Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Failing the long read

I have a need to confess something. I don’t always finish reading books. Some readers once they have begun will read on, whatever the quality or interest in the book. But pretty quickly I learned that with non-fiction books you do not need to read it all, and do not need to start at page 1. It may be that the habits of study led me to read several books at the same time and to setting aside a very few.

Here are four books that I have been unable to finish and they have one thing in common.

The Glorious Heresies

This novel has many very attractive aspects including its glorious anarchies: lively characters, surprising and even shocking events, a world that is far from mine (Cork to a village in Devon) and a complex story involving cover-ups and revenge and mothers who reappear and people who go off the grid …

It won The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2016. But I haven’t finish it.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInnery published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. 371pp

The Luminaries

Another prizewinner, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. The Luminaries is set in New Zealand, and self-consciously offers a very complex and intricate story about – I’ve forgotten. The zodiac is a framing device. And the city of Hokitika is featured, which I noticed because I once bought a pair of socks there. I was reminded of Dickens and Wilkie Collins when I began to read it. But soon the vast array of characters, the intricacies of the plot, and perhaps the weight of the book made me put it down one evening and not open it up again. The socks, by the way, developed holes and were thrown away.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton published in 2013 by Granta Books. 828pp

A Brief History of Seven Killings

The title of this book is doubly deceptive. It is neither brief nor about only seven killings. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is set in the dark underworld of Jamaica, violent and vibrant. A great combination on which I started off with much enthusiasm. But gradually the cast and the plot got the better of me despite it having won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James published by Riverhead Books in 2014. 688pp

If you have read this far you might be thinking that what these novels have in common is that they are prizewinners, winners of big prizes. But actually that’s not it. Here’s my last example.

Don Quixote

I bought this years ago, deciding I should read the first novel ever written and one with European influence. And I did soldier through quite a few episodes, and taverns and adventures and stupidities. And then I put it aside. It’s been around for 412 years, so I can pick it up again any time. As far as I am aware it has never won any prizes, although Edith Grossman was widely praised for her translation.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605, translated by Edith Grossman, published by Vintage in 2005. 940pp

So there you have it. My dirty little secret is that I get defeated by weight and complexity. It’s not that I never finish long books, only that the book has to be the right ones at the right time and for the right reason and not too long.

Do you think I should adopt the stance of Senator Elizabeth Warren: … nevertheless she persisted? If you think I should finish any of these four novels please let me know which and why.

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Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I love to read an intelligent novel, one that makes demands upon the reader, that isn’t all about the story. A book that looks at something in a new way, shows me something from a different angle. Such a book is Hot Milk, a tale, as the title suggests, about a mother and her daughter relationship that is not going well. This novel is readable, very moving and thought-provoking.

293-hot-milk

The Story

A young woman, Sofia, and her mother Rose (64) have come to Almeria in Southern Spain, a place where the desert meets the sea. Rose has come to the Gomez Clinic at great expense, in order to find a cure for her unnameable, undiagnosed illness that has afflicted her for so long. Sofia accompanies her as her carer. Rose cannot walk, she claims, has no feeling in her feet. While Rose consults the possibly charlatan Dr Gomez, Sofia undertakes adventures that widen her previously small life.

‘I wanted to write a story about hypochondria,’ said Deborah Levy in an article in the Guardian. One of the curious features of hypochondria is that while it is about fabricated and imagined illness, it is itself a pathology. It also ensnares others, in this case Sofia.

Sofia

Sofia tells the story. Here is how the novel opens:

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me that anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I. (1)

Sofia is conscious that her life is very restricted. A little while later she goes swimming and meets the medusas – stinging jellyfish:

I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over. (71)

Poor Sofia, she doesn’t have much going for her: an abandoned PhD in anthropology, barista job, single, never lived with anyone but her mother, father abandoned them when she was 7 and returned to Greece. While Rose attends the clinic Sofia develops two love affairs, with Ingrid a German seamstress and Juan who looks after the injury tent on the beach and treats her for multiple medusa stings.

