An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 2

2013-08-17 15.51.49I started on my first day in Edinburgh with something on the Fringe, and something in the main Festival, so, of course, it was only right to begin Day 2 with a trip to the International Book Festival.  We went to listen to Sarah Churchwell, a Professor at UEA talk about her new book Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby.  

I picked this event because Gatsby is a favourite book, it’s somehow back in the Zeitgeist because of the recent Baz Luhrmann film, and I’ve seen Sarah Churchwell on review programmes on the television and she seems like a knowledgeable person of strong opinion.  To be honest, I didn’t think I’d come away from little tented village which hosts the book festival with a copy of her publication, but I found the talk and discussion so interesting that I followed her to the book shop and had my newly bought copy signed.

What was so interesting about the discussion was that it is the story of the story.  Churchwell has researched the events that were in the news at the time that Fitzgerald was writing the novel, written in 1924 but set in 1922, and she has questioned every trope of what we presume we know about the 1920s.  Were the women wearing short skirts?  No.  Were they dancing the Charleston? No.  Did a green traffic light mean Go? Not necessarily, but sometimes.

During her research she came across reports of a notorious double murder in New Jersey in the early 1920s, which evidence indicates that Fitzgerald did read.  There were startling points of overlap between titbits in the news reports and details in the novel.  Using the news reports as well as other contemporary material, Churchwell has built a factual story of the times in which the novel was written, Fitzgerald’s writing process and the novel itself.

That she has interrogated every assumption that we have about the period, the roaring 20s, those images which we now accept as the shorthand for the era, and has found that they are not accurate, is what I found so interesting, as it is those details which create the pictures in our mind’s eye and the richness of the tapestry of we weave when we are immersed in a good book.  I’m looking forward to reading her work so that I can repaint those pictures.

After an afternoon spent chatting, I went to the Summerhall to see HeLa, written and performed by my friend Adura Onashile.  I’m still buzzing from the experience, and it needs a blog post all of its own, which will come(!).  Afterwards I had a drink with Adura and I had what I’ve been told is a ‘true festival experience’ of having quite a major conversation with the people with whom we shared the table in the bar.  We heard what they’d seen, and we showed off what we’d seen, and discussed our wish lists and future bookings, given the randomness of the encounter and the sheer number of things that are on, had a surprising amount of overlap – and of course took the opportunity to impress upon them the importance of their seeing HeLa before the end of the Festival.

Another day has dawned, and with it sunny blue skies, so I am optimistic for another fun day, and maybe today I will see a unicyclist!

Every Shelf Tells a Story

2013-07-18 17.09.57There is something endlessly fascinating about those collections of books that accrete in public places, in the bars of small hotels or in rented houses.  If you’re in one of those places there’s always something to read, but I can never avoid wondering on who thought to leave the books there, and why they left the books behind.  Were they such favourites that the donor wanted to share the experience, or did they dislike them so much that they couldn’t be bothered to take the thing away?

This shelf was particularly satisfying in terms of wonder; it’s in a healthcare facility in Scotland.  Of the 17 books, I’d heard of two of them, the Saul Bellow, although given its environs a bit unfortunately named More Die of Heartbreak, and Madame Bovary by Flaubert.  Of the remaining ones, only one author’s name was familiar, Dean Koontz, although I’ve never read anything by him.  All the others are completely unknown to me.

Two have made me laugh out loud; although probably not in a good way.

Trampled by Lilies is by the wonderfully named The Honourable Lady Fortescue.  That of itself dates it; now an Honourable would go out of her gilded way to demonstrate her ‘ordinariness’.  I had to look inside to find out her name: Winifred, who delightfully, gave up her stage career to marry in 1914, and enjoyed an unprecedentedly happy marriage in spite of the large disparity between her age and that of her husband.  Hmmmm.

Matron Knows Best gave me a lesson in the importance of the first sentence in a novel.  My mother picked up the book, chuckled at the title, and then opened it to the first page.  She read very briefly, ‘It was 1966 when I first found myself standing outside Matron’s office..’

‘Boff, I don’t think so,’ she said before closing it and returning it to the shelf.

I’ve not asked her what she found so off putting about the opening, but the speed with which it made her dismiss the book was impressive.

