Nora Ephron – on Reading (glasses)

Nora Ephron’s essay is usually quoted in inspirational pieces on reading, but it’s actually about time passing and the dreaded doom of gradually becoming dependent on something impersonal in order to accomplish something intimately personal. It was a useful way into writing today:

ephron ukReading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

But my ability to pick something up and read it – which has gone unchecked all my life up until now – is now entirely dependent on the whereabouts of my reading glasses.

from I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (2006; 2008)

One Sleep Till @Edbookfest

SUMMER READING

Before I head off to Edinburgh for the next three weeks, here’s a round-up of summer reading. Not beach reads; who can read in the sunshine?, but some of the new books that kept me entertained while you were all out playing football and running around Glasgow.

mrs.hemingwayBhallaStrandCallOfTheUndertowFalling_SkyHead for the edgeholdstillNina-Findlaygiven the choiceA-Girl-is-a-Half-Formed-ThingA god in every stonewe-are-called-to-riseUnder-the-wide-and-starry-sky

 

You’ll notice it’s books by women writers, but that’s a quirk of what came to hand or was sent to me, not a meaningful decision on my part to seek them out. The list is random:

  • **Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape): the hype around this book made me cynical, but it’s true; she really has taken on the male bastion of nature writing, and moulded it into the female psyche. A goshawk called Mabel; superior descriptive writing, highly imaginative, compelling, raw emotion, thought-provoking, sad, funny: BRILLIANT!
  • Laura McBride’s We are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster), stirring debut based on a real incident due to the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder, but fictionalised into an angry, uplifting look at American values, and how they relate to people who don’t quite fit in. Technically brilliant in handling the to-and fro between past and present and showing the impact of childhood on adulthood. I think it’s fair to say, this is the complete opposite of most American novels, and one I’d recommend if you’re into meaty, thought-provoking stories and strong female protagonists.
  • **Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow (Freight): atmospheric story about a cartographer’s move to the north of Scotland; the challenges she faces in a new environment is twisted in with the emotional baggage she packs with her, and the map work she’s undertaking as the story unfolds. The opening, with a mysterious snowman appearing in the garden, reminds of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child – and it is and isn’t about motherhood and childlessness – but it’s a different book and sensibility. The title gives away the story, a bit, and a map or two would lift it for me, but I read the Kindle version so maybe the paperback has insets I didn’t see. Anyway, a good, satisfying, two-hour read.
  • Sarah Maine’s debut, Bhalla Strand (Freight): another woman with emotional baggage moving north – this time it’s to take up her inheritance; a derelict house on an island, with secrets. I expected this book, from the woman with her back to us on the cover and the swirly title, to be a predictable romantic froth. It’s not! It’s technically assured, well written (apart from a couple of over-descriptive passages, which you forgive as it sweeps you along with the strong characterisation). The story moves smoothly between different time periods and different historical relationships, which kept it all moving forward, even when it was looking back. A really enjoyable story for a rainy afternoon.
  • **Kamila Shamsie’s, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury): merges a story about colonial engagement in the First World War with a story about a female amateur archaeologist; the kind of book normally described as ‘ambitious’; ‘sweeping’. Let down by a fatal flaw at two-thirds in, which made me throw it on the floor. Before then, it’s a good, strong story about an aspect of war that is rarely covered by Western historians, twisted in with a story about early feminism and colonialism. I’m still not over it – but might be worth a re-read in a year or so.
  • **Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): fierce writing that haunts you when you’re reading it, and even now, thinking about it, I can see the young girl whose sad life we follow. Hard to get into its stuttering rhythm and narrative flow, but form and story combine to make a powerful story, and it’s well worth sticking to it until you’re hooked.
  • Nancy Horan’s, Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Two Roads): I so wanted this book about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osborne to be good: who doesn’t want to know the real reason he tracked a divorcee and her children to San Francisco? Sadly, it hit the floor three times, and I had to give it away as I couldn’t bear it to be in the house. Good fictional biographies bring the real people alive, lets you see into the rationale for their actions, makes you want to re-read their books. Horan is so keen to build up Fanny Osborne that I wanted to call her up and ask why she’d portrayed Stevenson as a soppy wimp; apparently, according to this reading, it was Fanny who came up with the psychological underpinning of Jekyll and Hyde?!
  • Andrea Gillies’s, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (Short Books)woman with emotional baggage has an accident on holiday; bedridden, she recounts her past life and relationships to her doctor. Any other writer would make this into a beach read – after all it’s set in a holiday resort in Greece – but Gillies has a sharp ear for dialogue and an empathy for women and the decisions they have to make. Intelligent and astute writing.
  • **Kate Tough’s, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo): about real women with real problems and emotional issues that could be worthy and sentimental, but isn’t. It’s gutsy and laugh-out-loud funny in places, although, there’s a wee tip to sweetness in the middle: a Tunnock’s Tea Cake of a novel. Warm and angry at the same time; a strong debut novel.
  • Cherry Smyth’s Hold Still (Holland Park Press): fascinating biographical fiction. Set in London and Paris in the 1860s, it’s about Joanna Hifferman, amateur artist and muse/model to both Whistler and Courbier. What lifts the book from other fictional biographies is in the unusual decision to construct a thesis around Courbier’s painting: L’Origine du monde – depicting female genitalia – yes, weird, I know, how to sell this to your friends? Strong female protagonist and fine historical detailing; sometimes it seems too modern in its sensibility. Dreadful cover image, especially, as it’s a book about the world of painting.
  • Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky (Freight): coming of age debut; female protagonist with friendship, life, work issues; good at depicting the infighting and back-biting in academia, and how women need to conform to society’s image. Cleverly threads astronomy and time into the storyline. Maybe I learned something about space, but perhaps that was another me, another time.
  • Susan Sellers’ Given the Choice (Cillian Press): intelligent, thoughtful look at an unlikable character – an ambitious agent; a woman who doesn’t want children – and the consequences to her relationships and herself. Set in the self-deceptive world of London arts, the protagonist is the arch deceiver: she deceives herself and those she comes into contact with, while her husband, a gentle soul, deals with it in his own way. Highly post-modern in the multiple endings that leave it up to the reader to decide which ending she should have; throwing the creative construction of the self into the imagination.
  • **Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway (Picador) is astonishing; excellent – the very best kind of fictional biography. I reviewed it for Fiction Uncovered

** indicates writer is at EIBF this yearEIBF

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

US cover
US cover

Around five books in the last year have drawn me up short and made me think about narrative and storylines and the possibilities of literature and form. Last week I was running late for a train at Waverley without a book for the trip to Glasgow (around 40mins) and I nipped into the newsagent and, without thinking, other than to note it was only £7.99 for the paperback, I picked up The Flamethrowers. I haven’t read Kushner’s first novel or other writing and, although I’d heard the fuss about the book last year and knew critics on both sides of the Atlantic had raved about it, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to it.

I wish I had.

I wish I could wind back to last August when I passed on a ticket to go and listen to her talk at the Edinburgh book festival. I’ve wasted a whole year when I could have been thinking about this writing.

It’s engaging and feisty; brimming with so many ideas that it hurts to read it. My copy is so well-thumbed I need a new copy. I carry it everywhere. I read out parts to Mr Bookrambler, who is not into literary fiction, but I needed to share the joy of intelligent writing with someone. I stop in the street and re-read paragraphs and sentences. I have to get up at night to re-read long passages.

It’s exhilarating to find bold writing. It’s been called ‘muscular’ and the new American novel, which is somehow ‘novel’ as it’s written by a woman. Yet it is novel. It is an important book.

There’s no getting away from the feminist aspects of the story. Reno – the protagonist is named by others from a place connection; we never hear her real name. There are long sections which she narrates but where she is passive and never speaks. A large part of the joy of the writing is in her deliberate passivisity (sp?). She chooses to be passive and to allow others to direct her actions, not because she’s weak but because she’s bold and self-willed.

In summary (woefully inadequate) but the jist of it: the story opens in third person past tense. It’s 1917 and an Italian rider named Valera fights a German soldier. The narrative then switches to present tense, to the 1970s and the narration of an unnamed woman who is riding a Valera motorcycle to the salt flats to a time trial, or so she tells the young man called Stretch who offers her his bed for the night. It’s only partially true. She’s also going to film and photograph her tyre tracks as part of an art project she hopes to pull together. However, she chooses not to impart this information to the young man because it isn’t the story he should expect or have of her.

The way in which Valera/Valera motorcycle intersect is integral to the way the story unfolds and it would spoil its unfolding to say too much.

Patti Smith NY (c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976
Patti Smith NY
(c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

Throughout the novel, Time and History intersect and move apart, push off against each other and create new presents, new realities. Reno is constructed by the men around her (mostly men but women too) and by herself and the idea she has of how she thinks she ought to be. She has moved to New York to be where things happen.

Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night,” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.

 

Time too is constructed and how we perceive history is interrogated by the storyline. Italian history intersects with the 1970 anti-capitalist riots in New York and with art and creativity.

But it’s also about a girl growing up and growing into herself.

I really can’t implore you more to read The Flamethrowers. Both readers and writers will find their idea of what is possible with literature altered by the experience of reading it.

Rachel Kushner’s website has links to interviews that give (or gave me) helpful insight into the book. See especially the frank and wide ranging interview on process and cultural memory with Dana Spiotta on Tin House.

The Flamethrowers is on the terrific longlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Book Week Scotland – launch day

Book Week Scotland 26 November – 2 December 2012

At the National Library of Scotland this morning, the first week-long project to promote reading in Scotland was launched. Government-led via Creative Scotland, it is being managed by Scottish Book Trust.

Over 400 book-related events are planned in libraries, councils, and schools taking part, including at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, ‘The Reading Hour’ call to action on St Andrews’ Day, Book Bug sessions, and many more- like this one on Sacred Texts with James Robertson and Richard Holloway at the Scottish Poetry Library .

I’ll be posting a Scottish book-related post each day during the programme. Join in and spread the book love!

Follow @BookWeekScot for details -BWS website will be up later today/tomorrow

The Art of Fiction – Iris Murdoch

For Iris Murdoch Day – an interview from The Paris Review on how she writes, why she writes, the process of thinking it up and what she thinks is the purpose of literature – fascinating to learn how she carefully plans the outline of the whole book before the actual writing begins. Pity her poor publisher’s nerves! She wrote long hand and only ever had one copy of her manuscript.

Here’s where IM talks about beginning to write a novel:

INTERVIEWER [Jeffrey Meyers]

Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?

MURDOCH

Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.

Asked about her ‘ideal reader’, Murdoch say

MURDOCH

Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the idealreader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.

See – Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction, no. 117 in The Paris Review, Summer 1990, Issue 115

*See also the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London

* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)

Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book

How bookshops can save the world

I was waiting in teen-taxi last night and it was too dark to read so I flicked through the radio stations looking for a distraction, and stumbled across James Daunt spouting forth about bookshops and the physical book. I found myself agreeing with most of what he said.  I started scribbling down words and phrases and getting goosebumps when I realised the truth of what he had to say and how this might connect with my own thoughts about bookshops, libraries, book festivals and reading.

Daunt talked about how chain bookselling had lost its way, been driven by the cheque book and had crushed individuality for the sake of profit. In the long run, he said, this is what had actually driven their customers away. He thought it was time to  restore individuality and engage with local communities. While I didn’t agree with his thoughts on children’s reading, I found points of commonality in what he said: about how some niche bookshops can be intimidating and how supermarkets as bookshops provided a good introduction to books for those people who might never otherwise enter a bookshop.

There’s no denying the appeal of digital, but there’s no human connection involved in one-click book-buying. Because there’s also no denying that people like talking about books, sharing books and meeting authors. Book Festivals and author events are hugely popular for more than just literary bookish folk. So I wondered, what if there was a way to combine selling and reading? What if you could open a space within supermarkets and bookshops and libraries (which are now so much more than simply a place for books) as reading rooms? A space that was open to all to enjoy a book and pass on good reads, somewhere to share the pleasure of reading? And by all I mean EVERYONE, even those who enjoy celebrity hardbacks and trashy novels and for whom kindle means literally to start a fire.

Combine Daunt’s talk with the appalling unemployment statistics and it’s worth exploring how bookshops, libraries and supermarkets can combine somehow to restore a sense of community. Perhaps they could provide commercially-sponsored places where people can test and try books, buy books, read and share stories and even, perhaps, create their own stories.

By this I don’t mean a return to eighteenth-century subscription libraries or circulating libraries where access to books was according to class, wealth and gender, but something more accessible, which will benefit booksellers and readers and also their communities.

I haven’t worked out how this can be done or who might do it or fund it and I know I’m just thinking aloud and probably annoying half the really good, community-based independent bookshops who do cater to all their readers. But I’m sure even they would admit they’d enjoy a return to a time when bookshops were busier and trade was stronger.

Anyway, enough ‘thinking’ – have a listen to JD.

I’ve put  link to the podcast below and in case this doesn’t work I’ve added a link to the BBC4 Four Thought website where you can scroll down and find the James Daunt Podcast.

Intro – “Recorded in front of an audience at the RSA in London, speakers take to the stage to air their latest thinking on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect our culture and society.”

James Daunt issues a ringing defence of printed books, and argues that libraries and local bookshops – the ‘purveyors of the written word’ – are vital social and cultural spaces. Brought in to turn around the Waterstone’s chain of bookshops, he argues that book chains should continue to play a vital role in introducing readers to books, but will only succeed if they re-connect with their communities.

James Daunt Podcast on Bookshops

BBC Radio 4 – Four Thought Website – scroll down to ‘James Daunt’ and play.

 

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PS – I’m sorry about these unruly ads – they’re random and from wordpress not from me