Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Week Four - Jude

The Death And Life Of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961)
Recommended by John Houghton

So: picking a 585-page book was probably not my best idea this week. Work has been insane, my evenings have been full,  and this book has demanded a lot of attention. Hence this entry being a day late. And this book – ulp – still not being *quite* finished. But next week, I've got a lovely short piece of fiction, so I'll be fine (breathe, BREATHE). And I'll update this entry with some final thoughts as soon as I'm done.

But bloody Nora, what a book this has been so far. Jane Jacobs, my God. A proper force of nature.

In the middle of the 20th century, this one-woman whirlwind stormed into debates about American city planning, talked absolute sense about mistakes being made, and made a lot of men (it was usually men) pretty mad. She stopped an expressway destroying Greenwich Village, and did something similar in Toronto when she moved there in the '70s. The suits in power called her "a crazy dame", questioning her lack of formal training and university education (they conveniently ignored her 25 years as a journalist). All because she said that planners should look at a city itself, before imposing ideas onto it. All because she studied the matter at hand, and put people at the heart of her politics.

This video gives a nice, short introduction to her work:

This book was recommended to me by my friend, John. John and I were at university together. Two regionally-accented squits from comprehensives, we spent some time buggering about with student politics. I ran away from it; John excelled at it. He's been working for the civil service and consultancies ever since, writing about housing, cities and regeneration, subjects I've always been interested in.

I love meeting up with John over a bottle of booze (OK, sometimes more than one), picking his brain about this stuff. I always learn something new (including a few swear words, usually). I thoroughly recommend his brilliant blog, Metropolitan Lines, especially his writing about the house he grew up in, which now lies derelict. It brings the problems of city planning, he says in one piece, "home...in a stingingly personal way".

I already knew about Jane Jacobs' book because I'd bought it for Him Indoors a few Christmasses ago (he works in a similar field to John – and don't worry, I got Dan a Chocolate Orange as well). I knew he'd enjoyed it, but I hadn't realised how brilliantly forthright Jacobs would be.

The Death and Life... begins: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding", and continues in combative, no-nonsense language. "It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give," she adds later. Which could have been written yesterday. What a tragedy that is.

Throughout (OK, up to page 427), it's also hard to think of this book being 52 years old. Jacobs writes so plainly, so clearly and so persuasively...her observations have a freshness that feel brand new. "In this book we shall start ...adventuring into the real world, ourselves", she says. "The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behaviour of cities is...to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes or  events."

So Jacobs looks at how sidewalks work. How children play. She explores areas that are frightening to walk in at night. Housing projects that have failed. She considers why these things have happened, clearly but sharply. Some of her relevations are brilliantly simple: areas that feel safe are always looked over by people, be they different people, at different times of day. Neighbourhoods that have short streets with frequent corners are better for us, because endless roads without intersections don't encourage different uses, or different visitors. She makes a fascinating point about how men design cities in which they don't exist in public in the daytime – they are locked away, hidden, not part of the real world. This causes other problems, naturally. For people to be happy, they need other people.

She also junks the idea that areas of grass make housing projects better places to live – very often, these are places where there is no supervision, and where people feel lonely, she says. They only work alongside mixed-use buildings, and where variety reigns. Street life is enlivening and enriching too, she says, not a sign of social decay. The fact that cities are all about chaos and diversity is at the heart of her philosophy going back to the nature of human beings, again.

The book, I'll admit, is getting a bit repetitive four-fifths in. But still the ideas are coming: about the way city money is spent, how cars are prioritised over the people who drive them, ideas as relevant now as they were then. It's funny to think that this book was written before New York's Downtown really grew – ten years before the World Trade Center was even built. What's stranger is that it is seen as a hugely influential text by experts today, but in the real world, very little has changed.

Jane Jacobs died in 2006, at the age of 89. One day, we might see ourselves as we are, rather than as we ought to be.

(As a tribute to her, I'll finish with this great picture from 2009. Wigs and specs on. Jane LIVES.)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Week Four - Jeanette

The Ascent Of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman (1956)
Recommended by Phil

One may be misled by book knowledge. It was a lesson to me, as a reader, to take nothing on trust.

The nearest thing I can compare The Ascent Of Rum Doodle to is The Blair Witch Project.

Both are innovative takes on a specific genre. Both are, in their own twisted ways, adventure stories. Both play with the notion of ‘truth’: of how the conventions of reportage, and of personal viewpoints, can and do mislead. And both feature shonky navigational skills.

