Review: “The Child That Books Built” by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built

By Francis Spufford

child-that-book-sbuilt

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Possibly even the best. Spufford’s masterful storytelling and delicious, effusive creations captured my imagination in every possible way. Sensuous experience, corporeal characters, and a plot that transports and invigorates its reader; Golden Hill is the kind of book that forces any reviewer into excessively compounded, erudite sentences. This book is awesome.

I’m not even reviewing Golden Hill  and I have fallen into raptures (click here for my review). But to segue, the reason I am now reviewing The Child That Books Built is because of Golden Hill. I couldn’t get enough of Spufford’s voice. I read GH and immediately went in search of more.

To my dismay, Spufford has yet to publish any more fiction. The title I settled upon, therefore, is a biography. I am not, generally speaking, a non-fiction reader and have never read a biography cover-to-cover before. Needless to say my Spufford infatuation has changed that.

This book is precisely what it says on the tin – The Child That Books Built is about how books were his friends and teachers as he grew up. Interspersed with light psychology (which I am partial to), some frank confessions and plenty of books, all in fabulous Spufford style. Entire passages deserve to be read aloud and I did just that. My colleague was much bemused to find me sat alone on the work sofa reading to myself.

“We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”

The title of this book, unlike many books, sums up the content admirably. Titles often outright ignore their purpose of being informative, something Spufford discovered to his frustration as he got older:

“If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it … Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. … The Centaur did not contain a centaur: it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

Spufford’s voice perfectly combines observational humour and gently fluttering revelations, making his experience universally empathetic for book lovers. He recounts and relives his experiences of literature as a child, re-reading his favourites as he writes the book. His enthusiasm is contagious and one could not be blamed for seeking out all the books he rhapsodises throughout – from the magic of Narnia and The Hobbit, to action packed James Bond, to the eloquent sci-fi of Ursula Le Guin, to metafictional Herman Hesse, a lifetime of books. A love story, an addiction that persists and experiences that fuse with one’s very being.

 “It is the directions [books] can point us in that we value – and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking.”

“When a fiction does trip a profound recognition … the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.”

This adult was built by books and I hope I am too.

Puddle Jumping: A Tutorial for Grown-Ups

Featured

It’s raining today.

Grab your wellies. It’s time for some puddle jumping.

There are few things in life that provide such unadulterated joy like jumping in puddles. It’s the smell, the sound, the feel of the rain falling around you, briefly turning your world into a wonderland – if you’re willing to brave the weather and discover it.

There are small puddles and there are big puddles. There are small lakes with isolated islands at their centre, upon which only the bravest of Puddle Jumpers may proudly stand. There are the suddenly deep ones that are the only true test of a good pair of wellies. There are those with hidden sink holes that briefly suck your rubber-coated foot into a muddy vacuum. A grassy verge, transformed into a marsh: the ultimate onomatopoeic surface. And there’s the shallow, slow moving channel that was once a footpath – a syncopated splash with every footfall.

There’s nothing quite like hearing your 23 year old sister shout excitedly “Those ones look good and squelchy!” Or having her out hold her hand to you and you both know instinctively what to do: hold hands, run and jump…

Laugh at the puddle water now dripping down your wellies into your socks. From this point on, no puddle will scare you, no mud slide offend you. Kick up some leaves, play pooh sticks, shout as loud as you can because there is no one around to hear you. And laugh as much as possible.

I’ve been a bit stressed recently, but an hour in the rain can do wonders. No matter your age or your preoccupation, jumping in muddy water is guaranteed to make you smile. It’s cheaper than a therapy session and far less likely to induce a hangover than a trip to the pub.

So if you’re in need of some stress relief, here’s my advice:

Hold hands.

Run.

And Jump.

hold hands 3

What Do Your Books Say About You?

This morning, I got to do something I haven’t been able to do in a long time. I woke up on my day off, turned on the light, picked up a book from my bedside table and read. The luxury of simply reading for the love of reading is one I have struggled to find time for since university.

