"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world." — Angela Carter

The Black Chair by Jackie Kay

Now I am inside the room

After all the dreaded waiting;

A woman is kinder, more gentle.

So you have me open my mouth;

I open it gladly for you.

Tiny mirrors, softly you tell

Your assistant the language of ivory:

My vowels, my consonants, my country.

It is all unfathomable to me

But it sounds beautiful, rhythmical.

I could be crumbling, spotted with decay;

Maybe need a filling, a cap, root canal.

My abscess is a mystery, a swollen book.

You tuck me up and put me to sleep.

My soft swollen gums are stroked, all red,

My tiny dark holes prodded

By one of your strange foreign instruments.

They lie at my side now gleaming

Sharp as a family, smiling in a silver album.

I am laid back on your director’s chair –

The pink glass of champagne at my side.

Every so often I rise for a moment

Like a woman rising from a dream of the dead

Like a woman standing up on a horse

To drink and swirl and spit and watch

My own frothy blood spin and disappear.

You say good, good, you’re doing fine,

Again, again, till your voice is a love song

And every cavity an excuse for meeting;

Floss is the long length of string

That keeps us parted. My mouth is parted.

You are in it with your white gloved hands

I have not eaten garlic for weeks.

But you don’t need to pull any teeth

Alas, no molars to come out in your hands

No long roots, no spongey bits of gum.

We won’t go that far. No. It’s surface stuff,

Really. Not nearly as deep as you or I could go.

You’ll polish them. You’ll give the odd amalgam.

You’ll x-ray. You’ll show me the photo.

I’ll look at my own teeth on the white screen

They tell me nothing about myself.

My teeth, speechless.

Rootless pearls, anonymous white things.

I need you to tell me about myself.

Will the gaps widen with the years?

Do you know the day my grandmother died was hot, baking?

Can you tell I like sex from the back row?

I’d like it now, on this black chair that you move

Up or down, bringing me back to life

Telling me in a cheerful voice. I’m done.

– Jackie Kay, Not For The Academy: Lesbian Poets

“If no other direction can compell” by Marilyn Hacker

If no other direction can compell

me upward from the dark-before-the-dawn

descending spiral, I drop like a stone

flung into some scummed-over stagnant well.

The same momentum with which once we fell

across each other’s skies, meteors drawn

by lodestones taproots clutched in unmapped ground

propels me toward some amphibious hell

where kissing’s finished, and I tell, tell, tell

reasons as thick as frogspawn:

had I done this, that wouldn’t have come undone.

The wolf of wolf’s hour cried at once too often

picked out enfeebled stragglers by the smell

of pond scum drying on them in the sun.

– Marilyn Hacker, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986)

Lily Pond by Vicki Feaver

Thinking of new ways to kill you
and bring you back from the dead,
I try drowning you in the lily pond –

holding your head down
until every bubble of breath
is squeezed from your lungs

and the flat leaves and spiky flowers
float over you like a wreath.
I sit on the stones until I’m numb,

until, among reflections of sky,
water-buttercups, spears of iris,
your face rises to the surface –

a face that was always puffy
and pale, so curiously unchanged.
A wind rocks the waxy flowers, curls

the edges of the leaves. Blue butterfles
appear and vanish like ghosts.
I part the mats of yellow weed

and drag you to the bank, covering
your green algae-stained corpse
with a white sheet. Then, I lift the edge

and climb in underneath –
thumping your chest,
breathing into your mouth.

– Vicki Feaver, The Handless Maiden (1994)

A Word on Independent Bookshops

The Guardian reported recently that the number of independent bookshops in the UK has dropped by 7% in the last year. In 2005, there were just over 1,500 indie bookshops operating in the UK, a figure which has decreased by a third in the last 7 years.

There’s plenty of debate on just why this might be; oft cited factors include recession, the new found popularity of the ebook and the convenience of online book buying. In fact, it becomes quite easy to envision tiny bookshops falling to their knees amidst the forlorn cries of avid book-lovers (and frequent book-buyers), knocked out ruthlessly in the first round by online super-giants Amazon. Though all of these things are probably in part responsible for the closure of bookshops over the UK, the picture’s not quite as simple as that.

With the book market taking an obvious step towards online trade, independent bookshops have to take this step too. As easy as it is to decry book buying through Amazon, their websites, including AbeBooks, create an invaluable platform for independent booksellers to modernise and start selling their books online. For booksellers who specialise in second-hand, out of print and antiquarian books, online markets provide a wider customer base than even their own websites could provide.

Image representing AbeBooks as depicted in Cru...

Whether ebooks will take over the book market is a whole other question, but it’s been quite firmly established through debate on the subject that books, and bookshops, offer something that ebooks don’t. People want physical books in their hands and on their shelves as much as they don’t want to haul their latest fantasy epic to work every day. Is it fair that Amazon hold a monopoly over the ebook trade? Not according to some booksellers. Will ebooks ever replace books? Probably not.

If you really would be sorry to see independent bookshops disappear forever, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Use your Amazon/Abe account without feeling guilty. If you need a specific text, and don’t have the time to look for it in the high street, order it online. But when you do, consider who you’re buying it from. You don’t have to to buy directly from Amazon, click on the used or new options and buy it from an independent bookseller.
  2. Shop in your local bookshop. The amount of people who tell me they’ve walked past the bookshop I work in nearly every day (sometimes for years!) and have only just got around to going in is unbelievable. If you see a bookshop that piques your curiosity, go in. Have a browse, buy a coffee (if it’s on offer), maybe pick up an interesting book. You don’t even have to buy anything, but either way, if you like it, tell your friends.
  3. Look out for bookshops that might interest you. If you don’t know where your local bookshop is, find it. If you live in the UK, you can use this site here. If you have a specialist interest, it’s likely that somewhere or other is a bookshop for you. There are bookshops that specialise in books by and for women, fishing, sci-fi and fantasy, there are even bookshops that are half bookshop, half bookbinders.



