The books I read, Summer 2012
Throughout the summer I worked hard on my portfolio for the MA course in creative writing at Lancaster University, but this didn’t stop me from reading extensively as well. I read mainly one author: Andrew Motion.
I was intrigued by his last poetry collection, The Cinder Path, after a reading at the Storey Auditorium organized by Paul Farley and including Jean Sprackland and Daljit Nagra. It was so exciting to have such great poets reading their work in Lancaster that I hardly believed it was real till I saw them on the stage.
Afterwards I browsed on the Internet and found out that Andrew Motion wrote not only poetry (he was appointed Poet Laureate for ten years in 1999) but also prose, fiction and non-fiction. I ordered some of his books and started my reading adventure.
His autobiography, In the Blood, a memoir of my childhood, was my first great experience. His enchanting writing style -- the choice of words, the evocative images and detailed descriptions -- creates a whole magic world where the reader wends in ecstasy. I found his prose surreal in parts, always gripping, massively appealing. The events he describes in the autobiography may seem ordinary, everyday things but take the shape of unique adventures in his narration. And this is the secret of life, and of writing, isn’t it?
The death of his mother when he was only seventeen is narrated at the beginning of the book as if it has influenced all his life, before and after the event. An existential sense of loss, a stoic nostalgia is present in all his work. The intuition of something rare and priceless he will never attain again; it may be childhood, innocence, love, health or dreams. It is like the pearl in the parable about the Kingdom of Heaven: a merchant found an invaluable pearl and sold everything he had to buy it. But here the pearl is irretrievably lost.
This profound awareness made me think of one of the greatest Italian poets: Giacomo Leopardi. I have re-read his work recently and can’t help linking his mature poems with Andrew Motion’s work. The relationship is more about feelings and emotions than specific connections. Their deep understanding of our world, of its inner meanings and the capacity to communicate it, typical of great artists.
Besides The Cinder Path, I also read Love in a Life and The Price of Everything, two poetry collections. I found again a pervading, understated sense of the struggle to attain something lost forever: his mother’s love, an antidote to solitude, the peace of the heart, wholeness, truth. A never ending, sometimes excruciating quest, whose goal is a secret treasure hidden somewhere. Speaking of which he wrote Silver, return to Treasure Island, a follow up to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The book is written in his usual rich, fascinating style. The story is gripping, eventful and contemplative at the same time. Jim, Jim Hawkin’s son, and Natalie, Long John Silver’s daughter, sail for an adventure to find the rest of the treasure their fathers left behind: the silver part. A perfect combination of pace, setting and enchanting atmosphere makes the book extremely entertaining and the story engrossing in both plot and philosophy.
I also read The Invention of Dr Cake and Ways of Life, on places, painters and poets, absolutely delightful readings. What I especially liked were the parts where a landscape, or a picture, or the life and work of a poet become alive in his descriptions. They speak to the reader in a clear, passionate voice. I would be surprised if Andrew Motion wasn’t on the list of the likely candidates for the Nobel Prize for literature.
In the last few days of my summer holidays I enjoyed the Paralympics, above all the awesome opening ceremony. I was also able to see the Abbot Hall exhibition in Kendal, Francis Bacon to Paula Rego, celebrating 50 years of great British painters. There were some exceptional pieces by Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow, Robert Priseman, Michael Andrews, and Francis Bacon and Paula Rego of course. They also displayed A Rake’s Progress by David Hockney, a clever transposition to 1960s USA of Hogarth’s Rise and Fall of Tom Rakewell.
I found the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry interesting too. I especially admired Stanley Webb Davies’ spare, unfussy pieces of furniture and the Ruskin laces.
Back to my usual life, it was all cleaning, washing and ironing for a while. Then school started...and we began planning our next holiday.
The books I read,Christmas 2012
I had a relaxing holiday, with no worries about cooking, cleaning or ironing (I just helped my mother with the washing up), so plenty of time to read.
At first I immersed myself in A kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth (I know she wrote two more books after it: Cold Light and The Friday Gospel, but I like to start from the beginning), which completely gripped me for several days. The setting and characters were developed and portrayed so well that I felt I was back in the north of England.
After it, I finished two collections of poetry I had started before Christmas: The Customs House by Andrew Motion and Bevel by William Letford. They are slim books, but poetry needs to be savoured and re-read again and again, to absorb its rhythm and the images it develops. Andrew Motion’s poetry is so well crafted and at the same time so profound and true that it touches your inner self. William Letford’s poems are very different but definitely interesting. I saw him performing at the Litfest in Lancaster last October and whenever I read his lines I can’t help but hear his Scottish accent, which makes his poems even more appealing.
The War Tour by Zoe Lambert was my next step, a collection of short stories on wars or memories of wars told by witnesses. Each story is perfectly set and creates the sense of fear and loss typical of the harsh reality of war.
Then I tackled a book I had just bought in Rome, selected poems by J.L.Borges from 1923 to 1976. I had never read his poetry before so it was surprising to discover how his complex imagination worked. His poems are passionate and erudite at the same time; his images are both tangible and cerebral.
My last task was to finish a beloved collection I had started before Christmas: Tea at the Midland and other stories by David Constantine: stories of relationships, love, loneliness, homeless people, told with a touch of surrealism that makes the author’s world unique.
