The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Pleasures of Reading & the Pains of Writing

Hello Gentle Reader

Reading is a pleasure wrapped in sweet solitary silence. The absorbing power of a narrative that only you are privy to. No one else is a part of this experience it’s just you and the page. This is perhaps why reading is also on the decline. It’s not a communal activity. It is not a feat best suited for gatherings or assembly. It’s a singular act. It is for the individual. It is a one act performed for person, not for the community. Despite this, between the pages of a book one is able to witness a plethora of events. They observe private domestic dramas. They bear witness to grand battles. They contemplate with philosophers. They review historical reportage, and its rippling affects felt in today’s world, giving thanks to the infrastructure already laid by our forbearers, or cursing them for their lack of foresight. Regardless reading remains a private affair. One encased between covers, ensnared on pages, and presented by a writer to their reader. You won’t find readers, holding up lighters and swaying back and forth while they read. You won’t find them cheering in a jovial chorus, with their noses firmly in their books. No, instead you will find them sitting quietly (be it publicly or privately) enjoying their books, with few sounds emanating forth. They smirk to themselves, they may sigh; but they will rarely exceed these conventions, never betraying the confidence of the book. If a book is boring or displeasing they will shut it and place it aside—though some should be slammed shut and tossed with great force, but such behaviour is out of character. The greatest benefit or enjoyment of reading though, is the fact that it requires little effort, beyond the ability to read, and a certain level of literacy and interest. Reading presents worlds for readers to explore. Dramas to endorse. Battles to survey. Information to consume. Books have unlimited potential and possibilities. This includes math books. Their unlimited potential to drive one to insanity, or be utilized by security agencies as a form of: ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’ Then again, I have had the pleasure of meeting some people who thoroughly enjoy the dry discourse of a math book. Though, as one learns in primary school: it takes all kinds to make the world a wonderful place. This inevitably includes people who read math books for pleasure.

Reading can be akin to traveling, free from the complications of space, time, or reality. How many librarians had advertised books as having the potential to transport readers elsewhere? One young spunky librarian in particular tried to market books as better then video games. Not surprisingly, no child took the bait or endorsed her opinion. She tried hard though. To the boys she held up books about space adventures, sword fights, cowboys, and mysteries (‘The Hardy Boys,’ I presume). To the girls she paraded books about princesses, young love, romance, and of course mysteries (‘Nancy Drew,’ I presume). No one bit. The children sauntered on. In all fairness, though, reading was a late love affair for me as well. I learned to read like any child. Who could forget the elementary school stories of Dot and her dog Spot? Dry, barebones, and boring is how those clinical educational devised tales are remembered. As one progresses through the education system they are greeted with more interesting material. One of my earlier enjoyments from the bygone elementary era of my past is the story called: “The Teeny-tiny Woman,” by Paul Galdone. The story was anthologized in some book, which the teacher routinely handed out during English class. I remember the illustrations of the titular woman, dressed in Victorian fashion, fit with bows, ribbons, buckled shoes, stockings and other Lolita dress, carrying her little basket. In the gothic looking churchyard, she discovers a teeny-tiny bone, and takes the item home. From there on out, the Teeny-tiny Woman, is haunted by a voice, bellowing forth: “give me back my bone.” Finally she caves and at the end of the story screaming: “Take it!” I recall this story being played to the class. A soft wispy man’s voice read it, accompanied by sound effects punctuating the narrative. I recall enjoying the tense gothic insinuation of the narrative, but it would take a couple more years before I begun to enjoy reading for pleasure. My childhood friends, enjoyed fantasy and science fiction narratives. I could never understand them—and to this day I retain the position that J.R.R. Tolkien is the biggest literary windbag in the English language. I fail to understand how the concept of magic is intercepted and governed by rules. Is magic a force of nature, and yet it defies nature? Is it human invention? Then why place laws on it. It never seemed logical, but that was my first mistake: seeking logic in fantastical worlds. Secondary mistake? I suppose the strange names. Yet the hallmark of reading in my childhood were the children’s renditions of the classics specifically: “White Fang,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Moby Dick.”

