The Poetry of Les Murray

Les Murray, sometimes of this parish, features in this week’s New Yorker in a review article by Dan Chiasson. Chiasson picks up on Murray’s rage, which he thinks is the key to the poet’s work and is “what makes him so exasperating to read one minute and thrilling the next.” I get the feeling that Chiasson doesn’t quite know what to do with Murray, or where to put him. Murray’s range and “bluntness” can certainly be offputting. As Chiasson says “You need to be a little bit of a lunatic to bear the specific, outsized grudges Murray has borne through his sixties …”; he thinks Murray is “a cartoon hick in an overplayed idiom.” But there is admiration too, especially for the “new Murray” Chiasson detects in more recent poems:

… like all mature poets, Murray knows and represents his own imaginative limitations, his best poems show empathy lagging a little behind the imagination. The thrill of reading Murray is seeing how the heart that feels will catch up with the eye that sees.

Here’s the link to the article.

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Underground Books

One theory about how to get people reading is that if you put books in front of them they will read. The London Book Project aims to do just that by distributing thousands of second hand books on the London Underground. The idea is that anyone who finds a book takes it home and reads it, but also that readers register their finds with Book Crossing and when they’ve finished reading, leave them on the Tube for someone else to pick up. From the London Book Project website:

The London Book Project is a free book exchange on a massive scale. Using the London Underground as a high speed distribution network, we aim to bring real literature to London’s commuters. Scrap the freesheets – read a free book instead!

Over the next two weeks we’ll be distributing thousands of second hand books across the tube and we want YOU to get involved. If you see one of our books, please pick it up! Then read it and replace with any book of your choice. Let’s make the tube a giant, free library!

It’s not just London. You can add books to the Book Crossing database and leave them wherever you like. Merseyrail here I come.

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Getting into Reading in Runcorn

Helen Tookey

On Saturday The Reader ran a readers’ day at the fantastic Brindley theatre and arts centre in Runcorn, an award-winning venue overlooking the restored canal. As one of the organisers, I spent most of the day behind an information desk rather than getting to participate – but from what I could see, everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the day. Things kicked off with a panel discussion about life-changing books, followed by workshops on a range of great books from Dickens’ Bleak House and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island. The whole day was designed to be as accessible as possible to a wide range of people, not just experienced readers of ‘difficult’ literature, and it was good to hear people making comments such as ‘I haven’t read Bleak House, but I really want to give it a go now!’. At lunchtime, the bookstall, provided by local family-run Curiosity Books, was doing a brisk trade, and former Cheshire poet laureate Andrew Rudd gave a reading from his new collection. Highlights of the day were a personal and thought-provoking talk by Stuart Murray on books, autism, and the ways in which we think about and write about ‘disability’; and a reading by award-winning poet Moniza Alvi. Crossing boundaries between reality and surreality, between the comic and the poignant, and between Moniza’s two heritages and ‘homes’, England and Pakistan, the reading was an inspiring way to end the day. Our next readers’ day is in Liverpool on July 7th and also promises to be a great day for all keen readers, so if you live nearby, why not come along? For details and booking form, go to the home page of The Reader magazine.

Getting the Nation Reading

by Katie Peters

At The Reader we were excited to hear that 2008 is to be a national year of reading. In a week in which there have been calls for television to be rationed for children, it is encouraging to see the government taking steps to give a higher profile to reading for pleasure.

During the previous ‘year of reading’, ten years ago, teachers, school librarians and governors organised thousands of reading events in schools, including author visits, book festivals and reading clubs. The initiative, however, aims to bring the wonderful world of books not just to schoolchildren but to everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, from avid readers to those who are less enthusiastic. A big part of this is encouraging families to spend time reading together, as Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education, points out:

One of the most important things a parent can do to boost the educational chances of their children is to read to them. Simple, yes – but in a busy world it doesn’t happen enough. 30 per cent of parents don’t read regularly with their young children – a vital but missed opportunity to boost their children’s development. We watch an average of four hours’ television a day. If we read to our children for just a tenth of this every day, we’d give their chances a massive boost.

Many of us remember the joy of being read to as a child, but with channels such as CBeebies dedicated to young children available throughout the day, is the classic ‘bedtime story’ being replaced with half an hour in front of Teletubbies?

At The Reader we are working to promote reading for pleasure. Project worker Kerry Hughes has been working as ‘Reader in Residence’ at Weatherhead High School since September, reading to and with students. Another group that she works with at St James’ Library in Birkenhead have begun their own parents’ reading group at the school their children attend. During term time parents meet to read books and poems together. They share the reading aloud and discuss their difficulties and enthusiasms. Reading has become so important to the group that during school holidays they have organised sessions in which they read together with their children. These have been a huge success. Kerry says of the group,

Initially, the women lacked confidence in reading and were reticent when it came to expressing an opinion. For a year we have read together, struggling together over difficult poems and challenging texts and the group has bonded and strengthened. Confidence has soared; one of the women is now working as a librarian at her son’s school, another is just about to start A-Levels and two have set up a reading group for parents at their children’s school.

The prospect of a whole year dedicated to getting the nation excited about reading is wonderful, but in reality, it is a daunting task. The year will have to be as much about changing attitudes as it is about getting books into hands. Jane Davis, director of The Reader, comments:

The power of the story or poem is not just for children. Our Get Into Reading project is offering a model, which I hope will be taken up nationally, of inclusive and intense reading experiences for people of all ages, abilities and educational backgrounds. Read-aloud reading groups can help create community.

When I think about the reaction in the eyes of the 93-year-old dementia patient on hearing the old familiar words of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ read out to her last week, I join Alan Johnson in hoping that the national year of reading ‘will bring about another step-change in attitudes to reading for purpose and pleasure’, and look forward with anticipation to the effects that this change of attitude could have.

Going for Gold

by Katie Peters

The organisers of the Carnegie gold medal for children’s writing yesterday, librarians’ institute CILIP, last week issued a provisional list of their top ten favourite titles compiled from all the books that have won the medal since 1936. Established by The Library Association in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the medal is awarded to an outstanding book for children and young adult readers. Carnegie was a self-made industrialist who made his fortune in steel in the USA. His experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve that ‘if ever wealth came to me it should be used to establish free libraries’.

The winner of the award receives a gold medal and £500-worth of books to donate to a public or school library. The provisional list is as follows:
 

Skellig David Almond (1998)

Junk Melvin Burgess (1996)

Storm Kevin Crossley-Holland (1985)

A Gathering Light Jennifer Donnelly (2003)

The Owl Service Alan Garner (1967)

The Family From One End Street Eve Garnett (1937)

The Borrowers Mary Norton (1952)

Tom’s Midnight Garden Philippa Pearce (1958)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman (1995)

The Machine-Gunners Robert Westall (1981)

If you were to write a personal list of your favourite books from childhood what would it look like? We’d love to hear your thoughts. E-mail us at readers@liv.ac.uk  and we will publish results next month. To get you started, here are a few of our favourites from The Reader office…

Charlotte’s Web by Elwyn Brooks

Five Go to Mystery Moor by Enid Blyton

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit
Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp

The Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

The Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

The Magic Roundabout stories by Eric Thompson

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne… we could go on for ever.

 

The short-listed books for this year’s Carnegie award are:
The Road of the Dead, by Kevin Brooks; A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd; The Road of Bones, by Anne Fine; Beast, by Ally Kennen; Just in Case, by Meg Rosoff; and My Swordhand is Singing, by Marcus Sedgewick.

Alternative Worlds

Reader volunteer Emily Dixon reflects on what she gets from reading

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of reading comes from being able to share my thoughts and feelings about a novel with those around me. Though it doesn’t generally stop me talking if my audience isn’t interested (I’m always hopeful of converting a non-reader to the magical world of books – at least, that’s my excuse!), I’m especially delighted when my chosen subject has either read the book and wants to discuss it, or is inspired to go on to read and (hopefully) enjoy it.

Of course, this enthusiasm is also generated when the roles are reversed and people recommend novels to me. So I was especially pleased to receive a big bag of books from my mum a few months ago, and then again at Christmas. (Second-hand bookshops are doing well out of the Dixons at the moment!) During my MA year I’d always felt slightly guilty for picking up a novel that was non-Victorian, a little as though if I was going to ‘waste’ all that time reading, I should at least be choosing something relevant to my area of work. So, it became common practice for my mum to tell me about an amazing book she’d read/was reading/had heard about and for me to hope she’d remember the title so I could catch up later.

Upon finishing my MA I couldn’t wait to get started on my ‘to read’ list, but when it came to it, I seemed to have lost the passion for all things contemporary, whilst anything Victorian felt too heavy, too much like work for my tired brain. For a while, I stopped reading in any meaningful sense of the word, starting a variety of books but never getting more than a few chapters in and never experiencing that almost overwhelming need to keep on reading a book that you’ve got so caught up in you can’t concentrate on anything else.

