Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Beans 'n dreams

We seem to have grown too big for our boots lately (in the nicest way possible we hope). So for this reason, we have upped sticks to the slightly more ample platform of:

See you there, p'raps?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Strolling Storylines: The Proustian Pleasures of Walking Whilst Listening to Short Stories

Nicholas Royle has blogged recently about how he gets a lot of his reading done by walking. That’s not audio books + walking, by the way, but actual ambulatory reading: on a pavement, through the lingerie department of Debenhams, going up and down steps and escalators in tube stations, reading.

My response to this is twofold.

a) Are you quite insane Nicholas Royle?! Apart from the cognitive overload, and thus diminishment in attention and returns for both activities, are you not just setting yourself up as Nerd Fodder for louts and ne’er-do-wells to bother? You might as well be wearing a faded Dinosaur Junior t-shirt that has TRIP ME UP/MUG ME printed on the back of it.

b) Absolute, unabashed glee. I want to move up to Manchester and live right next door to Nicholas Royle just so that I can watch him from my window weaving his way down the road with a Richard Yates’ collection held in front of his face. Or maybe we could walk along the pavement together, dodging lampposts, synced to same page of the same short story collection, like a teenage twosome stepping down the high street sharing a single headphone.

Thinking about Royle’s reading habit has also filled me with an incredible nostalgia for how a lot of my own reading was done from the age of 5 – 13 ¾ when a book one was in the midst of reading just had to be consumed, and consume it one would, wherever you were walking, standing, lying down, eating, peeing, pooing, or in a swimming pool (backstroke).

Of course, I am now far too self-conscious and “mindful” to do this anymore, but I certainly read (on an iPhone, and occasionally even in a book) a lot of  short stories, and listen to them too. Most of the time, I’m listening and walking. Particularly this 10-mile walk in the Chilterns, which I have done this summer almost twice a week. I don’t live in the Chilterns, I just really, really like this walk. Another factor contributing to my somewhat OCD selection is that a) I’m a creature of habit and b) I get antsy when faced with too much “choice”. And yet I don’t want to feel I’m missing out by not choosing differently each time either (inherent paradox alert).

My walk is one of the few I know that starts at one tube station (Chorleywood), finishes at another (Chesham) and yet takes in an incredible array of Hertfordshire scenery (rivers, hills, forests) and hardly a whirr from a motor vehicle at any point.

Having done the walk 20 times or more in the last three months and spent probably about 40 of the 60 hours it takes to walk these 200 miles listening to short stories, I have noticed something quite magical beginning to occur: various parts of the walk have become intimately imbued with the sensations/memories/feelings/words of the stories I’ve been listening to. And these sensual remembrance remains, become somehow hard-wired into the act of doing the walk itself.

So for example, whenever I now head out across the Common through the small glade leading to Chorleywood House, I am once again transported to the first few pages/minutes of Alison Macleod’s The Heart of Denis Noble. It is like the enclosing foliage almost synaesthetically mirrors Noble’s delicious, spaced-out “succumbing to the opioids”, the pre-op Schubert soundtrack taking him on a Lethian trip down memory lane, along “the meandering river of fentanyl from the IV drip”.

Once past the cemetery, heading towards hills and clear warm water The River Chess beyond, a giant sugar-beet comes crashing through the windscreen of consciousness and thumps down beside me courtesy of Jon McGregor’s Wires. Perhaps this part of the story has struck and stuck here not only because I listened to it wending my way down this path, but also because this is the one part of the walk that veers relatively close to the M25 where this story, at least for me, is now taking place. Perpetually. Certainly every time I do my Chorleywood to Chesham walk.

So many sights and sounds in one walk, so rich with recollection.

Even a particular stile in a particular field near Sarrat Bottom where Miette’s reading of Kyle Minor's astonishing The Truth and All Its Ugly suddenly becomes incredibly dark and weird, forcing me to actually stop for a moment, lean slightly into a hedge, catching my breath, muttering “shit, shit” or some other startled imprecation. 

And what of the many woods and springs and meadows along this walk, now littered like autumn leaves with Alan Davis Drake's wonderfully mellifluous Chekhov readings? Or the twenty hours of listening to Richard Yates Collected Short stories, or Paul Bowles, the twenty-five blissed out hours of Nabokov?

Or this stone-bench near one of the weirs? The one resting on a patient and/or malevolent bunny’s head, where someone sells eggs and plants on the side of the bridleway (help yourself, leave some money in a tin - the trusting reciprocity of village economics). This granite stone comma on which I’d rested for a minute or two, closing my eyes, head propped up on an empty water bottle, suddenly transported to a small aerodrome in Texas where KJ Orr’s “she” meets her future astronaut husband “he”.

Every time I go on this walk, it gets better, richer, more involving. Were I to continue doing this walk for years (and I see no reason not to) I can imagine a point where each step (all 19,465 of them; yes, I have an Omron pedometer) will have a particular real-time as well as superimposed mythical-time resonance to it. 

I think this what Bruce Chatwin was trying to communicate in his ode to the Aboriginal walkabout. I’ve read Songlines (twice), but like most things, I needed to walk it to get it.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of thing? If you haven’t you should, because it’s incredibly moving and meaningful. 

So here’s my DIY guide to creating your own Strolling Storyline.

  1. Choose a relatively long walk that you would feel happy doing on a regular basis (preferably in the countryside).
  2. Walk it.
  3. Divide your walk between:
    1. listening to short stories (your choice, but some great downloads here & here)
    2. walking silently, with no aural input; just walking, as mindful and fully-embodied as possible
    3. listening to music (Ashkenazy playing Chopin’s Nocturnes, Rachmaninov’s Four Piano Concertos, and the first two Arctic Monkey albums have worked well in the Chilterns for me this summer).
    4. chat: either with the self, or if in company, to another
  4. Revel in the bliss of being fortunate enough to do this sort of thing. Smile and grin at yourself and the world if you can.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Repeat again. And again.

The stories I’ve mentioned in this piece, apart from those I offer links for, can be found in this collection, published by Comma Press. I'd also recommend Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust (A History of Walking) & Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking as literary-spiritual primers.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Sleepy", by Anton Chekhov (1888)

I wonder if Robert Coover was in some way paying homage to this story in his weird, and (I think) delightful PoMo tale we read last month: The Babysitter. There are echoes of Dr Chekhov in Coover's fragmented half-dream-half-real presentation, or maybe not.

Whatever Coover was trying to do with that story (and we were in somewhat deep disagreement in our discussion last month about exactly what he was trying to achieve), Chekhov, as in most cases, got there first. Wherever that "there" is.

You might not want to listen to this late at night though. It's a very creepy story.

[Download story]

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

To Kindle, or to Nook: THAT is the eQuestion

The Better-Than-Kindle Nook? But only one (dodgy) online retailer selling it in the UK.

I have a love-hate relationship with books as physical objects. 

Or to be more precise: a love-sadness relationship. Having had to "let go" of thousands of books at certain times in my somewhat peripatetic life, I am keenly aware that whilst books do furnish a room, they can also become (en-masse) a Sisyphean boulder requiring constant pushing up ramps into removal vans, and paying of monthly storage fees to house them.

When I'm considering buying a book, my first thought (after "I want you-oo", crooned Elvis-Costello-like in the direction of the tome) is how many kilos it's going to add to a suitcase or a cardboard box marked "BOOKS" being hoiked up a ladder into someone's loft. A good part of my motivation to gift a first edition of Infinite Jest to a friend for his birthday recently, was carrying that 3.25 kg mass in a shoulder bag on my daily commute, noticing the musculo-skeletal wear and tear of this devotion after a month or so.

Thus, perhaps more than anyone I know, I am socially, economically, demographically, and most importantly psychologically primed to have/be an eReader. Yes, I love the feel and look of books, but the sheer unburdened freedom of being able to carry a whopper (or hundreds of whoppers) around with me on an object that weighs less than a couple of Mars bars, is an almost incontrovertible selling point.

So why haven't I bought one yet?

Well, I am worried about giving Amazon lock, key and sole proprietorship of all the texts I choose to purchase from them hereon in. You've probably heard Amazon Agnostics already espousing on the subject in a similar anti-monopolistic vein. Why should Amazon become, as they are threatening to become, the main purveyors of the entirety of our lexical culture?

But mainly I'm worried about Amazon's Kindle and its AZW format in which all its books are encoded. I am worried that Kindle may truly become "the only show in town", as one publisher recently described the lightweight Über Object to me. Once upon a time VHS was the only show in town, but where is it now? 

Maybe I'm just not getting it, but I simply can't understand why readers would choose to lock themselves into an Amazon eStockade, when one day they might like to read all their books off something other than a Kindle: maybe the palm of their hands, or on a piece of toast. 

If you buy Amazon, you are enslaved to Amazon. If you buy your books as generic ePubs (which can be read on any other eReader, apart from Kindle), you are "free". Free to convert the files to whatever format you need for whatever reader you have, free to share files with friends, the way you might share books with friends, not in anyway enslaved to a huge multinational corporation which is fast becoming, Walmart-like, a one stop shop for everything and anything and sod anyone else who might like a slice of the pie.

So why aren't more people/retailers expressing interest in the just-as-good-if-not-better-than-Kindle Nook or Kobo eReaders (I've had a nightmare buying a Nook off the awful Purely Gadgets, the only UK distributor of the device so far)? And why are most of the small publishers I approach spinning the Kindle-Is-The-Only-Show-In-Town yarn, when it clearly isn't, or shouldn't be?

