Friday fun for the start of the academic year

Forgive my absence for the last 10 days – there’s been the mother of all end of summer essay crisis (two essays due on the first day of term no less) plus a staff retreat in the middle of nowhere, so I feel I have a justifiable excuse. Fear not though, I have been keeping track of some fun tidbits to amuse you upon this autumnal Friday…

For starters, something that seems apt for the beginning of a new academic year – the 10 worst book covers in the history of literature. This was winning for me…

…until I saw this one:
I want that jumper on the left. That’ll make me cool, right?

Continuing the retro/educational theme, in the week that sees the arrival of iPhone5, it seems an appropriate moment for 20 misty memories of personal computing. Beginning with the dial-up noise (oh, how many memories that sound brings back!), continuing with the whirr of a floppy disc loading, and picking up the original Sim City and construction clip-art along the way, this is a great way to feel really old before your time. 
Retro and yet modern is the fantastic result of what happened when someone took a disposable camera to the Paralympics. In case you were wondering what London 2012 might have looked like in 1992, look no further than this delightful blogpost. [Incidentally, that entire blog is delightful – if you have a thing for quirky photography, you’ll love it.] 

Finally, two videos that are perfectly suited to Friday Fun – because where would Friday Fun be without cats on the internet and musical flashmobs? 
Firstly, Zadok the Priest spontaneously performed in a supermarket (in honour of Classic FM’s 20th birthday – did you realise that station was so young??). Make sure you look out for the reaction when the singing comes in, simply awesome. [Thanks Anne for the tip off!]
Secondly, from the sublime to the ridiculous – what happened when a cat had to have medicine and its owner felt guilty. (Aka, how to amuse a cat with 40+ boxes…)
May you now have all you need to face your Friday with glee.

A night amongst stars and books

“On the banks of the Thames, on Shakespeare’s birthday, World Book Night at Southbank Centre presents a glorious array of writers reading from their own work, their favourite novels by classic authors and Shakespeare’s work.”

So read the introduction to an event I had turned up at with only the haziest of ideas of what to expect. (This is what happens when you accept last minute invites to things via Twitter…) I knew about World Book Night – it had launched last year in a very cold Trafalgar Square – and I knew about the books that were being given away all over the country by ‘Givers’. But did I realise that I’d be spending the evening in the same room as some of the country’s most notable authors – including David Nicholls, Iain Banks, Martina Cole, Andrea Levy & Mark Haddon? No.

The evening got off to a fairly good start when I spotted one of the free books on a cafe table, enabling Jo to acquire The Road by Cormac McCarthy before things had even got going. [Incidentally, she’s had 10 copies of The Book Thief to give away, you may be in luck if you head to Marylebone…] Things got even better when we noted the following sentence on the programme:
“Following part one, collect your free cocktail, give books and join us for part two of the evening.”
Seriously? Free books, free booze AND famous authors? That’s almost a perfect evening!

The concept was a fairly simple one – over a couple of hours, authors, actors and poets shared extracts aloud. They shared just enough to whet the audience’s appetites, but not to satisfy. We had a glimpse into another world and having been sucked in, it vanished. For three minutes I lived in the fear of Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead; the dream world of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle; and the hilarity of family life in the Ronson household.

You know how much I enjoy being read to, so imagine just how much I enjoyed being read to by the books’ authors! There’s just something about an author reading their own words with the voices they’ve given their characters. Listening to Andrea Levy read Gilbert’s first moments back in England (from Small Island) was fabulous – she transformed herself into a Jamaican man in 1940’s London with just her voice.

Oh, and it wasn’t all serious highbrow stuff. Any pretence at pretension was shattered when Kathy Lette greeted the audience with the words:
“Good evening members of the literati…and the cliterati, as there are so many women here!”

This year’s WBN list includes many of my all-time favourite books – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Rebecca, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Notes from a Small Island – but after hearing extracts from some of the others, my To Be Read list has just got a lot longer. Plus, there are some that clearly need re-visiting (I have a sneaky suspicion that I never actually finished Small Island – shocking). Take it from me, you might want to investigate the following:
Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham (Or watch the recent Sky1 series.)
How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
The Red House – Mark Haddon (It’s not been published yet, this was its first public reading.)
Honour – Elif Shafak

All this bibliophilic fun makes me even more despondent about my lack of fiction-reading time. Ach well…it’s not like the books won’t be around forever.

