Saturday, 11 August 2012

Blurred at the edges

Don't mind me, just sneaking in at the back here. Yes, I know it's been nearly a year. Stuff, life, you know. Twitter, mostly. AAaaaaanyway. Excuse hiccups, Blogger changed while I was in my enchanted sleep and now I can't work out how to hyperlink.
Every now and then when I'm not writing about food, booze, or perfume, I write about books. There has been an almighty shriek about the infamous Fifty Shades Of Grey, and don't worry, I have no intention of dedicating a post to it, other people have covered the subject EXHAUSTIVELY. My whole Big Thing Point here is: I think what people are getting upset about at the moment is not anything to do with content, it's how it's presented. People like their genres to be crudely obvious and Fifty Shades confounds them because it's jacketed like "normal fiction" rather than being plastered with fingerwagging Parental Advisory stickers and the mark of the Beast and sold from under the counter. In point of fact it's doubly misleading because while it looks like fiction and is reputed to be terrifying civilisation-destroying porn, it is in fact a poorly-executed and soppy 1980s romance bonkbuster, pretending to be a bit transgressive with some handcuffs.
I just finished reading (and gruesomely enjoying) The Uninvited by Liz Jensen. She writes literary fiction, albeit odd and not entirely real-life, and gets reviewed in the heavyweight papers, Anthony Minghella was producing a film based on one of her books just before he died, etc etc. But if asked to classify what genre it belonged to, I would call it either Horror or Fantasy (caps because that's what we bookselly types do). Both of which are genres the average reader gets quite uneasy around. Ooh, Horror, that's all rats and gratuitous entrails, isn't it? Is Fantasy the one where it's all sodding elves and swords of mystic destiny? Publishers are obviously aware of the ghettoising of genres (I've mentioned this before), and nobody wants their book languishing in a section traditionally only visited by some but not all teenage boys, especially if it's been Orange Prize longlisted. Hence the recent trend towards blurring the boundaries. If you asked people what Susan Hill writes, they'd probably say Literary Fiction. And yet what's The Woman In Black? Well, Horror, obviously. It's even been filmed by the recently resuscitated Hammer. David Mitchell writes SciFi, because frankly Cloud Atlas is mostly that, and is being filmed by the Wachowski Brothers (that's The Matrix to you). So does Murakami. What it is, and this is all it is, is jacket design* and placement in shops. I'm personally all in favour of it, as anything that expands the boundaries of what people think is "literary" is a great thing. I would even be happy if there was a stretch the other way, so all bookshops had to have a tiny awful ghetto of a section called Novels About Middle-Class Women Having Nervous Breakdowns At Holland Park Dinner Parties.

*As an example, which of these would you buy? They're all the same text inside. What if you were told the appalling Regency Romance cover cost a fiver less than either, but in order to buy it you had to go to a separate section of the bookshop called Romance Novels?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Warning: Wardrobe May Contain Lion And Traces Of Snow


I've just read a book that reminded me of how I used to feel when I was around 11 and YEARNED with all my heart for life to be less real than it is. It was (or, at the time of writing, will be, as not in fact published till September 15th) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I won't do any of that smug "I've got a proof copy" stuff, or indeed add any spoilers, so if I say it's AS GOOD AS "JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL" you will know what I mean, and if you don't you probably aren't a huge fan of Wardrobe literature.
Wardrobe literature, since you ask (yeah yeah), is anything that lets you believe that somewhere, if you can only find it, there is a door to somewhere amazing, or a box that contains something amazing, or a tiny odd shop that sells something amazing, etc etc, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the boring old tax-paying workaday hangover road-rage noisy-neighbour Real World is just a waiting room for somewhere much better, where anything is possible. Wardrobe literature introduces the real world and then dismisses it. It doesn't bamboozle you by throwing you headfirst into Middle Earth or Earthsea, like a travel brochure for somewhere exotic you will never visit and don't speak the language anyway. Devotees of wardrobe literature get excited by antique shops and libraries. They feel a prickling of the hairs on the back of their necks when they see, you've guessed it, a large old wardrobe, or a hidden door, or dusty attic steps. They stop telling people how excited these things make them because they worry that it sounds a bit childish, but the feeling never goes. The phrase "based on a true story" makes them sigh heavily and switch off.
I have attached a very sketchy reading list below. If I have glaringly omitted anything, please let me know...

Suggested Wardrobe Literature for adults:

The Solitudes, Little Big - John Crowley
Declare, Last Call - Tim Powers
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susannah Clarke
The Twelfth Enchantment - David Liss
The Magicians - Lev Grossman
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
Waking The Moon - Elizabeth Hand
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Rivers Of London - Ben Aaronovitch
Farundell - L R Fredericks
The Glamour - Christopher Priest
The Book Of Skulls - Robert Silverburg
Mockingbird - Sean Stewart
Time And Again - Jack Finney
Prospero's Children - Jan Siegel
Weaveworld - Clive Barker

Suggested Wardrobe Literature for children:

Anything by the extraordinary and unmatchable Diana Wynne Jones
The Dark Is Rising series - Susan Cooper
The Perilous Gard - Marie Pope Osborne
Marianne Dreams, Thursday - Catherine Storr
Castle Of Bone - Penelope Farmer
Elidor , The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, The Owl Service - Alan Garner
A Traveller In Time - Alison Uttley
The Giant Under The Snow - John Gordon
Mistress Masham's Repose - T H White
The Children Of Green Knowe - Lucy Boston
Stravaganza: City Of Masks - Mary Hoffman
The House Of Arden - E Nesbit
Tom's Midnight Garden - Philippa Pearce
And, it goes without saying, the Narnia books by C S Lewis.

Friday, 10 June 2011

How I Pass The Time When I'm Unable To Sleep

I am the very model of a blogger unreliable,
My application's sketchy and my updates rarely viable,
My posting is erratic and my facts unverifiable,
I am the very model of a blogger unreliable.





Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Not Funny

Oh calm down, I don't mean "Life Is Very Serious" or anything like that. Just that since I haven't written anything for ages I felt I had to break the back of it at some point, and I have nothing amusing to frilly it up with. This will be one of those po-faced and humourless blog entries that should have been written by a 17 year old boy striving to understand the mundanity of life, followed by discovering the Nietzschean darkness of his tormented soul, before going crazy with a paintball gun in the local dry-cleaner's (that's the PG version).
I apologise if any of you are 17 year old boys. If you are, my goodness have you subscribed to the wrong blog feed. All the hot teenage wannabe-Goth chicks are on MySpace, and anyway they fancy Robert Pattinson (really no idea why, I'm with you on that one).
So here's the problem - I used to write this because it made me snigger in a frankly immature way. I am now my own worst critic; every time I start a blog entry I find my lip curling in what practised writers refer to as the "Sarcastic Bystander" way. The hint, apparently, to avoid taking yourself too seriously, is to imagine everything you write being read aloud by a sarcastic bystander: "Lolita, my light, my life, my sin, my soul... seriously Vlad, you fancy yourself a bit with the poncey alliteration, don't you?"
ANYway. Upshot is I have decided not to be such a prat about blogging. I will do this more often. Even if I sneer at myself as I do it. Possibly I will (in the manner of Stella Gibbons putting asterisks next to the prose passages she was most proud of in Cold Comfort Farm) highlight selected blog entries with "well, it made me laugh, anyway". Or just do a David Sedaris and actually be funny...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Fingers Crossed

Just had an email from First Direct saying they would send me some paperwork to be signed, and "subject to the usual checks" I would soon become one of the happy Elect, frolicking in a flowery meadow of elite-hood, rather than wearing the scarlet letter S.
Of course now I'm panicking - will their "usual checks" be the equivalent of Talking To Her Mates After A Reasonably Good First Date? Will they find out that, financially speaking, I have a tendency to cry when drinking gin and stand on pub tables slurring mournfully along to "Don't Cry Out Loud"? Am I the kind of bank customer who equates to a slightly needy ex who sticks Garfield cartoons to her fridge and has a rear car window shelf full of cuddly toys and bejewelled tissue-box holders?
My other worry (even more irrational) is that I will turn out to be the victim of a huge scam - and that First Direct doesn't exist at all, but is an offshoot of Reverend James Willy Enterprises plc - and I and countless others have fallen victim to their seductive ads showing happy bankers talking to "real people" (or no-life "we're all MAD here!!!!!!" wonks as per the ad, but I digress).
But all of this is academic at the moment, as I wait by the letterbox, like a Victorian soldier's sweetheart, waiting for a tiny billet doux to raise my spirits... Oh First Direct, will you be my Valentine?

"Vouchsafe how many years you have resided at your present address, fair maid", quoth he.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

You say Santander and I say Salander

Had another exciting (! SO not.) exchange with my current financial services provider, the extraordinary circus sideshow that is Banco Abbey De Santander Nacional or whatever (regularly voted number 1 for appalling customer service! No argument from this customer, oh no). Who blocked my card because of "an unusual transaction". Then claimed they hadn't blocked it, but said they'd unblock it. The "unusual transaction" was a direct debit of £3.29 that goes out once a week, regular as clockwork. The man in the Complaints department agreed that it was a strange course of action to take - but hey, that's the wacky world o' banking! So yet again I'm vowing to move to First Direct (please don't ruin my day by telling me they're just as bad, I'M NOT LISTENING LA LA LA). When I have a day off. And I will follow this by channelling Lisbeth Salander for enough time to hack their website to say "We're Crap! And Proud Of It! And There's NOTHING You Can Do! Ha Ha Ha!!!" Well, I can dream anyway.
Apart from that brief blip, a good week so far - so good, in fact, that I have a sore shoulder from trudging home, my bag straining at the seams with proof copies of things I ACTUALLY WANT TO READ. I'm amazed I have time to update at all. In fact I haven't.
And finally: an invoice we received the other day. Nice to know the lovely Bookpoint are branching out and providing other items than books and stationery.


Thursday, 20 January 2011

What the more chi-chi menus describe as "a melange".

How swiftly time passes when you're failing to update a blog (here I would like you to imagine a montage of tiny scenes from my daily life, book pages blurring as I read, hair growing inch by inch as time speeds by, waistline also increasing exponentially as the twin evils of Christmas and We Have To Finish These Leftovers wreak their vile havoc, all to the haunting strains of "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler On The Roof).
That's enough of that.
There is very little to say about Christmas 2010 apart from the fact that it was calm, relaxed, and I got everything I wanted. I have accordingly struck at least one ridiculously expensive perfume off my WANT list.
Oh yes, we went on holiday! I would elaborate, but it was Thailand again, and I've already bored you all with tales of the slow loris we saw in Khao Lak AND my near-addiction to chilis, so I won't go on, except to say that no, we do not have a sex-dungeon full of ladyboys (in reply to people who say with deep suspicion "Thailand again?"). I had a moment while eating a VERY HOT Panang curry where the endorphin rush brought on by the chilis caused the inside of my head to start to expand, and I may or may not have seen the face of Buddha in a thousand revolving lotuses, or perhaps that was the lemongrass martini I had had several of beforehand. Either way, sod you, Carlos Castaneda.
I read, and was bowled over by, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. I think there's some kind of blind spot that makes authors of grownup fiction think that writing kids' books must be a piece of cake (McNab, Patterson, Ryan, Grisham, I'm looking at you and frowning), despite the fact that this is completely untrue. Talented authors of kids' books are rare and wonderful things, and having once written successfully for children they seem better able to turn their hands to very good adult fiction (Geraldine McCaughrean, Diana Wynne Jones, etc). Dark Matter is so creepy and implicit that I was very glad indeed I was reading it in the sweltering Thai sunshine - it's set in the Arctic, about a jolly 1930s group of exploring chaps who fall foul of some nameless malevolent presence in the long wastes of the sunless Arctic winter. Fabulously atmospheric and, like M R James, best read in a brightly-lit house full of people. HIGHLY recommended.
Updates to ensue more regularly...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Perfume, pubs, people-watching, all of that.

So in the pub the other night - people-watching, like one does. At the table next to us, a couple. We decided (after they'd gone, we're not animals, for God's sake) that they were either a long-married couple on the verge of meltdown ("You bastard, Adrian, I told you not to gamble away the solar panel subsidy!!!") OR on a first date where they had both been grossly misrepresented, either by mutual friends ("They said you looked like Brad Pitt!" "Well they said you looked like someone off Strictly Come Dancing, but they didn't mention it was Anne Widdecombe!") or themselves ("Fun-loving curvy blond/e... loads of personality... my mum says I'm handsome..." fill in gap).
At some point during the starter I turned to my brother-in-law, who takes us out to dinner regularly to thank us for allowing him to occasionally sleep on the cardboard placemat we like to call a spare bed (for work purposes only - he has a very nice family up North). I said "Are you covered in Vicks?". In my defence, he hadn't been feeling well. He was slightly taken aback, and said no, so I remained mildly confused. Until the angry couple left, after having spent most of the evening (while they weren't glaring at each other) texting other people. And I realised it was her perfume, namely (and I will name names) "Pomegranate Noir" by Jo Malone.
Don't get me wrong, I like it, especially on my friend Nix, but it is boldly heavy on what it claims to be opoponax (??? answers on a postcard), pepper, and patchouli. These are its claims, but I say there's a truckload of eucalyptus in there too. In large and over-optimistic first-date splash-it-all-over amounts, it smells of Vicks Vaporub. Or a koala, startled in the act of shoplifting some Vicks Vaporub and a pomegranate. And why not, if I was Jo Malone I'd use some high-flown word like "opoponax" rather than "Vicks".
At this moment I wondered whether their burgeoning relationship could have been salvaged if he hadn't got all the wrong olfactory signals, and either thought she had flu or was perhaps an aggressive man.

YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT. LOOK AT HER. ALL WOMAN.

..EH???

I'm going to blame my increasing deafness on waxy build-up (sorry, if you're eating) and the poor acoustic quality of the average restaurant/pub. I never seem to have problems at home or, mostly, at work. But I have been suffering from what I can only call "Freudian deafness" for years - in my previous career in Frenchish Airways I spent a lot of time on the phone and had to double-check the obvious mispronunciations : "Caen" instead of "Cannes", "Dakar" for "Dhaka", and on one memorable occasion something that could have been Biarritz, Bayreuth or Beirut. The travel agent wasn't sure which one the customer wanted (my tip? Don't book with them EVER), so I ended up saying "Do they want surfing, opera or bomb-craters?". She didn't know that either. It was a 66% chance the customer ended up in the wrong place.
I also frequently mis-heard the word "y-fronts" for the far more commonly used "reference" ("If I could just take down your y-fronts for this booking?"). Oh, the hilarity.
The end result of constantly saying "Sorry, could you repeat that?" is, inevitably, that your ears get lazy and you say it to everything. But it helps if at least the context is an indication of where the conversation should have been going - after all, y-fronts rarely get mentioned in the context of booking an airline ticket. Mr F and I went out for dinner on Saturday, to a fantastically nice (if slightly pricey) old-school proper Italian restaurant (osso bucco, Chianti, rabbit ragu, that kind of shenanigans) and while it was lovely, the acoustics were slightly trying. And at one point, while he was attempting to discuss burning news issues of the day (Koran-burning, in fact), I said "Sorry?" once too often. "THE PASTOR, THE PASTOR!!!" he yelled. Three waiters looked up in panic. Try saying it aloud. It wasn't just me.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Sorry again

The "posting regularly" issue seems to be a tricky one for me. I promise I'll start again now the days are chillier and there's less to do in the sun at lunchtime. In the meantime, here is a picture of my lovely new socks, which I was forced to buy as shoes now seem to be obligatory. I miss my FitFlops.