WWWednesday 22 May, 2019

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

TheFranchiseAffair

Cover of the first edition. Creative commons licence via Wikipedia

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey  was named one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time in 1990. It’s obviously stood the test of time since the Sunday Times culture magazine included it in a similar list just two weeks ago. Published in 1948 its about a Scotland Yard investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a young girl. I’ve read only one other book by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time – which was a fictionalised investigation into the deaths of The Princes in the Tower.  A very different kind of novel but I liked her style of writing so snapped up a copy of The Franchise Affair when I spotted it in a second hand bookshop.

 

 

What did you recently finish reading?

transcriptionThe book club chose Kate Atkinson’s Transcription for our May meeting,  Having disliked Life after Life to the point where I abandoned it part way through, I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the kind of books by Atkinson I used to love in the past. Transcription was definitely an improvement in the sense that I did make it to the last pages but otherwise this proved to be a seriously disappointing novel. The premise was promising – the past life of a woman who was recruited into the world of espionage, assigned to an obscure department of MI5 where she helped monitor the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers. But it never lived up to its promise.

I keep seeing this novel described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy.” I don’t know who wrote that description (her publishers presumably) but it’s anything but a work of depth and power…. I’ll explain why when I write my review in a few days.

What do you think you’ll read next?

In theory my next read should be Evelina by Francis Burney since that was the result of the latest Classics Club spin. But having read a few pages I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for eighteenth century epistolary novel so have put Miss Burney on hold for another time.

GhostbirdI’m much more interested in the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer 2019 challenge. I’m aiming to read 15 between June 3 and September 3, all of them set in or written by authors from different countries.

I’ll be kicking off with a book written by Carol Lovekin, an author from Wales, that has been sitting in my bookcase for a few years. I do love the cover….

Ghostbird is set in a small Welsh village and the house called Ty Aderyn (the house of birds), home to generations of the Hopkins family.  It’s a house of secrets, secrets that young Cadi Hopkins is determined to uncover.

 

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?

20? 15? 10? books of summer 2019

It’s officially summer in the northern hemisphere so time once again for the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy of 746books.com.

15 books of summerI’ve never yet managed to complete this challenge despite Cathy’s ultra flexibility with the “rules’. I suspect 2019 will be no different so there’s no point in going the whole hog with a list of 20 books. I’m going for the option of 15 books of summer and if I manage to read even 10 of them I’ll be dead chuffed.

Half of the fun of this challenge is putting together the list of books to read.  Since I’m not likely to be taking a summer holiday I shall use my reading to do my travelling for me. I’ve chosen 15 titles that will take me to different parts of the world.  Of course every journey has to start from home so the first book on my list comes from Wales. I may read the books the order below, travelling through Europe, crossing the Atlantic and then making my way east before dropping down to the southern hemisphere where by  September 3, when  this challenge finishes , it will be Spring…

So, my suitcase is packed. The tickets have arrived. My passport is up to date.  My journey begins on June 3.

Wales: Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

France: Hotel Tito by  Ivana Simić Bodrožić.

Austria: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Germany: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Finland: The Midwife by Katja Kettu

Canada: One of Louise Penny’s detective novels  – not sure which yet

USA: Breakfast at Tiffanys by Truman Capote

Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Indonesia: Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

Malaysia: Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

China: Frog by Mo Yan

Australia: Shell by Kristina Olsson

New Zealand: Ships by Fiona Duigan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell #bookreview

Mary BartonIn the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.  But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal. The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death. In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.” Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.  At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention. The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada. It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect. It’s a bold move. Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements. It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

 

About the novel

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism.

WWWednesday 15 May, 2019

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

Kate North visits Cwtch Corner #Waleswrites

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Cwtch Corner was in Cardiff last month at the launch of Kate North’s collection of short stories Punch. Kate is a lecturer in creative writing and programme director for the MA in English Literature and Creative Writing pathways at Cardiff Metropolitan University. So naturally we talked about the value of creative writing courses. But first we chatted about her new book and the popularity of short stories. 

 Q. How would you describe Punch in just one sentence? 
A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.”

Q. Short stories are hugely popular with readers – why do you think that’s the case? 
“I think their size means that readers can get through a story in one sitting and feel like they’ve got something out of it in a short space of time. The ideal short story leaves the reader with something to think about or to continue in their own mind after reading.  I think that’s also part of the appeal.

Q.Which writer of short stories has influenced you the most? 
“That’s a hard question! There are so many good short story writers.  But, if pushed to name one, I would pick Anna Kavan.  I think she has been overlooked in past years but people are starting to notice how important she actually was in the mid 20th century.  She wrote some very beautiful and uncanny things.  The collection I would recommend isJulia and the Bazooka and Other Stories.

Q. Do you have a particular routine you like to follow when you are writing?
“There are consistent things I do when I write.  Like I try to start as early as possible in the day.  I am not so good at writing later in the day. I need to be in a quiet room on my own, I’m no good at writing in cafes or with music on like some people can do.  And I tend to write in solid blasts for a period of days and weeks, then I take a bit of time to do something else before returning to things. But, that said, it does depend if I am writing to externally imposed deadline (like a commission) or not.

Kate North reads from her short story collection Punch

 Q Your home is on fire… Which book from your overflowing shelves will you choose to save?
“To be honest, I would probably save my laptop before anything (other than my partner and kids of course).  But, not to be a spoil sport, I’ll go with Six O’Clock Saints by Joan Windham.  It’s a book written in the 1940s that I used to read around my grandparents’ house when I was little.  It’s not very well written but I have an emotional attachment to it.”

Q. In a recent BBC Radio interview, Will Self made some highly critical comments about the value of creative writing courses.  Do you think he has a valid point? Are creative writing courses worth doing?
>I think he makes a fair point and I don’t believe he suggests that creative writing (CW) courses aren’t worth doing.  I would be suspicious of any course promoted as being able to help graduates ‘make a living from literary fiction’.  I don’t think that is something anyone can guarantee.  And as Self points out, CW courses offer the opportunity for students to develop themselves as writers.  The possibilities that come from developing writing skills are hugely varied.  I know of graduates from cw programmes who have gone into all sorts of jobs that need them to use their writing skills, such as computer game design, marketing, PR, editing, copywriting and teaching.  So, yes, I would say that if you want to develop your writing skills, then courses are worth doing.  You may find a career in literary fiction on the back of a course or you may not.

This perennial discussion always puzzles me.  It doesn’t happen in other areas.  For example, will a BA or MA in Music  guarantee you will become a concert pianist?  No, but if you would like to become a concert pianist it may be helpful to study on such a course.  Will taking a sports science degree guarantee you will win the London marathon?  No, but it may be helpful for you to study on such a programme if you are interested in winning marathons.

Q. As programme director for an MA creative writing programme you must meet scores of aspiring authors. What’s the number one piece of advice you give them?
Read, reflect, write and repeat.  Good writers are good readers, read widely and critically.  Also, find out how and what you need to write for yourself.  To achieve this refer to the earlier instruction; read, reflect, write and repeat.

 


Kate North is a poet and short story writer. Her latest short story collection Punch was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2019. She also has a poetry collection The Way Out, published by Parthian in 2018.

If you’d like to learn more about Kate or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website  

She’s also on Twitter: @katetnorth 

 

 

 

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage #bookreview

woman_in_the_darkThe Woman in the Dark should be sold with a health warning emblazoned across its cover. Readers deserve to be cautioned that it’s such an addictive novel they will want to sacrifice domestic chores and forgo sleep until they reach the final pages.

As you’d expect with a thriller,  it has a cracking pace and oodles of twists and turns. But Vanessa Savage has done something far more interesting than simply trotting out the standard elements of the genre. Within her chillingly dark tale of a family in crisis, she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse.

The Woman in the Dark begins on a day that seems just an ordinary one for a rather ordinary family.  But the tensions become quickly apparent. Mum Sarah is suffering from a deep depression as a result of her mother’s death. She’s taken to drink to help dull the pain but her cocktail of alcohol and anti depressant tablets leave her feeling spaced out and unable to function. They need a fresh start according to her loving and caring husband Patrick.

So he persuades her to move home, to buy the Victorian beachfront house in which he grew up. It’s the ideal spot in which to raise their two teenage children Joe and Mia, he argues. Conveniently he overlooks the fact that this house is where a brutal double murder took place 15 years ago. The Murder House, as the locals call it, is now a dilapidated shell of its former self.  Patrick is convinced they can make it as perfect a home as it was in his childhood. No-one else in the family shares his optimism for the peeling paint, rattling windowpanes and unexplained cold spots in some rooms. And that’s before they are even aware of the creepy messages on the cellar wall.

From these elements Vanessa Savage has created an intense and deeply disturbing novel about lies, secrets and buried tensions. No-one comes out of this intact.  Certainly not Sarah who becomes obsessed by the murder and perturbed by what she discovers about Patrick’s past. Definitely not Patrick whose moods swing from concern for Sarah’s wellbeing to uncontrollable anger. Nor their children who suffer nightmares and physical trauma as their parents’ marriage disintegrates.

This is a novel in which nothing – and no-one – can be trusted. Is Sarah right to imagine the house is a malevolent force? Does she have good reason to suspect Patrick is a threat to her and her children? The only version of events we hear is Sarah’s and given her propensity to become confused and muddled, the problems could all be in her mind.

The Woman in the Dark is a remarkably strong debut. Vanessa Savage writes with such confidence that you quickly overcome doubts that any sane adult would want to live in a house whose previous occupants were slaughtered.  It’s not a book to enjoy (unless you like to revel in other people’s misery) but it’s certainly one in which you can become engrossed.


 

Vanessa SavageAbout the book

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage was published in January 2019 by Sphere in the UK and by Grand Central Publishing in the USA.

About the Author 

Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives with her family in South Wales (just down the road from me I just discovered 🙂 She has won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and was shortlisted for the Caledonia Fiction Prize.

Look out for an interview with Vanessa when she joins me in Cwtch Corner next month.

Six Degrees from The Dry to Gaza

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.

 

 

The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly.  Whether you view him as  a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian,  won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.

 

Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces.  Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.

Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939.  I’ll  hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America  into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.

Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.

Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.

 

 

Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights.  But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”

 

 

Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s.  Her main character – a fugitive war criminal  discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is  modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.

 

Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.


And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes.  You can follow these on Twitter by searching for  the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.

Unhealthy reading

Sickness, recovery, recuperation. At such times what sort of reading material do you reach for? The question arose for me after I returned from the other side of the world with an injury which will keep me virtually housebound for some months.

At first, stupified by antibiotics, I felt too dazed to read anything more demanding than the opening credits of an old movie on TV. But as strength and interest returned little by little it was the old and familiar which I sought out – the literary equivalent of comfort food.

waugh bridesheadMy first choice was Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited, a novel which has long been in my top five and to which I was returning for the fourth or fifth time – unwise perhaps in view of the old maxim ‘never go back’. Turning to the first page, I hoped my experience would not mirror that of the author who was reportedly “appalled” after re-reading the work, finding “distasteful” the book’s “rhetorical and ornamental language”.

On this reading I did find some of Charles Ryder’s internal monologues a bit overcooked and descriptive passages occasionally a tad florid – but those are mere quibbles. Overwhelmingly I was once again dazzled by the beauty and clarity of the narrative. Testimony to its potency is plain when viewing the impeccable 1983 11-episode TV series based on the book in which large passages of Ryder’s narrative, together with countless dialogue exchanges, are lifted verbatim from the pages of the novel.

The story arc, from sunlit carefree days in 1920s Oxford to the spirit-sapping gloom of the 1940s war years, is superbly handled by the author through a central character who is invested with qualities of detachment sufficient to lend an objectiveness to the first person storytelling.

