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From Ishiguro to Rowling in 6 steps

It’s time for another attempt at  #6Degrees of separation. I chickened out of last month’s chain because I didn’t know the starting book and my creative juices were not flowing. Lets hope I fair better this time.


We begin with Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go –a dystopian science fiction novel published in 2005. I’ve not read it. I have a copy on my TBR but am not sure I will ever get to read it since I don’t really ‘do’ sci fi. It’s certainly got pedigree having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year and included in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

I don’t know how you feel about lists like this. Do you immediately begin checking off how many of the novels you’ve read or do you start questioning on what basis the list was constructed. The ones that irritate me the most are those that include words like ‘should’ and ‘must read’. Who are these people to tell me what I should and should not read. I will make up my own mind thank you.

But I digress. I promise to get back on topic……

Link 1: Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

madeleinetheinDigging around for info about Never Let me Go I discovered the title comes from a fictional song on a cassette tape  by fictional singer Judy Bridgewater (you can read more about this here). Many novelists use the inter-textuality approach when choosing their book titles. One of them is Madeleine Thien who has just won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction with her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (a novel I thought outstanding and deserved to win the Booker prize this year)Thien takes her inspiration from an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”.  

Titles inspired by other texts gives me my next link

Link 2: Of Mice and Men

ofmiceandmenThe title of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is taken from the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”.

The English ‘translation’ is

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go awry

This was one of the first books we discussed when I joined a book club in 2013 and was a good example of how your perceptions can be changed. When someone suggested reading it I groaned – Steinbeck in my brain was someone whose work I had tried – and failed – tor head in the past. I thought him ‘gloomy’ and ‘slow’. Of Mice and Men was a delight however. It was poignant  rather than gloomy and on the strength of that experience I went onto read the equally delightful and unexpectedly funny Cannery Row. 

Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors who consider it  vulgar and racist so it’s banned from some school systems in the USA. In the UK however it’s a popular choice on the school syllabus and has been a highly successful stage play.

And so with censorship we come to my next link….

Link 3: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Front cover of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', Penguin edition, 1960I simply don’t understand this clamour to ‘ban’ books. It seems prevalent in USA but not confined to that part of the world. My next book in the chain was the subject of huge controversy in the 1960s. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence was published privately in 1928 but a full unexpurgated edition was not published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960, when it became the subject of a landmark trial for obscenity. The publisher Penguin won the case, and quickly sold 3 million copies.I read his ‘greatest hits’ (including Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and The Rainbow) and though I’ve still got my old Penguin editions of his books, I can’t say he was one of my favourites authors. For decades Lawrence was required reading on university literature courses though by the time I got to university he was already on the way out. Today he barely gets a mention in those lists of top 100 novels and books you must read.

Forgotten writers brings me to link number 4 

Link 4: Tropic of Cancer 

tropicofcancerHenry Miller is another author whose work was once controversial but like Lawrence, seems to have slipped out of public consciousness – at least he has in the UK, it might be a different story in USA. I read Miller while still at school and during my phase when I went out of my way deliberately to read challenging books. Tropic of Cancer and the later Tropic of Capricorn will forever be associated in my mind with the summer of 1973 when I spent the whole summer getting a sun tan in the garden and reading ‘serious’ authors like Sartre, Camus etc. Tropic of Cancer was a bit of escapism for me with its depiction of life in a community of bohemians in Paris. It didn’t matter that what Miller often described was squalor and the cold indifference of the city’s inhabitants, for a teenager living in a small mining town in Wales, it still sounded amazing.

Squalor, poverty, loneliness, Paris – what book do those words conjure up for you? For me there is an obvious link to a writer known for his vehement opposition to social injustice. And so we get to my next link. 

Link 5: Down and Out in Paris and London

orwell-downadnoutThis was the first full-length work published under the pen name of George Orwell. Orwell, or to give him his birth name Eric Blair, had gone to Paris in 1929, living in the trendy Latin Quarter along with people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. At some point he had his money stolen. Whether out of necessity or just to collect material for an essay, he took on casual work as a dishwasher in restaurants. He turned his experience into “A Scullion’s Diary” but it was rejected by Cape. He then added the London section and tried to get Faber & Faber to publish it – only to get the rejection from T. S Eliot who was the editorial director. The book didn’t get published until 1933 but though it had a positive response from other writers, it was another six years before the general reading public began to take an interest in Down and Out in Paris and London. Multiple rejections but then roaring success is the link to my final novel.

Link 6: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

J. K Rowling is now one of the wealthiest authors in the world harry_potterwith an estimated fortune of around  £600million. But the book which set her off on the journey to stardom almost didn’t get published.  Her agent spent a year touting it around the London publishing houses only to get rejection after rejection – a lot of the editors thought it was too long for child readers. It wasn’t until it got into the hands of Bloomsbury’s chief executive Barry Cunningham, that it attracted attention and that was only because, before reading it, he gave it to his eight year old daughter. When she told him it was “so much better than anything else” that he took a closer look and decided it would fit within a portfolio Bloomsbury was creating for children’s literature. He paid Rowling an advance of £2,500. The initial print run of 500 copies in 1997 didn’t indicate Bloomsbury was that convinced. But the book began getting favourable reviews and then won a National Book Award and a gold medal in the 9 to 11 year-olds category of the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.  The following year, Philosopher’s Stone won almost all the other major British awards that were decided by children.Within two years sales had reached 300,000 and the phenomena of Harry Potter was underway.

From Never Let Me Go to Harry Potter; from science fiction to fantasy via connections I would never have expected to make. It’s been fun finding those links. You can join in the fun with this monthly meme hosted by Kate at the Books Are My Favourite and Best blog.

Time Harry Potter came off the banned list?

harry_potterLast week was Banned Books Week, an annual even run by the American Library Association to highlight challenges to our freedom to read. As always this event comes with a reminder of which books groups have campaigned successfully to have prohibited from school and public libraries. Children’s authors who frequently show up on the list  include J K Rowling, Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson often because religious groups feel the texts are at odds with their own beliefs. The other key reason given for a ban is that the book is  deemed to contain content inappropriate for children, such as sex or drugs.

It was a surprise to me that Harry Potter was so frequently on the banned books list. I never read any of the novels when they were published (why as an adult would I want to read a children’s book was my thinking at the time). It’s only because of my course on children’s literature that I ended up reading the first in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know there are some among the literati who were very sniffy about this series. The critic Anthony Holden  for example called the books ‘pedestrian, ungrammatical… patronising, conservative…derivative. ”

That seems rather harsh. Rowling’s narrative may not be as multi-layered as say Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but we should give her credit for reinventing the traditional school story as a form of fantasy. The magical elements have cited by various religious groups as reasons to restrict children’s access to the series but it seems this rather misses a key point. Yes the books contain wizards and spells but the magic is not set up to be a superior force – in fact it’s logical reasoning, not spells, that enables the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione to discover the philosopher’s stone. Nor is the magic used without fetters – from his first connection with the non-Muggle world, Harry is instructed on the proper and improper, legal and illegal, uses of magic. He is not to use magic in the Muggle world during summer vacations, for example, and while at Hogwarts he is expected to follow the rules around the appropriate and inappropriate uses of magic.

Focusing so much on the magic also seems to miss the point that this is a novel that is firmly grounded in the kind of morality and codes of behaviour that surely parents want their children to understand and follow. Read beyond the magic and you’ll find Harry gets several ‘lessons for life’ during his time at Hogwarts. This is a novel very much in the tradition of the Bildungsroman where Harry changes from an unkept, unloved, abused child to the hero of the hour who has defeated the forces of evil. Along the way he learns the importance of study, of loyalty among friends and that while it’s fun to challenge and break the rules, there are undesirable consequence. By far the most important thing Harry learns in this novel, however, is not that he is special and has magical power but that it matters how he uses this power. He has a choice to use it on the side of goodness or to follow the example of Lord Voldemort and go over to the dark side. Every challenge he encounters at Hogwarts are tests of his character and his resolve to be the good guy.  young readers can identify with Harry not just because he defeats Voldermot but because he makes the right choices. Why would that be something dangerous for children to read about – instead of seeing him as something bad and dangerous, isn’t he in fact a good role model for children?  Instead of trying to ban the spectacled kid, shouldn’t we embrace him?


Where writers write

G. B Shaw's writing hut. Photo credit:

G. B Shaw’s writing hut. Photo credit:

Where do you write? Its one of the most popular questions posed whenever a bunch of aspiring authors get to meet the real thing. The answers quickly dispel any romantic ideas that the forging of a masterpiece requires a sparsely furnished garret or purpose built shed in some enchanted corner of the garden.

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

Sheds do have their uses it seems. George Bernard Shaw built one as a special writing hut in the garden of his home in Hertfordshire, England. The hut was built on a revolving mechanism which enabled him to follow the sun throughout the day as he wrote.  In a case of literary one-upmanship, Michael Morpugo built what he calls “a storyteller’s house.” Designed by his wife based on an Anglo-Saxon chapel in Essex, it boasts a Devon thatched roof, a Japanese garden and an uninterrupted view of the countryside, looking towards Dartmoor. Virginia Woolf had a converted toolshed but found it so impossibly cold in the winter she couldn’t hold her pen. My fellow national Dylan Thomas also had a writing shed. It’s absolutely nothing special to look at from the outside but from the rear window underneath which Thomas had his desk, he could look out onto the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay and watch the light playing on the water as the tide swept in.

Other writers prefer the humdrum normality of domesticity when creating the “room of one’s own”. Penelope Lively simply sits in an armchair with an “ancient electronic typewriter” on her lap; Ray Bradbury used the living room and bedrooms of his parent’s house in his early years.  Jane Austen carved out a small space near the seldom-used front door as a secret writing corner.  A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming, and she refused to have the creak remedied. Michael Morpugo apparently writes in bed though this is a rather special contraption

That oddity apart, there are a whole host of writers whose creative juices are unleashed far away from the domestic sphere. Bradbury presumably found his parents’ home too restrictive since he took himself off the the UCLA library to write Fahrenheit 451. Libraries too were the locations of choice for George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and G.B Shaw (all of whom were regular users of the Reading Roomat the British Museum in London).  For Herman Melville and Willa Cather the New York Society Library was one of their favourite haunts.  Maya Angelou used to escape from her home to a hotel on days when she wanted to write. In a  2013 interview with The Daily Beast, she explained how she kept a hotel room in her hometown and paid for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles.

Angelou had all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room and banned all the hotel staff from entering it “just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded”.

Edinburgh Cafe, The Elephant House: The birthplace of Harry Potter

Edinburgh Cafe, The Elephant House: The birthplace of Harry Potter

By now of course we all know the story of how J.K Rowling produced the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series while sitting in an Edinburgh cafe. Although Rowling has said the idea of the boy wizard was conceived on a train journey, much of the writing was done in the back room of the Elephant House cafe overlooking the castle. It’s now one of the spots in the city that tourists love to visit. (Nearby Nicholson’s cafe where she also wrote is now a Chinese restaurant). For Rowling, a single mother struggling to make ends meet on state benefits, it was cheaper to buy a few coffees in these cafes than to heat her apartment.

It seems she’s not the only writer to find a stint in a cafe more productive than a few hours in their own home no matter how comfortable their study/workshop/writer’s den.  In the Literary Hub just recently crime fiction supremo Jo Nesbø revealed that he although he has what he calls “the perfect writing room” constructed in the attic of his apartment and with a view of the hills of Oslo, he actually prefers to write in the corridor of a coffee shop. He goes there early each day to try and make sure to snaffle one of the two tables in the corridor since those are the only ones he finds conducive to writing. He will share a table if necessary but much prefers it if his companion moves off when they finish their coffee rather than engaging him in conversation.

I’m astonished he can concentrate enough to be creative. Most coffee shops I frequent these days are horribly noisy joints full of squawking infants (some places look more like a crèche than a cafe), and people from nearby offices trying to look terribly important when talking very loudly on their phones. Mix that in with the thumps as the barista tamps the coffee thingy on the counter to release the grounds before the next customer’s order; the hissing of the steam to create cappucchino foam, the pulverising of yet more beans and the grinding of ice for smoothies and you have one hell of a racket. I often can’t get out of the door fast enough but next time I’ll go looking in the darker recesses. I might just spot a writer in hot pursuit of a prize winning novel.




Adults and children – a different reading experience?

My Open University course on children’s literature started yesterday so I’ve been immersed in the pages of Northern Lights, Little Women and Harry Potter for the past week.

The first part of the course is about defining the term ‘children’s literature’. Do we mean literature specifically about children or written specifically for them or even written by children? With the increasing popularity of cross-over fiction like Hunger Games, the boundaries – if they ever really existed – have become ever more blurred.

Reading the course material has also got me thinking whether children and adults read differently. I don’t mean just in terms of the complexity of vocabulary or sentence structure but in terms of what we look for in the act of reading itself.

According to David Beagley who lectures on children’s lit at Trope University in Australia, children tend to read externally by which he means that they use novels to explore and discover experiences that they have not yet had themselves.  Experiences such sleeping out of doors (Swallows and Amazons),  coping with  the first days in a new school when you don’t know anyone (Harry Potter or Blyton’s Malory Towers for example), being falsely accused of being a liar (Jane Eyre) etc etc. Read many books aimed at younger readers and you’ll find a large “education” element mixed in with the pure entertainment element  – showing and guiding the reader on appropriate ways to behave and that some reactions are natural aspects of growing up.

I’d never read any of the Harry Potter series until recently but what struck me was how well  J..K Rowling balances the ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’  elements. Strip away  the fantasy and the magic elements and you’ll find there are plenty of messages about appropriate ways to behave whether that’s about being loyal to friends or sticking up for what you believe in. There are also multiple examples of situations which a child reader could encounter themselves – so we see how Harry deals with bullies like Malfoy and how he decides who will be the friends that are really worth having.

Little Women stands in complete contrast to this.  It’s so heavily didactic that I became frustrated with it – far too many episodes ended in a moral lesson from Marmee or a little homily from one of the sisters. But of course, this is my view as an adult reader. Was my experience different when I read it as a young girl? Undoubtedly it was. Reading it as a 10 year old, I never noticed how much sugary ‘lessons in life’ it contained. Instead, I was entranced by the character of Jo Marsh. I wanted to be a tomboy like her and not have to worry about whether my socks were falling down or my dress was stained. So in a sense I was reading as Beagley indicates – I was reading to discover an experience of what it would be like to climb trees. And then I put that knowledge to use by taking my bunch of friends and cousins on our own adventures in the hills near my grand-parents’ home. But now of course, I’ve had those tomboy outdoor experiences so I am less entranced by what Little Women can tell me, which means other aspects of the book (the role of mothers versus fathers in society for example,) come more to the forefront. And they are not substantial enough to keep me as an adult reader engaged.


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