As I grew older, my reading preferences turned towards a literary genre not supported by the school curriculum. The curriculum itself was designed to drawl on and on, passing out dry and uninspired book, after dry and uninspired book (and that includes: “The Lord of Flies,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”) My attention turned towards gothic and horror fiction, along with graphic murder/thrillers. There was never an issue imagining those solitary gothic castles, sitting degraded in ruin, their medieval histories sponged away leaving only ghosts in their wake. Inside Byronic heroes brooded in their crumbling inheritance; they are contrarily isolated from the world, while also free from its strict social demands. It is there alone in their ancient walls their eccentrics bordering on insanity. On the other end, I’d relish in the graphic and sadist as well. Reading how a serial murder enjoyed clipping the fingers off of his still alive victims; or the description of blood, bits of skull, and brain matter splattered across walls. My appetites varied between the subtle and the explicit. Imagine then, my disappointment where in my final year of high school, when instead of reading: “Wuthering Heights,” we ended up reading: “Wild Geese.” Though I suppose it could be worst, the prescription could have been: “A Farewell to Arms.” However we did end up studying: “Death of a Salesman,” by Arthur Miller, which remains one of the most pungent, bloated, and dreadful works I’ve ever read; a true hallmark of the English curriculum, and the ballooned gangrenous example of contemporary American literature, and its Twentieth Century dramatics. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, would be the superior choice, as if the academic world charged with assisting young minds to be academically astute for the world would ever make such a bold choice. No, it’s best to stay to the bread and water, and allow curious readers to venture into more unchartered realms on their own. Sadly, I believe how literary is taught in schools destroys any love of the form. A form which has been developed and refined to record, inspire, and discuss the big questions of human existence and meaning. Now it’s reduced as a form of torture! Students grumble and gripe. Shakespeare is as much a curse as ‘fuck,’ or ‘cunt.’ Poetry collects cobwebs. All of this is due to the dry, uninspired and poor way in which literature is taught, rather than fostered. To this day I view poetry as some pompous ostentatious opulent form created for the sole purpose of remaining cryptic and selective, arbitrarily defying the basic principles of communication in favour of emotional resonance, which ricochets off my cold exterior, alienating me away from its airy correspondence. Olga Tokarczuk wrote it best in her novel: “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,”:

“I didn’t like poetry; all the poems ever written seemed to me unnecessarily complicated and unclear. I couldn’t understand why these revelations weren’t recorded property – in prose.”

(It is best to leave the digression of my lukewarm relationship towards poetry there, and reconvene at another time, with another column.)

Thankfully the brow beating education system did not thwart my love of literature, or my enjoyment of reading. It did however teach me a valuable lesson. The way English (literature in general) is taught through primary and secondary schools provided adequate foreshadowing and warning to pursuing any further education in the field.  I enjoy reading. I prefer and demand the desire to read what I want, not the prescription of any third party agent or curricula. Unfortunately this lesson was abruptly stamped and sealed in my early adulthood, when I took a creative writing course taught by an embittered failed poet. This man fancied himself a bard, despite his sun blessed blonde hair turning grey and ashen, his face wrinkled and weathered; and he only had one publication to his name. A small slim volume of poems, barely bigger than a pamphlet, and best described as a step up from a chapbook. He insisted on calling it a volume; a volume of his poetic voice. This ‘volume,’ sat in trophy place on his otherwise cluttered desk. It stuck out merely by its positioning. Erect and glaring, parading itself to the class, a reminder of who—or rather what—stood before them: a published poet; a published writer. An objective each of them sought to achieve. I am sure everyone’s expectations of the class were their own, but what was realized was surly less than expected. Each week the instructor demanded a new submission. The following week he would return each submission, shredded with red ink. Over the ensuring weeks of the remainder of the course, the submissions became less, the effort dwindled, and the interest evaporated. The instructor had used his failed literary career as a basis for vexation against his students. He uncapped his pen and unleashed his signatory red ink wherever he could. His criticism was never constructive. Rather it was sarcastic, vitriolic, and acerbic. It took aim and fired. It succeeded every time in destroying all aspirations any student had, leaving them at the end just as embittered as he was. It’s true you know: misery does love company.

Writing has become nothing but a penance ridden action. Each keystroke or stroke of the pen carries shadows of doubt, grammatical errors, and nagging criticism in the back of one’s mind. The failures of one had become an infection to others. Words once brought joy. Stories once fluttered in and out of their minds, now flutter on whispering goodbyes. A lack of fostering, inspiration, and eviscerating criticism can always turn the greatest enjoyments and treasures, and replace them with rotting shadows of their former selves. Reading has remained a solace, though these days both financial reasons and the constraints of time have reduced my ability to devote time to it. Yet, I still gain enjoyment out of researching new books, new authors, speculating about Nobel Prize winning and worthy writers, discussing literature, and of course reading. These activities bring freedom and solace from the greater concerns of the external world. It is a retreat and a refuge, a private sanctuary—even if those private sanctuaries are sometimes the most deprived, sordid, and sickening places—yet even they provide necessary depictions of the world, and offer a grounding appreciation to one’s own circumstances, and giving them the strength of character to ‘carry on.’

The bland world of academic teaching of English literature and the embitterment of creative writing have provided me useful lessons. Never study what you enjoy. It’ll become less enjoyable over time; unless of course you’re fortunate. Then again, I’ve always fancied myself a pragmatist, and sought to study more practical fields of study—while always attempting to avoid the insufferable erudite elitism of mathematics! The high pontiff of the ivory tower, laughing in madness as it composes its numeric symphonies, dry laws, and complex equations. In time I will inevitably place myself on the sacrificial alter of mathematics, and unceremoniously be torn to pieces with typical credulous enjoyment exemplified by mathematics, especially its gleeful sadism. For now though, I’ll slink and scuttle around it via alternative routes. Though, as one individual once recommended: I could always seek education and a career in human resources. Needless to say: I’d fling myself from the window like Lady Macbeth, before joining the impish devilish realm of human resources, complete with its la-la-land perspective of rainbows and unicorns. It is perhaps one of the most profoundly useless and ineffective business functions devised and created by today’s corporate world. If the bubonic plague took a corporate shape it would be in the form of human resources. 

Despite everything I take the opportunities I have to enjoy the books I have procured, and relish in the reading. I am unfortunately not a machine reader—a talent I am not in possession of (which apparently I lack in my grammatical abilities as well, but will work to improve). Currently I am reading Olga Tokarczuks’: “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” and hope to have a review ready in the coming weeks—depending on the time I can continue to salvage and allocate to reading it. From there I weight my options of what to read next, be it: Annie Ernauxs’ “The Years,” or perhaps Jacque Poulins’ “Autumn Rounds.” Until then though Gentle Reader.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Thursday 5 September 2019

The Booker Prize Shortlist, 2019

Hello Gentle Reader

The Booker Prize judges have released the six novels and writers who have been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The list is comprised of usual suspects, with noticeable omissions. Without further ado, following is this year’s shortlist:

Margaret Atwood – Canada – “The Last Testament,”
Salman Rushdie – United Kingdom/India – “Quichotte,”
Elif Shafak – Turkey – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,”
Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria – “An Orchestra of Minorities,”
Lucy Ellmann – United States of America – “Ducks, Newburyport,”
Bernardine Evaristo – United Kingdom – “Girl, Woman, Other,”

First and foremost: this year’s shortlist is dominated by female writers, with Salman Rushdie being the only male on this year’s shortlist. Second, both Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie have won the Booker Prize prior. Margaret Atwood in two-thousand for her metafictional novel: “The Blind Assassin.” Salman Rushdie in nineteen-eighty one with his monumental novel: “Midnight’s Children.” The inclusion of Margaret Atwood is no surprise. “The Last Testament,” returns to the theocratic state of Gilead, first documented in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in the late eighties, which cemented Atwood’s reputation as a strong feminist and uniquely Canadian voice on the literary world stage. Now a household name thanks to the televised adaption; Atwood once returns once again to the novel which pushed her to the forefront of literary frontier, with a sequel; three decades later.

“The Last Testament,” has received a fair bit of press coverage over the past month. When it was initially longlisted for the Booker Prize, it had still not been released for public consumption, and the judges were essentially legally bound and gagged from speaking about any contents of the novel. The secrecy of the book has stirred readers’ curiosity of readers, while early reviews have praised the novel, calling it “Classic Atwood.” Still, one can’t help but wonder if the appeal for the novel is partially informed due to the television series, as much as it is for the bizarre political theatre taking place in the United States.

Salman Rushdie’s novel “Quichotte,” has been a novel of mixed reception. On one hand critics have praised the novel for being postmodern and intelligent, while being enjoyable. Others have called the book a continual rehash, whereby Salman Rushdie seeks to regain the former glory of his early career.

It’s disappointing to see Max Porters’ novel: “Lanny,” omitted from the shortlist. “Lanny,” appeared to be of the more unique novels listed for this year’s prize, a blend of prose and poetry, to create a unique folktale driven narrative. The inclusion of Bernardine Evaristo and her novel “Girl, Woman, Other,” has been described as disappointing. The writing has been called tragically flat, stylistically a failure, and socially preoccupied before being literary.

Lucy Ellmann, has the pleasure of being both the dark horse and the most likely winner. “Ducks, Newburyport,” is a mammoth novel, clocking in at a page count of: 1040! Despite its mega-novel page count, it has been described as a ironic, humorous romp that is also heartwarming. It’s a novel of relevancy, both personal and macro orientated, reviewing the barbaric nature of the world today—especially the surreal world of American politics, and the shifting legitimacy of democratic institutions and liberal ideas, in the wave of ‘alternative facts,’ populism, and an invigorated extreme right. It’s a world with no centre, no middle, no grey.

Reviewing the shortlist as a whole, it appears—for lack of better terms—muddled. The female domination is dichotomous at how it’s reviewed. On the one side its can be praised as an accomplishment for female writers, gaining what they call: overdue recognition. On the contrary it could be seen as a panhandling to a world gone made on the notion of ‘equity,’ and ‘diversity,’ whereby these notions and traits, supersede the immediacy of literary merit, in order to meet social quotas. The omission of certain novels such as “Lanny,” is also unfortunate, and concerning. These innovative novels are pushing narratives into literary grounds which are not homogenous and run of the mill.

In any regard; best of luck to this year’s candidates.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary