’s a lot of content in Mockingbird. A lot of complicated characters who you only come to understand little by little as you progress through the book. The plot is packed with events and issues and poignant moments and all-in-all, there’s a lot to take from those 300-odd pages and whittle down into a stage show. I had some reservations about how it would translate and I really didn’t know what to expect.

It was such a beautiful surprise.

The cast members were incredible, switching between narrator-roles and characters with ease, picking up and dropping the Deep South drawl immaculately and those children. Oh my goodness. They have a bright future.

scout

(Photo courtesy of atgtickets.com)

A lot of thought and care has clearly been given to this play, and it’s obvious that Christopher Sergel, who adapted it for the stage, has real reverence for the book and Harper Lee’s use of language. The speech was lifted directly from the original text, and huge chunks of the narration were read aloud. It was so, so faithful. There were a few school groups in the audience and I think this production will have really helped them. This play brings to life the aspects of Mockingbird that are easily lost when you concentrate too hard; the humour, the sensitivity and the humanity.

I came out of the theatre last night feeling so many things in a really intense way. It was the same feeling I have whenever I finish reading the book; elated by the experience of it and bereft that it’s over.

The play is on in MK until Saturday, and then moves on to Richmond, so if you get the chance, see it.

You can thank me later.