On my father’s desk I found Un Papa difficile da amare (a Pope difficult to love) by Leonardo Boff. My family has always been very critical towards the Vatican and my parents are non believers. I had read Boff’s book some years ago (it was published when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005). Reading it again I found it still relevant and I agreed with its ideas even more. The main point the author states is that the Catholic Church is not going to change its conservative line and revise its structure. In fact it almost ignores the new and urgent needs of mankind, like poverty, sexual diversity and the new role of women. Leonardo Boff, like St. Francis, hopes for a humble, unwordly Church that should give up its temporal power, huge wealth and rich palaces. Who will believe that this would ever happen?
Another book my father gave me is the Italian translation of Original Blessing by Matthew Fox. I had no time to read it all but did look at the introduction by Vito Mancuso. He treats the text as a proposal to rediscover an authentic, original Christianity based on joy and peaceful living, without too much stress on sin and faults. This has already been propounded in past centuries by saints and eminent religious people, like St. Francis, Nicola Cusano, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhard and Matilda of Magdeburg. Like Leornardo Boff, Matthew Fox was also excluded from his religious order by Cardinal Ratzinger.
In the introduction there is also a long list of inquisitors, people who repressed religious creativity and crushed free thinking (Bernard Gui, Nicolau Eymerich, Thomàs de Torquemada, Heinrick Kramer, Michele Ghislieri), and a much longer list of people slaughtered in Italy because they didn’t agree with the Catholic Church. Above all there was the Waldenses’ extermination in Calabria in 1561 by order of Michele Ghislieri, who became Pope Pius V and a saint in 1712. There followed a long list of heretics and virtual heretics burned at the stake, among them priests, friars, preachers and protestants.
Of course like all temporal powers the Catholic Church is not dependent on the whim of evangelical mercy, but on the more convenient oxymoron ‘true freedom is in giving up your own freedom and surrendering to the Church’. Obedience is more important than love.
Will a new Pope change anything?
Summer journal 2013, books
I had a busy reading holiday enjoying every book I read, savouring every line in the sun, when we had such gorgeous days in July, or inside when it was cloudy, lazily stretching out on the sofa. I read poems, short short stories (also called flash fiction) and a few novels.
Pure Contradiction, selected poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and introduced by Ian Crockatt, Arc publication 2012, was the first Rilke poems I have ever read. The introduction is insightful, clear and shows a deep knowledge of Rilke’s poetry, which made me trust the translator. Definitely life and poetry was one thing for Rilke: he lived for poetry and poetry sprung out of his life, the prototype of the Romantic artist. I can’t understand German, except for a few words here and there, so I was particularly interested in the way Ian Crockatt worked on the original. In the introduction he acknowledges that a translated poem sounds very different in its new language (the words seem strange, much more than in a prose piece) but at the same time we need the translation. The translator can’t help interpreting a poem but also needs to find a balance between what the author says and his view of it. I found the translations in the book were very clever and kept the poetic rhythm and tone of the pieces. What impressed me in Rilke’s poetry was his capacity to expand from an intimate personal experience to the physical and mental space around. He amplifies and embraces the whole world, reaches cosmic meanings and aspires to a total osmosis with abstract mysteries and inexplicable truths. For this reason he uses mainly abstract words and there isn’t any attempt at rational analysis. All is played in a wonderful world of emotions, sensations, intuitions, so beautifully and deeply felt that it aches. Tremendously lyrical and sensual. Besides, I loved the picture on the cover of the book, the stylized shape of a dawn in a green field by Wenna Crockatt.
At Ledbury Festival I attended Jamie McKendrick’s reading and bought two of his collections: Crocodiles & Obelisks (Faber and Faber 2007) and Out there (Faber and Faber 2012). I enjoyed both enormously. Crocodiles & Obelisks reveals how mysterious connections and contradictions rule different events in our unpredictable world, e.g. a father who tells his son not to ‘wear a wig or join the Masons’ while he is a Mason and wears a wig, dead people described as ‘villains we pretend to love’, a telescope ‘whose desire is so intense it sees in the total dark’ and a flat in Salerno whose floor covers secret hideouts and layers of settlements. Irony and humour veil a deep understanding of human beings which makes the reading entertaining and engrossing. Out there is another ironic, clever collection of poems. The quotation from Dante’s Paradiso ‘Questo aiuolo che ci fa tanto feroci’(This little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce), reveals the core of our concerns. Though ‘this little patch of earth’ is all we can think about and fight for, it is our paradise. The attention the author has for details (trees, gates, rain, wind, colours) and the original way he links them to us, to his existence, to our lives, make the book worth reading. We are part of a natural world where we feel strangers and at home at the same time. A superb attempt to catch its meaning by filtering it through everyday experience.
Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland (Cape Poetry, 2013) made me love her poetry even more. Apparently simple, down to earth poems with deep, unexpected, surprising images. Ordinary themes and occasions inspired the poems: cleaning a chimney, buying an aquarium, house plants, old keys, a staircase, but they are treated in such an extraordinarily symbolic way that every line, each word are loaded with meaning. One of my favourite ones, Up, is about a staircase seen as a place where lovers meet on their way upstairs (‘linking the two worlds: public and private’), a place where you can also dream, remember and climb up in an unreal world.
