Ten books I’d like to reread

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This began as part of one of those catching-up phone calls you do around the holidays: we started with the Plague, of course (who doesn’t, these days?) and at some point, mercifully enough, we found ourselves discussing To Read Lists instead.

And the sad fact that there is never enough time to read new things – never mind reread. And yet, the yearning is there – and, before we knew it, we were sharing two very different lists of rereading wishes.

And I thought, well, why not? So here is a very short version of my list: the books I’d love to read again, had I but world enough, and time… Continue reading

Dante’s Ulysses

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Here in Italy Dante Alighieri is very much The Poet – the fellow who took it upon himself to describe in poetry a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

His Divina Commedia – the Divine Comedy – is the object of passionate study by hordes of scholars, and a staple of the school curriculum. As far as I know, no Italian kid is allowed to leave school without meeting Dante – more or less exhaustively (that depends on the kind of school), and more or less satisfyingly (and that mostly depends on the teacher).

Father of the Italian language or no, Dante is no easy read. His Fourteenth Century Italian, his rhetorically complex style, and the many references to his day make the Commedia less than immediate to our modern ears – and while some teachers really do their best to introduce their pupils to the power and beauty of it, some… don’t. A great pity… Continue reading

Something… something – or, The tale of the little grey and red book

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It’s a Dover Thrift paperback, thin, smallish, the pages rather yellowed at the edges, my initials embossed on the right hand corner of the frontispiece… and I can’t quite remember where I got it.

Published in 1997, the copyright note says – so it can’t have been in Cardiff, much less in Edinburgh. And it can’t have been London, because I know for certain that I already had the book by the summer of 1998 – and I wouldn’t move to London (however briefly) until a whole year later… No, my small collection of Crane stories must have come from Pavia, from one of several bookshops around the University that stocked books in the original language. Continue reading

Nellie Bly and the Covid Curse

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Nellie Bly was a remarkable character. She was sixteen when she wrote her first article, passionately denying that marriage and motherhood were the only option for girls. The article impressed the editors at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, enough to earn her her fist job as a journalist. At 21 she spent six months in Mexico, writing correspondences, and getting in trouble with the regime of Porfirio Dìaz for championing press freedom. At 23 she spent ten days undercover in an asylum to expose the appalling conditions of the mentally ill. At 25 she journeyed around the world to beat Phileas Fogg’s 80 days record – and she did it! Continue reading

Brief Excursions

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Very brief. Flash excursions, in fact…

Because yes: after more than a year, I’m still tinkering away with flash fiction. Or perhaps, more accurately, I’m still struggling with it. I want to write flash fiction. I want to do it well. I try again and again (although perhaps not quite as much as I should), and still find my work wanting. And so I tinker on, and read flashes, and read craft books, and take courses, and try again, and spring my attempts on innocent readers. Continue reading

Margaret Skea: Turn of the Tide

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For the first time in ages, I’ve listened to an audiobook. No, really – audiobooks and I… I absolutely love the idea in principle, only I find myself easily distracted by details. I begin to wonder about the exact lie of the land, the pigments that would have been used to dye a particular kind of silk, the sort of face this or that character would have… and by the time I come back from my wanderings, the narrator has gone ahead.

And this is why I usually regard audiobooks the way I would a tiger: fascinated but wary – from a safe distance.

Then I had this email exchange with Margaret Skea, who told me about having her Munro Saga turned into audiobooks, and described the fascinating process of choosing a reader and working with him rather in the way a stage director would… I was so taken with the whole that, when Margaret very kindly sent me a copy of Turn of the Tide’s audiobook, I was more than ready to face my tiger… Continue reading

French museums and tarring brushes

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A few months ago, as I was working on Road to Murder, I found trouble in the form of a French town called Montreuil sur Mer.* Well, for various reasons, my sleuth Tom Walsingham finds himself spending a night there, much against his inclination, and I needed to have a good idea of the place for that… Continue reading

Beginnings and Ends

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Would you object very much to some more slight gloominess? Or perhaps it won’t be so terribly gloomy by the time we’re done – but let us talk of endings and beginnings, and Stevenson. I’ve always liked this thing that Stevenson wrote in a letter written from Samoa to J.M. Barrie:

If you are going tho make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning.

Continue reading