Have you heard of any of the other books?  Can you ever resist studying a shelf of books and making up stories about the people who have created the collection?

Talking About Sir Walter Scott

2013-04-25 14.03.08-1I suppose when you’ve been named after a character in a novel, it’s inevitable that you develop a complicated relationship with its author.  And if the name is a relatively unusual one, and the book a well known one, or at least one that is the inspiration for many teatime television classic adaptations, that relationship can go through distinctly fractious phases.

It was a difficult time when Ivanhoe was on the school curriculum, and everyone who cracked a joke about the book to me thought they were the first; but since then, I have been more pleasantly surprised when people I have met around the world have unexpectedly commented on the name and made the link to the book or to actors who have played the characters on television.

Taking a moment to think about it though, I couldn’t recall if I had ever read any other Scott books.  (Indeed of all the 19th century Scottish literature I read at school, I had to spend a few moments checking which were by him and which by Robert Louis Stevenson, so little did I enjoy them at the time.  That research revealed that the ones I did recall were by RLS, apart from Marmion, noted especially for its soporific qualities.)

So when I heard that, as a part of a wider programme of commemoration of Sir Walter Scott, Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’ was recording a special discussion of his contemporary relevance, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reassess my own knowledge of his work.  The recording took place in the Crush Bar at the Opera House Covent Garden, a red and gold plush interior lit by a splendid chandelier, and was filled with a crowd of what must have been typical members of the Radio 4 audience.  Interestingly, a show of hands revealed that fewer than half the people present had read a Scott novel, and only a handful had read more than one.

The panel comprised Scott enthusiasts Stuart Kelly and Allan Massie, and recent convert, Denise Mina.  All of them praised the humour of the works, but recommended developing the ‘laudable’ art of skim reading to overcome the more verbose sections of the novels, but then pointed out how many well known literary tropes had originated with him: Robin Hood splitting an arrow when he fired his own into a tree, Sir Walter Raleigh laying his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth to step over, two rival heroines, a blond and a brunette, re imagining history by recounting the third Jacobite Rebellion that never was ……

At the end of the discussion, a second show of hands showed that the majority of the audience had been convinced that they would try one of his books sometime soon.  Maybe you can be persuaded too, now you know about the skipping?  What do you think?

The programme featuring my contribution to audience ambience and applause will be broadcast on Sunday.

‘Rook’ by Jane Rusbridge

2013-04-22 16.20.11-1It says more about the height of my ‘to be read’ pile, and the slowness of my reading, than about my enthusiasm for this book, that it has taken me so long to read Rook by Jane Rusbridge.  The slightly battered edges of my copy of the novel also testify to the fact that I have lent it to a couple of people telling them that although I’ve not read it yet, I’m sure they will enjoy it.  So when it was last returned to me I made it my priority.

It is a story about secrets, those of a community and of a family; about what is buried, both literally and metaphorically, and what one might find if one digs in the right place.

Set in the richly observed town of Bosham, it is a tale interweaving known historical facts, local folklore and a central conflict between mother and daughter, Ada and Nora.

Ada has an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, spending much of her time reflecting on the past, through which we gather fractured fragments of her life.  She resists the care of Nora, who has returned home, without warning, leaving her life as a concert cellist to spend her time giving music lessons to local children.  The women’s uneasy home life is further disrupted by the arrival of a documentary film crew, researching the legend that an 11th century king may be buried in Bosham church, and seeking permission for an exhumation.

In order to distract herself from her own uncomfortable memories, Nora tries to keep herself busy with running and involvement with the local community, but when she finds an injured fledgling rook, the bird becomes her main focus of attention.  It lives in the house with her, and as it grows, it sits on her shoulder to be petted, or ferociously attacks unwanted visitors.  As it grows and recovers, so  does Nora.

I’m afraid, I found this aspect of the book a bit tricky, as the idea of a bird in the house, or on someone’s shoulder, sends unpleasant visceral shudders down my spine.

What I did enjoy about the novel was the rich language and the evocation of place, of the environs of the town of Bosham, and the idea of the layers of history that lie there.  It made me want to visit and explore, and to see the clouds of birds in the sky (from a safe distance birds are fine!) and feel the wind from the sea on my face, so vividly can I imagine them from the descriptions.