I also read two collection of short pieces: Nel condominio di carne by Valerio Magrelli (Einaudi, 2003) and Lost Property by Calum Kerr (Cinder house, 2003). Valerio Magrelli is one of my favourite poets, this witty, disenchanted book exploring the inner parts of the human body, observing its organs and fluids, the symbolic trash of human existence, is engrossing and funny. Maybe our mysteries are just excrements; our soul is made of refuse. His writing reminds me of another great Italian writer: Italo Calvino, the slipping sense of humour in describing decomposition and death, the richness of language and images. In the book there are frequent references to mythical characters from ancient times as well as to everyday life: advertising and satirical sketches. Simply hilarious.
Lost Property is life seen in fragments with irony, joie de vivre and scary fantasies spicing it up. I read it slowly, ‘sipped’ it to savour it better. The stories are often masterfully understated, superbly weird; brief intervals to meditate on what we do and who we are. There are unanswerable questions (why does love end?). Life seems without logic, indescribable except in scraps where rituals replace beliefs, fantasies liven up boring everyday reality and loss is sometimes the final reward.
More books discussed next week.
During my summer holidays I read three novels (almost three novels as, in all honesty, I couldn’t finish one of them) and a novella. Poetry and short stories are my favourite genre at the moment (see the previous blog entry) but I still indulge in a substantial prose piece from time to time.
I must confess that I am terribly fond of J.K. Rowling, I love her writing style, her sharpness. Her plots grip me completely. The Casual Vacancy (Sphere, 2012) had me in its grip from the first page: pacy, full of events, well described with fantastic dialogue. I read some indifferent reviews and was bewildered. The reviewers seemed disappointed after Harry Potter (which is hard to match). However, I found a lot of her same genius in The Casual Vacancy. It is clever, logical, full of a deep understanding of people, with variety of characters and scenes and never boring. What she says is interesting. It is not a world of magic but a world of fiction, a claustrophobic world, symbolic of our own world, with allegories, hinted messages, morality. The ending seemed a problem for some critics. It is not a happy ending, not at all. Everything collapses, Voldemort is not defeated this time, only partially punished. And the innocents die (which is a relief considering the abuse and suffering they had to undergo with no real help or alternative). Changes loom on the horizon but they will be too late. It’s a deprived world at all levels: gossiping and retaliation are the main interest and aim. Is this our world? Certainly not a teenager world, but an adult world with extreme challenges, frustrations and instability. I think the book reflects a vision, a sort of political allegory, an interpretation of our society. We can agree or disagree, or partially agree. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Cuckoo’s Calling (Robert Galbraith, a pen name for J.K. Rowling, Sphere, 2013) is a gripping crime fiction story. A different genre, not my favourite to be honest (though I watch who-done-it films all the time), but I loved this one. I couldn’t stop reading it. I was totally immersed in the setting and atmosphere of the story. I am sure it is the beginning of a series which will be successful again. I just wondered if the world of millionaires is really as she describes it (isn’t she a millionaire too?). It seems pretty boring and pointless. But I can’t judge, I’ve never met one. Looking forward to reading more about Cormoran Strike.
The novella I read was The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (Vintage international, 1990). The book is composed of two parts, a sort story, The Shawl, and a novella, Rosa. The style impressed me: evocative, surreal, poetic, it creates images in the reader’s mind giving a fragmented report of what has happened. The reader has to fill in the gaps. The voice of the story is very strong and reports precise descriptions. The tone and atmosphere are created by a skilful use of punctuation and repetition, alternating abstract and down to earth words. The stories are about a Nazi concentration camp and the consequence of it in the life of Rosa, a survivor. The shawl protected and ‘fed’ Magda, a child, in the camp till her death. Rosa remembers it after thirty years while she is having some time off in Florida. She is considered ‘a mad woman and a scavenger’ and her obsessions lead the reader into her conception of life: the only meaningful, possible reality is the period she spent in the concentration camp (‘Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie’). It is not only a story about the Holocaust, it reaches the core of what life can really be: not a dream, neither a joke, but ruthless sufferance and exploitation.
Finally I started to read May we be forgiven by A.M. Holmes (Granta, 2012, winner of the Women’s Prize for fiction 2013). Unfortunately I couldn’t finish it. I must say the action was quick (maybe too quick?), the dialogues smart, snappy and clever (too clever?). Lots of things happen (too many?). Sometimes it sounds stereotyped, banal, aimless, probably intentionally. But after two hundred pages I felt worn out. I definitely got all I could out of it and had had enough. I couldn’t endure such a crazy rhythm, not even in reading. Imagine this in real life! (I wonder if anybody can). Maybe I’m just old fashioned.
On the whole I had a great reading season.
