The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Spinning HeartIf it were not for an intern, Donal Ryan’s novel about the heartbreaking consequences of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom, would never have been published. Nor would it have made the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Award. Nor would I have read one of the best novels I’ve experienced this year.

According to the Independent of Dublin, Ryan’s novel was rejected by publishers more than 40 times. Then an intern working at Lilliput Press in Dublin  found it in the reject pile and raved about it so much to the publisher Anthony Farrell that he was persuaded to read the manuscript himself. The rest is history.

For a debut novel, The Spinning Heart is a remarkable accomplishment. Technically adroit and with pitch perfect characterisation, Ryan builds a powerful portrait of a community fractured by the sudden reversal from boom to boost as the Celtic Tiger years come to an end.

The novel opens as news hits the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town that the  local building firm which had driven much of its prosperity, has gone under,  having over reached itself with one too many new housing developments . The boss Pokey Burke has fled the country, leaving his employees feeling betrayed as well as broke when they discover Pokey had never paid their pension contributions or kept up their employment insurance. No wages, no redundancy payments, no pension payouts.

The repercussions are told through the voices of 21 characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the collapse. Some of them react with quiet desperation like Réaltín, a lonely unmarried mother in a house surrounded by partly built or unsold properties, or Kate, whose creche business suffers when Dell lays off its its wealthy clients and then a child is snatched from her care. Some like Bobby Mahon, the respected foreman of Pokey’s company, funnel their energy into getting any job they can even if the payments are ‘under the counter’. Others like Denis, the boss of an engineering equipment company, end up curled foetus-like on the sofa in shock at his own propensity for violence.

Each monologue adds to our understanding of the other characters and the tensions in this community that build  and erupt into a murderous attack.  There is a sense too that each of the narrators is reaching into themselves to understand who they are and what has gone wrong with their lives.  Even Seanie, a serial womaniser who spends most of his time messing around and joking with his builder mates, has his moments of inner reflection on a world turned upside down.

I never thought I’d ever be depressed , really. It’s quare easy to fall into that hole  when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things  you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in he future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over.

Despair is at the centre of this book, symbolised by the  “flaking, creaking, spinning” metal heart found on the gate leading to the house of Bobby’s detested father. All these characters are in turmoil, wounded by economic forces outside their control, by mental illness or by a fractured relationship with a loved one. Can this community ever be healed is a question that remains unanswered.

Ups and downs at the library

sundaysalonI took off for the county library on Thursday armed with the 2014 Man Booker long list, on a quest to read at least a few of these titles before the shortlist is announced on September 9. Last year when I embarked on the same exercise I managed to get hold of two titles and then went onto the very very long reserve list for what turned out to the the winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

This year was much more disappointing. Of the 13 long listed novels, only one (History of the Rain by Niall Williams) was in stock in the whole of the county. Three more were on order but no indication of the expected delivery date. The remainder were not on the radar at all. Now that wasn’t a surprise in the case of Paul Kingsworth’s The Wake since this was a crowd funded novel. But what astonished me was that there were no plans to acquire Ali Smith’s How to Be Both despite her award-winning track record or Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves —I’m not desperately keen to read this one personally but the huge commercial success she had with The Jane Austen Book Club (it spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list) would surely make this a popular choice with library goers? The short story is that I left the building empty handed though at least with the knowledge that History of the Rain will be on its way to me from another branch within a couple of days. 

Not a good experience clearly but I feel rather mean being critical of the library service at the moment. Firstly because I know they have seen their budgets reduced and reduced in successive years so the amount they have to spend on new acquisitions is shrinking. Secondly because they are awaiting the recommendations of a review by the local authority to be implemented which will see the service suffer even further. The staff already know that some branches will be closed and turned over to community volunteers, while others will see their opening hours cut. Even though this was decided in April, the staff still don’t know when the changes will be put into place. It’s hard to think ahead when you have no idea what shape the future will take. And finally, because despite all this uncertainty the staff remain as friendly, patient and helpful as ever. I simply couldn’t bring myself to complain or grumble that leading authors were being overlooked and not all their readers wanted the latest John Grisham or James Patterson. (no disrespect to those authors or their fans but you get my point). 

What I would like to understand however is how they make decisions about which books to order and who is involved in those decisions. Would it be appropriate to contact the country librarian with my questions do you think? How does your library service decide what to get?

Weekend Bookends #10

A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)

Prize for African literature announced

I was so focused on the announcement of the Man Booker Prize long list that I overlooked an announcement about the lesser known Caine Prize for African Writing. This has been running since 2005 and commemorates Sir Michael Caine, the former Chairman of Booker plc who chaired the Booker Prize management committee for almost 25 years. The award celebrates the short story format and is open to writers of African origin . This year’s winner is Okwiri Oduor from Kenya with My Father’s Heada story about loss and memory as a women working in comes to terms with her father’s death. You can read the winning story and the shortlisted entries on the Caine Prize website.  If you prefer to listen rather than read, they are all available as podcasts – click here to get the details.

How far would you travel to get to a Book Club?

There is a person featured in this article who travels 100 kilometres every two weeks just so he can participate in his club. Makes me feel guilty now about all the meetings I missed at the book club which is just 8 miles down the road from my home.

A boost for world literature

Ever since I started my world literature project, I’ve been bemoaning the lack of availability of books by authors from outside the western world. From Los Angeles comes news of a new publisher that is taking some small steps to rectify this. Unnamed Press has made its mission to publish new, international authors who may not fit into the traditional mould. So far they have published works from Estonian, Bangladeshi and Mexican writers. If only the larger companies could follow suit.

Inspiring Blogger Award

blogger-awardI don’t care how many years it’s been since I was skipping around because my teacher had given me a gold star  the warm glow you get when someone sends praise your way, never goes away. Thanks to two kind bloggers I therefore had a rather broad grin on my face this past few days. Stephanie at So Many Books and Ali at HeavenAli both nominated me  for the Very Inspiring Blog Award. Thank you ladies!

The rules are:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

7 Facts About Me

  • My very first job involved decorating cakes in my parents’ bakery. If you need anyone to stick jam into doughnuts or cream into eclairs, just let me know.
  • My first career was in journalism. Anyone who thinks that’s a glamorous job should think again. I reported on everything from crime to political corruption to industrial disputes. The worst job was having to write a weekly report about cricket in the summer and football in the winter. I knew zero about either sport and my teams never seemed to win – ever.
  • I’ve met Anthony Hopkins and enjoyed a glass of wine with him. No Fava beans were involved fortunately – he’d only recently won the Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter so I think he was a bit tired of that diet.
  • Nothing makes me more cross than broadcasters who pronounce ‘aitch’ as ‘hatch’. While we’re on the subject of pet peeves, all my colleagues know never to use the word ‘leverage’ in my hearing or sight.
  • I love to travel – my favourite country so far is South Africa
  • As a Welsh national, I am supposed to be able to sing (if you ever watch a film or tv programme about Wales they always feature people singing). I can’t. I absolutely cannot hold a note so if you want to stay my friend, make sure you never invite me for karaoke.
  • According to the Kingdomality personality profile, in a medieval society I would be the discover – someone who is always looking for new experiences and thrives on change. If you have never done this, go to - it’s far more fun than Myers Briggs and is uncannily accurate. Will you be a Black Knight or a merchant? A bishop or a merchant?

 And now for the nominations

Many of the bloggers I follow regularly and interact with most have already been nominated so I thought I’d spread the wealth with my own nominations.

