Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Book Giver: World Book Night 2012

A few months ago, in a fit of random gung-ho enthusiasm, I signed up to be part of World Book Night 2012. It's a fairly new scheme (2012 is its second year) that aims to get more people reading by asking 20,000 givers to hand out 1,000,000 copies of 25 specially chosen and printed books (that works out as 24 books each - I assume they chose this number because trying to carry around any more would make your arms drop off).

This is a truly worthy and well-meaning scheme which, as you may be able to see, has extreme potential to go horribly wrong. Your average well-educated, internet-savvy book nut will tend to hang out with people who are also well-educated, internet-savvy book nuts, and who can probably afford to buy their own copies of All Quiet on the Western Front (one of last year's 25, and a very weird choice to my mind) without help from a free-book programme. This was demonstrated very clearly to me last year: I worked at an Oxford bookstore which was one of the pick-up points for givers, and most of the (posh, white) people who came in seemed to be treating World Book Night as a cheap way to get presents for their (posh, white) friends.

I think, though, that the people running the scheme have tightened up the concept second time around. Not only are the books on offer this time around much easier and more inviting reads (while still containing some damn good choices, like Good Omens, The Time Traveller's Wife and Room), but when you sign up you're asked to say what you're actually going to do with your allocated copies. Last year I didn't sign up because I knew I would just end up giving them away to my (bookish, if mostly not posh or white) friends, which I think would be CHEATING (I'm still mad about those lazy givers).

This year, though, I'm living in London, where public transport is great, literacy rates are badly low and where, when you try to hand out things to random passers-by, only some of them look at you like you've just asked them to get into your handy murder van. Also (and what tipped the scales for me) one of the titles on offer this year was Dodie '101 Dalmatians' Smith's I Capture The Castle. This is a book I've been crazy about ever since I first read it twelve years ago. The totally weird tale of the romantic misadventures of a teenage girl who lives in a castle because her father is mad, it's utterly brilliant and totally readable, and I would actually give my left kidney to have written it myself. I would then give my right kidney to know what happens after it finishes, and my liver to make Cassandra real so I could be friends with her. That is how much I love it. If I could make the entire world sit down and read I Capture The Castle I would, so the thought of being able to give away 24 copies of it was pleasing to me.

And that is the story of how I became a World Book Night 2012 giver.

When the time came, I dutifully collected my books from the appointed library (suitcase in tow - from bitter prior experience I know that 24 copies of a large text adds up to A Whole Lot Of Book), came home, wrote my name and their unique tracking number in each copy - and then was suddenly faced with a towering pile of novels in the middle of my floor. It was terrifying. I started having feverish daydreams about what would happen if (or when) I failed to find anyone who wanted them. I was going to have to to spend the rest of my life living with an impromptu altar to Dodie Smith, constantly being shamed by the visual reminder of my inability to interact with other humans. My housemates were going to hate me. Worse, I was going to hate me! It was all made worse by the fact that I was going to be out of London on World Book Night itself, the 23rd. What if people stopped reading books before I could do my handout on the 24th?

As astute readers may be able to guess, none of these things actually came to pass. This morning I woke up, had breakfast, loaded my 24 copies of I Capture the Castle into two large bags and set out on my mission of literary mercy.

Free to a good home?
My plan of action involved getting on the tube at Elephant and Castle station, the very bottom of the Bakerloo line, and loading up the trains going north. I went dodging in and out of carriages at each station stop, trying to feel like a good fairy and not like a terrorist (it turns out that do not leave any items unattended is really strongly ingrained in my psyche), and also trying not to feel too guilty about abandoning lovely books to an uncertain fate. Good cause notwithstanding, it is hard to do a drive-by dump of a book when you have spent your life trying to collect as many of them as possible. But I did it, and if you or anyone you know found a copy of I Capture the Castle on the Bakerloo line with a post-it saying READ ME!, I would like to hear from you, preferably with accompanying pictures of it on your bookshelf. It would soothe my soul.

After that ordeal, I got off the tube at Charing Cross and went walking down the Strand, handing out copies to people who looked friendly. I got a few people who'd heard of I Capture the Castle before, and one very nice girl who was extremely excited about both it and World Book Night, but most of them hadn't, and each of those people made me realise what a good thing World Book Night can be. I gave away a copy to a cashier at Ryman's (I needed post-its, and also remembered how much I would have liked customers to give me things when I worked in retail) who said that she didn't really read but she might give it a try - which strikes me as exactly the point of the exercise. She's someone who'd probably never have come across I Capture the Castle otherwise, and now she's got the opportunity to read it and (maybe) enjoy it.

To me, books are a necessity (and one of my favourite things about living in England is that that's actually how they're classed, as VAT-exempt necessities, along with food and children's clothes), but to a lot of people they're pointless luxuries, and reading is a chore rather than a pleasure. I'm not sure World Book Night has quite worked out how to challenge that attitude yet, but it's getting there, and the basic idea behind it, to help show new groups of people that reading can be fun instead of stressful and alienating, is laudable. Does that basic idea always translate into the real world? No. Does the scheme reach the people that it's trying to? Not always. Could it be better directed? Definitely. But it's a start.

Even with the best of intentions, there's only so much a giver can do - the people who are most eager to take the books off you are exactly the ones who already have hundreds at home, and the people who would benefit from a free book most tend not to want to take one. But, that said, I think I'm glad I've been a part of the hand-out this year. If someone who took one of my copies ends up reading it and liking it, then I'll be happy, because (all worries about World Book Night aside) I have true love for I Capture The Castle and an unshakeable belief in its greatness. World Book Night 2012 has given me a wonderful excuse to make more people fall in love with what I love already.

London, I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Two super-speedy reviews while I am supposed to be writing my essays

So, the essays are going well, as is the internship. I was let out on day release to go to the London Book Fair on Monday, at which I felt very junior and unimportant (who knew there were so many men in publishing? Where do they hide for the rest of the year?), but I did wander past the Hachette booth, which, in honour of The Casual Vacancy, had a GIANT POSTER of J K Rowling's face staring down at passers-by like a benevolent dictator and/ or a mid-level deity.

This made me quite suspicious, probably because I just finished reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang and now I am seeing cults of the leader everywhere (including in North Korea, but that's not just me).

Wild Swans is one of the only non-fiction titles on the 1001 books list, a biography/autobiography combo about three generations of Chinese women who collectively lived through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, World War II, the rise of Communism and the increasingly crazy machinations of Chairman Mao. Their historical CVs are amazing - Chang's grandmother was one of the last warlord concubines (a dubious honour), Chang's mother was one of the first Communist party sympathisers after World War II and her father was a high-up party official who governed a couple of provinces. As you do.

I have to say, Wild Swans isn't particularly well written - most of the time, it's perfectly functional, but sometimes she lapses into a badly-done contemplations of the beauty of the universe and the result is just tiresome. But it's a bestseller not because of the way it's written but because of what it's written about. It's an incredible (and totally terrifying) inside record of what went wrong with Chinese communism and why.

Before I read Wild Swans I had only vague background knowledge about recent Chinese history, so I sort of knew that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had happened, and were Bad Things. Well, now I know the details, and it turns out that Bad doesn't even begin to cover it. At one point, for example, Mao decided that China should make more steel, so he got everyone in the entire country (including children - as a six year old, Chang had to pick up scrap metal on the way to school) to stop what they were doing and obsessively make steel, with the result that the crops failed and millions of people just died of starvation. And everyone had been so indoctrinated by Mao that they honestly believed it was all for the best.

The number of people who are tortured and killed in this book is staggering, as is the number who just committed suicide out of sheer shame and horror at what was going on. At times I actually felt like I was reading a dystopian sci fi novel - the mind control, the street gangs, kids beating up their teachers, families forced to live separately and so on. It's almost unbelievable to me that what she's writing is - or very recently was - all true. (On that note, the writer part of me thinks that if you are considering publishing your own dystopian novel, Wild Swans is a must-read background text. You don't even have to make this stuff up.)

My only warning is that if you want to be at all surprised by the fate of Chang's family DO NOT FLIP TO THE PICTURES in the middle of the book, because you will be horribly spoiled by captions like 'The last picture of Blah Blah, who died unexpectedly in 1949'. I did, and I was, and I was cross.

Long as it is (and I admit, it is somewhat over-long), it's absolutely worth a read. Mind-blowing and extremely eye-opening, both from a historical and a human-nature point of view, it's everything you never knew about Communist China and didn't think to ask because it didn't occur to you that human beings could possibly do those kinds of thing to each other in the real world.

3 stars.

After all that heartbreaking suicide, I wanted some more light-hearted death (I typed that sentence and realised what an awful person I am, but there's no other way to say it), and so I moved on to P D James's The Murder Room.

I'm always on the fence about James as a writer. On the one hand, she's a good mystery writer, she makes up interesting cases and her detective is, you know, a perfectly fine individual - but on the other, she is the most gloomy person in the world. I grew up on Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, so I have a baseline assumption that written murder should be jolly, a nice minty after-dinner puzzle with body parts for effect. It's a point of view I think crime writers are coming back to more and more these days, but there was obviously a time in the 70s and 80s, when James was forming herself as an author, when everyone was reacting against silliness and trying to show how very serious the business of death really is, etc etc.

As a result, everyone in a P D James book runs around tiresomely contemplating THE YAWNING HOLE AT THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE and their INABILITY TO BE HAPPY. It gives me a stress headache. Yes, yes, the world is very terrible, but it's also quite funny and stupid, and there's no acknowledgement of that in a James mystery. Every single one of her characters feels alienated and unfulfilled and has family who are awful and they hate. One or two such people might be understandable, but an entire book full of them leads me to believe that something Freudian is going on. I'm willing to bet the James family is not a barrel of laughs at Christmas time.

Because of all this, I never end up enjoying a P D James as much as I really should, given the ingredients involved. The Murder Room is all about someone copycatting 1930s murders (James, like me, is clearly the most enormous historical murders geek), it takes place in a museum and a girls' school, and it's a murder mystery. All my favourite things! And yet, at its heart it's joyless and a bit functional. The most interesting bits for me were (unsurprisingly) the descriptions of the original '30s murders. They made me want to ring James up and talk to her about my dissertation, which happens to be about real Victorian murders and their influence on 1930s crime novels. I think we'd get on better through the medium of fact than we do with fiction - no coincidence that my favourite James book is her true-crime recreation of the Ratcliff Highway Murders, The Maul and the Pear Tree.

But anyway, The Murder Room was fine. Acceptable. Functional. It passed the time. And it made me crave a nice bit of Agatha Christie. Now there's a woman who knows what to do with murder.

2.5 stars.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Review - Lud-in-the-Mist

How has it taken me so long to write this post? I don't know. I could probably blame essay madness: currently the entire rational part of my brain is busy trying to prove that the cure for vampirism in ladies is marriage and a good bit of pregnancy (you think I'm joking, don't you? I'm not joking), and I need to use all of the rest of my mental powers just to perform basic tasks like eating and watching 4OD.

Also, in the last week I've resigned my Litro internship (leaving behind me a blog about endings, a blog about recreational drugs and a blog about my lizard Watson) and started one at the British Museum Press, which is extremely interesting but also quite time consuming.

But anyway - no excuses, really. Life happened, I read Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, and then it refused to magically write a review about itself. I think that was very unfair of it. I'm going to have to dock it half a star for being so lazy and just write my own.

First impressions first: I violently hate my edition's cover. I hate it so much. By some trick of the mind, whenever I look at it from far away, or upside down, or just without paying much attention, all I can see is a squashed sad panda, decorated with ribbons. I don't know who commissioned that excrescence of a drawing, but they should take mandatory retirement, effective immediately. Luckily, I didn't choose the book because of its cover, otherwise I'd never have read it.

Actually, I have to thank Neil Gaiman for leading me to this book. It featured on a list he made of his top ten books of all time (which now, of course, I can't find). I was attracted by the title (Lud-in-the-Mist. What is it? Who is it? Why does it sound so interesting?), but mainly by Neil Gaiman, who not only can do no wrong as far as books are concerned (I'll leave the life choices out of it), but also used to hang around with Diana Wynne Jones, who is my Number One Top Writer Person Ever. So I had to give Lud-in-the-Mist a try.

Now, don't worry if you don't know who Hope Mirrlees is. I'd never heard of her either - until I saw the Gaiman list, after which point she began to turn up everywhere. She was born in 1887, went to Cambridge, became friends with a lot of modernist writers (she actually appears fleetingly in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as well as, more recently, The Children's Book) and wrote three books in the 1920s, the most famous of which was Lud-in-the-Mist.