The Need to Read

IMG_2946I’ve not been reading enough lately, even though I am an adherent of the belief that it takes a better reader to make a better writer.  I’ve had a couple of false starts with novels that I began to resent having to carry around with me, and found myself reading newspapers left behind in train carriages rather than take the offending volumes out of my bag.  So I’ve abandoned the attempts at these worthy books from ‘the canon’ and instead am about to launch myself on the pile of new (ish) releases I’ve recently acquired variously through the generosity of others, and out of seeking refuge from the snow in a book shop yesterday.

I’ll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, it’s always good to have a photo of some books.  These were in the window of a second hand shop in Galerie Vivienne in Paris.

The Bottom of the Pile

IMG00718-20130111-1137What do these two books have in common?  I’d almost forgotten I had them, but now I’ve rediscovered them, they have made me feel a little guilty because these are but a couple of the books that I have started, but never finished reading.

It’s not really apparent from the photo but both volumes are water damaged – they were at the bottom of the piles of books on the floor by my bed and were the badly affected when I had a water problem in the flat.  In a way, these are the sacrificial ones, by soaking up so much they protected the stacks above them; so even though there were 20 or so piled up handy for bedtime reading, only these two were damaged.

But the fact remains, I’ve never finished them.  Now that they have resurfaced, should I attempt to read them again?  Can I even read the water damaged pages, some of which are a little stuck together; or should I replace them and try again?  They have a war theme in common, but I’m fairly sure I bought them several years apart.

I bought Stalingrad because I had talked, or rather, encouraged my Russian teacher to talk about, the siege of the city in the Second World War, as it was his home town and he had family stories to tell.  It’s a dramatic story, but somehow I couldn’t stick with the book.

The Kindly Ones originally published in France, was a celebrated there as a literary phenomenon, and a number of my French colleagues recommended it to me.  I didn’t feel up to reading it in French, but when I saw it had been translated I bought it fairly quickly, and I tried really quite hard to persevere, but abandoned it after about 100 pages, which as you can see didn’t make much of an impression on the whole thing.

I’ll let you know if I do go back to them…..

So, what books have you never managed to finish, worthy or otherwise?

‘Hawthorne & Child’ by Keith Ridgway – A Review

I got this book on the basis of a recommendation from Isabel Costello and her literary sofa, and after hearing the author read some extracts at an event a couple of weeks ago.  He read very well, in a beautifully mellifluous tone which accentuated both the pathos and humour in an extract about one character’s obsession with the death  of a racing driver and the evil of Tony Blair, and I wanted to know more.

So, what of the whole book?  Hawthorne and Child are a couple of police detectives apparently straight out of the central casting mould of buddy cops, different from each other, but complimentary, who’ve worked together so long, they know all of each others foibles.  We first meet them as they embark on the investigation of a random early morning drive by shooting in a street in north London.  A standard opening chapter for any detective novel, a murder, the preliminary gathering together of the obvious clues.  But that is the only thing about this book which resembles standard detective fiction.

We never return to this murder, as each subsequent chapter focusses on a different set of protagonists; sometimes Hawthorne and Child are central, sometimes peripheral.  It feels like a loosely connected collection of short stories, as there is no central narrative thrust which runs through the book.

Maybe it’s about the impossibility of always being able to know a complete narrative of anything in real life, and of turning on its head the expectation that a novel will present a coherent story arc, and the mystery of other people and their stories; or maybe it’s challenging us to try to make sense of the unrelated fragments, making us aware of our need to make up or complete partial stories.  Or maybe it’s all taking place in Child’s imagination.  I’m not sure, and I suspect that is at least part of the point.

The writing is very clever and beautifully done, with wonderful phrasing and rhythm which worked so well at the reading, and it is this which kept me going towards finishing the book.  The sense of place, of the peripheral areas of north London is also recognisable and fully realised; but I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down at the end when the book simply stopped.

The main gift it gave me was to make me think about what I find satisfying in a book; yes, it’s about language inventiveness, vocabulary and rhythm; and yes, it’s about place and rounded characterisation, but I also want narrative tension, because without that itch to know what will happen next, it is far too easy to put the book to one side and to read something else instead.  As with any collection of stories, I don’t think it would matter what order you read the chapters in Hawthorne & Child, as one does not follow on from the other; it’s just that together they build up a picture of time and place.