The Ascent Of Rum Doodle is a parody of mountaineering literature, of boys-own explorations, of – since the Empire was falling around British ears at this time – the idea that plucky Brits could conquer just about anything.

This is a clever book that a writer would love, so it’s no surprise that it was an amazing scribe who recommended it to me: Phil McMullen, the creator of Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine. I remember well how nervous I was in approaching Phil for the first time. I wanted to interview him for Seasons They Change, knowing how influential the Terrascope, and its Terrastock festivals, were for the new wave of psychedelic folk music.

Phil’s going to think I’m a massive charlatan, I thought. I am a massive charlatan! He should be writing this book, not me! I fretted over my approach, and eventually sent what I hoped was a humble message to him, hoping he’d be kind to my efforts.

He was! We met, shortly afterwards, in a pub near Whitehall. I brought my Dictaphone along, but it stayed firmly turned off; I even removed my spectacles, the familiar sign that I am enjoying a social occasion rather than conducting an interview. We found out about each other’s lives as well as each other’s music tastes. We tried to get some olives from the bar but they’d run out. We ordered another bottle of wine instead.

We conducted the interview, sober and via email, a week later.

Phil not only supported the creation of Seasons, he helped to spread the word when it was published, too – in a thrilling twist, I was interviewed by the Terrascope itself! Phil and I don’t chat much, but when we do it’s as if we’re back in that Whitehall pub: unbridled enthusiasm for the music we each love, no olives, lots of wine. Even if we are simply sharing a text message exchange.

Mont Blanc might be climbed by a disunited party; Rum Doodle, never.

Rum Doodle, discovered in the remote country of Yogistan by Allied airmen during World War II, is the world’s greatest unconquered peak. Binder, expedition leader (and narrator) is determined to be the first. He has a team of six at his command: the burly Burley, scientist Wish, photographer Shute, navigator Jungle, linguist (and Yogistani expert) Constant and the doctor, Prone.

Prone immediately comes down with a severe cold in the head. Jungle is still in London, having caught the wrong bus and ended up in Cockfosters (or is it Richmond?). Constant mispronounces so many Yogistani words that riots break out among the local people. You begin to see where this is going.

But it’s not simply cheap laughs (albeit told in a sophisticated, P.G. Woodhouse-esque fashion). As the book progresses other, subtler, tensions arise, for instance the dislike all the team has for our narrator, and their increasing efforts to avoid his conversational gambits.

Prone, with his usual unselfishness, refused to let me share his tent; he said that Constant and I, who would climb together, ought not to be parted. […] As it turned out, the only thing I was able to learn about Constant was that he was a good sleeper, for he dropped off as soon as I had settled down in my sleeping bag.

This is particularly true for Burley, who seems rather to be the object of Binder’s charged affection. Burley himself is engaged to a woman with a hare-lip and club-foot, and this surreal fiancĂ©e is a creation worthy of David Lynch or Knut Hamsun.

She had been studying the structure of the sideboard on behalf of the local antiquarian society, but had unfortunately got stuck and had been there a fortnight when Burley found her.

Although its language is often playful, Rum Doodle bites. The blustery, quite useless Brits are silently watched and implicitly mocked by the local Yogistani porters (based on Sherpa guides, a staple of the adventure literature Bowman was satirising) while Pong, their Yogistani cook, makes his own comment on the ‘essentials’ the expedition had brought along.

All our choicest titbits had gone into Pong’s awful pot: our luscious breast of chicken, the tinned apricots and cream which we had so often tasted in anticipation, the sardines, the caviar, the lobster, the lovely gruyere cheese, the pickled walnuts, the curry, the salmon, even the coffee and chocolate biscuits; all these were reduced to a nauseating brew which might have sent Macbeth’s witches shrieking from the place.

The fictional locations notwithstanding, it would be possible, just, to read The Ascent Of Rum Doodle as a straight work. ‘Sixteen illustrations in photogravure’ go towards the realism of the tale. Just as The Blair Witch Project’s videotapes supposedly prove the fates of Heather, Josh and Mike, these photos – a mixture of genuine climbing material and dramatic illustrations – help locate the story in its ambiguous place between fact and fiction.

There is a disclaimer on the copyright page of the book:
No criticism of any mountaineering book or method, and no reference to any mountaineer past or present is intended.

I believe him. The portrayal of mountaineering literature is affectionate ribbing. However, The Ascent Of Rum Doodle reads as far more than a spoof of a literary sub-genre. Bowman also parodies contemporary British hubris, taking a snapshot – in photogravure – of how the country struggled with the transition from imperial overlords to insignificant island. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Week Three - Jude

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall (2011)
Recommended by Rebecca Bream

I love short stories. They don't take long to read, after all. When it's been a cow of week – as my last one has with work – reading one on the way home is always a treat. When they're good, they're  lovely half-hours of pleasure, like an episode of a soap opera when you've just got in, or a hot bath with your favourite magazine. In Sarah Hall's case though, these half-hours usually involve bigger, fuller language, and far fewer ads.

Rebecca Bream – Beck – recommended me this book. She's not long had her second son, and told me she lapped this up. Beck is cool as fuck, calm, funny, and an Actual Proper Journalist, someone who's worked down diamond mines and oil rigs while I've been at home in my 'jamas. My fondest memories are her are at my wedding, simultaneously DJing and dancing to The Breeders on a bench in stockinged feet. Aso, if you want a crash course in getting to the front of a moshpit, with charm rather than bother, then Beck's your girl.

Booker Prize-shortlisted and longlisted, Sarah Hall is also an impressive woman. Her four novels up to now (I say confidently, having had a quick scan through her website) have explored the destruction of 1930s Cumbria, dystopian sci-fi, the world of fine art, and a man who leaves Morecambe Bay for Coney Island. This is her first book of short stories, and I'll admit here and now that I found few of them tough. Hall writes the kind of prose that book reviewers call “luminous” – a metaphor that's always stuck in my craw, because words don't bloody glow. But she does describe nature in bright colours, and with plenty of texture.

Take the first page of The Nightlong River. It involves “November berries...hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood”. “Yarrow and rowan” hanging out “their own gaudy bunting”. Hawthorns sending “the hedgerows as ruddy as battle”. Typing those phrases out now, they read beautifully, don't they? I suppose what I wanted from that story from the start was more pace – a plot that grabbed me straightaway, that didn't take its merry time to gently weave me in. I also realise this shows my flaws as a reader, much more than it shows Sarah Hall's as a writer.

I wasn't surprised to find out that Sarah Hall's also a poet. As well as that fulsome, visual stuff she conjures up, she's always leaving little mysteries that never get solved. I loved the book's title story (are they called title stories?) and how Hall slowly unravelled the tale of its protagonist and her lover – but never completely. I also gobbled up The Agency, which I suddenly realise was another saucy offering. No, I haven't – and won't – read Fifty Shades Of Grey, but I bet this is ruder and filthier. Rather than disclosing the mucky details that are suggested within it, we find our protagonist going into her living room, hours later, to “clear up the children's mess”. The gaps in our knowledge aren't filled. We're allowed imaginations.

My favourite story was Bees, about a woman who'd just moved to London, which began with her sitting in a garden, thinking about the dead insects around her. Typical me, really: it's the second shortest story here. But its description of a character losing something – still wanting something they shouldn't really have – captured feelings I'd once had, so powerfully, so dramatically, that I found myself suddenly standing up between Tottenham Hale and Blackhose Road.

I mean, that's a proper short story, isn't it? I'll definitely allow Sarah more time. One of these days – she says, contemplating next week's book with fear – I might even allow myself some.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Week Three - Jeanette

What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin (1999)
Recommended by Luisa

Guess what Luisa got for Christmas?

Wilkie Collins’s autograph. Wow, wow, wow!

Given how much I too love Mr Collins (he spars for favourite author with George Eliot), I was especially excited to read Luisa’s choice for 2 Readers. I had some debate with myself as to whether this should be an ‘S’ or a ‘B’ but, using the way I file ‘Billie Ray Martin’ in my record collection (M) as a guide, I plumped for B, secretly thrilled that I would get to read Luisa’s selection sooner rather than later.

Luisa, with her Cleopatra fringe and equally sharp wit, was a big part of my four years of living in an ex-council flat in Hackney. She and her husband Hayden would spend evenings with my best friend Kathryn and I, all of us downing cheap soave, dissecting the minutiae of pop culture and laughing ourselves senseless. This, I thought, this is London life. Things moved on, as things are wont to do; I went to Sheffield, she and Hayden went to Colchester. I think I’ve only seen her once since our mutual flights from the capital. However, funnily enough, we’ve chatted more on books since we stopped seeing each other regularly.

I’d never heard of What The Body Remembers, or its author, Shauna Singh Baldwin. The Wikipedia page on Baldwin is succinct, but it does contain this rather wonderful fact:

Baldwin and her husband own The Safe House, an espionage themed restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconson.

What The Body Remembers is not an espionage novel. But one of its main themes is how governments can smash trust between people.

Beginning in 1937, when the British still administered India, the three main characters are Sikhs living in the Punjab. Satya, fiery and complicated, has all the force of a Hedda Gabler or a Miss Julie. Infertile and outspoken, she has a tense relationship with her husband Sardarji, a skilled engineer working with the British rule and – in Satya’s opinion – collaborating with the colonists.

            That eyebrow of Satya’s had risen, ‘You did it for them, na?’

            ‘Yes of course, for them.’
            ‘Don’t say hein, Satya,’ he corrected. ‘It’s rude; it’s simply not done.’
            ‘What should I say? Tell me. Feed me the words you want to hear, so I can say them to you.’
            ‘You should say “Really, is that so?” if you disagree,’ he told her.
            ‘So you want me to say, “Really, is that so?” instead of telling you to your face when you are making excuses for yourself.’ And she had painstakingly learned those four English words, so her every repetition dripped sarcasm.

Sardarji, partly because of Satya’s quarrelsome ways, and partly because he wants a son, takes a second and much younger bride, Roop. Satya quickly dismisses Roop as docile and uninteresting (she isn’t), but Sardarji falls in love. He favours Roop over Satya, and a brilliantly unnerving Baby Jane-Blanche Hudson style psychological violence develops between the two wives.

Underpinning, and in some ways reflecting, this three-person melodrama is the wider three-faith political situation in India. On the opening page of the first chapter, Baldwin writes:

Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, they are like the three strands of her hair, a strong rope against the British, but separate nevertheless.

Yet as the voices for separation of India and Pakistan louden, that rope frays. The final one hundred or so pages of What The Body Remembers deal with the events and the tragedies surrounding partition. The stories Baldwin tells are individually harrowing, but never does she dumb down or gloss over the political backdrop to the story. Readers are treated with the intelligence to understand difficult ideological machinations.

The novel is beautifully structured and many different power relationships are examined: man and woman, mother and child, colonists and colonised, religious majority and religious minority. Such tensions are cleverly and subtly brought out. For instance, Sardarji presents Roop to the Peshawari Muslim Rai Alam Khan and the Englishman Mr Farquharson.
           ‘Does she sing?’
Sardaji says proudly, ‘Oh yes, She sings shabads beautifully. I call her my little brown koel.’
Mr Farquharson gives Sardarji a puzzled look.
‘Our hymns.’ A little annoyed. ‘Surely you know what shabads are.’
Mr Farquharson leans back in his chair, ‘Oh’, he says scornfully, ‘yes, perhaps I do remember now.’ He pulls on the pipe again. ‘Sardarji, why don’t you teach her to sing Muslim hymns as well?’
Mr Farquharson would pull a tiger’s tail, then wonder why it mauls him.

I took my time with What The Body Remembers. The text is sprinkled with Punjabi words, whose meanings can usually be divined through careful reading, adding real texture and rhythm to the book. It’s not a difficult read, as such, but it is a book that it is pointless to skim. Even the minor characters have terrific depth to them and, although the pace is slow, it never drags.

What The Body Remembers is a profound book, a novel with real ambition, and my favourite recommendation so far.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Week Two - Jude

Going To Sea In A Sieve: The Autobiography by Danny Baker (2012)
Recommended by Oliver Shepherd

So this week Jeanette has read a book about the Armenian genocide, and I've also read a memoir, full of drama and intrigue, which...oh Lawd, I can't go on in this vein because it's too bloomin' tasteless. I've read Danny Baker's autobiography. But first let me tell you about the person who recommended it.

When I first met Sheffield's Oliver Shepherd, he convinced gullible 23-year-old me, through the medium of drink, that he had been sacked from the original line-up of 911 because he was a) too tall and b) too fat. Initially, perhaps because of dented pride more than anything, I assumed he was a bit of a plonker, but soon realised he was, and always will be, Yorkshire's Funniest FunnyMan. Liverpool nightclubs still mourn his university years, when he pranced around the Krazy House like an indie-pop Nureyev; alternative comedy still weeps for the loss of his alter-ego Royston Royston, a contemporary dance instructor that Vic Reeves would have adored. More than a decade later, Oliver is now a very respectable manager, husband, and father-of-two, but I still miss his Victory Dance, a t-shirt-over-the head-manoeuvre often seen at Finsbury Park's Rowan's Bowling Alley in the early 2000s. Saying that, his daughter did the same move at her 2nd birthday party, while simultaneously trying to eat a bread-stick. So things are OK. The Shepherd genes are safe.

I first met Danny Baker, South-Of-The-River's Favourite Funnyman, even earlier. I was 21, fresh as a spring flower, at the start of my first (and only) shift at The Crown in Brewer Street, Soho. I had been in London about three weeks, and he was my first customer, barrelling into the pub after a shift on Virgin Radio. Here it was, I thought, giddily: proof that London was full of stars. Not that I wasn't a fan of Baker at the time. He was the rowdy git off TFI Friday, that knob from the Daz adverts. But I'd served someone famous a pint, and hooray, that made London MINE.

Four years later, I was working at Word Magazine, still completely dazzled at how such a miracle could have happened. In the first Christmas issue, we ran five pieces about the history of pop, with five writers making a case for a different decade being the best. Danny was chosen to write the '70s section, which confused me no end. At that point, I had no knowledge of his teenage years at the legendary Mayfair record-shop One Stop, of his involvement in punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, of his time as receptionist at the NME. But then I did and how I did. Mark Ellen and Paul Du Noyer would regale me with tales of those old music-weekly days...where Danny had even done the last ever interview with Michael Jackson, you know.

And then I started listening to Baker's BBC London show. I also loved Oliver, and Oliver loved Danny Baker, so that was it. Sold.

Going To Sea In A Sieve only takes us through the first 25 years of Baker's life, but – as Noel Gallagher would say – what a liiiiiife. Here's Baker's childhood in a council house on the Rotherhithe/Deptford borders, featuring a full cast of even fuller characters. Docker Dad Baker is a particular card, always ducking-and-diving and spotting "skulduggery", but his mother, Nan Baker, is even better. Breaking her hip after falling down the stairs in her 90s because she's had a few, she still insists that she walks the two miles to see her family through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. She uses a buggy full of shopping instead of a zimmer-frame, because she's too bloody proud. Her house also features in a story from Danny's adolescence, involving a girl he's romancing called Lulu. I'll say no more, other than that it made me cringe with terror, and then it made me howl.

Baker busts myths about the mid-century working-class throughout the book, and all the way through  the punk years (reporters were so keen to see young men ranting, he says, that he happily joined in). But bloody hell, you see the rougher side as well. There's the man covered in blood in the back of a car that Baker sees with his dad on the way home from a Millwall game (he discovers later that the torture barn of notorious Kray rivals, The Richardsons, was in one of the railway arches there). There's his classmate who dies falling through the roof of a bombed-out building – although the story that follows about the same child's mohair trousers provides light relief – then come the various tragic fates that befall his old schoolteachers. But these anecdotes are never wrung out like wet rags for sentiment, or introduced to provide hard-nut credentials. They're simply batted to and fro, for entertainment, in ripe Deptford lingo. It's like being with the tearaway cousin of PG Wodehouse down the pub.

And then come the stories about music. Oh Mother! There's so many brilliant stories...about Elton John and Queen prancing around the One Stop, about how Baker did, and didn't, see the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, about how he might, or might not have, met Madonna. And through all of these merry yarns is the sense of how ridiculously revisionist the rewriting of pop history can be. I'd love to see this turned into a film, because our boy Baker tells the truth.

He also knows that he was a lucky bugger back then, and talks about music as if his heart's about to burst. "This is happening now", he says, remembering his first epiphany to The Hollies' (brilliant) Bus Stop. "THIS is happening now." Add that to his straight gentleman's love of flamboyant campery, and I felt a kindred spirit here. He's just like Oliver, really.

Down the pub with you, my Candy Men. The lagers are on me.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Week Two - Jeanette

Black Dog Of Fate by Peter Balakian (1997)
Recommended by Josh

Something you’ll read a lot about in my blog entries is the book Seasons They Change: The Story Of Acid And Psychedelic Folk. I wrote it between mid-2009 and mid-2010, and it was published at the very end of 2010. The most positive change that Seasons wrought was the entry of many fascinating new people into my life: people like Josh. He makes fissured experimental folk music, and he was a big part of the Brattleboro free-folk scene of the first half of the 2000s.

After Seasons wrapped up, Josh and I stayed in email contact as friends; over the last year or two, he has generously sent me releases from his record label, brilliant mix tapes, and his superb artwork. Our relationship is wonderfully old-fashioned. It reminds me of writing my fanzine Kirby in the latter half of the 1990s, and the friendships that arose from it (more of all that in later posts).

Josh (in common with a few other friends) couldn’t settle on just one book to recommend to me. I picked the memoir Black Dog Of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past simply because it was the first on his list.