Rome, Christmas 2013
At Christmas I received some books as a present and I had also brought more books from England to avoid being idle. When I left Lancaster I was reading NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin books, 2013). I was intrigued by the story after reading her article in the Guardian Review about the inspiration behind NW. She says that the main topics she wanted to explore were the ‘thingyness’ of people and the ‘qualities of language’. Her dialogues are really gripping and take up a good part of the novel. She doesn’t use inverted commas but I didn’t miss them while I was reading. Actually the dialogues shape the characters more than any description. They make them come alive, living and acting in front of the reader. Her other inspiration was Measure for Measure, where the characters find neither happiness nor annihilation, though some of the characters seem to be searching for happiness, heroism or death. In a similar way the four protagonists of Zadie Smith’s book (Leah, Felix, Natalia and Nathan) look for happiness or, more generally, an aim that makes their lives worth living. But they shift often from family to jobs, to love affairs, sex, drugs or parenthood, without finding proper direction or real fulfilment. It sounds rather depressing but it is realistic. What I also noticed is the fact that the characters, beside being overwhelmed by boredom and aimlessness, are also unmotivated. They have no dreams, no hopes but live in the moment, in fragments (the last section of the book is made of short chapters, almost flash fiction pieces put together), feeding their needs and instincts, in a simplistic manner: very symbolic.
A good book I received as a Christmas present from a friend was Viaggio in Sardegna (a journey in Sardinia) by Michela Murgia (Einaudi, 2011), a fantastic Italian writer from fabulous Sardinia. In this book the author revisits her land in its traditions, cuisine, legends, history and architecture. The language is rich, the descriptions are vivid, conveying her love and deep understanding of the culture she comes from: complex and appealing at the same time, tremendously genuine. In origin Sardinian traditions are simple, reflecting the sparse, harsh environment that made its inhabitants close to nature. She shows how much they love and respect nature and are loyal to their land and community, a culture based on sharing resources and the necessity to stick to democratic rules from ancient times, just for survival. Similar to other insular cultures (e.g. Celtic), their structures of stones in geometric patterns have the distinct feel of Greek temples and Corinthian columns. In this kind of society, women were not considered inferior but had their fair share in the life of the community. I’ve always loved Sardinia (though I have no Sardinian origin, as far as I know) and used to spend a month's holiday on a campsite on the east coast when we lived in Italy. I like not only its clear sea and white sandy beaches, but also its bare landscapes, the nuraghe, the stone monuments, the colourful women's costumes and its ancient festivities, like the Sartiglia and the mamuthones procession. Michela Murgia’s book is a must to read before visiting, together with the insightful Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.
Another famous book by the same author (which I promptly bought and read while I was in Rome) is Accabadora (Einaudi, 2009). It won prizes and was translated into several languages. The accabadora is a traditional figure you can still find in Sardinia, a woman (sometimes a man) who practices euthanasia on terminally ill people. Michela Murgia creates perfectly the atmosphere of a Sardinian village, the characters demure about sex, discreet in communication and faithful to their land. The narration is fast-paced, readable and gripping. The story is believable and full of symbolic, ancient rituals. The writer's images and metaphors make the reader feel the emotions, fears and thoughts of the characters perfectly. It was so engrossing that I read it in less than a day. Another must-read book.
I couldn’t miss some poetry reading. Before Christmas I ordered on Amazon two important prize winning collections to savour during my holidays, and afterwards.
Parallax by Sinéad Morrissey (Carcanet, 2013) intrigued me with its sense of ‘apparent displacement...of an object’, which is the meaning of the title of the collection. It stresses the different points of view from which you can observe, and measure the distance of an object. The word ‘parallax’ is also used in astronomy to measure the distance of the stars. The engrossing and beautiful poems of the collection gave me a sense of shifting. Everything moves: people, thoughts, perspectives. Nothing seems stable and firm. And this is an advantage, a talent in a way, a positive characteristic in our way of seeing, feeling and describing the world. Striking images and unexpected endings make the reading always new and interesting.
Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape poetry, 2013) is an amazing collection. It won the Forward prize and the Costa prize and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. All the poems of the collection have fifteen lines (they were rightly called ‘super-sonnets’), the structure, topics and tones recall psalters, contemporary prayers about our reality, with a strong awareness about who we are and where we live. It starts and ends with two poems describing our world in fragments (World into Fragments and Fragments into World), disasters hovering on us, a scattered world that disassembles and reassembles under our eyes, fragile and fascinating in its different, innumerable pieces. Nevertheless we are still here, witnessing, observing, tip-toeing amongst the ruins, exploring. An optimistic, positive book.
In Rome I had the opportunity to meet Valerio Magrelli in the café of a famous bookshop, Feltrinelli. He gave me some of his books, which I really enjoyed reading. One in particular struck me: Sopralluoghi (on-the-spot investigations), Fazi editore, 2005. It is a self-made anthology by Valerio Magrelli, taking twelve poems from four of his own collections. Besides, the poems are commented on by the author in a DVD. The places he inspects are always linked to the poems he reads, to sites of the mind, like a car crusher, the monumental cemetery of Rome (Verano), the Casanatense library, a toy shop, a cinema, a cellar, Villa Borghese, the graffiti along the banks of the river Tiber. The relationship between places, words, inspirations, and sounds are precisely analyzed, the explanations and digressions engrossing. One of my favourite poems tells the story of a man (E.H., like Ecce Homo) who died sitting in front of the TV and who was found after nine months (this really happened in France). The poem, composed of two sonnets, transfers the effect of decomposition from the corpse to the TV screen, the place to which we often delegate our emotions, love, illusions and dreams, and finally death.
The last book I read during my Christmas holidays (and finished in January) was Fifteen modern tales of attraction by Alison McLeod (Hamish Hamilton, 2007), an unusual, interesting collection of short stories. I loved some of them, sensual and savvy. Atypical couples and unexpected attractions are explored: a girl and a dying man, a woman and a little child, a whale and a girl. Impossible affairs develop in a subconscious state of mind, never meant to be real, though interesting to investigate. The style is rich, involving, never banal. The short story about the E-love between Heloise and Abelard is wonderful, the interpretation of their relationship bold and witty. Heloise is so strong-minded, passionate and successful in her own way, but above all indomitable. Definitely superior to poor Abelard.
I must say I enjoyed myself.
Flash fiction is one of my favourite media: brief, punchy and with all the potential of a short story. You need total concentration and attention to every single word to grasp the whole meaning of such short pieces.
Then your mind wanders on to the many possible endings, following the hints, and filling in the gaps left open by the brevity of the genre itself, with your imagination. A fulfilling experience, comparable to reading a poem or a prose poem. Hard to write, though, because it can easily be too banal or too cryptic.
This is not the case of Jawbreakers, the fascinating collection of flash-fiction edited by Calum Kerr and Valerie O’Riordan, published for the National Flash-Fiction Day, 16th May 2012 (www.flashfictionday.co.uk). These are short-shorts that accept the challenge of writing a whole story in five hundred words or fewer, with stunning results. The collection also includes a micro-fiction by Ali Smith, stories by Ian Rankin, Jenn Ashworth, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, and many more, and the winners and runners-up of the micro fiction competition run in early 2012.
Being a flash-fiction fan, and a writer of flash-fiction myself, I always expect the best. I found it in Jawbreakers. There was a peculiarly surreal touch in most of the stories that intrigued me and made me look for a deeper meaning, a different interpretation, my interpretation.
Sixty-two stories, all unique, portrayed a world in a few words that tell the reader about relationships, inequity, friends, family, invisible children, trolls, cheese, mysterious doors, silent harps and porcelain girls. The endings are often surprising, with an ironic twist that opens the eyes wider to greater insights.
A short, sublime experience worth living through.
Some books I read, 2014
I read a good selection of books throughout the winter and spring. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. It’s also linked to my job (teaching literature) and to my constant effort to learn more about writing in an attempt to improve my style and technique.
I deeply enjoyed Alice Munroe’s Selected Stories (Chatto and Windus, 1996) and her last book, Dear life (Vintage books, 2013). She is a great writer, undoubtedly, and the 2013 Nobel prize confirmed it. Her way of handling the short story genre is surprisingly simple yet constantly re-inventing itself, so that you never have enough of her work. This is a field in which I am trying to improve, as I am writing and editing my own short stories.
Munroe’s stories are usually set in a bare landscape where nothing special seems to happen, but a lot does, quietly and meaningfully. They are excitingly different and profoundly human. Some time ago I read a review in London Review of Books (shortly before she won the Nobel prize for literature) where her stories were depicted as boring, uneventful and repetitive. The reviewer said he had read all her collections of short stories (fourteen plus the compilations) in one go. I suppose he just had poor digestion and couldn’t stomach the smell of her books.
But I loved her stories and her style. She catches the innermost feelings of her characters and communicates their emotions in a powerful, extraordinary way. There is always something unusual in her descriptions and there is no logical reason for unexpected behaviour or actions. Events just happen. At times her narrators and characters seem opinionated (as people often are). They rely on first impressions and are reluctant to change their opinions. After all, our apparently rational reasoning is only a way to hide our messy, unpredictable self. Her style is original and inspiring. Unusually, she doesn’t use direct speech very often, preferring indirect speech, summaries, flashbacks and descriptions.
Her stories are very entertaining, readable and above all deeply human. They seem to develop in a relaxed, spontaneous way, organically. Nothing serious or tragic ever happens. It’s ordinary life but so important and fascinating. No fights or killings, no vendettas or passionate breath-taking love, but dreams, hopes and misunderstandings. Sometimes the stories appear banal but never false or preposterous. A moving, disenchanted way to look at life, which is always dear, beloved and lived in full.
I also read The red house (Vintage books, 2013) by Mark Haddon, and re-read his best seller The curious incident of the dog in the night time. The latter is a brilliant book, original in every way, well written, well documented and gripping from first to last page. The red house is interesting, sometimes absorbing. At first I found it difficult to grasp all the characters as they are introduced and developed throughout the book using the first person, the narrator shifting the point of view from one to another and giving each character one or two pages, sometimes less. This creates the illusion of seeing the same facts from different sides, by moving from one character to the other. We know all their feelings, backgrounds, obsessions, dreams during a quite ordinary week's holiday in Wales. I struggled to follow who was who at times, but after a time the story flowed smoothly. There are a few tense moments (Daisy realizes she is gay, Dominic cheats on poor Angela and their sons find out, Richard sprains his ankle while he is jogging in the forest alone and suffers from hypothermia, Melissa punches the boy who is trying to fuck her). On the whole I enjoyed the book though I think the author's technique is a little confusing for the reader. But I also found some of the descriptive writing intensely poetic and involving.