I might be imagining it, but is there a mini trend at the moment for books of loosely connected stories to be published as novels?  I’m thinking of  Girl Reading by Katie Ward, which I enjoyed, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkos, neither of which I managed to finish.  Could this be because the commercial market for short fiction is so weak?  What do you think?

Reading or Studying?

I often listen to Radio 4’s A Good Read on a Friday night as I’m getting ready for bed, and so sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before it’s got quite to the end.  But last week I heard it all the way through, more alert than usual perhaps because of a comment made by one of the contributors which set me wondering.

The format of the programme is very simple.  Two guests are invited to recommend a paperback book as ‘a good read’ and, together with the host, who has also nominated a book, they come together and discuss them.  Generally, as with so many discussions, the most interesting programmes are the one during which the contributors disagree.  Where one person fails to see the charms of the others all time favourite volume from childhood, or where another admits to not being able to finish something because they hated it so much.

Last week had some elements of that when opinions differed on Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield. But it was the work that united them that generated the most thought provoking comment, which each of them repeated in their own way.

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was selected by historian Ruth Richardson.  It is unusual in itself for a book of poetry to feature on the programme, which mostly focusses on fiction, with a dash of history and popular science, so it was not unexpected that this would be a point of note.  Ruth Richardson explained why she loved the poetry, picking out lines that meant something particular to her, or which had struck a chord with her on different times.  She also confessed that although she didn’t understand it all, she loved it none the less.

I’ve never studied it, she said at one point, rather defensively, as if failure to have ‘studied’ it might disqualify her from liking it.  Later, when giving her reaction to reading it, Harriet Gilbert, the host, also said that while she had read the book many years ago, she too had not studied it.

And I wondered what they meant.  Are there things that have to be studied rather than just read? Is reading a lesser activity than studying?  Which novels that you love might you have to qualify your enjoyment of by admitting a failure of study?

Is it about understanding every inter textual/mythological/ historical/ philosophical/ biographical reference contained in the text, or enjoying the rhythm and richness of the words; rather like understanding all the allegorical references in the bits and pieces around the edges of a Renaissance painting without actually looking at the rich colours or the sweep of the drapery?

Or does study imply that you have both read the thing itself, and read what other people have had to say about it?  My first thought was the idea of studying something at school or university, where the act of being taught it, revising it, and writing an essay about it, drained most things of any kind of excitement or enjoyment.

Are there any novels that you’ve enjoyed but which, if you were to recommend them, you feel you’d have to confess that you’d never studied?  I’ve certainly never done so, therefore for one day only, I’m going to give it a go…. looking back through the 19th century canon……

I read War and Peace (*)when I was a teenager, and loved it.  I don’t think I understood all the philosophy bits because I’ve never studied it, but it’s a great story.

* Insert as appropriate

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Cousin Bette

Tale of Two Cities

‘The Writer in the Digital Age’ – The Writer’s View

I wrote yesterday about my observations of a discussion on the proliferation of independent publishers hosted by TLC at the Free Word Centre last week, from my perspective as a reader.  Today I thought I’d reflect a little on what  I learnt from a writers point of view.

I think there are many, like me, who continue to strive to achieve publication by the ‘traditional’ route.  I’d like to engage an agent to sell my novel to a mainstream publisher.  I’d like to receive an advance (no matter how modest) and I’d like to be able to walk into a book shop on a High Street in a town I’ve never visited before and see my beautifully printed novel on the shelves.  I’d like to know that people I’ve never met have read it and connected with it in some way, and that they could appreciate it as a piece of work into which I had poured a great deal of time and effort.  If they wanted to buy it in digital form, that would be OK too, but deep down, it wouldn’t give me the same visceral thrill.

Even as I type this, I know it’s a romantic dream from a time that is nearly over; and I know the likelihood is that I will have to compromise on some, if not all, of it.

