PD Smith

Book addiction

08 September 2018 | cities, Detectives, Guardian, Kyoto, Reviewing | Post a comment

Since my last post, the rather sad saga of my addiction to books has continued unabated. I was unable to say no to four new nonfiction books that the Guardian offered me, as well as several paperbacks.

Ground Work: Writings on Places and People, edited by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), is a remarkable collection of specially commissioned work by academics, poets, biographers, artists, naturalists, novelists and historians about the importance of place. “Place-making is a signal of our species”, says Dee: “anywhere can be a somewhere”.

These pieces illustrate how the slow but constant accretion of experiences and sensations turn the way-stations of our humdrum lives – whether in cities, suburbia, or rural – into dense sites of memory and significance. It’s a wonderful mix of scholarship, history and acute observation, touching on themes that are at once intensely personal and universal. There are stand-out essays by Philip Hoare, Mark Cocker and Ken Worpole.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams (No Exit Press, £12.99) is a superb collection of interviews about the making of The Wire, one of my favourite television series.

The sixty episodes of The Wire from 2002 to 2008 were initially largely ignored by critics and award-givers alike. Now the series is widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows ever made. Its creator was the former Baltimore crime journalist David Simon. Together with his co-creator Ed Burns, who had spent twenty years in the Baltimore police, and a team of writers which included the novelists Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos, Simon crafted an immensely powerful series that was characterised by its remarkable realism, its humanity and outstanding writing.

The initial wiretap storyline was based on a 1984 investigation into the drug kingpin Melvin “Little” Williams, led by Burns and covered by Simons in the Baltimore Sun.

Despite its naturalism, none of the dialogue was improvised. According to Wendell Pierce (Detective William “Bunk” Moreland), “they were on us about the words, man. Every piece is important. ‘All the pieces matter’. That was the mantra.”

Complex, novelistic and profoundly moving, in The Wire Simon took the police drama to a whole new level. Essential reading for anyone who loved the series.

Room to Dream, by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (Canongate, £25), features an approach to life writing “that some might find strange”. This hybrid form combines memoir and biography: each of McKenna’s chapters is followed by one by Lynch on the same period, “having a conversation with his own biography”. The result is a remarkable portrait of one of cinema’s great auteurs. And Twin Peaks also happens to be another of my other favourite TV series.

Those who have collaborated with Lynch in front and behind the camera have found the experience immensely rewarding. According to Sissy Spacek: “once people work with David they want to work with him again and get near the flame”.

His surreal and often dark vision of modern American life always offers the possibility of redemption and enlightenment. Lynch is a fervent believer in the power of meditation to change lives and for Robert Forster – who plays Sheriff Frank Truman in Twin Peaks – there is a transcendental quality in his films: “he asks us to find that connection to the eternal in ourselves”.

At times Room to Dream feels a bit like a valedictory Festschrift, but it undoubtedly offers a memorable insight into Lynch’s intense creativity, from his painting and music to furniture designing (“I just don’t see a lot of furniture that thrills my soul”). As McKenna says, “to a remarkable degree his life is an exercise in pure creativity”.

A part of me (the part that writes reviews) thinks that 900-page books should be banned. I’d make an exception though for A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, by Julian Jackson (Allen Lane, £35).

To tell the life of de Gaulle is also to chart the history of modern France and in this suitably monumental biography, Jackson portrays his subject as a complex and contradictory character. According to Jackson, “he was a soldier who spent most of his career fighting the army; a conservative who often talked like a revolutionary; a man of passion who found it almost impossible to express emotions”.

He distrusted both Britain (“perfidious”) and America (“it has no depth nor roots”). He once quipped that during the Second World War the British based the Free French in Carlton Gardens because it is “a dead end, with the only way out through Waterloo Place”. Throughout de Gaulle’s life, in his writings and in his actions, his belief in the uniqueness of his nation remained undimmed: “France is the light of the world, her genius is to light up the universe.”

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Letters to Change the World: From Pankhurst to Orwell, edited by Travis Elborough (Ebury, £14.99). This is an inspiring collection of more than sixty letters, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day, which expose injustice, challenge pernicious ideas or celebrate the idealism which is our species’ unique quality.

Many are humbling. They include Ron Ridenhour’s 1969 letter to members of Congress and to President Nixon exposing the My Lai massacre that had occurred the year before. A helicopter gunner in Vietnam, Ridenhour had heard rumours about the massacre from fellow soldiers who had witnessed it, convincing him that “something rather dark and bloody” took place.

This “conscientious citizen” was so appalled by accounts of hundreds of men, women and children being shot in cold blood that he could not remain silent. In his letter he quoted Winston Churchill: “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.”

Written with deep emotion and measured reason, these eloquent, powerful and courageous letters speak to essential themes of humanity and justice. At a time of great political uncertainty and indeed when letter writing is almost a forgotten art, this collection – which should have pride of place in every library – demonstrates the vital and enduring importance of speaking truth to power.

Among the best paperbacks I’ve read recently are these three gems:

Another Kyoto, by Alex Kerr with Kathy Arlyn Sokol (Penguin, £9.99)
Filled with memorable insights into Japan (from the city’s ubiquitous gates to the soft tatami mats found in nearly every home), Kerr and Sokol’s book – beautifully illustrated by Tetsuji Fujihara – provides an excellent introduction to the sublime city of Kyoto.

Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe, by Simon Sellars (Urbanomic, £18.99)
This brilliantly written autofiction is ostensibly a memoir of the author’s obsession with JG Ballard and his attempt to write a doctoral thesis on the subject. The thesis remains unwritten. Instead we have Applied Ballardianism – a wonderfully original mix of cultural theory, literary exegesis, travelogue and psychopathological memoir. As Ballard said, “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.”

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, £8.99)
Choudhury’s memorably evocative book reveals the rich culture of this teeming and troubled community, offering a wonderfully vivid and personal account of life in Calcutta, from adda (“the sweet Bengali pastime of aimless digressive conversation”) and its addictive street food, to the bibliophile delights of College Street, “not just a street but a labyrinth made of books”. A classic urban read.

Happy reading, fellow book addicts...

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