Peter Balakian, an American by birth, grows up in the affluent New Jersey suburb Tenafly and wants for nothing. The first hundred pages of Black Dog, about Peter’s childhood, really tried my patience. Nothing is quicker to activate my twitchy working-class chip than whines such as ‘but Daaaaad, I don’t want to go to private school,’ or ruminations on personal inadequacy based on little more than being an under-par cellist. I repeat: there are one hundred odd pages of this. Armenia is no more than quicksilver through the paragraphs.

But, when Peter is in eighth grade (ages 13-14 to non-Americans), a process of discovery begins. He is charged with writing about a Near Eastern culture for a school social studies project. His father is pleased. ‘Here’s a chance for you to learn something about Armenia,’ he says. So Peter goes to the family’s encylopaedia:

There was not much on Armenia. Knowing that Armenia was once in Turkey, I decided to see what there was on Turkey: a sizeable entry with coloured pictures, maps, a list of export products. I checked the sources in the bibliography at the end of the entry and went to find them in the stacks of the Tenafly Public Library.

In all of these books on Turkey, Peter never found one reference to Armenia. The deadline for his project pressing, he writes about Turkey rather than Armenia, and received an A for his well-researched work. He tells his father about his good grade:

            ‘I wrote about Turkey,’ I said.
            My father stared at me, and silence hung over the table.
           ‘What?’ His voice cracked as he lingered on the t. ‘You were supposed to write about-‘
           ‘I know,’ I cut in, ‘but I couldn’t find anything.’
           He was shouting now. ‘Don’t you know what the Turks did to us?’

Balakian learns what the Turks did to us – a long campaign of hatred and oppression, culminating in the 1915 Armenian Genocide – through the 1919 book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, written by the American ambassador to Turkey during World War I. Balakian quotes great chunks of this book to give the reader key facts, and to illustrate his own coming into knowledge.

The Central [Turkish] Government announced its intention of gathering the two million or more Armenians living in several sections of the empire and transporting them to this desolate and inhospitable region [the Syrian desert]. The real purpose of the deportation was robbery and destruction; it really represented a new method of massacre. When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant for a whole race; they understood this well.

Scholars consider this event to be the first genocide: a state-organised attempt to murder a race of people. At least 500,000 people, and perhaps as many as 1.5 million people, were killed. The manner of death for the majority was nothing short of the absolute worst way to go: a combination of starvation, torture, rape, dehydration, exhaustion, beatings, and the psychological horror of seeing all of your family drop dead, one by one, in front of you.

The rest of Black Dog is devoted to Balakian uncovering Armenia, first through Morgenthau, and then his own family. In particular, he hears ‘Dovey’s Story’, a first-hand account of a desert death march. The story is so harrowing, so relentless, so overwhelming, and it brought me to desperate tears. Through the process of discovery, Balakian learns not only about Armenia and its history, but something that we all do: that our parents, our grandparents, matter in their own right and not just in the way they look (or do not look) after us. That we are not the be-all and end-all.

This made me rethink those first one hundred pages. Perhaps Balakian wanted the reaction of ‘what an over-privileged arsehole’ to his inconsequential angst, to contrast with the extreme suffering of his Armenian forebears, and to tell us, subtly: 'I know, I know now, that I had nothing to complain about. But I didn’t know then.' However, even in the light of this, I do think his decision to spend so much time on his own upbringing wasted too many valuable pages.

This week, I’ve mentioned Black Dog to several friends. Few knew much, if anything, about the genocide; my own limited knowledge had come via studying World War I six years ago. Before that, I couldn’t have told you one thing about it.

Why is there such a problem of ignorance around the Armenian Genocide?

Balakian offers a possible reason towards the end of Black Dog (in two excellent new chapters added to the book for its tenth anniversary edition). The present Turkish government, in common with every one of their governments since the genocide, denies that it ever happened. They sponsor historians to fabricate or skew evidence; they suppress literature that mentions the event; they send propagandists to historical conferences, who distribute anti-Armenian literature. Today, Turkey is a large and crucial part of the sensitive Near/Middle East region; Armenia is politically unimportant. Turkey’s voice drowns out that of Armenia. A shocking number of nations, including the UK, have not officially recognised the event as a genocide, even in the face of the overwhelming historical evidence. It seems that it’s just easier to simply not talk about it. This book, then, is a way in to learning of one of the most horrific, yet under-reported, events of the twentieth century. Black Dog did not completely satisfy me, but maybe it shouldn’t; I want to read Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story in full, and track down other texts mentioned in Balakian’s bibliography.

Actually, I have already visited the library with this in mind. I found exactly zero books on the subject.

For more info on the Armenian Genocide, the Wikipedia entry is an excellent introduction. The Armenian Genocide Museum website offers more depth, including a detailed chronology and (of course, highly distressing) photographic material.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Week One - Jude

Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Recommended by Dan Fordham

If you're going to kick off the New Year with a project like this, then you might as well begin it with a) a hefty section of a trilogy, written in tiny dense type, b) the book that your husband recommended.

For the last two years, him indoors has been working his way through John Updike's novels, in chronological order (it's not just Jeanette who has these organisational tendencies). I'd read one Updike novel, Couples, in my early 20s but my memory of it was hazy; I remember liking it, and that it was fairly filthy. But I'd not read this, which Dan had banged on about for years. And as time went by, the fact I hadn't read it was becoming a bit of an albatross.

What had put me off? Cold, clammy fear, of course. For even though Dan and I, thankfully, do like a lot of the same things (although you can leave those Evan Parker free jazz albums in the racks if you fancy it, m'love) what if I didn't like this book? Worse still, what if I hated it? What would that mean?

And then I started reading.

Rabbit, Run - the first part of the above Rabbit Omnibus - was published in 1960. Rabbit Redux came ten years later, Rabbit Is Rich a decade after that. Each book tracks the life of Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, who begins the series as a 26-year-old father-of-one (with another on the way), living in a Pennsylvanian suburb with his wife, Janice. He's known as Rabbit because of the way he looks, but the nickname, of course has other meanings...they breed like rabbits, rabbits are timid in the face of real challenges, rabbits are often seen as tricksters in American pop culture, from Br'er Rabbit in those Southern folktales to Bugs Bunny in Warner Brothers' modern ones. It's also no surprise that Updike (seen below in 1960) looked rather Bugsy-like himself.

And rabbits, as the title tells us, also run away from things.

Rabbit - lets make no bones about this here - is a shitbag. Towards the end of the novel, admittedly, I started caring about his fate (his moral compass swings into action on a bus to Mount Judge, for reasons I won't disclose). Nevertheless, he could have fallen under a truck 50 pages in and I would've been bloody delighted. It's funny, really. I've loved lots of American pop culture's archetypal arseholes on TV (Don "mmmm..hello" Draper in Mad Men, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos) but somehow I couldn't give Rabbit any room. It didn't help that Updike's language rams home that his main man is smarmy to a fault, misogynistic beyond belief, possessive, that he objectifies women to a remorseless degree, and does appalling things that made my blood churn...including running out on his "dumb" pregnant wife at the beginning of the novel, shacking up with someone else who he bullies constantly, without consequences...and that's barely the start of it.

Yes, you could say that I was a little concerned.

And then the book went somewhere else. I'd forgotten - or possibly not appreciated in Couples - the degree of detail Updike uses in his descriptions of places and people's inner lives. It's insane, absurd, obsessive, even. Take this description of a club he goes to:

"with its glass-brick windows grinning back from the ridge of its face it looks like a fortress of death; the interior is furnished in the glossy low-lit style of an up-to-date funeral parlor, potted green plants here and there, music piping soothingly, and the same smell of strip rugs and fluorescent tubes
and Venetian-blind slats and, the most inner secretive smell, of alcohol"

It's amazing to read. You can't skim this stuff either, even when it threatens to bore; you have to focus on every word, and as you do, it's like getting lost in a very real, full world.

And then after page 83, the first-person, present-tense voice suddenly inhabits other characters. Here is Ruth, Rabbit's other woman, a real person at last (and a brilliantly-drawn one). Then Eccles the minister, then Eccles' wife, and then Janice...and then a passage so drowsily, woozily, upsettingly, tangibly sad, that I had to go and read it back again straightaway, to check that I actually had. (No spoilers, but I was in the bath at the time.)

At the end of it - thank God - I didn't want to question my husband's sanity after all. Neither I didn't care for Rabbit much, but I did want to read the next volume, and the next one, and the next one, mesmerised. But that'll have to wait for a while. Next week's all about light relief. Ah: she runs. Runs.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Week One - Jeanette

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Recommended by Gary

In the autumn of 2000, I visited a four-person house in Crookes, Sheffield for the first time. Gary lived there. He once put the housemates in order of geekishness: he, modestly, ranked himself second.

During my frequent weekend stopovers, we watched Charmed and Alias, and played computer quiz games such as You Don’t Know Jack, while the housemates tried to explain things like ‘NaN (not a number)’ to me. Gary and I also forged a pop alliance that continues to this day. He had a Freeview box, something of a delicacy in the early century, and I’d sit in his room: we’d flick between music channels The Hits and TMF, cursing when the adverts coincided and we were denied seeing the t.A.T.u. video for the millionth time.

Gary has told me on numerous occasions that he ‘doesn’t read’, but I still asked for a book recommendation, offering him a get-out clause if he didn’t fancy it. But he did. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is his favourite book and, I’ve since discovered, a text held in huge affection by numerous other friends.

The initial concept of H2G2 is strong: Earth is demolished because it is an inconvenience to the rest of the Universe. The Visigoth-ish race, the Vogons, make a perfunctory announcement and the deed is done. This propels the human Arthur Dent, and the undercover alien Ford Prefect (who is ‘from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed’) hitch-hiking through the Galaxy. They meet various life forms and have several near-death experiences; they even discover the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything.

The overall plot becomes increasingly irrelevant as the book progresses, with the wacky adventures aggressively taking the foreground. This is my only real complaint with H2G2: I could tell that Adams initially wrote it as a series of radio plays, and the transition to a cohesive novel was not completely successful.

H2G2 deserves its reputation as an extremely funny book. It snuggles neatly between Pythonesque gentle surrealism, and the sharper edges of 1980s alternative comedy. This kind of intelligent British wit was absolutely wonderful when done well, as it is in H2G2. Yet humourous as the book is, one can easily get this kind of thing elsewhere; if that’s all H2G2 had going for it, it would simply have been a pleasant time-waster. But I found the book satisfying on a deeper level. Time and again, Adams evokes an absolute sympathy for the human condition. In the preamble, he writes:

This planet [Earth] has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Adams expresses this humane pity brilliantly through Marvin The Paranoid Android. Marvin is lovingly described; yes, sometimes he’s played for laughs, but usually he invokes a touching frustration in the reader. He’s lonely and those he talks to despair of him. He’s self-aware enough to know this, and it makes him even lonelier. Adams nails a description of how depression manifests itself in speech:

            ‘Alright,’ said Marvin, like the tolling of a great cracked bell.

I was interested enough in Marvin to investigate how he’d been portrayed onscreen, in both the 1981 BBC TV series and in the 2005 Hollywood film. Sadly, the clips I’ve seen don’t award him the same complexity that he has in the book. However, it seems the TV character was very popular; he even cut a record, which is actually quite good, even if it rather undermines the book’s take on Marvin’s despondency.

My other favourite character in the book is the little Babel Fish. When inserted into the ear, the Babel Fish reacts with brainwaves and automatically translates languages for its host. It’s a genius plot device to ensure Arthur Dent understands numerous alien dialects, but Adams goes far further with it, playing around with the cultural implications of such a creature. For one thing, the Babel Fish leads to more wars, because all barriers to communication between races are removed. And, because the Babel Fish is so phenomenally useful and it is difficult to believe that it evolved by chance, it sparks off a philosophical debate on divine existence (summarised in the best-selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God).

H2G2 was a perfect starting point for this project. Short and easy-to-read, it nevertheless surprised me how cleverly and pithily Adams writes. Without Gary’s recommendation, I doubt I would ever have read H2G2, and that would have been a huge shame. Because…

‘My father eventually died of shame, which is still a terminal disease in some parts of the Galaxy.’

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Here we go...

As New Year resolutions go, it’s an ambitious one, we know.


We’re Jude Rogers (left) and Jeanette Leech (right), two friends who’ve known each other for over a decade (and please excuse us talking about ourselves in the third person just this once). Back in the Autumn, Jeanette decided that her resolution for 2013 would be to read a book a week. But there was a twist: a different friend would recommend each book. The aims were twofold. Obviously, she wished to read fifty-two cracking books, but she also hoped to understand a little more of the tastes of those nearest and dearest to her.

Jude heard about Jeanette’s plans, and having begun a similar book-a-week resolution last year that ended in miserable failure last March – officially due to work commitments, but unofficially due to the return of a smartphone into her life, and the opportunities for distraction that it brings – decided to join her. Jude also suggested they write a blog together to spur one another on.

So here it is. From next week on, we’ll both be posting about the books we’ve read, and the people who’ve recommended them to us. We’re approaching the project in different ways: Jeanette’s already got most of her recommendations inked in and a tentative reading order planned (alphabetical by author surname), while Jude’s more of a spontaneous soul (rigid planning fills her with terror). And, yes, we’ve both recommended a book to each other - but we're saving those 'til last!

Wish us luck – and we hope you enjoy it. 


(photo taken New Year's Eve, 2012, Sheffield)