For poetry, I read an anthology: Heavenly Bodies (Beautiful Dragons Collaborations, 2014) edited by Rebecca Bilkau, also containing one of my own poems. Eighty-eight poets from the north west each wrote a poem on a different constellation (mine was Triangulum Australe, the southern triangle). An incredible creativity is displayed in this collection. The constellations are approached in a wide variety of ways: mythological or scientific, historical, down-to-earth or rational. The Abbé Lacaille appears from time to time, as he named more than fifteen constellations, but is never used repetitively. What impressed me was the mystery of our skies and how our imagination overflows when we look at them. In spite of the fact that stars and planets are distant entities, completely out of our control and possibly already extinct as we view them, they still provoke such inspiration.
Falling into place by Jane Routh (Smith Doorstop, 2014) is a book of short prose pieces, similar to prose poems (as the style is precise and yet poetical in images and sounds) in the shape of a shepherd's calendar or journal describing how the changing of the seasons affects the land, animals, trees and consequently people. The descriptions are accurate, clever, deeply felt and experienced by the author, who has something new to discover and observe every day. An inattentive wanderer may miss a lot walking in a forest, but Jane Routh records every little variation without fail. Beautiful black and white photos by the same author illustrate every piece, adding a mysterious, artistic touch.
I loved the last publication by Sarah Hymas (www.sarahhymas.net): In Good Weather the Sign Outside Reads Danger Quicksand. It is a collection of four prose poems elegantly printed in an artistic booklet resembling an art book, wherein a storm in Morecambe Bay interweaves with a friend’s operation and their relationship: the fury of the sea against the poet’s garden and house, the adrenalin which negates the sedative taken before the operation, how it then had to be postponed. The adrenaline of the waves casts their flotsam on the shore, invading the kitchen, in pointless, relentless violence. When the storm is over, all that remains is to gather up its waste.
The Folded Moment, a poetry pamphlet by Mike Barlow (Wayleave, 2014), is a deep reasoning between man and the land, an internal never-ending dialogue with nature, observing it, trying to dominate it and then surrendering to it. How do we look like to animals? How can we keep something special and unique we finally found? There are no definite answers, of course, only tentative research, personal investigations that end with an open door to more analysis and experimentation.
The last book I read is Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013). It’s a tremendously well written book. Each chapter represents the point of view of one of the Leeke family, who are Lancastrian Mormons. The author herself was part of a Mormon family and now lives in Preston. Her insight into the Mormon mentality and beliefs is deep and clearly documented, sometimes showing, apparently innocently, a humorous side. Contradictions in the characters’ attitudes are inevitable, often funny, a little crazy, then grotesque and ending in an unexpectedly tragic way, but with a hint of dark humour. The voices of the different members of the family are so strong and clear, their stories believable and the development so interesting, that the reader can’t help being totally mesmerized by the book (just as with Jenn Ashworth’s previous novels). It was an immense, entertaining experience.
Books I read in summer 2014
I started my summer reading with two unforgettable books: How to be a husband by Tim Dowling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling's pen name).
I never miss Tim Dowling’s column in the Guardian Weekend. The accounts of his dysfunctional family crack me up and sometimes I really want to meet his wife and ask her if it’s all true. Dowling eventually wrote a book telling the whole story from the beginning: how they met, when they married, having children, working, DIY, sex and how to carry on together after twenty years of marriage. How to be a husband is extremely funny, realistic, ironical and unconventional. I laughed out loud from the first to the last page. The author is American. He met his future wife (the 'English girl [who] scared the shit out of me') in New York and magically fell in love with her, enduring years in and out of the UK complicated by expiring visas until he proposed. She said yes and added, ‘We can always get divorced’. He describes himself as naturally indolent, working from home (he’s a freelancer), experienced in DIY and, compared to the top alpha male, in a position around lambda.
Honestly, I found a few parallels with my own family such as in the children's upbringing and in the way he plays down rough moments. Fundamentally he enjoys family life, having fun with his apparently severe wife and unruly children. His marriage, he says, is built on mistakes and apologies. But I had the impression that it is also built on sharing feelings and experiences and on common beliefs. I strongly advised my husband to read it.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith is an incredibly well written, gripping and clever novel. Typically great quotations begin each chapter, this time from 17th century English tragedies. The setting of the awful murder is the literary world, where harsh competition, jealousy and betrayal evidently rule. The characters are alive, interesting and perfectly credible. Cormorant Strike and his assistant Robin are more and more shaped by their personal stories and reactions to the tumbling and twisting of events. The final capture of the killer is totally unexpected as is usual in the best who-done-its. It is a satire of the literary world where the question, never stated outright, inevitably lingers: why does everybody today want to write? The answer is obvious: most of us are literate and love to express our own opinions. But that may be too simplistic.
In the acknowledgements the author thanks the people in the business who believed she still had ‘some marble left’. And she has.
I couldn’t miss reading a poetry book: Indwelling by Gillian Allnutt, a collection of spare, short poems. Strangely they have little or no punctuation and the lines are double spaced, as if one line has little to do with the one before or after. Or maybe they need their own space. They give the impression of being different stanzas of one line each, which is unusual and interesting, though at first the reader may feel the poems are incomplete and want more. The words are tremendously incisive, the result of long reading and deep meditations. Very few words are used to explain the complex feelings and outcomes of praying. A mix of Psalms, lyrics, nursery rhymes and other poems make the reader reconstruct a mosaic of references and memories that opens up a new world. They evoke rather than explain. Then the spaces between the lines take on a deeper meaning: they give the reader the opportunity to fill the gaps with their own thoughts, words and sounds.