Could this have anything to do with Amazon's loss-leading push of their reading devices, their gargantuan advertising budgets promoting their eReader as the only eReader you'll ever need, the way the God Marines sold Christianity to the "natives" in the 16th century?

I am genuinely surprised that the zeitgeist (especially from publishers I've talked to) seems to be one of completely swallowing the hype and signing on to become a Lifelong Vassal of Amazon Inc.

Borges' Infinite Book is almost within our grasp, and it is probably in the shape of an eReader. But do we want our sole access to it to be dependent on one man with a slightly unsettling laugh

Not me.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Short Story Book Clubs = Better Conversations?

Listening this morning to Olivia O'Leary's lovely programme on one of my all-time heroes (Theodore Zeldin) and his New (Better?) Conversation initiative made me realize that our Short Story Book Club is not intrinsically about great short stories (although of course we are conscientiously and pleasurably focused on the little blighters) but more about facilitating great conversation.

Zeldin-ish conversation, that is: inclusive, honest, genuinely interested in another persons take on a shared topic/story, and supportive.
In a sense, I see the Club's raison d'être as quite different to a lit-crit gathering. I'm sure we've all been-there, done-that, got the withering ("Oh-I-wish-you'd-shut-up") looks from snooty dons and People Who Know Better (Or More) Than Us.  I'm pretty sure though that Zeldin wouldn't see this competitive one-upmanship as a Conversation Killer rather than as a facilitator.

So I wonder if it might be an idea, following the format of his conversation dinners, to explicitly structure the evening a tad. Just so that we don't automatically fall into the groove of convo-stranger-dynamics where a modicum of unease clogs the conversational channels.  With this in mind, we've agreed to have a kind of short-list of stories that we'll mainly be focusing on. 

All these stories be great conversation-starters in themselves.But we might also brainstorm before we meet a few (simple, but honest) conversation-starting questions. Just to get the ball rolling:

  • Blackberry Winter: Why doesn't the boy tell his father about potentially dangerous hobo who's just rocked up at the farmhouse?
  • O City of Broken Dreams: Is this not a very early (1948) prediction of the PoMo surface-no-content culture we're living in NOW?
  • The Magic Barrel: Is the final match a double-bluff on the father's part to get the two of them together?
  • Good Country People: Who's more cruel in this story, the bible salesman or the writer?
  • Upon the Sweeping Flood: Why, in God's name, does he do it?
  • The Babysitter: Is the ending a cop-out?
If you fancy adding some questions to our conversation menu, for all the stories, or just some, please do stick those in the comments box either on meet-up, or the blog. Also, t'would be great if you (and friends/family etc.) could head on over and "LIKE" our FB page, as it seems we need 20 followers or more to get a dedicated Page Name, and put ourselves in the running for winning a goldfish.

"O City of Broken Dreams" - John Cheever (1948)

Have you heard about a sub-precept of Sod's Law called Reading-Aloud Sod's Law (R.A.L.S)?

Simply stated: this is the likelihood that at the very moment you position your iPhone on the edge of the sofa, and sit yourself down on a meditation cushion, legs crossed Burmese-style to record a classic Cheever short story, someone in the vicinity who is not shush-able, will begin to hammer or drill or cackle uncontrollably.

Hopefully the unadulterated Cheeverness of this short story will survive the initial background noises and subsequent moving of reader and iPhone to another room halfway through in order to finish perched on the edge of the bed, iPhone balanced precariously on the side of a bookcase. If not, I am happy to supply you with neighbour's address for reparation requests.

[Download a reading of the story]

Monday, September 5, 2011

"In The Zoo", by Jean Stafford (1953)

The beautiful Jean Stafford.

That is, before the "uncouth, neurotic, psycopathic murder-poet" (AKA Robert Lowell) drove the two of them into a wall, conferring upon Jean defacement and hospital traumas that she would go on to sublimate in one of the most gruesome short stories I've ever winced through (The Interior Castle).

Keywords from the Literature, Art, and Medicine Database on that story say it all: Anesthesia, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Hospitalization, Medical Advances, Medical Testing, Obsession, Pain, Patient Experience, Physical Examination, Rebellion, Surgery, Trauma.

David Cronenberg (or Almodovar, if you're a September, 2011 Zeitgeister) eat your heart out.

This one is pretty visceral too. But more in a way that twangs at the heart strings like a raw, ol' blues song. Lots of parallels between this story and Edward Albee's similarly named one-act play - though I'm still not quite sure who got there first, chicken-and-egg-wise. I think it was Stafford.

PS For a reading of The Interior Castle, please make your way over to the preternaturally tasteful Miette's Bedtime Stories podcast.