A Sense of Place

August 30, 2007

One of the things I enjoy when reading book blogs – aside from reviews about books (those I’ve read or more often books I’d like to read!) – is the links to articles, and quotes from books that can start you off on a whole new unforeseen journey.

Kate’s book blog was the starting point of one such journey, with Nicola Krauss’s essay “The Walker and the Walk”. It begins by comparing walking and writing

~ I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact —some aloneness wishes to be preserved — but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street.~

then draws on Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City”

~ With each walk the territory expands until it contains everything — past, present, literature, childhood, longing, metaphysics; a lifelong answer to the question Kazin’s mother asks, looking out at the dusk: “Where is the day taking us now?”~

Her essay concludes with recollections of her own walks in New York, the different layers of time and events that converge on one particular street corner.

In the Guardian, V.S. Naipaul’s “Caribbean Odyssey” recounts his reading of Derek Walcott’s poems, illuminating the cultural climate of the West Indies at the time

~ And when, in the 1940s, middle-class people with no home but the islands began to understand the emptiness they were inheriting they longed for a local culture, something of their very own, to give them a place in the world.~

When Naipaul meet him in the 1960’s Walcott was languishing in Trinidad, writing articles for the weekend paper and scripts for locally staged plays.

~From this situation he was rescued by the American universities; and his reputation there, paradoxically, then and later, was not that of a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting. He became the man who had stayed behind and found beauty in the emptiness from which other writers had fled: a kind of model, in the eyes of people far away.~

Another interesting piece (again thanks to Kate’s book blog) is Peter Carey’s “A New York Writer’s Catch-22”. He begins

~ I am a Marshian, from Bacchus Marsh, Australia, a place where the commonly accepted rules of alternate-side parking and literary publishing have never applied.~

He then goes on, in his usual entertaining style, to compare his early anonymity, writing at his kitchen table in Melbourne, with the opportunities (and ambitions) his writing students at Hunter College, New York have access to.

~ Of all the things I do at Hunter, this seems to me almost the most important, to close that huge, lonely gap between the kitchen table and the world of literature. ~

And he concludes with admiration and encouragement.

~No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They’ll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those “true stories” have really been. Imagination Dead Imagine.~

The depiction of the literary culture in those specific times and places is interesting. The tenacity and solitary nature of the writing life is highlighted in all. Picking up on Nicola Krauss’s idea of how a writer relates to others, I’m wondering if that can be extended to places as well. What role does the way we identify with our surroundings play in writing and in life? The position of writer as observer is a starting point, and there are a myriad of impressions and factors which combine to give a sense of place

~ those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging ~ (wikipedia)

So to what extent does a writer’s sense of place inform their perspective? I’m off to Paris for the weekend, which epitomizes the delights of recognition, association and memory, that a city can inspire.

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First Flight…

August 23, 2007

Well to kick this off I thought I’d start with a meme that’s been doing the rounds in some of my favourite book blogs :

What are you reading right now?
Just completed Truth and Consequences – my first Alison Lurie (as hailed by litlove) which was enjoyable and wise. So now 15 pages into This Book will Save your Life –A.M. Homes (shame it was on Richard & Judy’s list but “c’est la vie”) I do like to have some contemporary fiction on the go, that’s easy to get in to & this one seems to express something of a current zeitgeist of isolation.
On the non-fiction front I’m savouring John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear – it’s a little more political than some of his earlier essays, but so poetic and true. One of those books I wish everyone I know could experience, both for the content and the inimitable style.
And always some short stories on the go – No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July is a great, varied collection, as idiosyncratic as you would expect from her film work.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
I’ve got my usual, maximum number of library books out – from both my local and the London library, so due back dates usually dictate this (see the Departure lounge) – though I have Patrick Gale’s new release Notes from an Exhibition on hold to collect so once I pick that up I’m unlikely to resist.

What magazines do you have in your bathroom right now?
None – though we always have a copy of The Week on the dining table, good for snippets of current and curious news.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read?
Honestly can’t think of one – must have blocked it out!

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is a safe one that seems to appeal to lots of different people. If asked for a personal recommendation it’s The Hours by Michael Cunningham (and hence encouraging them to go on to Mrs Dalloway –probably my favourite book by my favourite author). And I’m still surprised by the number of people who haven’t read The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen).

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they?
Yes, well they did when we had a small local library at the end of our street. Where we live now, they don’t know me by name (though some staff recognise my frequent visits) & I’ve been capriciously dropping into different branches as they charge (70p – albeit a small fee) to transfer titles! I only seem to make it to the London Library about once every 4-5 weeks but have started requesting holds to streamline my visits, so no doubt the familiarity will come.

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don’t like it at all?
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox – it’s one that Jonathan Franzen championed and since first reading it about 6 years ago, I’ve read it at least 10 times – a little obsessive I know but it’s a short novel and sooo well written. I mustn’t pitch it very well, you’d think after so many readings I’d be able to articulate the storyline in an interesting manner – but that’s just it- I always describe the writing style, and I honestly don’t think anyone’s read it yet. So there’s a challenge for me to write an interesting post about Desperate Characters which will have you all rushing to get a copy!

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer? While you’re having sex? While you’re driving?
Yes, though I always try to cultivate zen & mindfulness e.g. “when you eat, just eat” – I do invariably end up reading books, or newspapers or even blogs while eating!
Definitely a book in the bath is a must – and I haven’t managed to ruin one yet, though sometimes the odd corner may end up a little soggy!
I often read if my other half is watching something I’ve no interest in but if it’s a loud or violent movie I relocate to quieter reading spot.
Music (classical or mainly instrumental) can be good especially as I spend a lot of the day home alone, but sometimes it distracts too much.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits?
Not that I remember, though in more recent times a friend we were holidaying with was astonished to observe me pacing up and down devouring the last few pages of The Aerodynamics of Pork (Patrick Gale), and yes some kind teasing ensued.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger