Tag Archives: Books

Go Read a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

I hesitate to say this because I am white and I am English, but I am calling bullshit on much of the discussion I have seen about Go Set a Watchman. The discussion about this book  should not be about whether or not it should have been published or whether or not it’s a good book. The discussion should be about racism.

We should be talking about institutional racism (a subject the book raises explicitly and addresses unsatisfactorily). We should be talking about what we do when good people we love expose themselves as racists (the central topic of the book and presumably of Lee’s life, and one it addresses discomfortingly). We should be talking about what we do about changing racist communities we are part of (again a central topic of the book, and one it answers weakly). We should be talking about being a White Ally, especially about being a bad White Ally, and about racism in the Northern States (all things the book exposes, possibly without meaning to). We should be talking about hindsight bias and revisionism, confirmation bias and blind-spots (again, exposed on every page). We should be talking about the links between the easy assumptions of class superiority that Lee makes and the racism she rejects.

These are the elephants in the room and the fact that the conversation is not about any of these things tells us so. And the more that people make the conversation about other subjects, the more they are sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “la, la, la I can’t hear you”.

So, yes, the book should most certainly have been published and yes my friend it’s worth reading. I will go further – I think you should read it because of Charleston, because of Portland, because of Ferguson, because of Mark Brown, because of Trayvon Martin, because all of this is happening now 50 years after Lee drafted the manuscript and submitted it to a publisher.

Is it well written? – Yes, but not as well written as Mockingbird. Get over it.

Will it change your view of Mockingbird? I don’t know.

It changed my view of Mockingbird, though I want to read that book again.  I now think of it as a fairy story and as a dangerous one at that because it’s a way for people to say “Oh, I’m not a racist, I’m Atticus, or Jem, or Scout”. I now see the artifice in Mockingbird: I see Scout’s clear-eyed wisdom as artificial, no six year old was ever that wise. I see also the naïveté in the assumption that Atticus and the Finches could possibly not be racist in a society where people owning other people was still a matter of living memory. It’s hard to read Watchman as a draft not a sequel but at one point in Watchman the adult Jean Louise says to Calpurnia “Please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” and shivers go up your spine as the silence lengthens. Having said that, I link below to clearer-eyed reviews of Mockingbird which see it in a more nuanced light.

Did Lee give full and knowing consent? – I don’t know. She seems worryingly vulnerable, so possibly not. I am however certain that circumstances have given us a double gift, and we should read Go Set a Watchman, engage with it, and be grateful.

The Booky meme

Weeding Library CollectionsIt’s not my fault I’m posting a meme. Reed made me do it.

Total Number of Books Owned

What sort of question is that? On the principle of “One, two, three, many” (which really is the only way physically possible to count books) I own many.

I gave away a kilobyte of the things in 2002, exactly and spookily 1,024 of them so at that time I must have owned about 4 or 5,000, I suppose. And I am still giving them away and selling them on Amazon. The blasted things breed. They are two deep on the Legendary Bookcase, which does at least give me somewhere to hide my erotica.

Last Book Bought

Winter in Madrid, which I bought for the book group I’ve recently joined and stopped reading with gratitude three fourths of the way through once I’d been to the meeting. It was a good book, but with all the nuances that are present when you call someone a good woman. Worthy, humourless, hard-working, drear. Like Alice, I wonder what is the use of a book without pictures and conversations, and like the anti-hero’s friend in The Stornaway Way, my taste in fiction stopped improving when I was a teenager and my shelves are full of Pratchett.

The last book I bought for kicks was IT Governance – How Top Performers Manage IT for Superior Results which says something incredibly worrying about how I get my kicks.

Last Book Read

I seem to be re-reading Georgette Heyer at the moment which is basically comfort reading; the equivalent of curling up on the sofa after a bath with a towelling bath-robe, fluffy slippers and a mug of horlicks. I’ve also got a book about systems thinking called The Fifth Discipline lolling around on the bed with me, which I am taking a break from, and a book of womens’ sexual fantasies which doesn’t include anything about “The Fifth Discipline” but probably should. Before that I stalled part way though “Winter in Madrid” as already mentioned.

My Legendary Bookcase - 01Five books that mean a lot to me

Eeek. I started with a list of unimpressive fiction, but ripped it out and replaced it with some of the books that have contributed to how I think:

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – framed my views about our place in the world. Probably the right book at the right point in my life. It’s not a book I’m particularly fond of, Dawkins is too strident for my liking. But though I prefer Carl Sagan’s company, this book probably had more impact on me.

Games People Play by Eric Berne – made me realise that there is more to how any of us behave than meets the eye. It’s over 40 years old now and over 30 since I first read it, and though transactional analysis is no longer the model de jour it’s still one of the most useful and accessible ways of questioning behaviour patterns that I know.

Not exactly a book, but hey: Wired Magazine changed my life. I subscribed to it in the mid and late 1990s and it introduced me not just to the internet, but to the new thinking about the new ways we would all start to interact. It is hard now, writing a blog post, taking time out to Instant Message friends, playing a round in Travian and a turn in Scrabulous, checking my online banking, downloading the latest podcasts from the Reduced Shakespeare Company and Business Week Magazine, checking where I have to go tomorrow on Multimap and looking up my most recent book purchases on Amazon, it is hard now to imagine a world where all this was unimagined. But it was Wired Magazine which got me off my backside and into the e-world where I belonged.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman – structured my thinking about cognition, technology, culture and society. It describes how the medium we use to communicate affects the way in which we think, and how our cognitive processes have been changed, first by the printing press, then by the telegraph, and more recently by the radio and television. The new media coda to it is The Kids are Alright by John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade who look at how the gaming generations, (those up to the age of about 35) think differently from the Gen Xers and Boomers who grew up without computer games. I really ought to read the Postman again though.

I’m struggling for the fifth one, but I am going to go with one recommended by Reed: Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and John Brickmont – finally told me it was ok to loathe the self-serving, insouciant dishonesty of post-modernism and to dismiss them with the contempt that they deserve. This book told me that it wasn’t me it was them: post-modernist pseudo-intellectuals really are lying c**ts.

Right. If not already tagged with this, I am tagging Charlotte, Dr Z, Teuchter and YOU.

Reselling on Amazon

Weeding Library CollectionsI’ve been selling some of my books as an Amazon Reseller. I’d list them here and sell them to you, gentle readers, but that would breach the non-commercial terms of my account with WordPress.

It’s a slightly odd feeling, sending a book I don’t want to someone who does. The one I chat about these things with said I should print out a copy of my post distancing myself from all things flaky and include it with the copy of Light up your Life – discover your true purpose and potential, but that seemed churlish given that I was happy to take their £4.75.

It’s a satisfying process, printing off three copies of the packing slip, finding a suitable jiffy bag, sealotaping the packing slip to the bag, taking the package to the post office, buying the stamps and keeping the receipt for the postage. Saying such a formal farewell to unwanted or inappropriate gifts provides closure, and it’s a ritualised and profitable way to discard the ghosts of previous relationships.

But it’s also odd.

I find myself wondering who on earth would want to spend a fiver on a copy of Roger’s Profanisaurus?

Which fool thinks that if they Eat Right 4 Their Type it’ll make a blind bit of difference to their health? I did think of writing “this is complete shite” on the packing slip for that one, actually. The woman who recommended it to me swore by the approach but she always seemed to have little niggly things wrong with her, and then it turned out she’d been eating for the wrong blood-type all along. Which only goes to SHOW. Though what exactly it shows I wouldn’t like to say. I don’t in fact know my own blood-type and so I toyed with the idea of “eating right” for each type for a month to see if it made any noticeable difference at all, but really I could not be arsed, and now I don’t have the book so I’ve lost the chance.

Selling some of these books is also an admission that I am never going to read them. Does the person buying a Poetry Handbook want it to improve their own poetry or because a lecturer or teacher has Set it as a Text? If they buy it and read it, does that make them a Better and More Serious Person than I am, who merely rented it from Amazon for a while without reading more than two or three pages and gulping nervously?

So it’s an interesting thing, selling on Amazon, but I probably wouldn’t bother if there wasn’t a Post Office in the building where I work. They pay the money into my bank account, but I wish they’d block it up into fivers and give it to me as gift certificates. Then I’d sell lots and LOTS of books, just to feed my habit.

The demands of the flesh

While searching for an appropriate image for my post about CCTV I came across this:

1984 - George Orwell

Isn’t it fab? Now 1984 is all sorts of things, but sizzling with sex it ain’t. In fact that is rather the point, as I recall.

Years ago, when we were sorting out my brother’s books to clear some shelf space, we categorised them as “keep” “sell” and “assorted sordidities”. I think if Ma had come across this copy of 1984 it would probably have made it into that box. On the Road certainly did:

On the Road - Kerouac

(I didn’t know you could get cellulite around your waist; that’s rather worrying.)

My sister was startled to discover later that it qualified as a Penguin Modern Classic; she’d assumed it was some sort of schlocky adventure story with intermittent low-level porn and violence.

