Wednesday, March 31, 2010

End of March bookpile

Today two more books were added to my bookpile thanks to my hardworking, wet and slightly bedraggled postman: Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines and Getting the Picture by Sarah Salway. So my latest TBR pile looks like this:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell;
The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations by John Haywood;
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations by Arthur Cotterell;
American Silk 1830-1930 by Jacqueline Field, Marjorie Senechal and Madelyn Shaw;
The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories edited by Malcolm Bradbury;
Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido;
The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant;
Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines and
Getting the Picture by Sarah Salway.

Outside the wind is driving a selection of hailstones and sleety rain around the house so it is, very happily, quite excellent reading weather.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The River Li (1)

First, I will tell how the river changed. How it turned from sluggish lake

with shallow bed, to something more constrained and deeper. I shall tell too of riversides

that, almost at once, became scattered with small peaks. Like something spilled, like sand piling up

in the bottom bulb of a ancient clock. And then there was the sound of pebbles

beneath. How they ground into more sand beneath the hull, how the engines roared and laboured, how the guide declared he'd never known the water to be so shallow, how he worried for my flight.

The sun retreated. Distant hills turned shades of blue and grey

rose up and became the shapes of gods, magical animals and frozen people as obvious as constellations of stars.

I dreamt then of an upturning; of a sand-peak becoming a sand-sea, and an emperor displaced

with another, and another, and another. And the land, it just stood for a while and waited - as immutable as his warriors of fired clay.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Salon: BBC National Short Story Award 2009

Having finished going through my proofs (yeay!), I have just finished reading last year's BBC National Short story award shortlist. I like these little books - just the right size to carry around, and a highly satisfying reading experience too.

Naomi Alderman's was a comic anecdotal tale about a Jewish man who becomes obsessed with an idol; Kate Clanchy's was a very unusual and thought-provoking story about a child undergoing life-saving medical treatment; Sara Maitland's was about the meeting of a moss-witch and a scientist (original and also rather haunting); Jane Roger's was about a woman with dementia, somehow making the woman's actions plausible and entirely logical (I really loved this one - particularly the way it drew me in) and Lionel Shriver's was another comic tale, again about a child and a parent, and managed to do that rare thing - make me laugh out loud as I read.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Weekend reading...

will be mostly my proofs.

Deadly Companions by Dorothy H Crawford

I've just finished reading Deadly Companions by Dorothy H. Crawford - a book I have been hankering after for some time (after reading this author's The Invisible Enemy (about viruses) which was also fascinating).

One thing I love about books like these is that they are packed with little nuggets of information. Here are a few that I've learnt:

Chloroplasts and mitochondria are the result of cyanobacteria (which had developed the ability to convert sunlight into energy) and alphaproteobacteria (which had developed the ability to use the side-product oxygen yielded from all this photosynthesis) being incorporated into the cells of other bacteria.

Many bacteria contain plasmids which can be transferred during something called conjugation when a filament called a sex philus passes the plasmid from one bacteria to another. These can contain information favourable to the survival of the bacteria.

Viruses that attack bacteria are called phages and these sometime set up long-term symbiotic relationships with the bacteria. These are responsible for the toxins in diphtheria and cholera bacterial infections.

We each house 10 to the 14 microbes weighing 1kg and these outnumber our body cells 10 to 1. Some of them help us digest food and aid immunity or help kill off other more virulent microbes. They become harmful when they go where they shouldn't e.g. during surgery.

During the AIDS epidemic among gay men in the 1980s there was a super-spreader, who was thought to be an airline steward who spread the virus around the cities of the world with 40 sexual contacts per city.

During each epidemic there are silent infections - people who exhibit no symptoms but are infectious. The proportion varies.

All diseases become less virulent over time.

Chicken pox, herpes, cold sores, shingles are all related and are probably ancient inherited from ape-like ancestors. They rarely kill but spend most of the life-time of the host well buried and away from the immune system only coming out occasionally causing pustules and sores filled with viruses. If they didn't behave like this they would have annihilated the small hunter-gatherer groups where they originated.

Those are just a few facts, and there are lots, lots more. Dorothy H. Crawford outlines the history of mankind, taking in all the common infectious diseases - their action and effect on the body, where they are though to have come from and then, most interestingly, the effect these outbreaks had on human history. She spends one chapter on Ireland and the diseases that occurred in the wake of the potato famine, before going on to look at more recent emerging diseases and what might happen in the future.

The book is very well-written and utterly absorbing and I recommend. (And if you're wondering about the outfit on the cover it is the outfit used by physicians to ward off the plague as they did their rounds. The beak was supposed to hold aromatic herbs... It didn't work.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Deja Vue (again)

In the dentist's waiting room I picked up the interesting Women's Magazine 'Psychologies'. In it was a full-page advert for a book 'Leaving the World' by Douglas Kennedy:

It looked strangely familiar...

Obviously someone has come along while she was sitting there looking at her reflection in the water and thoughtfully left a cup of tea...and done a spot of weeding. And she was too absorbed to notice - vain little madam.

It is an evocative picture, but given that there are so many photographs in the world it is strange to me that publishers should so often choose the same one.

SEEING FURTHER (edited by Bill Bryson) on Bookmunch

My review of the book SEEING FURTHER is now on the brilliant website Bookmunch here (I liked it).

For another (excellent) take on this book see SomeBeans blog here and here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Salon: Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido and the BBC National Short Story Collection 2008.

I have been indulging myself a little this weekend and reading a little fiction for a change.

