Much of the last week has been spent in fighting proposals to turn our local branch library from a professionally run service to one that is operated or maybe even managed completely by volunteers. We first heard there were changes in the wind in April but at that point our branch was save apart from a few reduced opening hours. Without warning in August that changed and suddenly our local library was slated for downgrading so our local authority can fill a £32M funding gap over the next three years.
We were promised these were just proposals and no decisions had been taken. Further statements were made that “our intention is not to close libraries”. Well, guess what, when the consultation document came out this week the first question was ‘would you support community led libraries as an alternative to their closure?’ What a biased question and one that is impossible to answer without giving the council what we now believe the want – a mandate to close libraries yet masquerading this as being what their citizens want.
A local protest group has now been formed and I’ve found my evenings and the weekend rapidly developing campaign posters, putting an action plan together, contacting the media etc.
Problem is that this is happening all over the country as councils see a diminishment of the public library service as a relatively easy way to cut costs; much less emotive than closing a school or a day care centre for the elderly. Anyone who has a household budget understands the challenge of having to make savings. We’re not stupid in thinking that the local authority is any different and can suddenly magic up more money but the approach they are taking is very short sighted. What doesn’t seem to be really under consideration is the long term impact on literacy and on elderly people who live alone and use a trip to the library as a way to keep in touch with people.
If we were asked to volunteer to help the existing librarians, to run reading groups for children or restock the shelves etc, there would be plenty of people coming forward. But few people are willing to do this and see librarians lose their jobs as a result. This is something that warrants a considered debate not simply a checkbox questionnaire.
Clearly I am not much use at spotting prize winning books. Last year I was rooting for Jim Crace’s The Harvest to win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I got it completely wrong since the prize went to the (in my view) much less impressive The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
This year I was 100% sure that Ali Smith would grab the prize. I was even flirting with the idea that I might put a flutter on her (except the last time I went into a book maker’s establishment I was seven years old so the routine might have changed a bit). Just as well I didn’t since those devilish judges turned their backs on Ms Smith in favour of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which is set during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War Two. Darn it, I have read three of the six shortlisted novels this year but wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t got as far as this one.
I’m not familiar with Flanagan’s work but this sounds like a fascinating read even though it’s likely to be harrowing at times given its subject matter.
So Scotland misses out but at least the title goes to an author from the Commonwealth thus confounding everyone who signalled the demise of the prize when they ‘let in the Americans’.
Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers. Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.
Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still, querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick. Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.
Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna. Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.
Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?
Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way. Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special, that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.
But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …
And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy). The two are inexplicably connected:
…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t
This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.
How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
I’m not a great fan of ‘must read’ book lists. They either make you feel smug that you’ve read most of the titles or inadequate when you discover you’ve not even heard of most of those authors. Those few words “must read” get my back up also for another reason: they make me feel like I’m being given a medication prescription for some nasty cough medicine instead of having a door opened to what could be a wonderful experience.
But there are some lists which make me sit up and pay attention. Often they are lists where the selection is made by authors themselves rather than publishers or critics. Or they are lists that introduce me to writers from parts of the world outside my own. I use these lists to find titles I can consider for my world of literature project.
Two articles published recently have ticked both of these boxes.
In the first, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and more recently Bone Clocks) who is a fan of Japanese literature recommended 5 books by Japanese authors. I was expecting Haruki Murakami to feature in the list but in fact Mitchell has chosen a few lesser known authors. “They are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature,” he said. “Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and … three aren’t even really well known there.”
I’ve not heard of any of these authors but I’ve added two of the recommendations to my wish list (the titles by Tanizaki and Ariyoshi).
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, is a domestic family saga with dark undertones. Set in Osaka on the eve of World War 2, it portrays the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family.
Silence by Shusaku Endo. Mitchell says this is a big historical novel about an era after Christianity is outlawed, with complex and flawed characters
The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi. Another historical novel, this time featuring a Japanese doctor who was the pioneer in the use of anaesthetic in the 1810s and the first doctor in the world to perform successfuly surgery for breast cancer. (the English translation of this novel is currently out of stock but being reprinted)
The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe. Mitchell says Abe is ‘a bit bonkers’ which perhaps accounts for the odd nature of this novel. It’s about an entomologist who falls into a sandpit when he is out looking for insects one day. Somehow he becomes the slave of inhabitants of a nearby village who won’t let him out of the sandpit. He has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village.
The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Mitchell describes Ogawa as an experimental writer whose experiments don’t always work. This novel is one that does. It’s about a mathematics professor who wakes one morning to find his memory has been wiped clean. His housekeeper and her son help him cope with his defect.
Central American literature
I know absolutely nothing about literature from this part of the world but thanks to Words without Borders I’ve been introduced to some upcoming writers from one of those countries. The October issue of Words without Borders e-magazine features short stories by 7 Guatemalan writers. This is an opportunity to read work by authors whose material is not widely available outside their home country or translated into English.
