More book stuff:About Looking (John Berger): I bought this in the Tate St Ives bookshop. I’ve always been a firm believer in the need for us all to “learn to see” (ie. we often “look”, but don’t always “see”) and so this book seemed essential reading for me. Berger explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. They’re taken from various articles Berger wrote in the 1960s/70s; some of them remain rather obscure to me (despite Google’s help!), but I read others (eg. those relating to Millet, Lowry, Francis Bacon, Turner and Rodin) with absolute fascination and certainly saw lots of things afresh.
Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds): I’ve been reading more poetry over recent years and opened the book on a whim on one of my pleasurable visits to Foyles bookshop. I was immediately struck by Olds’ writing style and the poignancy of her subject. It’s a book of 49 poems (I counted them!) after her husband of more than 30 years had “left her for another woman”. They’re incredibly honest reflections that extend well beyond “confessional”; they’re full of intimacy and sexual passion. The book was clearly written out of pain and as a way of counselling herself in coming to terms with her new situation. I was left with two overriding thoughts: a) her former husband will probably feel as if he’s being continually stalked and hung out to dry and b) that, surely, 49 poems is a bit excessive and she needs to move on! It is a quite stunning book though.
A Book of Silence (Sara Maitland): After Maitland’s marriage ended in the 1990s, she took to living alone and, around the same time, began a long, growing, and intensely examined relationship with silence. She subsequently restored a tiny, dilapidated former-shepherd’s house into her own home in rural south-west Scotland. She tries to live in as much silence as is possible (which is more difficult than it might sound). It's not complete isolation - although she has no near neighbours, she has the internet and a car - but she is aiming for a prayerful life of "80% silence". It’s a fascinating journey and an honest, reflective and rather beautiful book.
The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Clive James): I absolutely love James’s writing – he has a wonderful, lyrical, snappy way with words; he’s articulate, intelligent and there’s an amazing breadth to his knowledge and interests (from poetry, art, literature and culture to films, music, politics and motor sports). He’s also very funny when he needs to be. This is a book of fairly recent essays. These reminded me, amongst other things, how much I had loved Denis Healey’s autobiography; how he hates poor grammar(!); what a fierce critic he can be when roused and, as morbid as this might sound, I particularly liked his obituaries (“Absent Friends”). According to recent newspaper reports, the irony is that he himself now doesn’t have long to live - he’s “losing his two-year struggle with leukaemia”. I for one will miss him dearly – thank goodness there’s so much of his writing that I’ve still to read.
The Box (Gunter Grass): I found this a very strange book. It’s essentially an autobiographical essay – although the book jacket refers to it as a “daring work of fiction”. Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they recall memories (often contradictory) of their childhoods. “The Box” refers to an old-fashioned Agfa box camera used by Grass’s assistant, Marie (a long-time family friend, perhaps even a lover?), and its snapshots used to provide Grass with for ideas for his work. I found the book confusing, annoying and egoistic (and poorly translated?). Sorry!