First I read the short-listed short stories from the BBC competition 2008 and thought this the strongest collection of the competitions so far (though I haven't read 2009's yet). Richard Beard's was cleverly-written in the second person, and gave advice to an adulterous politician. Jane Gardam's was about some retired judges, and was sharp and funny. Erin Soros's was about a child during the second world war in America and was tense and incredibly well structured with a great ending. I liked this one the best. Adam Thorpe's also had an excellent structure and also revolved around an incident during the second world war. This too was very well done. Clare Wigfall's was the one that won the competition. It was in the voice of a poorly educated woman from a Scottish island and had a surprising and memorably-sad ending.

I have also read Barbara Trepido's Brother of the More Famous Jack. It's a long time since I read a book like this and I thoroughly enjoyed it, in fact I could barely tear myself away. Just as she is about to begin at university Katherine is introduced to the Goldman family by a friend. They are energetic, extremely liberal and unconventional (and I would have found them exhausting). She becomes infatuated with the eldest son, Roger, but is also enthralled with the father, Jacob, and the mother, Jane. Her life is glamorously bohemian and strongly evocative of the seventies. It made me realise how much has changed. I've now ordered another of Barbara Trapido's books just in case I think I need to indulge myself again next weekend.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Guilin is almost sub-tropical, with lush palm trees. Dusk passes quickly.

For instance, at 17.50 I saw this hill in daylight.

A few minutes later I passed these bronze galloping horses by the river.

But by 18.30 it was like this.

Somehow, in the middle of this, I managed to become lost. Road signs ceased making sense and I walked round and round in circles. For some time I wondered what to do, but then luckily came upon a taxi rank, and the driver understood when I told him the name of my hotel.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Solitary Beauty Peak

The ancient Jingjiang Princely Mansion in Guilin is surrounded by a rectangular wall, which for a frustrating time I followed before

encountering, at last, the 'South Heavenly Gate'

and then an equally heavenly path

and celestial steps

and heavy great doors in yellow walls, opened for me by quietly jovial guards

leading to a museum with an incomprehensible display and a theatre where I eavesdropped on a raucous dress-rehearsal

until, at last, Solitary Beauty Peak, over 150 metres high.

Beneath there are caves where, 1,500 years, during the Southern Dynasty, a poet called Yan Yanzhi used to read and compose his poetry

and having climbed the 396 steep steps

I encountered the Mountain Spirit Temple with brashly-painted deities, incense and worshippers (and therefore seemed intrusive to photograph) and animal spirits.

From the top can be seen all the other peaks which circle 'like past feudal officials worshiping their monarch', and in the Ming dynasty, only Jingjiang seigniors could climb this royal hill,

but today, in China, there is no aristocracy (at least of the conventional kind), and the Princely Mansions is now the home of the Guangxi Normal College, which trains teachers, and so, after 2pm I can join the comrades to look out and wonder at all the houses, all the people, and the way we cover everything that can be covered with our concrete, and then our gardens, as if in guilt,

and then, inspired and overawed by the enormity of it all concentrate instead on the single yard I can see

with its weekly wash, and the woman on a balcony with a bucket, and know that even though our lives will never touch, at this moment she occupies my thoughts completely.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Cover

Simon Hicks, the designer at Seren, has just sent me my newly revised cover - and I think it wonderful.

There was a little bit of detective work finding the artist which involved twitter and contacting the owner of the website, but eventually contact was made and it turns out to be Elisabet d'Epenoux, who is based in Florida. I am delighted she has agreed to have her beautiful oil painting on the cover of my book. It evokes Patagonia so well, and also emphasises the ironic title.

Also, Seren have managed to procure extra funding from the Arts Council so that they can produce some uncorrected bound proofs. In a big publishing house these are produced as a matter of course, but with a small press this feels like a big privilege. Thank you Welsh Arts Council!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guilin Turning Point

Onwards through Guilin then, on concrete footbridges

decorated with frogs that looked poised to be kissed into princes

and a spectacular pair of towering pagodas guarding the entrance of either river or lake

that came together

and parted again, a perfect transfer of themselves.

And once then, I came across a girl: bedraggled and barefoot who rooted unashamedly in bins, and then a small plump boy with spectacles and a Harry Potter T-shirt, even here. It was then, maybe, at that moment that my life changed. I turned a corner and encountered this:

a dead end filled with parked motor bikes and ending in a wall. I knew then that what I loved the most: the idea of walls, and dragons, and strange tall castles and the fantasies of small boys and larger ones (and girls), and I knew then that I wouldn't write a book on silk that no one much wanted, but a book on a quest for something strange and maybe wonderful.

What A Feeling...

( performed by the shy and retiring Mr. Robert Webb)

Elephant Cave Park, Guilin (part 1)

I had a small map and a free afternoon. Some of the roads were marked in Pinyin, and some were not, some were just lines, and some were not there at all. I walked towards the river and crossed a bridge, and for a short while stood and watched while someone burnt something on the beach

and then someone else extend a patch of bank she'd claimed, carefully tilling the soil, surprisingly black and apparently fertile

and I remember too an old woman seriously and slowly working out on some adult-sized pieces of gym kit, arranged on a small playground.

Then into a park that led to a hill

and steps

and an old pagoda

with a view over the river Li and part of the 'small town' of Guilin

and a cave.

Then down again, not really believing I was there

past a series of cafe tables with an overbearing shelter,

a shrine to one god

and then another

and another

a summerhouse (or maybe small pagoda)

until, at last, the elephant cave, a trunk sweeping floor, bewitched into stillness.