New year, new attempts to hit those old resolutions! Namely, to record my thoughts about the books I read. I tried throwing out my thoughts on Twitter, and while at first I quite enjoyed tearing 140-character pieces off my thoughts and throwing them into the wind, it became a bit unmanageable with Twitter rearranging everything.
I do have a Goodreads (it is here) but here’s the thing: I hate star rating systems. They’re simplistic. They lack nuance. They lack consistency. No one in the world rates all their books by a single consistent metric. I loved reading The Disaster Artist (Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell) last year – it was hugely fun and entertaining, a legitimately compelling story. I read Mason & Dixon (Thomas Pynchon) which was mind-blowingly detailed and wonderful, clever and with superbly drawn characters and a fantastic ear for voice. I read the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey books (Striding Folly by Dorothy L Sayers) and though I was quietly distraught at saying goodbye to him, was it her best? No. So there would be three rating systems already – The Disaster Artist judged by how it exceeded my initial wary expectations, Mason & Dixon judged for its storytelling and technical ability and Striding Folly judged by the rest of Sayers’s work. And different people rate in different ways. Some have their own personal rating systems that mess up all the algorithms.
Sometimes I like the idea of having proper discussions with people on Goodreads, and sometimes I hate the idea of anyone ever seeing my private opinions. When I read classics I just feel stupid about saying “Yep, turns out To Kill A Mockingbird is a good book, who knew!”
The main reason is that Amazon gets enough from me, frankly. It gets my money and it gets all my free data, and I baulk at the idea of giving it my opinions to display as well. Arbitrary, petty and irrational? Yep. But those are my feelings and they’re not hurting anyone.
The first book I read this year was Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen. I loved it.
Leonard Cohen died in November 2016, which means I might have got around to his place on my book list by early 2018 if I was lucky, but I cheated. It’s my list. I can do that.
I’m a Cohen fan. I remember my dad putting on Songs From A Room as we had Sunday dinner, and I remember making fun of how miserable it sounded, and laughing at all the metaphors in So Long, Marianne when we listened to it in the car on the mixtape my dad’s cousin Linda made for him when my parents split up. I remember being amazed hearing him sing Democracy on the same tape. That one man could have two voices. And as I grew up I stopped laughing at So Long, Marianne and I got what he was saying.
Linda lived in High Wycombe, and her knowledge of Leonard Cohen made her the coolest adult in the world to me, and my own little knowledge and beginnings of taste gave me a connection to her when I met her for the first time. Leonard Cohen has helped more than one member of my family through more than one hard time. And through the good times he sat there as well, like Solomon’s ring saying “This too shall pass”. My dad called him Lennie, as though he was a mate. I still remember finding out he was still alive – I just assumed everyone cool was dead during my teenage years, as one does – and being overjoyed that he was still making music and it was still good.
So yes, I cheated and I picked up Poems and Songs.
It’s never going to be an unbiased review, I’ll tell you that now. So let’s crack on.
The book itself is lovely. Hardback, pleasant-feeling paper. Well done everyone. It’s (as the title states) a cross-section of poems and song lyrics spanning Cohen’s career, and his career packs in a whole life of observations, experience and changes of focus. It was a joy to follow. My personal tastes run to rhyming over a lot of free verse, and Cohen falls into rhyme a lot. Maybe a little doggerel at times (Fingerprints and a couple of others read to me a bit like improvised, private singing to oneself, pretty but without much in it), but I could hear it all in his voice, even at his most opaque (This Marriage, The Asthmatic, I Draw Aside the Curtain, Death to This Book, where his poetry loses its structure and becomes a block of words, and he loses the voice you put on him and starts to sound angry, an emotion I can’t really reconcile with my ideal of him).
I loved the two different versions of A Thousand Kisses Deep, both so different but related.
My favourites of the poems in the volume:
You Have The Lovers
There Are Some Men
Queen Victoria And Me
All from the beginning, but then, Songs From A Room was my first, and I’ve always been a bit romantic. I’m still young. No doubt my tastes will grow and change as I get older.
Every now and then he’d talk about death, because of course he did, he’s Leonard Cohen, and those were strange moments – from A Future Night: “Useless as I seem in my coat of greed/I will have an unborn woman/When I am only print” and my feelings can basically be summed up as “;_;” Don’t even get me started on the Tower of Song.
The one thing that gave me pause a few times were occasional oblique references to unborn children, about which I was never… quite… sure what he was saying. I’m happy to leave it at that.
I’m going to be going back to this volume a lot, dipping in and out and always finding new things, as I did when I was going through for the references for this post. Really, seriously recommend.
I name this mountain after him.