It was only when my mum lent me Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards that I was again able to escape into that alternative world that good books create. Not specifically the world of the story – Masters’ tale is all too real – but the world of reading itself, the world where, for a while at least, only the words on the page seem important. For me, the escapism part of reading belongs to the act itself; the images that this act creates are not simply an alternative reality in which to get lost, but importantly form a world that, though separate, belongs to our own, and reflects back onto it. This is a world that can be powerful enough to make us think about ourselves as individuals, affecting our emotions, but in doing so, also making us question the feelings themselves, where they have come from, and to whom they (should) belong.

To finish with, here are some of my mum’s other recommendations (old books and new). I’m sure you won’t be disappointed – I wasn’t!

Pincher Martin by William Golding, Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Diving-Bell and The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson.

By Emily Dixon

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Recommended Reads for World Book Day

Angela Macmillan recommends Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

I always hum and hah whenever someone asks me to name my favourite book. The simple answer is that I don’t have just one. I have rehearsed my reply first to Roy Plumley, then Sue Lawley and now Kirsty Wark, and like my desert island record choices, my book choice has not stayed constant. One thing, however, is certain. It must be a nineteenth-century novel. George Eliot or Dickens or Mrs Gaskell? It is not a question of preferring one to another. I need them all and not just one of their books but all of them. But I am being asked for one book, so under duress, I have selected Bleak House. Of all Dickens’ novels, this one seems to me to be the most satisfying and I urge everyone to read it not just once but at least twice.

Once the mysteries of the plot are discovered and the outcome revealed, one can begin, in the second reading, to see something of the complexity of the overall design and of the parts that make up the whole. Fitting these parts together or separating them becomes completely fascinating. It is like looking into Dickens’ mind. In terms of the novel’s form, it has a neat beginning and end, but in terms of Dickens’ idea or vision, the whole concept becomes much bigger. The strength of the book is that it is just that – a whole concept. Dickens lends his point of view to Inspector Bucket: ‘There he mounts a high tower in his mind, and looks out’ (Ch. 56).

Connections form the framework of Bleak House. Dickens demands that we look for and make connections and having found them that we look again, for this will not be the end:

What connection can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had the distant ray of light upon him when he swept up the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between the many people of the innumerable histories of this world, who, from the opposite sides of the great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! (Ch. 16).

Two questions here: the first asks us to look into the mysteries of the plot, the second demands that we look into the mysteries of life itself. But the one is connected to the other. It is as if Dickens draws a ring around his world and inside ‘everything’ leads to something else: ‘And thus, through years and years and lives and lives, everything goes on, constantly beginning over and over again, and nothing ever ends.’ (Ch. eight)

It is not easy to get at what lies at the heart of the novel because each time you pick up a thread, you are not sure whether it is taking you back to the beginning or on to the end. But what you finally discover is that there is no such distinction. Everything takes you deeper in to the heart of the individual characters even though, intriguingly, they are not always at the heart of their own selves. A second reading of this demanding book about the terrible failure of individual and collective responsibility will not allow you a fictional escape but rather a confrontation with reality.

Marion Leibl recommends Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Of all the books that I have read and that have stayed in my memory, Catch-22 is probably the one that is most present still. Joseph Heller’s story about the very reluctant air force captain Yossarian, who clearly perceives that anybody who sends him to places where people shoot at him obviously wants to kill him, is unsentimental, vulgar in parts and honest. Yossarian’s only aim is to escape, but he is trapped by catch-22, the rule that in order to be excused from flying one has to be certified insane, but ‘a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind’, and so the wish not to go on fighting means that he has to go on because of it.

Yossarian’s daily experience is the surreal normality of war, and the irreverence with which he insists on pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes and that war has no pathos comes back to me as a reassuring counterweight, at times, in the reporting of current wars. Heller’s characters, some of whose names mercilessly reflect how he sees them (Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Chief White Halfoat) are stereotypical and therefore clearly recognisable in civilian surroundings as they are in the military setting of the story. Although inextricably linked with the insanities of war, Catch-22, I believe, goes further than that. It instils encouragement for looking at the world around with one’s own eyes, for reaching one’s own conclusions, and for holding one’s own life dearer than any ideologies.

Helen Tookey recommends Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, and the poetry of Edward Thomas.