Though how anyone without a good shorthand note or a tape recording can set down all those conversations in such detail is a mystery. But the suspension of disbelief is a necessary requirement when reading first person fiction – all narrators, it appears, being blessed with perfect recall!

The butler didn’t do it

That suspension becomes trickier when an unreliable narrator enters upon the scene, as happens in my follow-up choice of sick bay reading. This was my third encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. An art gallery ticket tucked into the pages revealed that I last read it on holiday in August 1999. (The find instantly brings back a memory: witnessing a total solar eclipse from a Bavarian hillside, the sudden gloom silencing the chattering birds.)

Twenty years is a long time between readings but I’d always thought of this novel as a reliable favourite. This time though, I was a little less enchanted. On previous readings I was clearly not irritated by the narrator’s fastidious, very correct, rather Edwardian style of writing. This is of course deliberately and cleverly done by Ishiguro to paint a picture of the anachronous and insular nature of Stevens, the central character, who knows very little of ordinary life outside the confines of the great house in which he serves as butler.

Stevens is not at ease with himself as a human being, preferring to live as a virtual automaton. He has suppressed emotion and personality, shunned close relationships and excused himself from most kinds of normal life in favour of a Quixotic crusade to become the ultimate man servant – the personification of his interpretation of ‘dignity’.

kazou remainsThe preservation of dignity, according to Stevens, is akin to “not removing one’s clothes in public”. It’s an odd remark but it tells us that Stevens isn’t comfortable stepping outside his professional persona for fear of losing respect; he has locked himself inside his ‘dignity’ and can’t find a way out – even if he wanted to. This detachment has built up a cold shield around the butler – one which Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries in vain to penetrate. Her timid romantic overtures – bringing flowers to his pantry, teasing him about the sentimental novel she finds him reading – freeze and snap in the permafrost of Stevens’s aura. Miss Kenton gives up, leaves service and marries.

Years later Stevens, still serving at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, travels to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) in the hope of luring her back into service and – though he cannot admit this to himself – reignite his relationship with the housekeeper on an altogether more personal level.

When Stevens writes: ‘No doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate’, it is quite early on in the book and the reader has yet to discover his true nature. But we are being misled – as we find later – for here he is unconsciously considering his own position. Further into the novel, when Stevens’s achingly poignant backstory has been revealed, we are quite sure that when he quotes Mrs Benn as writing in her letter: ‘The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me’, it is a misattribution and it is his own bleak future which is being contemplated.

Hardy, Chandler and back to Waugh

So The Remains of the Day stays in my top five and I will one day again revisit Brideshead, though, by that time, I will probably need to have it read to me! Number three, currently on the nightstand, is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to which I return for the umpteenth time. It’s my favourite Hardy novel (with Tess close behind) and it never fails me. At root I suppose I have fairly unsophisticated  tastes when it comes to entertainment. With books, plays or movies, I like a beginning, a middle and an end – and a cracking good yarn in between. The Mayor of Casterbridge delivers on all counts.

There’s some snobbishness about Hardy’s novels (the author regarded himself as a poet first) which I fail to understand. Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray all get the nod of approval. Even Stevenson and Conan Doyle are lauded. But for some reason Hardy gets the raspberry. Well let them sneer. I shall continue getting great enjoyment from rereading the Wessex novels whether in sickness or in health.

I reckon I’ll need two more ‘comfort food’ books to see me back on my feet. So after Hardy it will be a complete change: Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, another of my top five and my favourite Philip Marlowe novel. The film of the book (released as Murder, My Sweet in the USA) features the excellent Dick Powell as the down-at-heel Shamus. Forget Bogart – for me, Powell was the best Marlowe to grace the screen. A great book and a fab movie!

Leaving LA, it’s back across the pond to Britain for my final restorative read – The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. When I first read these wartime novels I had to buy them separately – and I still have the copies. But now Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are available in one volume and if you haven’t read them, plan to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

mayor philip sword

Bookends #14: May 2019

This week’s Bookends features a new novel from an author in Wales, an article and podcast about narrative voices and an article about the value of creative writing courses.

Book: Crushed by Kate Hamer

I enjoyed Kate Hamer’s debut novel, the disturbing, psychological The Girl in the Red Coat last year. She’s just published her third novel which sounds just as dark and intriguing. Crushed is about an obsessive friendship between three girls. Over the course of one long hot summer, they find their friendship pushed to a breaking point as one of them convinces herself that her thoughts can influence events in the world around them.

Podcast/Article: Narrators Singular, Plural and Vanishing

Narrators have been much in evidence this week. Early in the week, a Tea or Books? podcast episode on the topic helped make a treadmill almost a pleasure.  Simon (Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (Book Snob) discussed their preferences for multi-narrator novels or single narrator novels. Some interesting points about the desire for nineteenth century writers to use devices like diaries and letters designed to give added credibility and authenticity to their fiction. You can listen to episode 71 here In the same week I read an article in The Publisher newsletter about “vanishing narrators” – novels where the narrator is not the main character, such as The Great Gatsby or The Name of the Rose. Just be warned that reading/listening to these will have you scurrying to write down the titles of yet more books to read/buy.

Article: Value of Creative Writing Courses Questioned

You can rely on Will Self to create a stir. This time he’s done it by questioning the value of creative writing graduate programmes. In an interview for the BBC’s Radio 4 prime time news programme Today, Self said today’s students are unlikely to make a living from literary fiction, suggesting their courses might instead give them a career writing video games. “The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment,” he said. You’d expect the universities who provide such courses would reject Self’s views but the publishing industry has also weighed in. More details are available via The Bookseller.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Diverse choice for International Dylan Thomas Prize

The shortlisted nominees for this year’s International Dylan Thomas Prize are a mix of debut authors and established writers (including one who has two best-sellers to her name) from a mix of cultural backgrounds. .

This is the 11th year of the  prize which is targeted at young authors under the age of 40 who are writing in English.

The Prize celebrates published work in the broad range of literary forms in which Dylan Thomas excelled, including poetry, prose, fictional drama, short story collections, novels, novellas, stage plays and screenplays. Entries for the prize are submitted by publishers, editors, agents and in the case of theatre plays and screenplays, by producers.

The five novels and one collection of short stories shortlisted for 2019 are:

  • American-Ghanaian writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah for his debut short story collection Friday Black which explores what it’s like to grow up as a black male in America.
  • Debut novelist Zoe Gilbert  for Folk (Bloomsbury Publishing) which was developed from her fascination in ancient folklore and the resurgence of nature writing. She won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.
  • British-Sri-Lankan debut novelist, Guy Gunaratne for In Our Mad and Furious City.  It was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize.
  • Louisa Hall  with her latest book Trinity which tackles the complex life of the father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer through seven fictional characters.
  • For the second time Sarah Perry  has been shortlisted for the prize; this time for her best-selling novel Melmoth, named by The Observer newspaper as one of the best fiction books of 2018 B. It’s a morally complex novel which poses questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.
  • Zimbabwean debut novelist Novuyo Rosa Tshuma with House of Stone which reveals the mad and glorious death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

Authors who were longlisted but didn’t make the final selection were:

  • Michael Donkor, Hold
  • Clare Fisher, How the Light Gets In
  • Emma Glass, Peach
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People
  • Richard Scott, Soho
  • Jenny Xie, Eye Level

 

An interesting initiative this year sees BA English Lit students at Swansea University (a partner in the awards) study the shortlisted works as part of a new module. Their interviews with the authors are available as podcasts here 

Last year’s winner Kayo Chingonyi won for his critically-acclaimed debut poetry collection, Kumukanda, which explores black masculinity.

The 2019 winner – who will pick up a cheque for  £30,000 – will be announced on Thursday 16 May.

%d bloggers like this: