Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Scheherazade by Richard Silken

I found this poem over at Strange Magnetism and had to share it. Gorgeous isn't it?


Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
                                                        and dress them in warm clothes again.
      How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.
               It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
      it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
                    how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
                                                                                        to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
      we’re inconsolable.
                                           Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
                                                               Tell me we’ll never get used to it.                                         
- Richard Silken

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Superb Letter from Ted Hughes to his son Nicholas

I've borrowed this excerpt from Ted Hughes' letter to his son Nicholas at the age of 24 from Brain Pickings which is a brilliant weekly email full of author tidbits, facts and advice I highly recommend you subscribe to if you don't already!

They say it better than I could - The below has been taken from the Brain Pickings website:

"The analogy between the artist and the child is that both live in a world of their own making," wrote Anaïs Nin in her diary in 1945. Four decades later, 23 years after Sylvia Plath took her own life at the age of 30, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) wrote to their 24-year-old son, Nicholas. The letter, found in Letters of Ted Hughes (public library), is superb in its entirety and a worthy addition to history's finest fatherly advice, but this particular passage speaking to the beautiful vulnerability of our inner child and its longing to be seen, heard, let loose is an absolutely exquisite articulation of the human condition -- don't let the length and density deter you from absorbing it, for once you do, it'll saturate every cell of your soul.

"When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. . . . But in many other ways obviously you are still childish -- how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It's something people don't discuss, because it's something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we're likely to get a rough time, and to end up making 'no contact'. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It's an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It's been protected by the efficient armour, it's never participated in life, it's never been exposed to living and to managing the person's affairs, it's never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it's never properly lived. That's how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person's childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It's their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can't understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That's the carrier of all the living qualities. It's the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn't come out of that creature isn't worth having, or it's worth having only as a tool -- for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line -- unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that's the moment it wants. That's where it comes alive -- even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that's where it calls up its own resources -- not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That's the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they're suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That's why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you've gone a few weeks and haven't felt that awful struggle of your childish self -- struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence -- you'll know you've gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you've gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all."

In 2009, 47-year-old Nicholas hanged himself in his home in Alaska. His sister, Frieda, told the press upon news of his death: "Despite the vagaries that life threw at him, he maintained an almost childlike innocence and enthusiasm for the next project or plan."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Shakespeare & Company, Paris

My first priority in Paris last week was to visit Shakespeare & Company book shop. I was determined to go here since Elizabeth Welsh mentioned the store on my post about drool worthy Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.

Unfortunately you're not allowed to take photos inside the store, so I wrote some word pictures instead and snapped off plenty of real ones from the street.

Shakespeare & Company is an appropriate name for a building that could be a carbon copy of the bard's actual birthplace in Stratford upon Avon. The mosaics on the floor, the faded once black beams punctuated by the whitewashed ceiling and the tight, cramped spaces are what every bibliophile dreams of.

Books are crammed into every available space, archways included. A ladder leans against a shelf piled high with Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; on the other side of the room sits a little seat with a note taped to it that reads "a moveable stool."

A girl perches on a wooden chair in one of the shop's many crannies, reading with such ferocity it's as if she's determined to devour the books piled on her knees in a sitting.

From the tiny, well used staircase (the carpet is worn through to the wood), I hear the clanging lilt of an old piano. The tomes up here are ancient, and they smell of that somehow delicious scent of rotting paper that's particular to second hand book shops.

Next to a window that overlooks the Seine is a poster of the original cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and next to that is a gilt edged mirror, which reflects two men reading on a wooden bench.

Out another window, in a neglected space that separates two rooms, toys are frozen in time, ready to resume their busy lives as soon as you stop looking. Miniature Godzilla-esque dinosaurs tip over a parked car while amazed gnomes stare at the planes that zoom overhead (rigged on nylon.) In the middle a procession of wild animals makes its way across the concrete desert and dolphins jump through gaps in some chicken wire.