So that's Hope Mirrlees.

On to Lud-in-the-Mist itself. It's all about a town of 'ordinary' people who live on the borders of Fairyland, but never visit because they're too afraid of what they might find - until one guy decides to go. Sound familiar? If you've ever read Neil Gaiman's Stardust, you'll know what I'm talking about. The two books share not just a basic scenario but a tone - sort of old-world-with-a-wink, slightly naughty and very clever. I'm not suggesting that Gaiman's stealing at all, just that he's obviously hugely indebted to Mirrlees. Now that I've read Lud-in-the-Mist I realise that Stardust is essentially a loving homage to a book that's influenced his imagination enormously.

As well as getting backwards influence from Gaiman, Lud-in-the-Mist reminded me enormously of Lord of the Rings - or at least the parts of it that are set in the Shire. If I had to describe Lud-in-the-Mist in four words, those words would be 'Hobbity, with a bite'. It's all very charming and mannered - the inhabitants of Lud-in-the-Mist (it's the name of the town as well as the book) go gallivanting about hunting moths and eating cheese like happy little hobbits, but underneath they're all a bit mean and spiteful and bad. I'm not sure there was a character that I actually liked - which is unusual, since I liked the book itself very much. It has a strong flavour of what would happen if Tolkien had a love child with Christina Rossetti: fairy-tale jollity but with a strong spike of nastiness behind it. At times it's actually down-and-out creepy, all the more so because of how simply the creep presented. People just turn around and casually say things like 'Excuse me, sir, you're going to die soon', or 'Do the dead bleed?' and then you get heart palpitations and have to take a reading break.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
Unusually for me, because I think that a lot of influence doesn't much matter, I'd say that if you haven't read Rossetti's Goblin Market you're really going to miss a lot of what Mirrlees is doing. (Side note: if you haven't read Goblin Market, you've got to. That's an order. It's an amazing poem and basically a top-notch fantasy story in and of itself).

The plot of Lud-in-the-Mist revolves around the illegal import of fairy fruit into Lud - if you know your Rossetti, you'll understand what a bad thing that's considered to be. The fruit, like Rossetti's goblin fruit, makes its human eater go mad with longing for Fairyland - which is against the law, since, after a revolution against Fairy, the inhabitants of Lud are supposed to be keeping things strictly anti-magical temptation.

As in all the best fantasy, Mirrlees is intensely logical when it comes to the details of her made-up world, and the result is that you're absolutely sold on the factuality of the fiction she's created. She's given Lud a history, economy and mythology so close - and yet so far - from turn-of-the-century rural England that it's like reading a particularly clever spot-the-difference picture. As a physical place, Lud feels entirely comfortable and relatable - and then Mirrlees pulls the rug out from under your feet with a single detail that makes you realise how utterly alien Lud is to your own experience. At one point, for example, she has a character look out over the countryside and see its old oak trees, thick hedgerows, gentle rivers and blue cows.

Yes, blue cows. Because Lud is next to Fairyland, and in Fairyland all the cows are blue, and over hundreds and hundreds of years there's been quite a lot of interbreeding of livestock - the result being blue cows in Lud. Even though everything from Fairyland is taboo in modern Lud, fairy influences have crept into its everyday life- people swear with fairy swearwords, for example, and sing fairy folksongs, without really being aware of what they're doing. It's all so brilliantly imagined and beautifully described (it looked absolutely lovely in my head) that the world of Lud jumps into life right off the page at you and hangs around in your head long after you've finished reading.

I do think the real virtue of Lud-in-the-Mist is Mirrlees's imagination. It's got a sweet but slightly inconsequential plot that's somewhat oddly resolved, and it does sometimes suffer from over-quaintness of metaphor. But her idea is so bloody great that I forgive her all of her small failures of execution. It's absolutely outstanding fantasy, and it deserves to be on top ten lists everywhere.

You know I liked a book if I recommend it to people, and so far I've told five friends about Lud-in-the-Mist and successfully lent it to one. Which I'm now regretting, because I want it back. It's that rare mix of incredibly comfortable and oddly upsetting, and I think I need to read it again.

Or maybe twice more.

4 stars.