The Man from S.T.U.D, on the other hand is definitely a schlocky adventure story with low-level porn and violence. Actually, make that just low-level porn since it is endearingly unviolent. I bought it in Hay on Wye last summer simply for the camp 1970ness of it all and, amazingly, it manages to be readable in a post-modern ironic sort of way of course. I wouldn’t want you to think I read it without irony.

The Man from S.T.U.D.

You can’t read Therese Raquin ironically and the only reason I read it at all, racy though it is, is because I nicked it out of that same box of assorted sordidities without realising that it was a Great Classic of French Literature:

Zo-la-la!

I can’t find the edition I read online, but you get the idea. Isn’t “Her body remained faithful to the wrong man” a great tag line? Though I’ll admit that “She listened only to the demands of the flesh” is even better. Chocolates. They are demands of the flesh. Which brings us back to cellulite around the waist. Hmmm.

I miss these blatent covers with Bardot-like beauties whose implausibly triangular breasts and tilty bedroom eyes seduce you into reading Capital-L Literature. These days book covers are so knowingly urbane and metro-cool that they are decidedly un-enticing and – well – boring. Proof, if proof were needed, that sex just isn’t sexy any more.

(The images take you through to the current editions on Amazon.)

Bedtime stories

Charlotte’s delightful podcast made me think about bedtime reading.

When I was in my 20s and my sister in her 30s someone once asked us what was the best thing about the way our Ma brought us up as children.

We both separately said “reading to us”, and they looked at us a little oddly. How could something that obviously stopped when we were six or seven be the best possible thing?

But she didn’t stop.   She read us Beatrix Potter and Pooh and Wind in the Willows when we were smidgeons. She read us Kipling and Elizabeth Gouge when we were older. Then she read us Trollope and Austin and Dickens and Gaskell when we were teenagers. We caught the habit. My big sister read me Daddy Long-legs and T.Tembarom when my Ma had to pause draw breath and both my sisters took turns reading me The Lord of the Rings, or the first few chapters, at least.

My Ma read to me regularly until I was eighteen or so and left home. I have clear memories of sewing a seam and listening to the sarcasm of Mr Collins, to Emma Wodehouse’s silly mistakes, to Lydia Bennet’s folly, and to the smooth machinations of the Reverend Snape and Mrs Proudie.

I’ve been trying to work out what this gave me; evening upon evening of listening to second-order 19th and early 20th century fiction. Well, the Jane Austin isn’t second order fiction, but Angela Thirkle certainly is. Now that I list it I can see how neurotically small-c conservative my Ma’s taste in fiction actually was. Mind you, I am not sure that mine is any better, merely more modern. So little of it was Capital-L Literature that I still tend to slush around with low-brow and middling stuff and avoid the pure oxygen of the high-brow. I am still slightly nervous about Literatature. Am I Grown Up enough for it?

However, the true gift given was self-confidence. I was worth spending time with. Whole novels-worth of time. I don’t remember that we discussed the books very much. I think I provided monosylables in reply to “are you enjoying it?” and occasionally commanded her to “go on!”. But we spent a lot of time together, my Ma and I.

I also learned to listen, to be in an audience. I learned to hear the words that are spoken, and this has made it easier to hear what isn’t said, to hear the silences between the words. Mind you, if somone had told my Ma this when I was a teenager she’d have laughed out loud. I listened to other people no more than any teenager ever does, so the gift was subtle and long-lasting.

It gave me an ear for a well-turned phrase and an understanding that the test of a good sentence is how well it reads out loud. I can write with a troubling fluency, and I suspect that came from listening to educated English being read.

However, I think the most powerful thing that these evenings gave me was a sense of my family. Imagine, if you will, three girls swooning simultaneously over Strider in the inn in Bree. I had a moment of shivering self-awareness at the time, that this solid, firm, loving, shared, sisterly security was precious and rare and to be remembered. Then, many years later when my Ma was old and infirm and frail, I would visit her and occasionally I’d read to her. One day, when I was reading one of the old familiar stories, I realised that I was echoing the rhythms and cadences of her own voice from more than thirty years before, and in another moment of shivering awareness, I realised that these were the rhythms of my grandfather’s voice, reading to her as a tiny girl some forty years earlier again. So one of the gifts she gave me was to hear an echo of my grandfather, who died before my memories began.

Reading out loud while someone sews or draws or paints is such a simple way to share time and space with them. It combats the encroachment of television and games and the internet into all our minds. It gives a space where love and silence and sharing may grow. And enjoying the jokes and joys of a story with someone is a quietly intimate pleasure.

What genre are you?