I don’t think I could nominate just one book as my all-time favourite, because different books feel essential to different states of mind or different times of life. One of my favourite books is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: I love its sweep, its extremes, its language (or perhaps languages), its comedy and its tragedy. Another of my favourite books is Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: a children’s book (about a girl who travels back in time from the 1950s to 1918 and finds herself trapped there) which I first read when I was about nine or ten and which can still move me to tears. At the moment, perhaps my favourite writer is one I’m still in the process of discovering: the poet Edward Thomas, who died at Arras in 1917. Thomas spent most of his life working as a hack writer to support his family, and only began to write poetry, encouraged by Robert Frost, two years before his death. I love his poems for their honesty, the sense they convey of someone always fully engaged with what seemed to him to matter most–the beauty of the natural world, the difficulties of human life and love. His work often seems simple but is at the same time incredibly powerful. I love his poem ‘Words’, in which he invokes ‘you English words’, ‘older far/ Than oldest yew, – / As our hills are, old, – / Worn new / Again and again; / Young as our streams / After rain’. His Collected Poems (which includes his 1917 war diary) is available from Faber.

Katie Peters recommends Middlemarch by George Eliot.

I always hate it when people ask me to name my favourite book. It seems impossible to pick one single story that is by itself enough, and I always find myself shiftily throwing in a few titles as quickly as possible in the hope that no one will pull me up on not choosing one final book.

Having said that, there is one book which always stands out in my mind as the one I keep returning to, that I never tire of and that brings up new things every time I read it. Middlemarch by George Eliot is often proclaimed to be ‘the greatest novel ever written’. With such a description preceding it, it may seem strange to discover that much of the novel’s brilliance is in its concern with life’s disappointments – the heartbreaking comparison between the hopes and ideals we set up for ourselves, and the reality in which these dreams are diminished.

Eliot focuses on the individual stories of friends and acquaintances living in a small provincial English town in the 1830s. One of my favourite characters is Tertius Lydgate–the young doctor who moves to the town with hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research. He is determined to make a difference in the world in which he lives and not to become like those who seem to have given up and taken an easy route, which he finds contemptible:

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little… Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures.

The words ‘once meant’ here seem to hold some foreboding, but I won’t ruin the story for you because this is such a great book that I recommend you read the whole thing yourself.
 

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Facing a Challenge

Mary Weston, a project worker with The Reader organisation’s Get Into Reading project, describes the challenge of her work with young people excluded from school.

I am a Get into Reading project worker, and my job is to facilitate community reading groups. My groups tend to be with ‘difficult to reach’ clients: young people, homeless men, and recovering drug users. I don’t actually find the people I work with difficult; in fact I usually get on with them more naturally than I do with the general public, who scare me.

The most challenging group I have encountered has been the excluded students on the ‘Behaviour Improvement Programme’ at Tranmere Community Project. This is an age group (11–14) I’ve never worked with professionally before. You do encounter a lot of initial resistance: ‘I hate reading’, ‘Reading’s gay’. The composition of the group can change from week to week and ability levels vary. They are mostly boys. I actually find them easier, once you get past the macho posing. Girls tend to be more sophisticated in their resistance, and I suspect girls who reach the point of being excluded are more likely to be seriously disturbed. Some are bright and potentially ‘academic’, others bright but dyslexic, there are anger problems and attention-span problems, some are hungry for attention and some don’t want to know you. I really didn’t have much hope for this group.

Fortunately the ethos at the project is flexible. We agreed that the main aim was to give the young people a positive experience of reading, and that this wouldn’t be helped by forcing students to be there, or by making the sessions too long. I spent time before and after the groups sitting in the snack bar with them, or playing cricket. I learned that the books that worked were those that got moving quickly. As soon as they get hooked into wondering what happens next, a kind of trance descends on the group. It almost frightened me, the first time it happened: ten lads all turned towards me wide-eyed and on the edge of their seats.

The Barrington Stoke (website makes a sound specially to annoy you) series of books for young adults has been a really reliable source of texts. They deploy violence, crime, and other street themes to catch the reader’s interest, and they spring into action from page one. But the dilemmas they treat open up space for emotional and moral reflection; there’s an essential decency about them. I’d recommend them for any reluctant readers.

For the past couple of months I’ve been blessed with a fairly stable core of four or five lads who have come to tolerate and (dare I say it) even enjoy the weekly session. Because the group culture is now for rather than against reading, more aggressively resistant young people can be incorporated into the group without scaring the others off admitting they like it. The session length has stretched up to 45 minutes, and on occasion it has gone over the hour, when they are keen to finish something. Today’s my last day with them before they finish for the summer, and I’m feeling sad about it. Of course I hope they’ll go back to mainstream school and make a success of it next year, but I’ll be sorry not to see them again.

Mary Weston

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