Super Thursday is coming up next week on October 9. This is the day when the publishing industry launches hundreds of books on the same day (1,500 last year actually), in the build up to Christmas which is their busiest time of the year.
With that number of new titles coming out shortly, it’s going to be a severe test of my resilience to adding yet more titles to the bookshelf. A few upcoming releases have already caught my eye. I’m hoping I can get some of them ordered at the library rather than bust my book purchasing ban still further.
Lamentations by C. J Sansom is the sixth in the series set in sixteenth century England. Once again the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake becomes embroiled in the politics of the Tudor court. In Lamentations, Henry VIII is near to death, providing an opportunity for the disaffected Catholics to try and return the country to their faith. Their attention turns to Henry’s wife Catherine who enlists Shardlake’s help to protect her life. I’ve read two of the Shardlake series so far, Dissolution and Dark Fire ( click on the links to see my reviews ) both of which I loved for the way they plunge you into the smells and sounds of sixteenth century England as well as the intrigue of the court. Lamentations is published in the UK October 23.
With her latest novel, Rachel Joyce will be hoping to emulate the success of her debut novel The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy revisits the Harold Fry story but this time from the point of view of the person that he walks the length of England to save — his former work colleague Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is shocked to discover that Harold Fry is walking. She’s not sure she’ll still be alive by the time he reaches her. and she has something important to tell him. A volunteer at the hospice suggests she writes to Harold and to confess what she has hidden for twenty years. I enjoyed the Pilgrimage book overall but am not sure there’s enough mileage left to sustain a whole new novel. I could be wrong however. We will find out when its ‘s published on October 21 by Bond Street Books.
Much to my embarrassment I have yet to read anything by Colm Tóibín despite all the critical acclaim for his work. His newest novel could change that. Nora Webster sounds superb. Its set in Wexford, Ireland where a widow is mourning the loss of her husband who was the love of her life. Lost in her own grief she doesn’t see the suffering endured by her young sons at the loss of their father. This is a story about a strong willed woman trying to protect her privacy in a small community with an insatiable curiosity and desire to know everyone else’s business. Nora Webster is published by Scribner.
If these are not temptation enough for you then maybe you’d like a bag especially created to mark the upcoming launches. Turner prize winning artist Tracy Emin is the designer for this year’s Books are my Bag bag. You can start buying it from bookshops and independent stores on October 9. See the info on the Booksellers Association website.
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I have just a few pages left to read of Ali Smith’s latest novel How to Be Both. It’s a wonderful novel because of the innovative narrative structure — one part is the story of an early Renaissance mural artist; the second is about an inquisitive teenage girl in the present day. Some editions start with the artist, some with the teenager so readers get to have a different way of interacting with the text. My version began with the artist. At first I couldn’t see how the two stories would come together but I had underestimated Ali Smith’s talent. This is such a superb novel that I’ll be astounded beyond belief if it doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize later this month.
Next on my list to read is a novel I was given as a gift by a work colleague in South Korean who was excited to learn I wanted to discover a local author. So now I am going to be reading Please Look after Mom by the South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin. This novel, which has reached sales of more than a million copies in the country, is about woman who gets lost in the crowd at a train station in Seoul. Her selfish family of husband, two sons and two daughters who haven’t really given her much love and attention until now are forced by her disappearance to re-evaluate their lives and their relationships.
I’m making slow progress with the audio version of Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. It’s not as easy to listen to while driving as crime fiction so I find myself having to stop and rewind frequently because I’ve lost track of who is who.
The West Wing series is one of my favourite TV programs to come out of the USA. Some of the episodes get a bit bogged down in detail that is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the American government and political system but the characters are highly watchable and there is a tremendous energy in these programs. Those guys are so constantly on the move they must easily beat the recommended 10,000 steps a day. We’re revisiting the whole series at the moment and we’re in the midst of the election campaign for the next President. Great fun.
Coca Cola earned more than 900 million dollars in sales last year so you’d think they could afford to employ a few people who understand the basic rules of English grammar. But it seems that no-one in the “world’s largest beverage company” knows the rules. Or perhaps they don’t think they are important enough to use correctly.
The company is in the midst of a huge promotion campaign for their new drink, Coco-Cola Life. The strap line in the full page newspaper advert proclaims
More choice, less calories
How could this howler have escaped the scrutiny of the myriad of ad agency copywriters, editors, production staff who came up with the concept let alone the company’s marketing team who approved it for publication?. Wasn’t there even one person who thought that line seemed wrong? Or is this a case where the principles of good writing are considered way too old fashioned for a brand appealing to a youth market?
The odd thing is that the body text actually says … ” a third fewer calories” (my italics) and other ads use the line ‘lower calories’ both of which are correct. So how did this aberration get through?
It’s bad enough when local shopkeepers get over enthusiastic and add apostrophes wherever there’s a plural on the horizon but for a world leading company this is unforgivable.
In case anyone wants a quick primer on how to decide whether to use fewer or less, here is a useful reference. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/less-or-fewer