What do your books say about you? (I don’t mean behind you back.) The books currently sat on my bedside table could tell you a lot about me.Bookshelf


The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Where did I get it? Received this in the post, adorned with a post-it, which read, “Thought you might enjoy reading this. Granny x” After receiving said delightful little package, I rang my Gran. She said it reminded her of my blog, the way I ramble, tangents veering off.

The tagline reads: “Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted.” Do you know what a good bookshop is? Forsyth does. I haven’t been in a good bookshop since I was in New York and my wonderful aunt took me to a little treasure trove, where I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg.

While I would happily tell you more about this little beautie, I’m concerned I might ruin the joy of an “unknown unknown.” It took less than an hour to read, and made me laugh out loud several times. Clever and witty without trying to be. Delightful in its purposelessness.

Bookmark: A page torn from my notepad at work. It is the beginnings of a short story I started writing during that last useless hour of a work day. Between half 4 and half 5, when no one really does anything but wait for the day to end. The Twilight Hour.

I have since continued writing the story on the computer at work – typing gives the impression of doing something productive – and I’m hoping to extend this into a collection of short stories. Might post a snippet on here at some point.


Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Where did I get it? Waterstones, Oxford.

This is one of the classics that follows you around. One of those epic, brick-like monstronsities that act as an adequate book-end until you work up the courage to dig in. Our friend Forsyth puts it thus in The Unknown Uknown:

“Tolstoy, Stendhal and Cervantes, these men follow me around. They stand in dark corners and eye me disapprovingly from beneath supercilious eyebrows. And all because I’ve never got round to reading their blasted, thousand-page, three-ton, five-generation, state-of-a-nation thingummywhatsits.

I’m taking on this monster. About 6 months in and I’m half way through. The adventures of the deluded knight, Don Quixote and his hapless copanion, Sancho Panza. It makes one giggle in a “Droll, Cervantes, very droll” kind of way. But there’s also the odd Dick Joke, which is nice.

Continue reading

The F Word & The F Word

“I’m sorry, which one?”

It is a strange thing that modern vernacular now has two possible answers to this question: Feminism or Fuck.

“The F word” is a phrase born of censorship. Keep the nasty words out of the earshot of innocent minds and out of polite conversation. The notion of contracting a word to its first initial and a series of asterisks as a means of hiding it’s meaning, is itself a ridiculous notion. We all know what it means. Children know what it means. That cannot be avoided. The word is still there, you’re fooling no one with your asterisks.

But censorship is its own debate. What is relevant here is that another word is apparently now worthy of being censored to the same level as “Fuck”. And that word is “Feminism”.

How has that happened? How has Feminism become a nasty word to be half-hidden and whispered in conversation for fear of reproach? Feminism is being treated like a dirty word and that is unacceptable. I know that I have personally felt like I need to mumble it under my breath with a tone of apology, to ward off anyone who might roll their eyes and lean back in their chairs wishing they hadn’t started the conversation. People are afraid of arousing debate. And, really, why is that? Why are people scared of talking about important issues, as though it is going to ruin their evening? “I just wanted to have a quiet drink in the pub. I wasn’t looking for an intellectual debate at this time of night!”

Political debate does not equal argument. Sharing opposing ideas can be a passionate experience, yes. But passion, when exhibited by generally reasonable persons, should not lead to negative results. Especially, a word like Feminism – a word that means equality for everyone, everywhere. There is too much misunderstood about this word, but in the words of Caitlin Moran, Feminism is: “Not all the penises being burned in a Penis Bonfire. Just women being equal to men.” And everyone else in between.

So don’t be afraid of this F word. Don’t mumble it under your breath, but say it proudly, with the appropriate decibel level. Of course if you want to go shouting it from the rooftops, then be my guest. You won’t be arrested for public indecency or disturbing the peace, because Feminism is NOT a dirty word. Feminism is a fucking beautiful word.

 

(Quote from Caitlin Moran found here: http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/advice/a9641/things-men-dont-know-about-women-caitlin-moran/)

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

The first book recommended to me by the staff at Waterstones:

a whole life book

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

5-stars

Neither the economy of language nor the physical coldness of the landscape do anything to dampen the warmth of feeling woven throughout this short novel – both bitter and sweet.

There is a frankness and plainness to the words that creates a world without over-filling it. You feel that every word is necessary. It is ungarnished. The infrequent dialogue is made the more potent by its scarcity and blunt truthfulness. You feel as if these are memories hewn by time to their most composite form; memories whose accuracy encompasses all that is needed, all that is most affective. Our guide, Egger, is a man of fortitude and quiet strength. His many trials, though tragic, are without the solipsism of tragedy.

“But each time the rumbling died away and the clear cries of the jackdaws could be heard again.”

He limps through life as best he can, and his quiet, persistent trudging is honourable and life-affirming. An unstudied lesson in philosophy; gently shown, not taught. We are blown through his snowy valley as quiet observers. In Egger’s solitude, we are not made to feel like intruders, but rather to join with the quiet breath of the mountains that are his constant companions. And for our silent companionship, his unimposing wisdom is our gift.

“A Whole Life,” in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long.

Job Success -The Cover Letter Resolution

Featured

As I wile away the time between being an Almost-Adult and being a Finished Adult – perish the thought – I have gotten myself a part-time job in a bookshop. It’s not a life time goal, but a facilitator for the many I hold. For, like it or not, money makes this giant sphere rotate around an off-vertical axis. Or something more catchy than that. So, I’ve got a job at a bookshop, which is already infinitely better than counting money in a department store. Books are my thing.

As some of you may recall from previous posts, the process of filling out job applications and writing covering statements is a task I much lament. I therefore took a bit of a different tack with my cover letter on this occasion and, evidently, it worked…


 

To Whom It May Concern,

To be blunt, I really want to work in [Big-Brand Bookshop]. I’m looking for a part-time position with flexible hours, and I’m happy to work weekends, and a position in your shop would be perfect for me.

I’ve been a book lover ever since I can remember. I remember the first book I ever read; it was called Look, and on each page was one word, “Look.” It was my first book, what do you want from me? I remember the first time I read a whole book in one day. It was Fantastic Mr Fox, by Roald Dahl – that’s a big achievement when you are seven years old. I remember my older sister reading Mr Men books to me when I couldn’t sleep. I remember racing against my sister to finish the latest Harry Potter. I remember staying up all night, because I couldn’t put down The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I remember the sense of discovery I felt when Continue reading

Don’t Talk on The Tube!

It is an unwritten, or more precisely, an unspoken rule, known instinctively to all Londoners.

As paramount to survival in the great metropolis as never waiting for the lights to change at a zebra crossing. As infamous as the knowledge that you are never more than 300ft from a Pret A Manger. As dependable as the unsmiling face of the barista who serves you your morning coffee.

You don’t talk on the Tube.

The London Underground is a peculiar environment, the commuter’s sanatorium. Suits and Backpackers metonymically mingle here, on the great equaliser of Public Transport.

The chaos of the station platform billows through the sliding doors and is hushed.

London delights in its ambivalence, its ambiguity, its contradiction. The chaos and the hush.

I am not a native Londoner, but I go in and out of the city enough to know how it works. I obey the rules. I stand on the right of the escalator, and when someone stands on the left when I’m in a rush, I tell them where to go. But one day, when a friendly Northerner sat down next to me and struck up a conversation, I couldn’t give him the cold shoulder. He needed someone to explain the rules to him, someone to bring him into the fold.

Northern Guy: “So, where you going today?”No Talking

Me: “On my way home.”

Northern Guy: “Ah ok. So is it always like this? People don’t talk to each other in London?”

Me: “No mate, people don’t talk on the Tube.”

Northern Guy: “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m from Leeds, ya see.”

Me: “It’s fine, you weren’t to know.”

Silence.

Of course I did this without making eye contact with him. That’s a rule I’m not willing to compromise on.

There is only one instance in which discussion is acceptable: transport delays. The horror of your train screeching to a halt, then the tell-tale crackle of the speakers…

The echoing muffle of the train attendant through the overhead speakers – incomprehensible to the average human – will drag the quietest of carriages into audible grumbles. This is the signal to look up from your LCD screen or paperback book, emit a murmured curse and make eye contact with another disgruntled commuter.

This announcement is permission, nay, an invitation to make acquaintance with your fellow travellers, through mutual exasperation. Because, although we all abide by the Unspoken Rule, the truth is, many of us wish we could be like the Northern Guy. We wish we could make friends with the people we are sardined in with. But Heaven forfend anyone who causes a delay.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must get to his meeting on time. If Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy were to run up to the closing doors of a Bakerloo Line train at Piccadilly Circus, he would definitely be one of those arrogant wankers who uses their briefcase to keep the doors from closing. And our modern-day Lizzie, already sat demurely in the carriage, would be righteously pointing out his solipsism to her giggling companion, as they shuttled towards Charing Cross.

Of course this is only fiction.

People don’t giggle on the Tube.

Impolitic 3: “It’s not Dinner Party Conversation”

Dinner Party Battle Edit

(For those who are unfamiliar with my earlier posts: I am 21 and until recently, I made no effort to engage with politics. I recently made the decision to change that.)

The way the media and indeed the parties themselves perpetuate the hype and tit-for-tat style of campaigning, it is difficult to know what and who you are really voting for. It’s so easy to vote for the person rather than the policies, the Figurehead rather than the Party. What’s more, it is not uncommon for someone to align with one party, but fail to relate to that party’s leader.

“I vote for The Whatsit Enthusiasts, but Mr Thing-a-me Bob is a nincompoop.”

Why is it so common for the general public to find themselves backing a leader they think incompetent? Political leanings can flip-flop dramatically when a new Party Leader is elected. And, come the general election, you might find yourself voting for who you want to be PM as opposed to what party you want in charge.

Policies begin to take a backseat. Likeability and public presence become overriding selling points. It’s a popularity contest no one can ever truly win. We are often faced with men and women who have been coached on how to present themselves. But people are not stupid. I for one am very wary of people who try to market themselves at me – not to me, but at me. Though they were all guilty of it, the worst offender during the Leaders Debate was Ed Miliband. Miliband would periodically assume a practised posture: shifting his stance and looking directly down the camera, he would deliver what was clearly a prewritten speech, in measured, mannerly tones. Anyone I have spoken to about this has agreed with me. His attempts to stare down the camera and engage personally with his constituents was emphatically transparent and as such, ineffectual.

The Leaders Debate, while interesting, did little to help me reach a decision. As a first-time voter, I am striving to approach the election without bias or preconceptions and consider the policies for their merit, but feel inundated by bias on all sides. Whenever the P word comes up, Passion runs high, often with Prejudice not far behind.

“Politics and Religion are not Dinner Party Conversation.”

– I was told this not two days ago, after proudly sharing with the guests that I had watched the entirety of the Leaders Debate.

If talk of politics either leads to damaging statements born from preconception, or courtesy leads others to abstain from the conversation altogether, how am I supposed to gain an informed understanding of politics? How can young people find a credible, unbiased source of information that will not lead by the collar, but guide by the hand?

Answer:

Continue reading

Organised Spontaneity…

Organised Spontaneity: The magic of film and theatre. You organise a place and time. You arrive, buy some popcorn, take your seat and wait for something to happen…

It is a sad fact for those who devote their lives to this industry, that the magic is diminished by their very involvement in it. By knowing too much of the process, it becomes difficult to let the magic happen without analysing it.

But then, sometimes, the magic jumps right back in.