With Sofia as the narrator we should ask, are things how they look? After a few pages we are wondering about Rose’s illnesses, Gomez clinic, what Ingrid embroiders on the silk sun top, the broken laptop, the wrong sort of water, the dog that barks, her father’s newfound happiness in Athens, everything…

The author herself explains the central question raised by the novel:

Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away? [in How to Write a Man Booker Novel in the Guardian, as above]

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Sofia has to learn that we should not always accept the identity given to us because of our nationality, gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and so forth. We are also, she learns, constructed by the things that happen to us, that we take part in. Identity is formed in part by experiences, which she finds when she follows Dr Gomez’s suggestions, such as practicing boldness. Here the myth of Medusa’s stare is significant. You may be stung by the gaze of others, but you can choose not be turned to stone or beheaded.

Rose, the mother

Part of Sofia’s problem is her mother. Her hypochondria has locked Sofia into a mutually dependent relationship. Sofia loves her mother, but hates her at the same time. She hates her mother’s unreasonable demands, the way she flirts with Gomez, the possibility that she lies; she understands how difficult it was to raise her after Christos left, how she takes on the world and her charm. Sofia wants more for her mother as well as for herself. In the final pages of the novel she articulates this.

I had been waiting on her all my life. I was a waitress. Waiting on her and for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes, I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me. (216)

I like the use of words throughout the novel, often calling up several meanings. In this passage I can pick out the following: waiting on her mother, invalid, waiting for herself.

297-alt-hot-milk-cover

The writing

Sofia is by training an anthropologist. This allows her, as narrator, to use her powers of observation as in this list of ingredients in the scene at the market.

I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dislodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jambon iberico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books. (93)

Touristy and practical, African and European, tacky and sophisticated, old and new and that final humorous image! There is lots of humour in this book, like the lunch that Sofia attends, but she is not allowed to speak.

Also delightful are Sofia’s occasional riffs on the meanings of things, such as her Greek father’s new wife, who has given up a high powered job saving the Euro for cosy domesticity in Athens where she frequently has to pretend to be asleep.

This is the first novel I have read by Deborah Levy. She has written six, and many plays. There is more about her on her website. I plan to read Things I don’t want to know (2014) next, being an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016) Hamish Hamilton. 218pp (Paperback available in May 2017)

Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize 2016

 

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How my TBR pile grows like Topsy

Growing like Topsy – a phrase that means relentless growth. Topsy is a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew in ignorance of her Maker. I think of Topsy now as I contemplate how I can never reduce my pile of books to be read (TBR or tbr for anyone new to blogging). It just grows, like Topsy.

How do books get added?

Let’s count the ways books get onto the pile. I found six sources. No wonder I make so little impact on it. Read one book from the tbr pile and another two will have been added while I was engrossed. Here they are:

Blog Series

233 Unnecess woman coverEvery two months I read for the next in the series on this blog looking at older women in fiction. I have planned my next read: Rabih Alameddie An Unnecessary Woman and have an idea about the selection for June. And this year I’m joining Heavenali in the #Woolfalong. This will mean reading something by Virginia Woolf every two months and joining on-line discussions. Thinking about a series gives some shape and continuity to my reading, which otherwise becomes merely episodic.

Recommendations

From friends, newspapers, literary journals and from blogs.

Prize Winners

I am a little suspicious of prize winners, having read a few that did not seem to be outstanding. But I usually read the annual Man Booker Prize winner. I am currently struggling through the cornucopia of voices and perpetual violence of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It is neither brief nor limited to seven killings. But very confident and polished.

And I usually read all the shortlist of the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. We need prizes that promote women’s writing. How could you ignore How to be both by Ali Smith? And I take note of some of the others awards: Samuel Johnson, Fiction Uncovered and Folio Prize.

Books I am sent

The subscription to Peirene was a one of the best Christmas presents I ever gave myself. Three times a year a novella, in translation, appears in my letterbox. Some great reading comes to me this way. The books are beautifully designed and printed on good quality paper. The first was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a good choice for a book group, by the way. The subscription puts me in touch with more foreign fiction.

Occasionally I get offered books for review. Some I don’t accept as they do not appear to be the kind of book I like to read and review. But again, it stretches me at the same time as it disrupts my reading plans as the book often needs to go near the top of the tbr pile to coincide with the publication date.

233 Claxton cover

And friends and family give me books, although my daughter says it’s difficult as I am very picky or I’ve read it. She gave me Claxton by Mark Cocker for Christmas and I’m enjoying dipping into this minutely observed nature writing. It sits in my ‘being read’ pile beside my bed, under the Marlon James.

Reading Groups

Book group choices are another way in which I get required to read books I may not have chosen. Sometimes I read a book I would have been sorry to miss. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement was one of these. I also read Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, which might have languished near the bottom of the pile if the group had not decided to read it. Some duds here too, but that’s ok.

Occasional events

I add to the pile for specific events, usually ones that I am planning to discuss on the blog. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft is on my list because I have tickets to the Royal Ballet performance in May. I wanted to use Ali Smith’s Public Library collection to celebrate Library Day in February.

Where is this tbr pile?

I don’t possess a Kindle so I have a real pile of books. They are kept in a nook in my bedroom, beside the chimney in the 2 foot thick walls of my cottage. They just about fit. Actually The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is still taking up a great deal of the space, a book that I began, put down and haven’t yet picked up again.

233 TBR shelf

233 tbr fileI also have a large file of bits of paper recoring books of interest. The books get ordered from an on-line bookseller (usually Hive) or reserved at the library.

And I have only been referring to fiction. My non-fiction reading is another growing pile on the coffee table in my sitting room. Another story.

Reading Schedule

I need order in my reading life, and so for the last 18 months I have had a reading schedule. This ensures that books are read before any deadlines and that all books are fitted in sometime.

Related

From Book Riot a post called Dealing with my TBR pile (by not dealing with it) by Yash Kesankurthy in November 2015. She was a little terrified of her tbr pile, but did something about it.

Or you could consider the meme TBR Book Tag. Here’s the contribution from The Writes of Women blog.

An early post from this blog: 5 ways other people decide my reading January 2013.

Who or what are literary prizes for? on Bookword December 2013.

Over to you

How do you manage your tbr pile and your reading schedule? How do you decide which books to add to the list, and then to read? Is it ever in danger of getting out of hand?

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The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 for The Gathering. She has since been regarded as one of the foremost Irish writers of our time. The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction (as it was called in 2012). The Green Road was published last year. It did well – Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Irish Novel of the Year, Costa Novel Award short list and choice of the year for several people. It has also gained a few blog endorsements. I read one review, however, which dismissed the novel as clichéd. While some of the situations may be very familiar in Irish history (and life), Anne Enright’s treatment is anything but a cliché. Here’s why.

231 Gr Rd cover

The story and structure of the novel

Rosaleen Madigan lives in County Clare. By 2005 her four children have grown up and away: Hanna is an alcoholic failed actress with post-natal depression; Constance stayed, married a local man who makes a good living in the Irish building boom of the early 2000s; Emmet works for NGOs to save lives in the developing world; Dan went to be a priest and decided he was gay and lives in Toronto.

In part one we see the family members in a number of different episodes, distant from each other and from their parents: Hanna as a child in 1980; Dan in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991; Constance having a cancer check in 1997; Emmet in Mali breaking up with yet another lover in 2002. Their separate lives make their connections to each other tenuous. By the end of the first section the reader knows much more about the lives of the four Madigan children than their family members ever will.

In the second part, narrated in one timeframe, 2005, they are together in County Clare. Rosaleen, now widowed, has summoned her children to a Christmas reunion. None of the four bring partners or children except Constance who lives locally and does much of the fetching and carrying and organising. Their separation is emphasised by the festivities. Rosaleen adds to the discomfort when she goes missing for a while on a walk in the darkness, and the dramas continue even after they find her. No much is resolved by the conclusion.

Themes

The novel is concerned with connections and absence of connections within families; the pull of the past, relatives, place, personal histories and myths; how individuals and families face challenges; compassion for the difficulties of others; the change of parental role from providing care to neediness. ‘It’s about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.’ (LRB video see below)

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

Rosaleen’s disappearance highlights how she and the landscape are the only connections between the family members, and they are not that strong. Her decision to sell the family home, Ardeevin, creates tensions. She has reminded her children that they have little invested in their past. They are shocked by the prospect of Rosaleen moving, but then realise that it makes no difference, except for Constance with whom she threatens to move in.

The writing

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright is a compelling writer. She has referred to ‘the pleasure of the sentence’. I found the section on New York and the gay community unbearably sad.

The story is small, undramatic, although individual episodes in the first part have plenty of action. As Emmet observes, they live ‘small lives’. Not much happens to the family except that Rosaleen goes missing. But within the small spaces a great deal is revealed about families and relationships. Here are some examples.

Emmet prepares for the reunion in his house in Dublin. He says goodbye to his Dutch girlfriend and then waits for Hanna to arrive for their journey to Ardeevin.

Then he faced back into the horrors of the Madigans – their small hearts (his own was not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through. Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.

Mother.

His stupid sister late, as ever. (210)

Emmet’s awareness does not help him in his relationships with women. His compassion is reserved for those in the countries he works in.

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Constance, of course Constance, meets Dan at Shannon Airport and as they drive to Ardeevin he looks out of the window of her Lexus.

As they travelled towards home, the landscape accumulated in Dan like a silt of meaning that was disturbed by the line of the hedgerow or the sight of winter trees along a ridge. All at once it was familiar. He knew this place. It was a secret he carried inside himself; a map of things he had known and lost, these half glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid green. (203)

The image of the ‘silt of meaning’ carried around from childhood is a powerful one. Many of the aspects of childhood in this family are silted up. The landscape runs through the novel, surfacing every now and again – Constance’s first trip to the clinic, Rosaleen’s walk in darkness, and Dan’s experience on arrival. The town in which Rosaleen lives is never named ‘to give a sense of elsewhere’ to the landscape. The Green Road that gives the novel its title is exists.

The description of Constance’s pre-Christmas shopping trip is terrifying. The excess of buying, the volume of stuff, the return for yet more, all conveyed in calm prose, a huge list – it is powerful a statement of Constance’s life and values.

Anne Enright seems to be saying that life is hard; relationships, especially those you are born into, but others you take on, they are difficult however you choose to live your life.

That mean-spirited blog review which suggested The Green Road is clichéd and Anne Enright over-rated made me look more closely at her skill. While the outline of the characters may be clichéd her skill is to capture, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, the silences and shifts between people.

The Green Road by Anne Enright, published in 2015 by Vintage 310 pp

Related

The books that I loved in 2015 by James Wood in the New Yorker, 4th January 2016.

LRB video 9 minutes, from which Anne Enright’s quotations are taken.

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The Craft of Blogging #10 Reuse Recycle Reduce

Let’s do a good thing with our blogs: Reuse Recycle Reduce

202 RecycleBy their natures blog posts share three characteristics: they are written quickly, include connections to other internet sites and have brief lives. You may feel disappointed when a post in which you have invested time and effort no longer gets attention. One way around this for the busy and productive blogger is to use the principles of recycling – a nice case of what’s good in the real world being good in the virtual one too.

Why reuse or recycle?

Why would you reuse or recycle material? Haven’t your devoted followers read the content before? How do pick items or content to repost?

Apparently about 10% of your posts go one being read, are ‘stayers’ or ‘sticky’. Do you recognise this from your blog stats? Looking back over 200 posts I can see which the stayers are: mainly book reviews, including some surprising ones. In the six months since I posted a review of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, for example, it has never been out of the Bookword’s monthly top 20 most popular reads. Another is The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, a lovely book and my review was one of the first I posted. Neither needed any promotion on twitter to maintain their readership.

Most of the other 90% can be categorized as ‘decaying’. Again, if you keep track of your stats you have probably seen the pattern of early popularity followed by descent into very small or nonexistent readership. And some bump along with a very few reader each month, not quite decayed. I predict that this post on recycling will fit that picture.

What to choose?

202 recycle 2Among your blog’s decaying posts will be some that you may want to reuse in the same form or to recycle the material with revisions:

  • perhaps the topic is good, but the content needs tweaking,
  • perhaps there is a special event that could suit a post’s reappearance,
  • you may want to introduce a post to your new readers,
  • perhaps you just thought it was so darn good you want to publish it again,
  • or perhaps you feel the post would do better with a thorough revision.

I have now posted more than 200 posts and over the last few weeks I have been considering which ones could be scheduled for recycling. On the whole I have chosen posts that did well initially and have largely disappeared but still get a very few readers. I have also been serendipitous and chosen reviews of books that I am rereading for my book groups.

There has to be something new or relevant about reposting whatever I have chosen.

Some Examples

A post scheduled for recycling in October fits both categories (did well at first, and I have just reread it for a book group): it will be Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. It is also timely as she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015 for her most recent book: A Spool of Blue Thread. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 13th October.

In the near future I am going to revise and recycle a post on Short Stories. I love the form and I have a few new collections to bring to people’s attention on the revised post.

Recently as part of Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth on twitter) I recycled The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. Such a good book deserves to be widely promoted.

Reusing and recycling posts

202 recycle 3

My schedule for posts extends over the next four months. I have included several recycled posts. If any readers find this annoying please say so when you spot them.

And reduce?

154 BFW

Maintaining a blog can be time-consuming. Recycling can reduce the amount of time you spend preparing posts and reduce the stress of maintaining the flow and high quality. Here’s advice from Robin Houghton’s Blogging for Writers who extends my practice by suggesting recycling material not originally designed for the blog:

  1. You may already have an archive of great content, perhaps you have written an ebook or a course. There’s a lot of great material just begging to be reused! All content can be reused, recycled, revisited, repositioned, and refreshed with new examples and different points of view.

  2. Don’t worry if you don’t have any ready-made material – after you’ve been blogging for a while you will have plenty.

  3. Don’t let a great blog post die – link to it from your home-page (“Popular Posts”), make it sticky or repost in a few months time, slightly updated if necessary. (157)

I could do more of her first suggestion and consider the third. Make it sticky!

77 iphone

Some posts in the Craft of Blogging series

# 9 Problems and more problems (July 2015)

#8 Review of Blogging for Writers by Robin Houghton (February 2015)

#5 How I write my blog slowly (July 2014)

#1 … the medium (February 2014)

 

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How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

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Nationalism and Literary Prizes

122 Man Booker 2O14The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.

Did the Yanks come?

In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

131 Flanagan MBP

Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:

The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.

More MB Prize controversies

  1. whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
  2. the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?

Other Literary Prizes

The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.

  • Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
  • Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
  • Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
  • The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
  • A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)

131 A girl cover105 Baileys Women'sAnd what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)

Crisis, what crisis?

AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:

IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.

A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.

Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.

We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.

So in conclusion the winners are …

Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.

 

Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?

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We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s nearly time for the media go wild about the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September and the winner on 14th October. Already controversy is brewing. There has been gender-talk. Only three books by women were on the longlist of ten:

  • 122 Man Booker 2O14How to be both by Ali Smith
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Only two of the six judges were women.

And there has been discussion about national writing, since the prize was opened this year to all novels published in English. Have we been swamped by American fiction? Is British fiction lacking in energy as AS Byatt a Guardian piece called Is British fiction in crisis? A careful reading of her comments suggests that she was criticizing the publishers for failing to find anything exciting to publish, latching on to successful self-published titles instead. I doubt whether it even meaningful to talk about national fiction? I’m going to leave that discussion for a later post.

122 We are allNow on with my thoughts about one of long-listed book by a female, American writer. I’ll start with a ‘spoiler alert’. There is an important plot element that is not confirmed until a quarter of the way through the novel. I don’t believe it will spoil your enjoyment of the novel if you read on. But I have warned you. Come back later if you prefer!

The Narrator, Rosemary, is a sharp young American, who tells us early on that she has lost both her sister, Fern, and her brother, Lowell. Their disappearance is linked. You don’t learn until p 77 that Fern is a chimpanzee, introduced into the family as part of a psychology experiment in the 1960s. The brother leaves to join animal right demonstrators. The FBI are looking for him.

While Fern is with them (about 5 years) Rosemary and her family are subject to observation, to the presence of grad students, to theorising, to comparisons (as Fern and Rosemary are the same age). But when Fern is sent away Rosemary learns to keep quiet about all that, especially as her mother more or less has a nervous breakdown.

As soon as she learned to talk Rose never shut up. People always said to her to talk less. But through the family events she has learned to hide anything of significance. Here is the paragraph after Rose, now 15 years old, has heard where Fern went, for the first time in nearly ten years.

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back after you have gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer. (p126)

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan – from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

The action picks up when Rose goes to university in Davis, California, where her brother was last seen. She learns that Fern has been kept in a cage since she left them, and has grieved as much as she has because she was not able to integrate well with other chimps.

The action of the novel follows Rose as she gradually she makes some kind of sense and accommodation to all this family stuff. It provides an interesting exploration of the nature of animal and human-animal communication, and of human-human communication. You can be subjected to a battery of tests but miss the point, about the importance of love for another.

The voice of the narrator is feisty, clever, self-deprecating, like Bee in Where’d you go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Some of the scenes are hilarious (such as the mayhem in the cafeteria in the first chapter) and some of the characters are filmic (Ezra, the apartment block manager with aspirations, like the janitor from Scrubs, and Harlow who spreads chaos everywhere). But much of the wiseacre script is designed to reveal the heart of this book at a slow pace, and to show the reader that Rose is a girl who is struggling with facing the truth.

Here’s an example of Karen Joy Fowler’s style in the novel. Rose’s suitcase went missing on her flight from back from her parents’ home in Indiana. The airline delivers the wrong one. It’s all part of the complicated plot, because the suitcase contains … well never mind.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea. Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside. We would not take the stuff. That went without saying. But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking. Who knew what a strange case from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain. Gold Doubloons. A heroin-stuffed doll. Polaroids of some Midwestern city council in flagrante. Apple butter.

Wasn’t I curious? Where was my sense of adventure? (p 142)

In this passage we can see how Harlow and Rose are such different characters, and how Rose’s caution contrasts with Harlow’s rashness. You can hear the conversation between them as they consider the possibilities of the suitcase. And you see that despite her dangerous attitude, Harlow is on the side of the good people. And you can enjoy the list of possible contents. And what is revealed is even more imaginative, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is, and the part it plays. (You see how I have picked up the habit of hiding things from Rose?)

122 JA Book ClubI was surprised to learn that Karen Joy Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. That was a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’, which I enjoyed. We are all completely beside ourselves is on a different level. I found myself admiring the research undertaken, (not just into primate material, but also about the context in which those experiments took place) as well as the development of the plot and the characters.

You can find an interview with Karen Joy Fowler on the Man Booker Prize 2014 website.

Have you read this? What were your reactions? Do you think it should be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Please comment below.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013) published by Serpent’s Tail; Longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2014; Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

 

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Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is a strange and clever book, and I loved getting into it, losing myself in its stories and ideas. It would not have surprised me if this book had won the Man Booker Prize in October. It was shortlisted but frankly any one of the six could have won – they are all so good. One the attractions for me of A Tale for the Time Being is the great older woman: old Jiko, who is an anarchist, a writer, a Buddhist nun, a teacher, the grandmother of one of the protagonists, and 104 years old with a wicked sense of humour and penetrating wisdom.

63 tale

There are two main characters, both female. Ruth is the narrator (she shares a name with the author) and lives with her husband and cat on an island off the west coast of Canada – remote then. She is a novelist who has interrupted her writing of novels to compose a memoir of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. She is blocked, perhaps by grief. Ruth is a Japanese Canadian, like her namesake. She finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shore containing the journal of a Japanese teenager, Nao. The reader is invited to consider both Ruth’s life, and the story of the younger girl revealed through the diaries, and the connections between them. According to her diaries, Nao had a great life in silicone valley before returning to Japan, where she suffered terrible abuse at school, difficulties in her family and is considering suicide. (She calls suicide ‘graduating from time’ or ‘dropping out of time’.)

The two lives, Ruth’s and Nao’s, are connected through the journal, through writing. Everywhere in this novel the power of the written word is explored. Reading Nao’s diary allows Ruth to become connected to the younger woman. Nao reads her uncle’s letters and begins to understand his actions and his place in his mother’s life. Jiko herself says ‘Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,’ (p246). And what are we to make of the small folder paper returned to Jiko on her son’s death, as a kamikaze pilot, on which is written ‘remains’? They could not return an empty box. But what of Haruki does remain? Not just concrete things such as his watch and his letters, but the idea of him, in the memory of his mother, passed on to her granddaughter Nao, and through the medium of the novel, to us the readers.

Nao finds understanding through her contact with her grandmother and her uncle. She finds his letters, which illuminate the theme of people’s connection through writing and over time.

March 27, 1945

Dear Mother,

You will be happy to know that as I wait to die, I have been reading poetry and novels again. Old favourites by Soseki and Kawabata, as well as the books you sent me by your dear women writer fiends. Euchi Fumiko-san’s Words Like the Wind and the poems of Yosano-san in Tangled Hair.

Reading these women makes me feel closer to you. Did you share their racy past, my dear Mother? I applaud you, and will ask nothing further, knowing it’s unbecoming of a son to tease a mother so.

I find myself drawn to literature more now than in the past; not the individual works as much as the idea of literature – the heroic effort and nobility of our human desire to make beauty of our minds – which moves me to tears, and I have to brush them away, quickly, before anyone notices. Such tears are not becoming in a Yamato danshi. (p257)

The title, A Tale for the Time Being, is a gentle pun, or at least can be taken in more than one way. What a curious English expression time being is. It can be taken to mean now, which is also the meaning of Nao’s name, in Japanese. Now, or the time being, is a transitory moment, disappearing into the past as soon as you enter it. The time being is an impossible state to be in. But of course we are all living within our own time. We are time beings, none more than Jiko, who has managed 104 years.

Hi.

My name is Nao , and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. (p3)

Another little play on writing and time is that Nao’s diary is disguised in the cover of Proust’s A La Recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). This is how the novel begins, and already readers, including Ruth, will see that Nao is a writer wgho can hold attention. She is also an adolescent, with all the seriousness and pomposity of her age.

63 Hello K lunchbox 1

Eventually, it is the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 that impels Ruth’s involvement in Nao’s narrative. Is that how her diary came to be on the Canadian shore, washed there by the ocean currents? Did she exist? Did she survive?

The only jarring notes I found were the supernatural ones: the dream that resolved a plot complication (I find dreams are as unrewarding to read about as people’s accounts of them the morning after), and the mystical disappearance and reappearance of the writing at the end of the diary. But these moments still did not spoil my reading of this novel.

I enjoy novels that question and challenge and extend its very structure and form – following in the footsteps of Laurence Sterne. I like novels that play with ideas about time as Kate Atkinson does in Life after Life, (winner of Not the Man Booker Prize in 2013). A Tale for the Time Being has copious footnotes, mostly providing translations for the Japanese words and provides appendices and a bibliography.

I like novels that explore important topics, such as why writing is important, how people should and can relate to each other, the important of the natural world, the relationship of age to youth and what families can do for each other.

And who can resist a novel that adds writing to the range of superpowers in fiction? Nao is keen to make a connection with her reader. Towards the end of the novel, as her life is beginning to resolve itself she writes:

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except that I thought you would like to know. My dad seems to have found his superpower, and maybe I’ve started to find mine, too, which is writing to you. (p389).

I63 Hello K lunchbox 2f you have read A Tale for the Time Being please let us know your opinion and reactions. Did you enjoy it? Are you tempted to read it if you haven’t yet?

 

The next Readalong, in January, will be Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1979. Hermione Lee has just published a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Join me in reading the novel!

 

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