How to be a woman

You may remember that in the autumn I went on a bit of a feminist rant. Having never used the label, my new life as an ordinand in a church which is still divided over women in leadership, it’s now a word and state of mind I have to inhabit. [That post has also become a major issue of contention between a male friend and I – in fact, we had an argument about it while in Paris. I will take this opportunity to apologise for unintentionally labelling him a misogynist. He is not. He’s just a bit of a patronising git sometimes…]

Prior to returning to the French building site, I’d had a bit of a chat with a friend from last year’s trip who had shared some of my ill-feeling about such behaviour. [At this point I feel I’m having a can open – worms everywhere moment with that aforementioned male friend… Ooops.] We got onto the subject of girl power and feminism, which ended with her own mantra for life as a woman:
“Live and let live and don’t get breast implants”
The conversation also included an enthusiastic recommendation of a book that had been languishing on my wishlist for quite some time – Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman.

Serendipitously, it was on offer at WH Smith the following morning, so I snapped it up as ideal holiday reading. It was begun with glee on the Eurostar to Paris and was immediately engrossing. As described on its back cover, it’s part memoir, part rant and that’s a combination which was always going to go down well with me. In the back of the car en route to the Limousin, it amused me so much that passages had to be read aloud to the female friend I was sharing the back seat with – but in hushed tones, not wanting the men in the front to hear. After all, how would they respond to this explanation of how to work out if you’re a feminist:
“Put your hand in your pants.

(a) Do you have a vagina and
(b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist!”

Holiday perfection, right there.

The following day, another friend arrived bearing a copy and we rejoiced at how much we were learning and how ridiculous parts of it were. I was able to question whether she had been shocked/mystified by some of Moran’s revelations – was I the only woman not to have named parts of her anatomy? [No.] Did she agree with the plentiful use of the C word? [No. And I have written about my views on the subject here.] Had she ever gone commando? [No.] The women gathered and discussed feminism in serious and non-serious measures. A Texan builder picked up a copy, read a chapter, and had his eyes opened considerably.

Most amusingly of all, the book helped me overcome some of my more prudish tendencies. As I mentioned when extolling the virtues of Ackroyd’s London Under, we spent an evening alternating between it and Moran’s book – the latter providing some light relief from deaths via cess pits. I read aloud most of a chapter relating to underwear – which culminated in an excellent passage about the trials and tribulations of bra wearing (a subject that’s very close to my heart…). Moran has a manifesto against society’s passion for tiny pants which includes the following hilarious anecdote, which couldn’t really be left out:
“I was on a crowded tube with a friend of mine, who gradually grew paler and quieter until she finally leaned forward, and admitted that her knickers were so skimpy, her front bottom had eaten them entirely. ‘I’m currently wearing them on my clit – like a little hat,’ she said.”

I wasn’t sure I could read it out loud. I’m a trainee vicar. There were near-strangers in the room. Heck, there was a man in the room! But I took a deep breath and read on as if I said such things on a daily basis. [Interestingly, when any of us happened to get to the other C word, we always referred to it as ‘the C word’. Our sensibilities were not to be undone to that extent.]

I don’t agree with everything Moran writes, but it is written in such a way that you understand why she’s done, said and thought what she has. The chapter on her abortion was painful reading – but it is an admirable thing to have written about it in the first place. It isn’t a feminist manifesto in The Female Enuch sense, but it is a logical, coherent (and hilarious) text that illustrates just how ridiculous society’s attitude towards women – and women’s attitude to themselves – can be.

The joy of story-telling

In adulthood, I appear to have subscribed to my parents’ ethos of retreating to ye olde worlde past times when on holiday. No TV and limited internet access means that books, cards and the company of good friends is all the entertainment you need.