Tolstoy it was who said that all happy families are happy in the same way while unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Whether he’s right about that I don’t know, but I do know that some families are unusual in peculiarly literary ways.

I once came across a family from a Greek Tragedy.  Actually, it was more of a Restoration Drama complete with dazzling wordplay, hints of incest, and suicides – both attempted and successful. Once the first child had been conceived everyone involved was trapped in a cresta run of melodrama, dysfunctionalism and real, true, nasty violent tragedy. I thank the goddess daily that my part was sufficiently minor not to merit an actual name, just a number and a description. There is a lot to be said for being the third spear carrier.

Then there’s the friend who sprang from the loins of an Iris Murdoch novel. Slightly whacky religious community – check. Agonised artists – check. Intricate polyamorous relationships – check. Intense political convictions – check. Complex characters who are both magnificent and deeply flawed – check. The whole shebang was topped off with more brain-power than is entirely fair. Even the first names of the protagonists manage to be Murdochian.

I have a friend whose childhood amongst hippies leading a simple life in wolf-laden valleys within the Appenines in Italy is clearly straight from another genre, though I am not entirely sure what genre it is. The same genre as Hideous Kinky perhaps.

Eric Berne postulates that we are all script-driven, though for some of us the scripts are “get married, have children, have grand-children, be happy” and for others they are grand guignol.

I lack the distance and the perspective to know what genre my life falls into. I’d love to think of myself as a Grande Horizontale, but I lack the figure and the stamina for it. I quite fancy ending up as one of Mary Wesley’s experienced and sexy old women with a complex and mildly kinky past and a complex and mildy kinky present.

Whatever I am, I am glad that I’ve managed to escape the Restoration Drama and that I’ve moved on from Mills and Boon and Bridget Jones.

Amazon – my river of shame

I’m feeling confessional, so here are the 15 things that Amazon recommend that I buy, based on previous purchases.

With sheepish explanations.

Make that “embarrassed and sheepish” explanations.

1. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys
by Michael Collins, Charles Lindbergh

I’ve always been fascinated by the space race, child of the 60s, “space the final frontier” “a giant leap for mankind” and all that. It is the one bright and shining thing that America has done as a nation in the last 50 years.

2. Monstrous Regiment (Discworld)
by Terry Pratchett

I’m a Pratchett fan. So sue me.

3. Night Watch (Discworld)
by Terry Pratchett

Ok, a devoted Pratchett fan. Sub poena me and make me appear in court while you’re at it.

4. Thornography
~ Cradle Of Filth

My friend goes out with the lead singer of a band called “My Dying Bride” – I bought a copy of their latest CD so that the band can sign it and I can send it to my 22 year old former step-son. I either gain loads of kooldos or else he has something to sell on ebay. Either way, better than sending him vouchers.

5. The Last Man on the Moon
by Eugene Cernan

See (1) above.

6. Diaries: Into Politics: Into Politics Vol 2
by Alan Clark, Ion Trewin (Editor)

I bought the Alan Clark diaries three years ago for the father of the former step-son. They’ve been haunting my Amazon recommendations ever since. “How the ghost of you clings, these foolish things, etc.”

7. Corinthian
by Georgette Heyer

Comfort reading. Actually, I rather like the Corinthian. Nonsense, but such fun.

8. Going Postal (Discworld)
by Terry Pratchett

See (2) above

9. The Right Stuff
by Tom Wolfe

See (1) above

10. Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth
by Andrew Smith

Ditto.

11. Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation
by Kees Van Der Heijden

Work-related

12. The Nonesuch
by Georgette Heyer

Comfort reading, see (7), though I find the heroine’s virtue rather tedious. I prefer Heyer’s more “rackety” couples, such as Venitia and Demerel or Mary and Vidal. I know too much about this, don’t I?

13. Apollo 13: Anniversary Edition
by Jim Lovell, Jeffrey Klugar

See (1)

14. Competitive Advantage
by Michael E. Porter

Work-related

15. Scenario Planning: The Link Between Future and Strategy
by Mats Lindgren, Hans Bandhold

Work-related

No Booker-prize winners. No modern fiction. No grownup stuff at all really. Mind you, I buy off their resellers whenever I can – why buy a book for 12 quid when you can buy it for 4? Recent parcels had the “Time Traveller’s Wife” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a book by Sokal debunking post-modernist academia. But I have a horrible feeling that it boils down to a habit of comfort-reading, and certain geekiness, the fact that I don’t trust myself in the “business” section of Waterstones, and the belief that there is no better gift than a book.

How about you? What does Amazon think you’d like to read next?