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 July 26

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 Head, a 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. 

Weekend bookends July 19

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.”




The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Lives of OthersNeel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others is an ambitious blend of family saga and political turbulence set in India during the second half of the 1960s.

The narrative is broad ranging, oscillating between the quotidien of the Ghosh family in their sprawling Calcutta home and the villages and rice fields of western Bengal where Communist guerrillas hide in the jungle plotting insurrection.  These two elements appear disconnected initially but Mukherjee juxtaposes them to show how a crisis in the institution of the family echoes and parallels the fractures and cracks appearing in Indian society itself.

At the centre of the novel is the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who have seen their fortunes grow through investments in paper mills stretching across the sub continent. Three generations of this family live together in strictly hierarchical allocations of rooms and space within the home. The ageing patriarchal figure of Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor. As befitting her status on the lowest rung of the family tree, Purba, the widow of their youngest son, is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. There she and her two children subsist on a diet of dal and rice and whatever leftovers are despatched from above.

BengaliweddingjewelleryBeneath the calm, tensions begin appearing within this family. Jealousy over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery escalate from acts of pettiness into acts of malice; one son has to be married off quickly to avoid scandal when he gets a local girl pregnant and a grandson secretly experiments with drugs and eventually becomes an addict. Charubala frets about the impossibility of getting her daughter Chhayha married, most suitors being turned off by her too-dark skin and turned eye. Then union unrest at the mills threatens to bring the business down.

All of these problems are nothing however compared to the sudden disappearance of one of the elder grandsons. The family fear Supratik has joined the Naxalites, a guerrilla wing of the outlawed communist party that is responsible for acts of insurgency against the government. All they have is a note he left behind:

Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own. Forgive me.’

Supratik finds his privileged life style and early escapades as a student activist have little prepared him for life amidst the farmers and villagers on whose behalf he is fighting. It’s when he sees their struggle to scratch out a living from the land, getting deeper and deeper into debt at the hands of moneylenders and landowners, that his eyes are opened to the reality of life. It’s not easy to get these poor people interested in land reform and communist principles when they can have to put every ounce of energy into keeping alive.

…now I knew yet another reason why everyone in the heart of rural Bengal went to sleep so early. When you worked in the fields from six in the morning to four in the afternoon, the tiredness resulting from it stunned you into silence. You went from being a human, animated by a mind and spirit and consciousness at the beginning of the day to a machine without a soul at the end of those ten hours, moving your arms and legs and mouth because you felt some switch hadn’t been turned off. There it was, and the machine was dead, or just a stopped machine.

Mukherjee provides Supratik with  numerous other flashes of insight as a counter to his overall  naivety and real lack of understanding of how powerless he and his intellectual bourgeois ‘comrades’ are against the forces of officialdom. Just as as his grandparents don’t see what goes on under their noses within their house, he doesn’t comprehend what is really happening in society.

This is an ambitious book which nicely blends domestic drama and political turmoil, and humour with pathos. Rose Tremain summed it up perfectly for me:

Neel Mukherjee has written an outstanding novel: compelling, compassionate and complex, vivid, musical and fierce.

This is surely a contender for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

The Lives of Others was ublished in UK by Chatto & Windus on May 22. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

Writers under siege

The voice coming through the PA system spoke of freedom. But for one of the speakers scheduled to appear at the Hay Literary Festival last month, there was no such freedom. Instead of sitting on stage to discuss what it means to be a writer in an occupied land, Abjallah Taych was trapped behind the locked down borders of Gaza, unable to get the required permits to leave the country. There could not have been a more powerful symbol of the constraints facing writers from this part of the world. Taych’s voice was quiet but his message was clear and simple and it came with such a feeling of intense longing that the auditorium at Hay fell silent for minutes:

I have lived all my life in restrictions but I have never lost hope of being able to live free…. to live in an independent state, to travel when I want and to have my family live in freedom.

Atef Abu Saif signing my copy of The Book of Gaza at Hay Festival

Atef Abu Saif signing my copy of The Book of Gaza at Hay Festival

It was left to fellow writer Atef Abu Saif, to speak on his behalf, to describe the tradition of the short story format and the tension felt by writers from Gaza between their desire to use their pen to give hope to their people and yet to reflect the reality of a life played out on a political battlefield. Atef is the editor of The Book of Gaza, the first collection in English of short stories by these writers.

Now Atef and Taych are under siege as the Israeli government launches air strikes on Gaza in an operation against Palestinian militants. More than 175 people have been killed since the offensive began last week. Thousands of troops are massed on the border with Israel amid speculation of a possible a ground invasion.

His UK publishers CommaPress received just one  text message from him last Thursday in which he described the dangers confronting his family.

We are ok so far. bombing is everywhere, u cannot walk safe in the street, or even stay calm in ur bedroom. sometimes you feel you live by chance, you could die suddenly with no alert. how many chances are in one’s life.
the other night the F16 bombarded 30 meters away from my place. we all were sleeping in the corridor in the middle of the flat. we beleive that it is the safest place, the broken glass flowded over our bodies. fortunately no one was injured. the kids canot sleep waiting the next bomb. always you have to think of a better moment in the future’

As I read this I can’t help but remember and to think about these two mild mannered men who spoke so movingly about the power of literature to give hope and how in their writing they try to show us a different side of this troubled land.

People just hear about the drones and the intafadas. You can’t escape the reality you are living in but we want to give hope that something good could happen. Are we are not supposed to dream, or to travel or to have affairs?