Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Reading List 2010

Hello again.

As vaguely promised before, I'm trying to get myself into the writing mood by sharing some thoughts on the books I'm reading this year. I've been plugging away at Defence of the Realm, a twenty tonne diplodocus of a book that is hard to hold upright, yet alone wave around on the upper deck of a crowded bus, so I'm saving that for home reading and have embarked on some other, more flexible, titles.

At the end of last week I finished Geisha of Gion. This is Mineko Iwasaki's riposte to Memoirs of a Geisha. Iwasaki was formerly one of Japan's most successful 20th century geishas, or geiko, in the 60s and 70s and anonymous interviews with her formed much of the basis of Arthur Golden's Memoirs. Unfortunately Golden is apparently a bit of an arse, and subsequently made it clear that Iwasaki had broken the unofficial geisha code of silence, as well as substantially re-writing her experiences to imply that geishas are nothing more than prostitutes and that Iwasaki had herself been forcibly deflowered at a coming of age ceremony - something that simply does not happen in modern-day Japan.

Having not read Memoirs I'm barely qualified to critique it in any way, but the response paints a far more intriguing, almost feminist, picture of a secretive - and threatened - ritualised lifestyle that blows apart notions of prostitution and shows geisha as empowered, intelligent and successful businesswomen. If you read Memoirs, this should be picked up for an alternative viewpoint.

Yesterday I started The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I picked up on a 3 for 2 in Waterstones some months ago and never got around to reading. This is Booker nominated and so far it's very good, pitched as a conversation between a bearded Muslim and an unnamed American in a Lahore cafe, the story is told entirely as a monologue from the Pakistani. In the opening pages of the book, he takes his guest through his experiences as a Princeton scholar and his time as a graduate trainee at a New York finance company up to 9/11.

Hamid has crafted a very well-rounded, sympathetic central character whose speech you can almost hear in your head, which as a reader, is keeping me turning the pages - your experience may vary. As to the identity of his American friend, we are left guessing, but the early implication is that he is an off-duty army officer or intelligence operative. I'm hoping the second half of the book is going to develop in an interesting direction.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Happy New year

Hello, all two of you.

There's lots to get through and lots to plan this year, not least an impending wedding, so at the minute, feeling vaguely energised - which might have something to do with all the coffee I just drank - and basking in the winter sunshine, I'm trying to take the changes that are going to happen during 2010 as a cue to start writing here, and in other places, again. I've been blogging on various platforms since December 2001 and have a pretty thorough record of most of what I got up to between that time and the middle of 2005. It would be nice to keep it going.

I also got given a rather lovely Moleskine notebook by my brother for Christmas - I'm not sure why, he usually gets me a boxset of some kind, but apparently did all his Christmas shopping on a layover at Singapore airport, so that's okay and it really is a lovely gift. I'm going to use it to start writing for my own gratification again.

All this said it looks like it's going to be a pretty momentous year for both of us; we're heading inexorably towards civil partnership and everything that entails. The Boy will start his accountancy training. We'll move to a better flat. It's like the plot of that Tracy Chapman song, in a slightly-but-not-really kind of way.

But what else do people do to keep themselves inspired to continue with this sort of thing. I know a lot of people like to keep their readers updated on their own reading, so ... a reading list? What do I really read that's worth writing about these days? I mostly read non-fiction, but I suppose it might do to keep a tally of the stuff I pick up and - hopefully - make it through this year. Let's give that a go as well.

This year my big Christmas book was Defence of the Realm, Christopher Andrew's authorised biog of MI5. This is a real Billy-bender of a tome and I've not got very far into it yet. I'm still working my way through the early, pre-World War 1 history of the service, which seems to consist of a couple of blokes behind a desk cooking up conspiracy theories about the Kaiser, based mostly on pulp fiction spy novels and with the help of the paranoid Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, who later claimed in a series of wills and testaments that the German government was trying to kill him by poisoning his ice cream.

The mistaken belief that Britain had a viable and all-knowing intelligence service was apparently widely-held on the Continent during the Edwardian age, something that prompted the Germans into setting up services of their own to counter it, an interesting nugget of information, I thought.

Nevertheless, this one looks to be a worthy read and I'm looking forward to it. More thoughts, maybe, as they come.

I've also been reading Steve Roud's excellent reference London Lore which I got last Christmas (meaning, at this point, 2008). It's good for dipping into and out of at leisure. Roud, a folklore researcher and apparently former Local Studies Librarian in Croydon, puts a great deal of work into examining not just the telling of obscure London ghost stories or the histories of fairs and traditions long-forgotten, but also their origins and the layers of telling and re-telling and hearsay that surround local myth and legend.

With these layers stripped away, it becomes quite easy to see how an unconnected series of events could lead to sightings of cowled monks in City churchyards or the belief that x and y could prevent z. Now, the foundations of myth and belief were things we touched upon during my disastrously ill-advised stint as a social anthropologist at university, so they still pique my interest today, even though I think I probably should have done English or something.