  • Stu at Winstons Dad’s blog: for inspiring us all to read more works in translation
  • DoveGreyReaders: an eclectic mixture of book reviews, gardening and local history from Devon
  • Emma deserves an award from the French government for drawing so much attention to books about and from that country
  • Literary Exploration  Michael wasn’t much of a reader until 2009 but is now making up for lost time by working his way through the 1001 books to read before you die list. He’s making far better progress than I am with my projects
  • Novel Readings Rohan’s reviews are always insightful and I love reading about the university courses she teaches. Plus she shares my love of Middlemarch
  • Seeing the World Through Books Mary inspired her students to see the world outside their own locality when she was teaching English at Massachusetts college. Her blog is a rich resource of  world literature books
  • Tony’s Book World: another lover of world literature
  • Nataallh: a writer from Gaza City who gives us an insight into life in this besieged city
  • ArabicLiterature: M.Lynx is a writer based in Cairo who blogs every day about literature in English from the Arabic world.
  • BookRhapsody: Angus was one of the first bloggers I ‘met’ and loved reading his reports about his book club in the Phillipines.
  • The Literary Bunny: Christina had a break from the blog for a while but is back. I enjoy following her stories of about the books that her family buy for her as surprise gifts.
  • StillUnfinishedBryan has a refreshingly honest take on life and books
  • 101books Robert’s journey through Time Magazine’s list of greatest English language novels since 1923
  • Some of the bloggers who inspired me and gave me practical as well as moral support when I took my first steps with this site are sadly not as active as they were. But I’m going to nominate them anyway in the hope it rekindles their interest.
    • Laura of Musings: a wonderful guide in my journey through Booker prize winning novels
    • Alex in Leeds her idea of the book jar has inspired so many people (just look up the term on You Tube if you want proof)

Man Booker 2014 longlist announced – and there are a few surprises

The 13 novels longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize have just been announced. As expected, the new rules mean there is a heavy presence by American authors. Surprisingly though these are not the big hitters we were expecting – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch didn’t make it even though it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction earlier this year. Dave Eggers didn’t get listed either, though perhaps that’s not surprising since the critical response to Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? was, shall we say, lukewarm. The best known name among the Americans is Karen Jay Fowler with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Based on my experience of reading her best selling title,  The Jane Austen Book Club I am surprised to find her on the list and honestly can’t see her getting any further. Delighted though to see Neel Mukherjee on the list with The Lives of Others - I reviewed this recently and enjoyed it so much I nominated it for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Award. Hope he gets through to the next  round..

Disappointingly few Commonwealth writers make it this year, in distinct contrast to the 2013 award longlist. Instead we have six novels from Britain, one from Australia, one from Ireland plus the five from USA.

Chairman of the judges AC Grayling says that the lack of Commonwealth writers on the list was a reflection of the choices made by publishers when they decided what to submit. The Daily Telegraph quotes him as follows:.

“It looks as though the publishers have put forward a number of American authors slightly at the expense of Commonwealth writers.

“But I do think this is something that will adjust itself very quickly. It’s almost certainly the publishers feeling their way with American authors and I’m quite sure that will right itself,” he said.

That comment doesn’t quite stack up for me since the press release issued by the Man Booker team says there were 31 Commonwealth submissions this year compared with 43 last year. Ok, it’s a drop but not a big falling off. The key here is however that 44 titles were entered which wouldn’t have been eligible until the rule change so we are certainly seeking a skewing of the list. I hope Grayling proves right and this should settle down in future years since one of the most valuable aspects for me of the Booker was the way it highlighted lesser known authors from countries whose literature doesn’t get much visibiity otherwise.

The Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist

Joshua Ferris (USA) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Richard Flanagan (Australia):  The narrow Road to the Deep North

Karen Joy Fowler (USA):  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Siri Hustvedt (USA):  The Blazing World

Howard Jacobson (British): J

Paul Kingsnorth – The Wake. A novel published through crowd-funding

David Mitchell (Britain):  The Bone Clocks

Neel Mukherjee (British): The Lives of Others. Although born in Calcutta, the Booker lists him as British

David Nicholls (British):  Us

Joseph O’Neill (USA): The Dog

Richard Powers (USA) Orfeo

Ali Smith (British): How To Be Both

Niall Williams (Eire) – History of the Rain

I’m off to the library now to see which of these I can get. If last year’s experience is anything to judge by there won’t be that many available.

ManBooker Prize 2014: countdown begins

Just one more day before we know which dozen books the judges have long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It’s the first year in its 40 years plus history that the prize has been open to authors outside the Commonwealth. From this year onwards, the prize could be awarded to any author writing originally in English, irrespective of nationality, so long as their novel has been published in the UK this year. Which means that 2014 could be the year of the Americans with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch one of the front runners.

But the Booker is well known for springing a few surprises so while I expect she’ll be on the shortlist, the million dollar question is who will give her a run for her money? Anyone like to predict?

The Guardian is running its popular Not the Booker Prize where readers can nominate books that might not be on the official list. Nominations close at midnight (UK time) on 27 July 2014. A shortlist will be published the following day. You can join in the fun via this link. Some of the books with more than one nomination are:

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Wounding by Heidi James

Cairo by Louis Armand

With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert

The official Man Booker shortlist will be announced on Tuesday 9 September 2014 and then the winner announced on Tuesday 14th October 2014.

Classics Club – the biographical question

It’s been months since I tackled one of the monthly questions posed by the Classics Club. I look at the question at the start of each month, decide it will take some thought – and then spend the rest of the month cogitating but never coming to any conclusions. Procrastination is definitely not helpful in this case.

I’ve only just seen this month’s question so let’s see if I can do better if I just answer it right away.

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

PepysI don’t read many biographies but one that stands out for me is The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys.  I already knew something of Pepys’s life by reading some extracts from his diaries as part of my history studies at school, mainly the sections in which he wrote about the Great Fire of London and the plague. Being adolescents of course we went searching for some the more bawdy entries.

What I hadn’t realised until reading Tomalin’s book was  just how powerful a figure he was in the seventeenth century, becoming Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and subsequently his brother King James II. It was Pepys apparently who laid the foundations of professional standards in the Royal Navy.  Not bad for a tailor’s son who at various times was accused of bribery and of secretly following the Catholic faith.

As you would expect, Tomalin includes many extracts from the diaries to illustrate some of her themes. Some of them deal with his time at the Navy, others with the many women with him he has liaisons.  But what Tomalin shows, and what interested me most, was the side of Pepys as a cultivated man, an avid theatre- goer who could compose music and play several instruments and wo enjoyed a few glasses of wine (well rather more than a few it seems). Oh, and this was the clincher for me; he was an avid collector of books.  He’s someone I want to get to know better. We may have a few things in common…

See my review of The Unequalled Self

Sunday salon: New acquisitions

garden readingSunday greetings from one very hot reader. Here in the UK we’re going through a very hot spell and unusually this one is sticking around for a while.  Even though my garden is in desperate need of some attention it’s far too hot to do anything much beyond pruning the rose bushes and deadheading some border plants. On a day like this there really is only one thing in the garden I want to do and that’s to sit in it with a good book and a glass of something cold.

  • Which makes it fortuitous that I stocked up my reading shelves yesterday. I can hear you saying “I thought you weren’t buying any books till you’d cleared that TBR collection???” I have indeed been doing well on that front – more on that another time – but I had gone to the library to pick up The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan which had finally become available and then found the library was having a book sale. I couldn’t resist taking a look as you might expect and found some titles that will be good additions for my world literature reading project.

So now I’m set up for a lovely few hours of reading. And all I have to decide is which of these to open first.

  • An Elergy for Easterly which is  a collection of short stories by the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki. This was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now renamed the Baileys Prize) in 2012. This is the fifth novel by Farooki,  who was born Pakistan to a literary family but now lives in London. It’s about a somewhat shady character who travels around the world adopting a different persona in each country.
  • A book by another Pakistani author caught my eye. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. It’s a noel about the shared histories of two families, moving from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of September 11 and Afghanistan in the wake of the resulting US bombing campaign.
  • I’ve never read anything by Mario  Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature , nor have I read anything by a Peruvian author so when I spotted Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. It actually isn’t set in South America but in Ireland where a hero of Irish Nationalism awaits the hangman’s noose having been convicted of treason.

I would have been happy with just those four but the library was offering a discount if you bought five so onto my pile went one book that has nothing to do with world literature: Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. I have A Visit from the Goon Squad but have yet to open it so I have no idea whether I will like her style. This one predates Goon Squad by 10 years. It’s about a model who is trying to return to life after a catastrophic car accident which so badly impacted her face, she needed 80 screws to fix the back in place. Unrecognisable and unable to return to her former work, she drifts into drink and despair.

If these were your new acquisitions which would you read first?

Weekend bookends # 9

A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)

Book Resources

The BBC is trying to demonstrate it isn’t downgrading its focus on the arts with the announcement of a new book portal on its website. The number of arts programmes has been decreasing in recent years and the announcement in March that its flagship programme The Review Show was being axed after 20 years was greeted with criticism all round.

In response, the Beeb has launched Books at the BBC, which brings together all its radio and tv coverage under one virtual roof – until now, they were listed only on the web pages for each individual station and program. Books at the BBC is going to be in test mode throughout the summer and finalised this autumn.  The current pages have some really good programmes and resources. Apart from quick links to the Book of the Week episodes and the latest episodes of The World Book Club and Open Book, there is a collection of material about the work of Laurie Lee who would have been 100 last month, including his last recorded interview. I was fascinated by an interview with Jung Chang (author of the award-winning Wild Swans) talks about her latest book Empress Dowager Cixi and was just getting ready to listen to the serialisation when the server crashed. I think they’re having some technical issues. But when they get fixed this is going to be a site I’m sure I’ll be coming back to often.

Around the world the short way

You all know how much I love reading fiction from different parts of the world. This week I came across an app that takes me on a world literary odyssey in small steps and without having to pack a bag. I’d been reading the Book of Gaza short stories published by Comma Press and went to their website to find out what else they had to offer. And thats where I came upon LitNav. It’s an app you can download from ITunes (free of charge) that gives you access to dozens of short stories set in different parts of the world, all written by authors from those locations.

There was no question which I would read first. Here in the UK we’ve been getting warnings of an imminent megastorm so it seemed entirely fortuitous to find a story called Waiting for the Rain which is set in Barcelona which turned out to be a nicely observed story about an encounter on a tram between age and youth. Then it was off to Asia for a story with the odd title Squatting set in somewhere called Shenyang that turned out to be a funny tale off a bunch of intellectuals with ideas on how to solve their city’s crime problem.

The most inventive aspect of this site however is that if you download the audio version, it opens a map of the streets and districts featured in the story, with info about the location itself. So you can follow your characters around their city. I haven’t seen any of the big publishers do this (if I’m wrong do let me know) but I thought it was remarkable that this had been created by a small, not for profit group. Kudos to Comma Press for bringing this new platform to life.

Now I just have to decide which collection of stories in book form I want next. Tokyo is favourite at the moment….



The Book of Gaza

The Book of Gaza COVER (2)At a time when the eyes of the world are turned on the battle being raged over Gaza, it seems entirely appropriate to be reading an anthology of stories by writers from the territory. The Book of Gaza brings together the work of ten Palestinian writers who between them represent a range of experiences of life in an enclave no more than 26 miles long and 3 miles wide yet fought over for decades.

Published by Comma Press in the UK earlier this year, The Book of Gaza is an attempt to show that there is another side to life in this region from what is typically seen in media reports. The city of Gaza itself is,  says editor Atef Abu Saif in his introduction, like any other coastal city with its coffee shops and inhabitants who relax on the beach., a city where “people love and hate, are filled with desires and wracked with concerns.”

The stories show that these emotions are played out against a background of restricted movement, military control and curfews and where the threat of violence is never far away. The point of some of the stories is a little obtuse at times and I had to read them more than once.  There is a brooding aspect to many of them, a foreboding sense of danger with many references to attacks on people living in the refugee camps or to waiting at the borders to cross into neighbouring Egypt or Israel.

AtefAbuSaifBut there is also a sense of human resilience. In one story by Zaki al ‘Ela, Abu Jaber Returns to the Woods, for example, a man is given a terrible beating but still refuses to give up the names of people wanted by the army.  In A Journey in the Opposite Direction by Atef Abu Saif, there is a chance encounter at the border between four friends from university. One of the men is waiting for his brother to return to Gaza after twenty years. He’s already waited for three days while his brother tried to get through an iron gate at the border amidst  thousands of pushing and shoving travellers. The other man has already made the crossing, returning home so that he can see his mother before she dies. As they share a drink at a makeshift cafe, they encounter two girls who are trying to cross the border in the other direction but having similar difficulties. The border crossing is abandoned, the wait for the brother fizzles out and the four ride off back to Gaza under a moonlight sky to the sounds of laughter.

As Saif says the people of Gaza “live on a remorseless stretch of land, in a reality that tries to kill their desire to live, yet they do not tire of loving life as long as there is a way to do so.”