The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco


Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was on my radar for a while; I’m not sure you can do an English degree without hearing his name mentioned at least once. Which is not a particularly surprising fact, considering the great reach of his abilities: philosophy, semiotics, novel-writing. He’s done it all, and I hear he’s done it well. All this, and more, made me very acutely aware when I started reading The Name of the Rose that it was A Difficult Read. And that it is; even Eco himself has said, “probably I am writing for masochists.” The novel is erudite and complex, but it’s also enchanting, thought provoking and exciting. It has all the best qualities of any great murder mystery, alongside the delightful ingenuity and thoughtful exploration and defining postmodern novel. So, while The Name of the Rose is A Difficult Read, it’s also A Great Read.

The plot follows a Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk, and his mentor, William of Baskerville, as they investigate the deaths of several monks in an abbey in Northern Italy. William is a sort of 14th century Sherlock Holmes, with piercing powers of logic and deduction, who becomes the perfect instrument for Eco’s exploration of symbols and meaning. Throw in a forbidden labyrinthine library, a guy who can speak only in a language compiled entirely of broken pieces of different tongues, and discussions on the subversive powers of laughter, and The Name of the Rose quickly becomes a Saussurean wet-dream.

Eco’s novel is searingly clever, elegant and well executed. It’s a long read, that is difficult at times, but it is more than worth persevering.

Top line: “There are words that give power, others that make us all the more derelict, and to this latter category belong the vulgar words of the simple, to whom the Lord has not granted the boon of self-expression in the universal tongue of knowledge and power.”

You won’t find elsewhere: Anything quite like it. An ending that comes together so satisfyingly, and perfectly, on all levels.

Low point: It takes a little while to get used to the narrative pace of this one. It can seem long-winded and difficult if you don’t sit back and enjoy the philosophical, theological and critical discussions.

Threat by Gottfried Benn

Know this:

I live beast days. I am a water hour.

At night my eyelids droop like forest and sky.

My love knows few words:

I like it in your blood.

– Gottfried Benn, Morgue and Other Poems (1912)

Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes


When summer ended

the leaves of snapdragons withered

taking their shrill-colored mouths with them.

They were still, so quiet. They were

violet where umber now is. She hated

and she hated to see

them go. Flowers


born when the weather was good – this

she thinks of, watching the branch of peaches

daring their ways above the fence, and further,

two hummingbirds, hovering, stuck to each other,

arcing their bodies in grim determination

to find what is good, what is

given them to find. These are warriors


distancing themselves from history.

They find peace

in the way they contain the wind

and are gone.

– Lorna Dee Cervantes, Emplumada (1982)

Five Songs Inspired by Literature

1. Astronaut by Amanda Palmer

In Palmer’s haunting last verse to the first track on her début solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? she references, quite fittingly, Robert Frost’s Acquainted With the Night: “I have been one acquainted with the night./ I have walked out in rain — and back in rain./ I have outwalked the furthest city light.”

2. Holland, 1945 by Neutral Milk Hotel

                                                                                                                                                                                            The entirety of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, has been quite noticeably influenced by Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Holland, 1945 stands out above the rest of the tracks (for the purposes of this list) not only because Mangum’s allusions to the Holocaust are startlingly clear, but because he succeeds in reviving the poignancy of a book that has perhaps been read so much that we have become desensitized to its message.

3. Sonnet 20 by Rufus Wainwright

                                                                                                                                                                                        Rufus Wainwright has put a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, three of which appear on his album All Days Are Nights. The lyrics aren’t exactly inspired by literature, they are literature but despite these songs not quite meeting the proper criteria, they certainly deserve a place on the list.

4. The Swan by Bishi

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The Swan appears on Bishi’s 2007 album Nights at the Circus, the title of which (and the album’s first track) is taken from Angela Carter’s novel of the same name. Though I can find no confirmation, I’m taking the album’s title as a free pass to imagine Fevvers, Carter’s protagonist, as the subject of the song. If you like this track you may want to check out its successor on the album, Grandmother’s Floor, for some Alice in Wonderland references.

5. Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana

                                                                                                                                              Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer served as inspiration for Nirvana’s Scentless Apprentice from their 1993 album In Utero. The plot follows a man without his own scent and with an incredibly acute sense of smell, as he tries to capture and preserve the scent of young women.

Joel Robison’s Reading Photograpy

Great Sporting Moments: The Treble by Simon Armitage

The rich! I love them. Trust them to suppose
the gift of tennis is deep in their bones.

Those chaps from the coast with all their own gear
from electric eyes to the umpire’s chair,

like him whose arse I whipped with five choice strokes
perfected on West Yorkshire’s threadbare courts:

a big first serve that strained his alloy frame,
a straight return that went back like a train,

a lob that left him gawping like a fish,
a backhand pass that kicked and drew a wisp

of chalk, a smash like a rubber bullet
and a bruise to go with it. Three straight sets.

Smarting in the locker rooms he offered
double or quits; he was a born golfer

and round the links he’d wipe the floor with me.
I played the ignoramus to a tee:

the pleb in the gag who asked the viscount
what those eggcup-like things were all about –

‘They’re to rest my balls on when I’m driving.’
‘Blimey, guv, Rolls-Royce think of everything’ –

but at the fifth when I hadn’t faltered
he lost his rag and threw down the gauntlet;

we’d settle this like men: with the gloves on.
I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. OK, come on then.

Simon Armitage, Kid (1992)