Category Archives: Irish authors

Booker Prize shortlist brings some surprises

The Man Booker Prize judges announced the shortlist for the 2017 prize today and sprung a few surprises.

The first and by far the biggest surprise is that Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which has been hoovering up prizes everywhere else is missing from the list. That was the bookie’s favourite up until this morning. Its omission has taken many in the book world by surprise. Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White commented to the Guardian newspaper: “We’re all used by now to the Booker judges delivering surprises but the omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed. I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away”. He obviously isn’t a reader of BookerTalk because he would have seen from my post earlier this week that people I would class as knowledgeable though not professional readers didn’t rate it that highly.

Another surprise is that established authors like Zadie Smith,  Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry and Kamila Shamsi have all been pushed aside in favour of first time novelists. George Saunders who makes it to the list with Lincoln in the Bardo (now the bookie’s favourite to win) has only previously written short stories. He, together with Fiona Mozley, a part-time book shop worker from the UK who apparently wrote part of her book on her phone while commuting and American Emily Fridlund  will now go head to head against the big names of Paul Auster and Ali Smith (neither of whom have won the Booker in previous years).

Continuing the trend from recent years two independent publishers are featured among the shortlisted titles.

The judges, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, said at a press conference that “the novels [chosen], each in their own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions – about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death.”

So what do the critics and followers of the Booker Prize make of the shortlist?

A number remarked on the lack of geographic breadth of the selected authors. The judges were apparently challenged at the press conference about the Americanisation of the prize.  Three of the shortlisted writers are from the US. Baroness Young ejected the accusation.  “… nationality is not an issue in terms of how we decide on a winner – it’s what is in our opinion the best book in these six. All we can say is that we judge the books submitted to us, and make our judgment not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages,” she said.

Former Booker judge Alex Clark, writing in The Guardian called the shortlist ‘daring’. The choices, he said, seem “to reject conventional realism and celebrate precarious and unstable narratives…”

Toby Lichtig writing for the Times Literary Supplement noted that neither of his two favourites was selected (Underground Railroad and Reservoir 13) while the inclusion of Auster would “raise a few eyebrows” because while it ” is a work of towering ambition” for some readers it was also one of” towering self-regard”. Writing in the TLS, James Campbell found it to be lacking in “rhythm, tone, vivacity, wit. To name just four things”.

The Mookes and the Bookish group over at Goodreads greeted the announcement of the shortlist with astonishment  “…the longlist had restored my faith in the Booker. The shortlist has successfully re-destroyed it!” said one member. Several were dismayed that two of their favourite reads Solar Bones and Home Fire didn’t make it and questioned why Elmet was on the list because they didn’t find it any more noteworthy than some other debut novels that were eligible.

The prize for 2017 looks wide open although Ladbrokes are giving the edge to Saunders. Interesting to see Elmet in joint second place – is she going to be the dark horse?

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Whoever wins it’s certain to be a decision that will not please everyone but twas ever thus.

The 2017 Shortlist

4 3 2 1  by Paul Auster (US)  

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US)   Watch a video from Foyles about this book

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)   Read an interview with Ali Smith

The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson [bookreviews]

We Have Always Lived in the CastleIt’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.

How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously.  Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.

Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.

I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.

Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:

In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.

 

Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.

In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices.  Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of  the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.

To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.

Footnotes

About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965.  It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.

About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948.  Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel.  It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.

Booker Prize 2017 – who will make the shortlist?

The Booker Prize judges will announce tomorrow which six books will make it to the shortlist for the 2016 prize. For the first time in the five years since I started this blog when the longlist was announced I discovered I hadn’t read any of the 13 longlisted titles. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise really since this year I’ve focused on reading more from my TBR and consequently a lot less contemporary fiction. But neither did I feel excited enough this year to rush out and acquire a few of the longlist titles. I did get electronic samples of most of them and have decided which interest me the most: Home Fire, Reservoir 13, Autumn, Lincoln in the Bardo and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I might even be able to read one or two before the final announcement.

So essentially I’ve been following the prize as a backseat passenger this year. Fortunately there are a few highly dedicated groups and individuals who have taken more of an interest and have been working their way through the list over the past few months.

The Mookse and the Gripes is a very lively Goodreads group of 51 contributors. Based on their scores for each individual book, they’re anticipating that the six shortlisted titles will be:

1 Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
2 Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsi
3 Reservoir 13  by Jon McGregor
4 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

5 Autumn 
by Ali Smith
6 Days without End 
by Sebastian Barry

They ranked the remaining seven titles as follows:

7 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Exit West by Hamid
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
10 4321  by Paul Auster
11 
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12 Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13 History of Wolves   
by Emily Fridlund

Over at The Reader’s Room a smaller but no less dedicated team have ranked the novels according to the quality of writing quality; originality; character development; plot development and readers’ overall enjoyment.

1.  Autumn by Ali Smith
2. Exit West by Hamid
3. 4321 by Paul Auster
4. Lincoln in the Bardo
 by George Saunders
5. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi
7. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
8. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
9. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
10. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
11. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Astonishingly, given the large number of readers of these books, there is a large level of agreement between the Goodreads group and the Reader’s Room. Four of the titles: Solar Bones,  Home Fire, Lincoln in the Bardo and Autumn appear in both lists as likely shortlist contenders.

Where they part company is over Reservoir 13, Exit West and Days without End. 

Reader’s Room reviewers liked the style of Reservoir 13 which was reminiscent of poetry but thought there wasn’t enough character or plot development. Exit West was gauged by one reviewer to “convey incredible depth and emotion” by subtly using magical realism. Only two reviewers for the Reader’s Room read Paul Auster’s 4321 – both commented on its length (900 pages approx) but found it engaging, complex and written in a style bordering on perfection. Over at Goodreads, Paul one reviewer commented that Reservoir 13 was “A wonderful novel — modest in its scope but all the more powerful for it” and a breath of fresh air compared to the over-blown novels that have won in recent years. Another reviewer said it was the most compelling read of the year. There were mixed reviews for Exit West – a number of people thought the writing dull (others completely disagreed) and the migrant experience not fully developed or not realistic. As for 1234,  the length of the book was an issue with a lot of the reviewers – several thought it could easily have been trimmed by 100 or 150 pages without suffering. A few commented that the basic structure of the novel – relaying the vastly different lives of four identical boys formed from the same DNA – was confusing at times but also felt repetitive.

What was interesting for me about both lists was that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad which was “the” book of 2016, doesn’t come higher on any of the lists. This is the novel that won  the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Yet several reviewers didn’t find it to be as innovative as they expected. Will the Booker Prize represent one hurdle too far for this novel?

Not according to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, who have Whitehead’s novel as the clear favourite to win.

But then, as John Dugdale pointed out in an article for The Guardian an entry in the bookmakers’ lists isn’t any guarantee of success.

The National (an online magazine) has also taken out their crystal ball and come up with a list of who they’d like to see on the shortlist.  They are the only ones to put The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Swing Time in the frame.

The field is clearly wide open as it were.

#20booksofsummer 2017 wrap up

15 books of summerThat’s it for another year. #20booksofsummer hosted by Cathy at 746books came to an end on September 3. I knew I would never be able to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I went for the 15 books option. Even that proved a step too far but so what – unless Cathy has a nasty surprise in store I don’t think any booksofsummer police are going to come banging on my door and hauling me into court to justify why I didn’t reach the target.

I read 12.5 books which is 2.5 more than last year so I count this as a success. I would have completed more but I had some review copies that needed my attention.   A bonus is that I read some excellent novels and there was only one book I failed to complete (hence the .5 I am claiming).  I’m glad I went for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime and works in translation because the variety meant I had plenty of choice when I needed to pick up the next book. I’m also relieved that I thought to include a few shortish books because while I enjoyed both Sacred Hunger and True History of the Kelly Gang they were rather long.