*     *     *     *     *

I volunteered to help out on a film set last weekend. For anyone reading this who assumes the words “film set” mean something glamorous and thrilling, let me dispel the illusion: this is rarely the case. Nothing extravagant, no notable names or fancy locations: a small “hipster-ish” bar not far from London Bridge, a small cast and crew, and a few friends helping out, on a cold and windy day in January.

The majority of our time was spent on the small, open roof terrace. With little to protect us from the elements and intrusive noise from the building works close by, it wasn’t the cosiest of settings. It didn’t take long for people to engage in their own personal warm-up routines between takes; what I shall refer to as The Warm-Up Shimmy soon becoming a popular choice among cast and crew alike.

The most anticipated scene to be filmed was the first meeting of two female leads who quickly fall for each other. You might have thought that the casting for these two characters would require some compatibility testing, that they should meet in advance to assure there was a level of natural chemistry before making the final decision to cast the pair. This was not the case.

Until the moment the director said “Action,” neither of these women had seen each other before. Instructed to stand at either end of the set and look at their feet, less than 10 feet from each other, but not allowed to look up.

“Camera rolling”

“Action”

One walks. The other stays still. They collide. They look up. They make eye contact. They smile…

Without rehearsing, without really meaning to, they smile. A perfect moment is created, captured on film and preserved in slow motion.

Organised spontaneity. Making magic.

And, that’s why I love acting.

The Perfect Pen

As a writer, I have certain conditions in which I like to work. According to my new writing guru, Verlyn Klinkenborg, creating conditions for your own creative process will only become barriers in the long run.

“Anything you think you need in order to write –
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write –
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.” (80)

As much as I see the reason in VK’s “short sentences”, I am struggling to follow through on this. There is a specific pen I like to write with. I recently lost that pen and bought a replacement today. Thankfully, it is stocked in most highstreet stationers. What’s so special about this particular pen? Well, for starters, it is the perfect shade of blue. I find page upon page of black biro a depressing spectacle. Blue offers a far more pleasing aesthetic, but it is not too bright of a blue as to be overstimulating… As I’m writing I’m starting to see how picky this sounds. But I shall continue anyway. In addition, this pen has remarkably little resistance on the page. My hand can glide along each line and a beautiful river of letters transfers effortlessly onto the crisp white paper.

page 1

And it’s not just the pen. I don’t like starting a new notepad. I like being able to flick through previous pages, read the occasional paragraph and think, “Man, I write some good stuff.” Those previous pages are a comforting, midnight-blue blanket of prose. Those paragraphs give me the confidence to turn to the dreaded empty page and begin. As a result, there is an old notepad I refuse to throw away because some fantastic essays began in those pages.

And beyond the raw materials, the environment has to be right too. Firstly, excellent light. Not yellowy, low-energy lamps, whose rays fail to chase away the darkening sky as you toil into the night.  Of course, a desk and comfortable chair are a must. And then there’s the noise factor. Everybody likes to work differently. Some people want absolute silence. Others blast heavy metal through their headphones. I need the right amount of ambient noise. Not silence, not heavy metal, but somewhere in between. I want friendly chatter, but not raucous laughter. A reassuring, indistinct melee of noise. I want to hear that buzz of life that reminds me there is existence beyond the realms of the word counter. The ground floor of UEA library was my perfect work zone. Having visited some local libraries recently, I can now say I miss university more than ever.

I am currently battling with drama school applications and that means Personal Statements. Yes, that dreaded task has rolled around again. There is already a post dedicated to my hatred of this task – the whole concept in fact – so I shan’t rant any further. What I will say is this: I have just acquired a visitor’s pass to Reading University library and a brand new pad of paper. I now sit with an old notepad, a new notepad, borrowed wifi and my favourite blue pen. Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

And so, with a hint of panache and some abbreviation, I can now say…

P.S. You Are My Bitch.

screenshot 2

 

cropped-absy-logo-large-1-bold-small-s.png