Last year I created a personal challenge to read more literature from parts of the world outside the UK and North America. The World Literature challenge started with countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian and I made these part of an overall challenge to read books from 50 different countries by the end of 2018.
I changed the course somewhat a few months ago and decided I wanted this to be more of a project and a general direction rather than a challenge with a set target and a deadline. That way it would feel less that I was reading something simply to meet a goal.
I’m so glad I made that switch. It’s been much more rewarding to pick up a book knowing I wanted to read it rather than feeling compelled to read it just because it was the next country on my list. And I can mix up that reading with my other projects on reading more classics and reading the Booker prize winners.
The past few weeks have seen me read novels from Somalia, New Zealand and India. All three were by authors I had never read before. All three have given me insights into cultures and issues outside my own experience. Maybe it’s a cliche to say that they’ve broadened my horizons but it’s nevertheless true. Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib dealt with the problems of being a woman in Somalia including that of arranged marriages and circumcision; Keri Hulme’s The Bone People introduced me to Maori legends while also highlighting the issue of child abuse and Amitav Ghosh brought the history of Burma to my attention in The Glass Palace.
So far I’ve read books from 13 different countries, six of them from Equatorial countries. Not all of them have been remarkable or particularly rewarding of course but I did find some authors whose work I now know I want to further explore.
Next on my horizon will be Afghanistan via And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini and then possibly Uganda with Moses Isegawa’s first novel, Abyssinian Chronicles. The first is a definite since I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books magazine. But you never know where my wanderlust will take me after that and I may change my literary travel plans in favour of Latin America or China or Italy or ………..
Farewell to Nobel giants
This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series. I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.
St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93. One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.
The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood.
On Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez. Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.
Should celebs write children’s fiction?
Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting. Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore.
Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:
…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.
Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers. I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children. Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children. Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.
The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?
If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article
Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one. TheGoldfinchpulitzer.org/awards/2014
It did start on a high note as the first edition of Shiny New Books plopped into my in box. Many of you will have already seen this but for the uninitiated I should explain that this is a new quarterly on line bookish magazine created by four UK based bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon and Harriet). I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to the first issue with a review of Jim Crace’s Harvest. I knew this would be a good quality magazine because the four people are seasoned reviewers of some 30 years experience between them and know a lot about the literary world. I wasn’t prepared for just how good it would be however – scores of reviews and articles and all high quality. Do take a look and sign up for the newsletter (I warn you now that your reading wish list will likely get longer as a result.)
After that high spot, things went a little downhill.
Firstly, the magazine I’d bought which promised to show me many smart techniques for improving this blog using WordPress, turned out to be a mistake. Not the publishers’ fault, I should have studied it more closely. The tips were good, but the problem is that they seemed to work only if you have the self-hosted version available at WordPress.org not the fully-hosted wordpress.com version which is what I have. So the plug ins which you need to do cool things with images and tagging are not available. Which meant all my plans to get this blog into better shape went out of the window.
And then, despite promising myself that I would devote time to catching up on all the reviews I have yet to write, how many did I actually do? None. Procrastination was one factor (I do seem to take an inordinate amount of time to actually decide what to write). The other was that I only had the use of an iPad since I was away from home and the WordPress system doesn’t seem to be that compatible with iPad. Text jumps around and if you try and do copy paste, you can’t seem to get the cursor to land exactly where you want to paste the text. I gave up…..
On the plus side though instead of blogging and writing, I could spend the time reading and finishing both the Guernsey Literary & Potato Pie Society (if this hadn’t been a book club read I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it) and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which was much better than I expected it to be.
Next week I’ll be starting to think what books to take with me on a short holiday to Italy jus after Easter. Ideally I’d like something set in Italy but I don’t seem to have anything on the shelves that fits the bill and I haven’t come up with anything yet that I can go out and buy. Any suggestions/recommendations from you would be welcome – if possible of something set in Verona/Milan or that region…….
This week’s roundup of bookish news is a potpourri of prize announcements and electronic reading related items.
Announcements of contenders for this year’s literary awards came thick and fast over the past few days. Monday saw the 6 short listed titles for the Baileys Prize for women’s fiction announced − it wasn’t really a surprise to find Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘s Americanah; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland all on the list of finalists. Tuesday was the turn of fiction in translation with the shortlist for the International Foreign Fiction Prize which for the first time included work by some Japanese women writers and a book written by the German author Birgit Vanderbeke (The Mussel Feast) more than 20 hears ago but only now available in English. The International Impac Dublin literary award also revealed the 10 shortlisted authors for the 2014 award this week. I wonder if the people at publishers Harvill Secker have already put the champagne on ice in anticipation of success for their Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard who made it onto the lists of both the Impac and the Foreign Fiction prize though with different pieces of work.
There’s one major prize however that we didn’t hear from this week – the Pulitzer Prize. It’s due to be announced on Monday (April 14) but in case you can’t wait that long take a look at the Huffington Post article which does a review of the authors/titles they believe are the strongest contenders for the four categories this year, Tartt, Adichie Lahiri are amongst them.
London Book Fair this week was used by many publishers and sellers as the platform for announcements of new tools and channels for selling and accessing books. Penguin Random House UK unveiled My Independent Bookshop - a consumer book recommendation website where you’ll be able to set up a virtual bookshop to share your favourite reads. It’s also a platform for discovering new reads and posting reviews. It’s not yet ready for launch so there are few details yet of how this will work. Clearly the publishing house has seen the growth of personal recommendation as a way of influencing what we buy. Their new channel will have to be pretty special to compete in a space which is already crowded – what will it offer that people can’t already get from Goodreads and Library Thing I wonder?
Yet another article about the effect of on line reading – this one fortunately isn’t the usual fare of the ‘e-readers’ versus ‘real books’ type. The Washington Post looked at question whether the trend for reading via an e-reader or computer is actually changing how we read rather than simply what we read and how much. Apparently research has shown that when we access content on line we skim rather than read and slowly digest so we miss key information. I’ve certainly found that’s the case myself − I know that when I need to proof read something for example or to really understand complex info, then I have to use a printed copy. It’s all connected apparently with the way the eye moves on the page and on the screen. We think we read every word in a sentence but in reality we see one word and then without being aware of this, our eyes also take in a few words either side − but not the whole line, just enough to get the sense of what were reading − before jumping to the next line. Our brain fills in the gaps so that we can make sense of he whole line. With on screen reading we ‘read’ even fewer words per line so the gaps get wider and its harder to make sense of the whole line.
If you want to see whether your on screen and printed reading habits are different, you can test it by timing yourself by opening a printed book you’ve never read before. Read it for 15 minutes. Count how many words you completed. Then have someone test you on what you remember (e.g. names of characters, places, dates, times). Then repeat this with a different book but this time read it on a computer screen or an e-reader. Was there any difference? I’ll be curious to know your results……
Libraries Stretch their Horizons
If you’re down at your local library today and here some strange noises coming from behind the shelves, fear not – it might just be the neighbourhood yoga group in action. We’ve known for a long time now that libraries are about more than just books – some of them have very extensive music and dvd collections and they’ve long opened their doors to community acivities like local history societies. But some libraries like the multi-million facility opened in Birmingham, UK last year, have taken the open door approach a stage further. As the BBC reported recently now you’re just as likely to hear the clickety-click of knitting needles as the sound of pages turning.
I enjoy those photography projects where you take a picture of the same location on the same day every month or year. So I thought I’d copy the idea and do a snapshot of what I’m reading etc on the first Sunday of each month.
So here goes with the first one…..
I have two books on the go at the moment: Keri Hulmes The Bone People which I’m reading as part of my Booker Prize project and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The latter is the next selection for our book club. I can see why it’s hugely popular and parts of it are enjoyable. I’m learning a lot about the impact of World War 2 on the Guernsey islanders that I didn’t know before but overall the book isn’t grabbing me much.
I’m playing catch up with the BBC series The Plantagenets. The first program was about the origins of the dynasty and how they grew to be rulers of a huge swathe of land from Scotland, through England and as far as the middle of France. In between laying the foundations of the British justice system and taking off for the Holy Land on crusades,they seem to have spent much of their lives fighting each other. Talk about dysfunctional families! It’s a fascinating series – you can still watch the first three episodes on BBC I Player.
For years I listened to the radio news programs on my commute to work. But I stopped that when the interviewers became more interested in their own voices than in what their interviewees had to say. So I’ve switched to podcasts and audiobooks instead. After a spate of Peter James crime fiction featuring Superintendent Roy Grace, I’ve now moved onto Christabel Kent’s A Time of Mourning which is set in Florence and just has me wishing I was strolling in those piazzas right now. I’ve also caught up with some of my favorite podcasts like The Readers.
Future Learn is running a MOOC course on Shakespeare and his world. I’ve taken about five of these MOOC courses either through Future Learn or Coursera and found the quality is very mixed. This is one of the best I’ve done so far. It’s a collaboration between the University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Straord‐Upon‐Avon and looks at the plays from a historicist perspective. We’ve covered his interest in classical stories and in war for example, reading a different play each week. This week’s featured play The Merchant of Venice discussed the theme of money and trade and how Venice could represent the way London was emerging as the centre of a global trading nation. Next week we move onto the historical plays in the Henry cycle.
So many times during the week I come across an interesting article in a newspaper, magazine or on the Web and put it to one side meaning to come back to it ‘when I have more time.’ And then newspaper recycling collection day comes around again, the magazine gets thrown out and that’s the last I’ll see of that piece. Or, when I am in one of my more organised moods, I might remember to cut it out and put on the pile to read. Where it gathers dust and turns yellow. Does that sound familiar to you?
Since I don’t like the idea I’m missing out, I thought I’d start keeping a note of the most interesting items and titbits as I find them. And I thought I’d share them with you on the basis that you may also have missed them.
What piqued my interest this week?
It was April 1 earlier this week in case you hadn’t noticed so I was on the look out for any truly imaginative bookish April Fools jokes. The only thing I came across was something picked up by the Asymptote journal which reported on news from the German publisher PediaPress that they plan to print out all of Wikipedia— bearing in mind this is about four million articles, that doesn’t sounds like a smart thing given all the dire warnings about climate change coming out of the scientist pow wow in Japan this week. So it’s got to be a prank hasn’t it?
For those of you who grew up with Ernest Fowler’s manual on how to write clear and plain English at your side, you’ll be interested to know that a new edition of Plain Words has just been published. It’s 60 years since Fowler’s Complete Plain Words first appeared. It’s gone through a number of revisions since that time – this latest is the work of Fowler’s great-granddaughter Rebecca. The Daily Telegraph marked the occasion with an article looking at the origins of Fowler’s book and asking whether his war against jargon was a lost battle.
Access to Books
Something that completely escaped my attention but came to light this week, was the decision by the UK Government to prohibit prisoners from receiving books as gifts. This apparently is meant to address public perceptions that prisoners have it easy in jail – so prohibitions on gifts of books, wire guitar strings and new underwear are no longer to be tolerated. Prisoners can still get books from the prison library of course, or can buy them using wages from working in the laundry for example, but it’s goodbye to books as birthday or Christmas gifts or even as an occasional treat. The only reason I heard of this was because many authors and actors took to the streets of London to protest. Regardless of the fact people are in prison because they offended society’s rules, I’m appalled to think reading is considered a treat and not a basic human right.
You can add your voice to the debate by signing an on line petition
A bookseller’s tale
How many avid readers dream of owning their own bookshop? It sounds idyllic doesn’t it? What could be more fun than basing your shop in a quaint rose clad cottage or bay fronted Victorian building? Sarah Henshaw thought she had the perfect idea – convert a barge into a bookshop to travel the waterways of central England. Problem was, she had no experience of running a business of any kind and never got past the second paragraph of a manual on how to run a bookshop. Not surprisingly, the business ran into difficulties and even a letter to Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos asking for help didn’t help. She began swapping books for food, laundry and a bed for the night. Now she’s written a book about her experience (the barge business is still afloat though only on weekends and during holiday periods). The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is published by Constable & Robinson in UK. You can read part of her story in this article
That’s it for this week.
Let me know what you think of this idea
And don’t forget to tell us about snippets of news that attracted your attention this week but we might have also missed.
Let’s start with the good news. My TBR pile is shrinking (round of applause please). I’ve read eight from the list of 139 books that were on my shelves or on the e-reader as of January . Despite many temptations I’ve bought only one book so far this year. My wish list has exploded however.
Of all the books I’ve read so far this year only two really stand out for me: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola and the 1999 Booker prize winner Disgrace by J. M Coetzee. If I was the sort of person that used a star-rating system they would be in the 5 star category. They couldn’t be more different in terms of setting or themes – Zola’s focus is on the miserable condition of the poor in nineteenth century Paris whereas Coetzee looks at the issue of life after the ending of apartheid in South Africa. What they have in common is the way they make you pause from whatever else is going on in your life and to think instead about the condition of the human race.
It wasn’t a surprise that the Zola was so good because I’ve enjoyed three other novels by him (Germinal is one of my all-time favourites) but I’d never read anything by Coetzee. Based on this experience I was getting fired up to read two of his works that I already have on my shelves − his 1983 Booker Prize winning Life & Times of Michael K and Summertime published in 2009. On closer inspection however I found that the latter is the third in a series of “fictionalised memoirs” so isn’t going to make much sense until I read the first two. I’ll have to check whether I can get them from the library.
Looking back over the last few months I think I’ve neglected my Booker Prize project a little. I’m not following any deadline for this project but since this was what prompted me to start blogging, I feel I should be making rather more progress than I have of late. So I am rectifying that right now by starting The Bone People which won the Booker Prize in 1984 for the New Zealand author Keri Hulme.
It’s a story of relationships in which Maori myths and folk traditions are blended with a modern day setting of life. The mystical tones of the opening didn’t give me great hope:
It is all silence.
The silence is music.
He is the singer.
They were nothing more than people by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.
Fortunately we’ve had less of this as the story got underway though I sense it will not go away entirely. Interesting to note in the author’s introduction that she refused her publisher’s guidance about editing the book, declaring she would rather have the book “embalmed in Perspex” than re-shaped.
After that, it’s a toss up between Graham Swift’s 1996 winner Last Orders or the 1992 winner— Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
Any of you read either of those and can give me a recommendation?