Of all the books I read, my favourite was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki which is a wonderfully thought-provoking novel set partly in Japan and partly in Canada. I’m usually a bit hesitant about child narrators but in Ozeki’s schoolgirl protagonist I found a character for whom it was hard not to feel affection.

From my original list of 20 here’s what I read (links take you to my reviews):

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson (review to follow)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

 Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones

The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (review to follow)

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson (part read – review here)

Books I never got around to:

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: a Booker winner that I started last year but stalled on part way through. I will read this later in the year as part of my Booker project which is due for completion by end of December.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

twilight in djakarta-1

Oh dear, I seem fated never to get to this book. It was on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside and now I’ve overlooked it again. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

 

 

The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

the kill-1

My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year so I was planning to read The Kill to give it a kickstart. I thought it was book number 2 in the series but just as I was about to begin reading it, I discovered that although it was the second to be published the recommended reading order from Lisa and Dagny who are the brains behind the readingzola blog actually puts this as book number 3. So then I went shopping for the book they recommend to read second His Excellency Eugene Rougon but it doesn’t seem that it’s available as an Oxford World Classics edition (the editions I prefer) so now I’m stuck wondering which other edition to try. Any suggestions for a good translation?

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

three days and a life-1

I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which was published in July, fitted that description perfectly. But after reading two crime fiction titles I lost the appetite for this one. I will still read it, just not in the immediate future.

 

 

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

elegy for easterly-1

This was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories. And now I can’t find my copy.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

what I know-1

Both of these are books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end Ghostbirdof 2016. The Dai Smith book is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.  Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016. I still plan to read both of these before the year is out

 

That’s it for another year. How did you fare with your summer reading projects?

 

 

 

 

 

10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.

Between the lines: Jonathan Tulloch on Larkinland

TullochLast week I posted my review of Larkinland a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin. In this Q&A Jonathan reveals the inspiration for his book and what he really thinks of the city.

 

Q. What was the inspiration for writing Larkinland? 

Over the past few years, I’ve been called increasingly to Hull. Not able to drive a motor car, I have the privilege of travelling to the city by train. It’s one of Europe’s finest journeys, with distant cathedral-like towers of power stations giving way to fields and flat lands, and then the great river up which the Vikings sailed. Add to this a copy of Larkin’s poetry with which I always travel to Hull, and you’ll see how I came to fall in love with both poet and place. The train is always the best place to really get to know Larkin. Just imagine he’s sitting with you. Of course, he’d be trying not to let you catch his eye.

LarkinlandQ. The novel is described as a mix of mystery and romance yet there is also a strong thread of humour. Did you set out with this blend in mind or did it evolve during the writing process? 

Life is all of those things; they invited themselves!

Q. What was more important to you when writing Larkinland – the plot, the character or the setting? 

Everything, in equal measure. What people don’t understand is that without Hull, Larkin becomes not much more than a skilled miniaturist. Hull is his muse.

Q. What was the most difficult aspect of the book to write? 

It’s the easiest book I’ve ever written.

Q. The book is described as “A fictionalisation of Philip Larkin’s poetic world” How much of your central character  is fiction? 

Hard to say. A lot of the character is his poetic persona, I don’t know much of his biog details so very little of it is strictly autobiographical.

Q. Fictional works created around real people always seem to generate questions about ethics. Given that your central character bears such a strong resemblance to Philip Larkin, were you conscious of the risk of misrepresenting someone once called the nation’s favourite poet? 

I think his shoulders are broad enough to carry more than my little capuchin monkey.

Q. Did you suffer any pangs of conscience about portraying Hull in a negative light just as it is celebrating its reincarnation as a capital of culture? 

In my writing I have always loved places on the edge. In fact these are the only places I like. Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Hull, Zimbabwe. So hopefully my love for Hull will come out. What might seem like an unflattering light may well be the opposite.

Q. How do you view Hull personally – liminal beauty or beached mudflats?

I love it. After all, it’s a place with two rugby league teams. I concur with Larkin’s poetry, in which the place becomes a kind of many towered Byzantium.

Q. You conjure up a vivid portrayal of the boarding house run by Miss Glendenning and her rituals. Did this come from personal experience of such establishments in your younger days?

I had friends living in horrible bedsits, and I lived in my fair share of communal houses, but never a lodgings like this. 

Q. Do you have a favourite passage in the book that you’d like to share? 

Something like, ‘a dog followed him home, until a thrown stone persuaded it bloody well not to.’ I must emphasise that the stone did not hit the dog.

Q. What books are currently on your bedside table?

I am reading the poetry of Ann Ahkmatova. We were on holiday in Lindisfarne last week and we all wrote a poem in a different style. I have since been taken over by Anna Ahkmatova. I came up with the following lines:

heavy as a thrown brick

I carry Anna Ahkmatova

to read by the shore in the hare’s-foot clover.

Of course, after lines like that, the Russian poet would have come up with a devastating image.

About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales.

 

Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. As always the books I’ve chosen for my  chain are ones I’ve read though not necessarily reviewed.

Wild SwansThis month we begin with a book that made a huge impression on me Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the history of that country during the twentieth century.  If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.

Wild Swans is banned in China so I could go down that path for my first link but I’m going to stick with China and the Mao regime.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy who was plucked from a peasant family in rural China to become a trainee ballet dancer in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.  He and another student got a a chance to study abroad in America as an exchange student – there he discovered that everything he had been told about America was a lie. The book recounts his desire for freedom and determination to perfect his talent under a regime that did not value individual talent and freedom of experession.

The effects of an oppressive regime on the artistic spirit give me my next link.

madeleinethein

Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thein (my review is here) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and (in my humble opinion) should have been the winner.  The Booker judges thought otherwise but the novel was critically acclaimed and did pick up a number of other prizes including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for Fiction.  It’s an astonishingly ambitious novel that covers the Cultural Revolution in China but brings us up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.  Thein is Canadian yet her fiction predominantly deals with the Asia. Which gives me my next link: authors who write convincingly about other cultures and settings. 

tenderness_of_wolves.jpg

Stef Penny hails from Scotland but she chose the unforgiving landscape of Canada’s Northern Territory for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a historical adventure of murder and abduction set in the 1860s that went on to win the 2006 Costa Book Award. Reviewers and judges remarked on the authentic atmosphere of her novel yet Penney had never set foot in Canada – she was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel so did all the research in the libraries of London. The snowy landscape of this novel gives me an obvious next link….

Miss Smilla

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a 1992 novel by the Danish author Peter Høeg. It’s typically described as a murder mystery and it does indeed feature the murder of a young boy and a quest by Miss Smilla Jaspersen to find the culprit. But it’s also about the legacy of Denmark and its  relationship with its near neighbour Sweden, its native Inuit people and about the different kinds of snow. Smilla’s father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander; hence her feeling for snow.  During the course of the novel we are introduced to many native terms used to distinguish big flakes from frozen drifts and experience the beauty of the landscape.

The concluding chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sees  Smilla travel through the Arctic ice in search of the truth, a journey which links me to a novel written by an author born 220 years ago this week.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale Frankenstein is a novel I dislike intensely. I find most of it so highly improbable as to be unreadable. It does have two really stand-out episodes however. One is the scene where the Creature manufactured by the scientist Victor Frankenstein is first revealed – it’s a hideous figure with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. The second is when Frankenstein tracks his creation to the North Pole and pursues him with a dogsled with the intent of revenging the murder of his bride.

Revenge and experimentation give me my sixth and final link.
The-Monsters-Daughter

The Monster’s Daughter is a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius set in South Africa. (my review is here). It begins during the time of the Boer War when a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature. The novel then follows their lives through the period of apartheid rule and into the new South Africa.

And now I’ve realised that unintentionally my chain began and ended with books that feature oppressive regimes yet we’ve travelled many thousands of miles from China, to Canada, the Arctic and South Africa.

Update September 5 : I corrected the text based on Marit’s comment.

September 2017 Snapshot

September snapshotProgress of a kind has been made on the health front. Two weeks after surgery to repair all the breaks in my upper humerus I can now take the arm out of the sling. I’m still pretty much confined to doing daily activities single-handed but at least I can now begin physiotherapy. It’s going to be slow progress I fear because I have little range of movement at the moment. Imagine a penguin walking and you have the image of how much I can move the damaged arm. Four weeks from now I hope I can at least drive.

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on September 1, 2017?

 Reading now

kelly gangI’m currently reading another Booker Prize winner – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.  This is book number 43 from the list of 50 titles in my Booker Prize project. It’s a fictionalised autobiography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  a historical figure about whom I know very little.  Carey imagines Kelly writing a journal to the daughter he would never meet, in which he traces his life as the offspring of a poor family of Irish origin and how his many encounters with the law. The style is distinctively vernacular with little punctuation or grammar, emulating the pattern found in the Jerilderie Letter, a letter dictated by Kelly to one of his gang members in 1879.  I thought that might make it hard to read but not a bit of it. This is a book so mesmerizing that after a few pages you cease to be concerned with the mode of telling and just get swept along with the story.

I’d hoped to finish this before #20booksofsummer2017 comes to an end (September 3) but I don’t think I’ll make it.  Not to worry, I will still have read 11 by then which is one better than 2016.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

We Don't Know What We're DoingOne of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m now down to 274. I was remarkably restrained with purchases in August -just one bought. A collection of short stories by Thomas Morris called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing.  I don’t tend to read many short story collection but this one caught my eye because Morris happens to have been born in the town of Caerphilly ( about 5 miles from where I grew up ) and all 10 stories in this book are based in the town.  It won the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award within the Wales Book of the Year award in 2016. So I get to ride a little wave of nostalgia and support a local author at the same time.

Thinking of reading next…

I think I’m going to avoid making too many plans for September. It was fun to do the #20booksofsummer reading but I feel more like reading as the mood takes me for the next few weeks. I know there will be a Booker Prize winner in the mix – I will have just six remaining to read once I’ve finished with Mr Ned Kelly and his exploits but whether it’s How Late It Was, How Late or Vernon God Little or even A Brief History of Seven Killings I tackle next I will decide on the day. I might read Owen Shears’ I Saw a Man which I collected from the library today. I’ve read only one of his novels until now (Resistance) and wasn’t all that enamoured with it but this one has had very strong reviews. Oh and did I mention he is Welsh? Another good reason to get to know him better.

Watching: Now The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK has come to an end I am somewhat bereft. I have no interest in Game of Thrones (sorry to the millions of its fans), was bored by Poldark and cannot get the Channel 4 catchup service to let me watch The Good Fight, the spin off to The Good Wife. I’m hoping that the end of summer means there could be a few good series coming soon. Until then I’m relying on some old favourites like Inspector Morse (I’ve seen them so many times I can practically recite the lines but still find myself confused by a few of the plots.)

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch [bookreview]

I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?

Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death).  A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.

Larkinland

This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered  her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.

Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:

 

The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.

His second expedition is little better:

Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.

But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:

… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly  that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?

At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.

Footnotes

About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales

Tulloch

About the author: Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels, including The SeasonTicket, Give Us This Day and Mr McCool. He is a winner of the Betty Trask Prize and The JB Priestley Award. He writes the Times Nature Notebook, and a nature column in The Tablet.

Why I read this book: This is part of my endeavour to showcase writers and publishers from my home country of Wales. I had just watched a BBC documentary about Larkin so was intrigued whether Larkinland would evoke the landscape in which Larkin had spent his prime years as a poet. Thanks go to Seren for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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