Many of you may be thinking  just get on with it.  It’s so easy to publish it yourself.  But I hesitate at that advice.  I’ve worked very hard to write it, and invested a great deal of time and effort in it, and so I want it to go out into the world as well dressed and as well presented as I can possibly achieve.  No matter how much I believe in it, it will still need copy editing, proof reading, and then, when it is finally ready to go, it will need the engine of publicity to make sure that it doesn’t disappear amongst the piles of other books being pumped out into the world.

Listening to the discussion last week about the growth of small independent publishers in the UK, confirmed to me that, while the business models are changing, broadly the same steps in the process of publishing a quality novel remain.  What is changing is the allocation of the risks and rewards.

Under the ‘traditional’ model, broadly, the agent handled all the business affairs, negotiated contracts and advances and royalty rates.  The publisher invested in the author, buying the rights to the book, having it edited and proofed, and then printed and marketed.

In the new world of Independents and Self Publishing all of those elements, the contracts, the money, editing and publicity are still all there, it’s just much more likely that it is the writer who will have to bear most of the upfront costs, hopefully, in return for a greater share of the sales revenue.  But without an agent, or any business savvy, the scope for losing out has increased exponentially.

It is in this environment that people are trying to form their own networks of skilled practitioners, of freelance editors and designers, to work directly with writers.  Byte the Book, which was represented at the talk, is one such example, running networking events for people interested in the new publishing universe.

But at the end of the day it’s a business, and if you want to succeed you have to adopt appropriate business strategies, which, you’ve guessed it, include working out what is the right way to brand yourself in the market…….. I’m just going to have to rid myself of that mental image of a lassoed calf squealing as the smoking branding iron is applied to its rump.

‘The Writer in the Digital Age’ – The Reader’s View

How can we negotiate our way, as both readers and writers, through the world of books and literature in this era of great change?  As greater consolidation is underway amid the traditional publishing houses,  small independent houses pop up every day, and direct digital self publishing becomes easier and more accessible, choice and selection can be confusing, and so it was an opportune time to attend a discussion on the subject hosted by TLC at the Free Word Centre.

I am both a reader and a writer, so I am interested in how to negotiate the new environment in both capacities.  How can I find interesting new things to read, and how can I get my own work out into the market place in the most effective way?

How do we choose what to read?  Understanding how that choice is made, can inform how I might choose to publish my own work.

With all the changes in the publishing environment, browsing in a book shop today, I can have the feeling that I’m seeing only a fraction of what is available in the market; but, equally, I don’t particularly enjoy looking through listings on internet book sites, as I feel over faced by all the stuff that’s there, and don’t know how to gauge the quality of what it is I’m looking at.  I know that there are books out there that have been carefully crafted, edited and cared for, but also there are even more that have not.  How can I tell the difference?

Before this recent period of upheaval we used to rely on mainstream publishers to make the broad selections for us, to essentially curate a collection from which we could choose our preferences.  For the moment, it is not clear who has replaced them in their curating role, but it seems inevitable that from the chaotic multiplicity of the current marketplace, that some new ‘ taste-makers’ will have to emerge.  They might be book bloggers, book groups or other collectives and networks.

The idea of brand is as prevalent in the book business as it is in bottled water,  But which is the relevant brand now?  Is it the writer or the publisher?  Many readers make their choice on what to buy by reference to the writer; I certainly did in my early reading years, and have the complete works of Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and F Scott Fitzgerald in their 1970/80s paperback livery to prove it.  Others rely on the reputation of the publisher,; that was probably me too as I loved the line of Penguin orange spines arranged on the shelves in my bedroom, because I was confident in relying on most of the choices they has made for the compilation of their lists.

Some small publishers, today are tapping into that pleasure for book lovers of having a beautiful row of co-ordinated volumes on their shelves, or like And Other Stories  are inviting readers to subscribe a financial contribution to the publication of future books, hoping that their reputation for making excellent choices will create a group of followers/’stakeholders; the short listing of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home for the Man Booker prize will only enhance their reputation.

Talking of the Man Booker, it is interesting to note that this year the judges short listed three books published by small independent houses. Were they trying to make a point?  Are there more interesting things being published outside the major houses?  And if they are, why is that?

How can the average reader find all these gems without the help of some sort of filter?  The big trick then is to find the right filter for you.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the discussion points I found interesting from the writer’s point of view.

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