I allow myself George Orwell's slim volume of essays entitled Books vs Cigarettes and walk away, as always, with a dull heart ache over all the books I have to leave behind.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Candid Author Shots

 I mentioned in an earlier post that Chris Close is the official photographer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. His author portraits are strung up around Charlotte Square, and I thought I'd share a few more of them because they are just gorgeous. My photos are very poor copies, but you get the idea!

Ben Marcus, Meg Rosoff and Ken McLeod
Author unknown, Kim Thuy and Matias Nespolo
Ryan Van Winckle, Vivian French and Jenny Colgan

Val McDermid, Ben Okri and Ian Rankin

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Farewell to the Book Festival

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is over for me, although it continues in Charlotte Square, and I so wish I was still there. I've come away with lasting memories though, and an even greater admiration for writers, if that's possible. Irvine Welsh seemed an appropriate author to end one of the best week's of my life. 

So it’s back to posting about the world’s great bookshops and literary landmarks, but first, here are the highlights of my final days at the festival.

Peter Millar
Journalist and Travel Writer, talking about his latest book Slow Train to Guantanamo.

Cuba was the fifth country in the world to boast a complete railway system so Millar thought it fitting to take that mode of transport around the country. Unfortunately the train network hasn't been upgraded almost since its creation, so it was a slow journey (four hours to travel 42 kilometres), hence the title.

On the trains: The only air conditioning in the tropical heat came from the open windows and doors, and, "the toilets were so bad, it was the one time I was tempted to take immodium preemptively."

On the Cuban economy: The poverty is so extreme, it's depressing. A waiter in a bar asked me if I'd buy him a can of soft drink. The man then proceeded to share the can between six glasses so everyone in the establishment could have a try - I then of course bought soft drinks all round. The average person earns the equivalent of NZ$14.50 a  month.

Random fact: Millar's publishers are following in Cuba's economically disastrous footsteps, and they haven't paid the bills, so his hardcopy book is being withheld. No matter, because for every GBP2.99 Kindle purchase, Millar makes more than he does for the GBP12.99 hard copy. 

Kirsty Gunn and Elliot Perlman
Gunn is the author of  The Big Music, an ambitious book set to the piobaireachd, the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. Perlman is the author of The Street Sweeper, a story that spans half a century, and jumps from New York, to Auschwitz to Melbourne.

As host Alan Taylor mentions, it's difficult to find much in common between these vastly different novels, but the one thing they do share is a reflection on memory and an examination of the art of story telling itself.

Perlman's inspiration: I lived across the road from a cancer hospital in New York for many years. If New York is a microcosm of the world, the hospital is a microcosm of New York. I was fascinated by the tantalising idea of two people who should never have met, striking up a bond. 

Kirsty Gunn on the imaginary versus the "real" world: The contents of books enter our minds as surely as any "real experiences" that happen to us. "To my mind the imagined world is as vivid and powerful as anything that happens outside of it."

On the structure of the two novels: Perlman plans in advance for what he's going to write about and structures it accordingly. Gunn says she always wanted to use the piobaireachd structure but only when she had the first line did she know how it was going to flow. It's the only novel, to her knowledge, that is set to a musical style. 

Irvine Welsh
Author of Skagboys, prequel to Trainspotting.

A brief synopsis of Welsh's new novel: "If Trainspotting is about Renton trying to get off heroin, Skagboys is about him trying to get on it."

On writing the same characters again: I didn't want to go back to them, but I realised I'd created all these back stories for them that were valid tales in themselves. I also wanted to write about the 80s and the coincidental way widespread unemployment and the introduction of heroin happened at the same time. I was also living in fear that I'd get hit by a bus one day and all my unfinished notes would be published. "I want the characters to operate in a way that makes sense to me, not half realised."

How he views the characters following the Trainspotting movie: I always saw Renton as a slightly awkward ginger guy, but as soon as you see a character depicted by an actor, they become that person in your mind. 

Why he portrays drug addicts so accurately: A lot of the addiction in Trainspotting came from experience, but addiction is so well documented now that it's much easier to write about. 

On mythologising Leith: When Trainspotting was first published Welsh's friends were excited to see their story being told, but now the novel's ubiquity makes locals feel as if a part of their culture has been taken away from them. 

On writing in dialect: Welsh first began writing in standard English, but it felt dull and flat. It's been a long and painful journey to get the dialect to look right. He now writes in standard English and goes back to edit the dialogue afterwards. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Edinburgh International Book Festival Day Six: The Book Phantom is Back

Edinburgh's anonymous book sculptor is back! I wrote about her ten literary offerings last year, discovered in various institutions around the city. Now, 12 months to the day since the mysterious paper sculptures were dropped off at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, Book Shop staff in Charlotte Square have found a number of delicate and beautiful paper flowers around the site. 

The flowers, each slightly different, come with a note and a quote from Oscar Wilde:  “….. freedom, books, flowers and the moon,” and on the reverse, "A Gift For You" and a limited edition number of 50.

I wonder where the others will pop up?

Here are yesterday's highlights:

Alexandra Harris and John Mullan
Harris is author of Virginia Woolf, a short introduction to her life and work. Mullan is a professor of English at the University of London and a former Man Booker judge, author of What Matters in Jane Austen?

Harris tells us Virginia Woolf hated lectures and found their deliverers a terrible bore, then launches into a 15 minute lecture on the author’s exceptional writing. At least she acknowledges the irony.

How Woolf seduced Harris: Her humour and her feel for routine and the every day. Woolf’s fascination for the ordinary is everywhere, in descriptions of how a dog lifts its ear when a gate creaks, to the sense of irritation around the dinner table when a person asks for a second helping of soup.

Random fact no. 1: Harris did her A level statistics project on the number of semi colons in the average Woolfian sentence.

Random fact no. 2: Harris spent two winters reading Woolf’s entire canon in chronological order. She brushed off social engagements and phone calls as she devoured the author’s works.

John Mullan was one of the most charismatic speakers I’ve witnessed. If he couldn’t inspire a non-reader to make his or her first literary dabble a Jane Austen novel, I’m afraid the cause would be lost.

How he drew in the audience: by conducting a Jane Austen quiz. I now know who is the only woman in Austen’s novels to marry a man younger than herself (27 year old Charlotte Lucas, marries 25 year old Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice), and who is the only woman in all of Austen to call her husband by his first name – Mary Musgrove in Persuasion. Incidentally, Mary only calls her husband "Charles," rather than Mr Musgrove, when she is annoyed with him and vice versa. Mullan calls the pair "companionably rancourous."

Claire Tomalin.
Labelled the greatest living biographer in England, speaking about her latest biography Charles Dickens: A Life.

Fascinating fact: Dickens wasn’t a terribly good father or a good man towards the end of his life, conducting affairs and declaring his wife an unfit mother. He was an extremely private man who ordered his friends to burn his letters after reading - they didn’t - and they’re now a biographer’s best source of information.

On authors: Every writer has failings, and often the ones who strive for perfection are less interesting than those who bound forward with some flaws.

And today's Chris Close pictures:

Edinburgh International Book Festival day five: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith
Author of the series 44 Scotland St, Isabel Dalhousie and No 1. Ladies Detective Agency.

McCall Smith has to be one of the most prolific writers of our time. I lost track of his books a year or so ago as he was producing them faster than I could read them. But now I’ve heard his jovial chortle and listened to the charming way he goes about writing I’ll have to revisit them.

Funniest quip: When host Al Senter joked that he should go head to head with Usain Bolt - by the time Bolt takes off his shoes McCall Smith will have written another book (six of his titles are being published in the U.K alone this year).

Best insight into his craft: When he realised how much the ladies like the narcissistic Bruce from the 44 Scotland Street series he decided to bring him back. He discovered his female readers particularly enjoy Bruce’s shower scenes, so, “now when I can’t think of anything else to write, I put Bruce in the shower.”

On 50 Shades of Grey: He hasn’t read the book and says he won’t either, but he’s pleased with any novel that brings a profit to its publisher because inevitably that money goes back into other works.
What are your favourite McCall Smith novels?

Here's today's Chris Close photo: