Friday, 22 August 2014

Books for the beach: the great annual dilemma

Loki with, err, her gospel
And so it begins: the great annual kerfuffle about What Books am I Taking on Holiday.

It brings with it the annual question of: ‘why don’t you get a Kindle?’ Well, I have a tablet, and I read news and features on it, but don’t particularly like reading anything longer.

I love the feel, the heft, the smell, the sense of a real book.

And however good the backlighting is on a device, glass does not take well to being buffeted by sand (oddly enough) and other elements, while computer technology does not, generally speaking, make good bedfellows with water.

I don’t an electronic device into the bath – so why would I risk dropping one into the sea or similar?

Books it is – and this ritual is one that, even in its apparent indecisiveness, I enjoy.

Of course, it adds weight to the baggage, but I’m not travelling by air.

The Other Half is being seriously serious this time around, with an intention of taking Piketty for the beach – only a doubting Thomas would not concede that Capital in the Twenty-First Century has already caused enough of a stir to render the first name of its author as superfluous.

And Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, a massive new biography by Stephen Parker, is also sitting ready to find a corner in the case.

My own reading list is somewhat different – although the Brecht will be available if the mood takes me.

First up is The Colours of Catalonia: In the Footsteps of Twentieth-Century Artists by Virginie Raguenaud, which I bought in Collioure in the first place – and will now take back to provide artistic background for this trip.

It does, of course, include a section on Collioure and Matisse and the Fauves. And Raguenaud talks of Ceret and Elne, of Picasso and Survage.

Museums Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades, is also penciled in for provision of pithy pointers to looking at and reading the built environment around us.

And then I have Five Quarters of the Orange, Holy Fools and Coastliners – three novels, all set in France, by Joanne Harris, together with The Gospel of Loki, her reworking of Norse myth from earlier this year.

Harris is one of those writers I haven’t read as much of as I have meant to – but that’s largely out of fear. For ages, I dreaded any of her other titles being a let-down after the glories of Chocolat, which is a rare beast, in that it’s a book I’ve read rather more than once.

Back in 2005, I reviewed Gentlemen and Players for a magazine – and thoroughly enjoyed that too – but subsequent re-reads of Chocolat and a first reading of its sequel, The Lollipop Shoes, were as far as I dipped my foot into Harris’s oeuvre until dipping into Blackberry Wine a week or so ago.

I’d always intended to get a copy of The Gospel of Loki, but this has not been a big reading year, so hadn’t got around to it until The Other Half suggested it for the holiday list.

One Amazon reviewer suggested that Loki won’t appeal to anyone who liked Chocolat, but that seems a remarkably limiting idea with no logic.

I love Chocolat – and I love the Norse myths. I can’t be unique – well, not on that score, at least.

As Terry Pratchett’s dust jacket biog points out, he is “sometimes accused of literature”.

Harris is, first and foremost, a wonderful storyteller, with a great ability to weave modern fairytales – on occasion, very darkly – and to employ magic realism, but she’s also a writer of the sort of subtlety that the same can be said of her: indeed, she makes me think of Angela Carter.

Take Chocolat: it’s a wonderful story, but it’s also ‘about’ so much: about life, living, pleasure and guilt, and it leaves you with plenty of food for thought.

My mother didn’t like it, but then it was only some time after I’d given her a copy that it dawned on me that Harris’s approach to both the sensual pleasures of life and to religion might not entirely have appealed to her.

C’est la vie, as those damnable Frenchies might say.

Blackberry Wine is a great read, and as I turned the final page and brushed away a tear – yes, you really do care that much about the characters Harris creates – thus was born the feeling that Proust can wait.

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