One of our number was given a gift by our Texan chef of Peter Ackroyd’s London Under – a book that’s been on my wishlist in anticipation of its imminent paperback release. There are just two things you need to know about it:
(i) It’s by one of modernity’s best biographers and story-tellers. [See his biographies of, amongst others, Dickens, T.S. Eliot & Blake and his many volumes relating in some way to London.]
(ii) It’s about what has taken place beneath the streets of London – which obviously includes the tube…

So many of us were intrigued by the book that we ended up listening to it being read aloud – beginning an evening of sharing it and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (more – much more – on this in another post). Over the next few days, in rainstorms and quiet pre-dinner lulls, more was shared. Unsurprisingly, I was entranced. Even the chapter about the foul Fleet River (in which people drowned in their own excrement) was fascinating – partly thanks to my realisation that it ran along the street on which I live. There’s also something captivating about listening to descriptions of familiar places that you can visualise, while sat in the French countryside hundreds of miles away from the dirt of London. But most intriguing of all were the stories of The Underground and its construction. It cheered the soul of this TfL geek immensely.

I highly recommend it – well, both the book and story-telling generally. The book’s a corker and a must for all London fans and TfL geeks, the lost art of reading aloud to others deserves to be rekindled. It’s a lovely way to pass the time, and enables everyone to be on the same page simultaneously. I’d brought the aforementioned How to be a Woman with me, as had another friend – but we were always on different chapters. It lent itself to sharing aloud, mostly because when read to oneself, spontaneous giggling alerted others to its amusing content – it became a form of light relief after some of the darker elements of Ackroyd’s work.

To whet your appetite for the book, here’s a taster from one of those pre-dinner lulls. I know the audience looks bored rigid, but trust me, that’s actually entrancement on their faces – it’s just masked by sheer exhaustion from the end of a long day on site. They really are captivated by the dulcet tones of a reformed Brummie. Honest.

Bookish Friday Fun

The bibliophilic fun continues…

First up, a semi-practical piece of fun for those of a travelling nature. Many of you may have seen the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world when it did the Twitter/Facebook rounds a month or so ago, but it’s something that’s worth coming back to – after all, you never know when you might need to know where the most beautiful bookshops are in China…

That’s the Bookworm bookshop in Beijing.

I was actually disappointed at how few of the 20 I’d been to (one – the British and fabulous Barter Books in Alnwick), but it gives me a good bucket list, which can now be added to thanks to this week’s publication of a further 20 recommendations. Happily, this one includes one of Hay on Wye’s gems and my personal favourite – Daunt’s Books in Marylebone (home to many a lunchtime stroking of pretty books). It also, fascinatingly, includes a branch of Waterstones, a chain of which I do not approve – but from the photographic evidence it seems that their store in Bradford’s Wool Exchange is rather delightful. The Guardian also did a response to the original 20, in which readers could suggest their favourites, which is well worth a browse.
One of my favourite secondhand bookshops in London (ok, possibly the country, perhaps the world…) is Ripping Yarns in Highgate. A member of staff there is the author of oft-mentioned Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (soon to be published as an actual book) and has recently begun a series on her blog of interviews with owners of bookshops about their origins. It begins, predictably, with the owner of Ripping Yarns which will definitely be of interest to the three people I know read this who have been there, but I promise it’s a diverting read for all.
In second hand bookshops you can find many a comic gem – like this book, a photo of which was texted to me the other day with the words: “Now you’re not a nerd but for some reason I thought you’d appreciate this. If nothing else it should really make you laugh!!” Laugh I did – and God bless Katie for saying that I’m not a nerd. 
On reflection, that doesn’t look second-hand! Go out and buy it now! 

That book reminded me of a blog I shared here ages and ages ago that’s probably worth a re-share. Awful Library Books does exactly what the title suggests – it shares awful books still found on library shelves. As you might expect they’re varied and ridiculous, from out of date health manuals, to truly special children’s books. The author has a justified sense of outrage with some of them – those that are held at multiple libraries across the US (the librarians can check these things), despite being woefully outdated. It’s well worth a trip into its archives if your Friday’s shaping up to be dull and dismal… 

And with that, I’d love to say that I’m off to spend my day off curled up with a good book, but no. It’s me and The Art of Biblical Narrative again. Fun times.