As I was at the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at the Tate Modern, I bought Jazz by the artist himself, a biography (Henri Matisse, a second life by Alastair Sooke) and a book of short stories by A.S. Byatt inspired by the artist’s work (I found it well written but rather forced in its plots and inspirations). I spoke about Jazz in a previous article. The text itself is a mere frame to the amazing illustrations.
The biography by Alastair Sooke is extremely interesting and faithful to Matisse’s last eleven years of life. In a clear, insightful way he explains how the artist slowly recovered and found new meaning and inspiration in the projects he created with cut-out techniques. The brilliant colours and vitality of the shapes are perfectly described and re-created by the author.
Finally I read, in part, Crash by J.G. Ballard, after having seen Zadie Smith's positive review when the novel was reprinted. First of all I was mesmerized by the style: elaborate, captivating, sometimes ironical; then by the content, which is pornographic, perverse and at times disturbing. Sex in a car, with the car, at high speed (no wonder it often ends in a crash), coitus attained when risk, pleasure and pain reach an apex. Blood, sperm, urine and vagina mucus are spattered everywhere. I found some of it amusing rather than titillating. In the preface, possibly the most genuinely interesting section, he says that the world we live in is fiction and the writer’s task is to create reality, to explain it by making sense of what we experience. What he does is enlarge reality, visually and conceptually, to bring it into focus as if under a magnifying glass.
This is the way I read the book (not till the end, I’m afraid). The story tends to be repetitive, as sex often is. The protagonist sees shapes of penis and vagina in steering wheels, clutches, the geometry of air planes or slashes on car seats. The characters play dangerous games on the brink of death, thereby completely savouring both life and pleasure. The final aim of the story is to show how everybody ruthlessly uses everybody else, which may be a profound truth but is hard to swallow.
Finally, I’m happy to end with a piece of good news: one of my short pieces, Encounter, was published on Cake, issue 6: Lemon Drizzles. More information on www.cake-magazine.co.uk
Italian books My job in the south has changed my reading habits. Besides English books, I am now devouring Italian books because I teach Italian literature. I don’t need to spend money as most of the Italian books I am reading, or re-reading, have been on the family bookshelves for a long time, being part of our high school and university studies. It is so rejuvenating to read them again, remembering the first time I read them: the sensations I had and details I noticed in the past come back to my mind. It’s like re-discovering a hidden treasure. Although I understand and interpret them in a different way today, which is an intriguing fact in itself.
I went back to Gianni Rodari’s poems, which I used to read to my children when they were between three and six. They usually learned the poems by heart without any effort; after a while, I started the first line and they recited the whole piece. They are simple poems, but also clever, original and captivating. Among Rodari’s work, the most brilliant is the Book of Errors, where untranslatable puns and misunderstandings make fun of grammar rules and conventions.
Another author I am re-reading is Italo Calvino, the stories about Marcovaldo and the trilogy Our Ancestors. Marcovaldo is a collection of short stories arranged according to the changing of the seasons. The protagonist, Marcovaldo, has funny and rather alienating experiences: one example is when his family have no fuel for the stove in chilly winter time. Being unable to find any wood in the city, they cut pieces off roadsigns found along roads and motorways and bring them home to burn in the stove. Marcovaldo always looks for a way to live in empathy with natural cycles, but in a city he usually ends in a paradoxical environment that traps him. Nevertheless he manages to survive and carries on bravely to the next adventure, always hoping that this time it will be different.
Our Ancestors is composed of three books: The Cloven Viscount, The Baron of the Trees and The Nonexhistent Knight. They testify Calvino’s passion for Chivalric Romance and his dedication to the study of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The three books are wonderfully written. The stories have profound meanings that develop slowly and captivate the reader. A constant research into balance and fairness dominates them, both at personal and social level. Extreme attitudes fail (the Viscount is divided in two parts by a cannon ball: one part is total evil, the other absolute good. Both keep on living separately and cause great trouble wherever they go till the two parts are united again); too much stress on spirituality and strict moral rules can have opposite effect (e.g. ruthless selfishness or perverted desires); tyranny can lead only to rebellion. Moderation is the magic word, together with acceptance of who we are: good and evil, with both envy and love, spiritual and carnal sides. The important thing is to keep a certain sense of justice, be generous and, if possible, genuine.
A book I enjoyed greatly is Io non ho paura (I'm not scared) by Niccolò Ammanniti. (The book was published in 2001 and the film directed by Gabriele Salvatores was released in 2003). It’s an excellent story, written at a perfect pace, where nothing is redundant or unclear. It’s about a kidnapping set in a poor village in the south of Italy in the late 70s. It’s a scorching summer and everybody knows what is happening. Only a ten year old boy, Michele Amitrano, finds the courage to help the kidnapped child, the same age as him, kept starving in a hole in the ground. Michele has simple, heroic qualities: he is brave and humble at the same time, determined in his attempts to rescue the poor child.
Other books I read are: Vittorio Alfieri’s Life (he had a constant attraction for England, loved travelling and dedicated his life to art, women and horses), Machiavelli’s Mandrake (still funny and absorbing after five hundred years), Pirandello’s La Giara and other short pieces. Also, I read a large number of poems by the most important Italian poets like Dante, Petrarca, Poliziano, Ariosto, Tasso, Foscolo, Leopardi, Carducci, Pascoli, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, Pasolini and Alda Merini. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them; they took me back to my schooldays when I had to learn their most famous poems by heart and used to recite them again and again. They evoke such profound emotions of who I was, what I’d felt at the time compared to who I am now and what I now feel. Poetry can have this magical element: it touches very deep and hidden components of our mind and personality.
Last but not least, I revised my notes on the origin and history of Italian language and prepared a PowerPoint presentation and hand-outs on the first texts written in Italian (early Italian, dating back to 10th-13th centuries). It was one of my favourite subjects at university. It’s engrossing to discover how a language evolves, changes and matures, shaping the mentality and culture of the people who speak and create it.
The history of the Italian language is rather different from the history of other European languages. The reason for this is the continual comparison with Latin, which was of paramount importance in Italy because of the Romans. The second reason is that the Italian language developed from one of the dialects spoken in Italy: the dialect of Florence, which was the native language of three extremely important Italian writers: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. They were so popular, their work was so brilliant and their fame so long lasting, that all later writers and scholars admired them and wanted to imitate their work. All the intellectuals in Italy chose to write in the language of Florence, even if their mother tongue was a completely different dialect. In time (around the Renaissance: 15th-16th century) it became the Italian language, though Italy became a nation only in 1861. Everybody kept on speaking their local dialect and Italian was the language learned at school (together with Latin, of course), till the widespread outreach of newspapers, then radio and television, helped greatly to standardize the language. Today almost every Italian speaks Italian, keeping their local accent, and only a few speak specific dialects, unintelligible out of their area.
Some books I read at Christmas (2014)
My holiday reading is always voracious, I have to catch up on all the times I hadn’t got time to give books what they deserve: my total attention. Here are my great entertainers.
The New World by Andrew Motion, the second of his adventure books (Silver was the first one), an imaginary sequel of Treasure Island. Beautiful writing and extremely entertaining. Naive Jim and clever Natty have opportunities in America and some hard times with a native American tribe. Natty and Jim live like brother and sister: a sexless relationship as if they were too young (or too old) to have it all. He seems willing at times but she is apparently too moody. A peculiar story for today, when sex is overflowing in all kinds of ways. Adventure is the chief protagonist and for the sake of it they stay close, face all the hardships and keep together even though there seems to be no real communication between them at times. A ‘good companionship’ that brings them home, sound and safe and ready to start again. The descriptions of the wild evoke a realistic world at the edge of dreams where everyday life expands into the possible, reaching the borders of fantasy. The style is poetic, of course, in the sense that prose is often surpassed by poetry, which I loved in its richness of repetitions, climaxes and alliterations. The ending is wide open, looking forward to the next step.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood was such a pleasure to read. Only nine stories, but so sharp and inventive that I was totally involved and couldn’t wait for spare time to keep on reading. Some stories are funny, some dark, others evoke a fantasy world called Alphinland. They are all humorous, a daring approach that makes the reader feel the spooky side of everyday life and the funny side of our dreams and fantasies. I was never bored, so different are the perspectives and the voices, all perfectly characterized. Certainly Margaret Atwood never lets you down.
Fauverie by Pascale Petit contains more poems about her father, the wild beast rising in us like a recurring nightmare. He comes back with all his ferocity and tenderness, from the abuse of her childhood to decaying old age. An ever changing, unpredictable king. He has different names, lives in different countries but is always present in her memory. Black jaguar, leopard, vulture, lion, a naturally carnivorous animal, ruthlessly aggressive by instinct, his penis a red-hot prong, a humming bird beak. On the other side the abused little girl is a songbird, a rabbit cut in half, a goat devoured alive. ‘In his grave he’s pawing the soil with impatient coughs’: impressive, unforgettable images awakening unconscious feelings and deep unspeakable truths.
Hold your own by Kate Tempest was a treat I kept on my desk for a long time before I could savour it. I read a lot about her (she is a famous spoken word artist and won the Ted Hughes Prize) but never had the chance to see her performing, which must be a great experience. I couldn’t find much on youtube but reading her poems gave me the idea of all the energy, passion and strength she must put in her performances. Life vibrates in her work, life lived in full, lightly and seriously, hating it and loving it. Living in spite of disappointments and failures, living the moment, living in sorrow and bliss. Tiresias is the thread that links all,
Happy are the Happy (original title: Heureux les Heureux) by Yasmina Reza, a book I received as a present in the Italian translation, apparently an incredibly successful book as my friend had to rush from one bookshop to another to grab the last copy available. Honestly I wasn’t impressed, though I liked the format: short pieces (sort of flash fiction) written in the first person from the point of view of different characters, who are finally connected, more or less loosely, to each other. The story is of an extended French-Jewish family (relatives, friends and lovers), mainly Parisian, essentially concerned with sex and love. The themes are often repetitive though the characters' voices are strong. There's lot of humour and funny episodes, usually referring to sex and ageing and sometimes stereotypical. Here and there are poetical descriptions and fresh images. It ends with a funeral where all the loose threads finally meet: a déjà-vu. All in all a readable book, but nothing special.
The end of another stay on my journey.