Just A Little Baileys…….

photoThe Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was formerly called The Orange Prize and the winner will be announced tomorrow. This evening I went to a ‘preview’ event at The Southbank Centre in London where each of the six shortlisters was to read an extract from their novel and answer a few questions about the work.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the event it was announced that Donna Tartt, described by The Guardian as the frontrunner, was unable to make it. Instead her place was taken by Charles Dance, the actor, who joked that he had never felt so conspicuous in his life and then by her literary agent in the UK to answer questions.

First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Americanah, my personal favourite.She previously won the Orange Prize for Half Of A Yellow Sun. At the risk of sounding trivial, if there were a prize for best dressed author she would win hands down! I saw  her at the Hay Festival on Sunday and on both occasions she was dressed to kill. The lady has got STYLE!!

She was asked about the two very different experiences her main characters have when they leave Nigeria….Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. She explained that all of their experiences were based on true life experiences although not necessarily her own.

She also explained that she had wanted to describe a sense of longing and homesickness for Nigeria which she had felt as a young student in the USA. She had also wanted to recreate the sense of betrayal she had felt too when she returned to Nigeria some years later and found it had not stood still waiting for her.

Next came Hannah Kent. Burial Rites is a debut novel from the Australian writer which I enjoyed but didn’t love.The novel traces the story of Agnus Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publically executed in Iceland in 1830.During the questions, Kent explained how she had come across the story first whilst she was a young exchange student in Iceland. She stressed that fact and fiction were very closely linked in the book and that she had to rein in her imagination and not speculate if there was no evidence for a particular aspect of the story. She was asked by a member of the audience whether she had ‘inhabited’ Agnus’ character. She replied that she had been drawn to Agnus as a young and lonely exchange student and felt she had carried Agnus with her throughout working on the book. She had a sense of grieving for her character when the work was finished.

Jhumpa Lahiri was for me the most disappointing of all the readers. The Lowland is a rich and enriching novel which deals with love , loss and the impossibility of forgetting. The extract chosen was not particularly illuminating nor representative of the beautiful prose in the book.I suppose it is difficult to choose a passage that in some way reflects the book without giving too much away of the plot however the reading was rather plodding and didn’t do the work justice at all.

Next was Audrey Magee reading from her book ,The Undertaking. I must be completely honest here, this is the one book on the shortlist I haven’t read.I feel a little resistant to it given its subject matter and perhaps the fairest thing I can say here is that although the passage chosen was beautifully read, I did not change my mind.

Moving swiftly on , the next was Eimear McBride reading from A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing. This is not an easy work either in voice or subject matter but it was beautifully read by the author. When introducing her, the chair had explained that writing the book had taken McBride six months but then she had faced a ten-year struggle to find a publisher. McBride then wryly remarked that she was indeed very glad to be invited to a Bailey’s Prize event.

She was asked by the audience if she intended to change her voice for her next work. She replied that she is interested in language and what it can be made to do ‘ against its will almost’. Her next work will have an equally innovative voice as well.

Finally, Charles Dance read an extract from The Goldfinch which had, apparently, been chosen by the author,  Donna Tartt. The passage chosen comes from the end of the book when the hero, Theo, is contemplating Fabritius’ painting which has haunted his childhood. It is one of my favourite parts of the novel . The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize recently and the sheer quality of the writing shone through in Dance’s reading. During questions it was confirmed that Ms Tartt is indeed a big fan of Charles Dickens……….although J K Rowling was not mentioned.

Of course the winner will be revealed tomorrow evening…..my personal pick is Americanah, followed very closely by The Lowland. On the strength of tonight though, I suspect a ‘double whammy’ for Donna Tartt cannot be ruled out.

A great evening

 

 

 

 

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

photoAt this time of year, our thoughts inevitably turn to holidays and to what we can read whilst lying on the beach.

A ‘beach read’ requires a good plot, not too much intellectual effort and enough suspense to keep us turning the pages between sipping a drink and slapping on the sun cream Bittersweet, out in the UK on June 6th, certainly ticks all the boxes.

Mabel, known as May, meets Genevra Winslow when they are room mates at college. ‘Ev’ is everything small town May is not – cool, beautiful, East Coast and moneyed.The opening paragraph sucks you into the story :

‘Before she loathed me,before she loved me,Genevra Katherine Winslow didn’t know I existed. That’s hyperbolic, of course;by February, student housing had required us to share a hot shoe box of a room for a full six months, so she must have gathered I was a physical reality (if only because I coughed every time she smoked her Kools atop the bunk bed), but nearly until the day Ev asked me to accompany her to Winloch, I was accustomed  to her regarding me as she would a hideously upholstered armchair – something in the her way, to be utilized when absolutely necessary, but certainly not what she’d have chosen herself’ 

An unlikely friendship begins between the two girls which ends with May being invited to spend the summer at the Winslow family estate in Vermont, Winloch. At first May is dazzled by the seemingly glamourous lifestyle of the Winslows but gradually a web of lies and deceit begins to unravel.

May discovers that things are not all they seem at Winloch and to realise that it is difficult to know who to trust. Are the Winslows really all they seem ? How did the family come back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1930s ? Why is Birch, Ev’s father, so controlling and is her mother really so unfeeling?

We also begin to find out more about Mabel.She isn’t quite the reliable narrator we thought her to be at the outset. Is there a reason the Winslows have drawn her into their web ?

Of course this is a thriller and , to a certain extent ,disbelief must be suspended for it to work.Arguably at 400 plus pages it is a touch over long but it kept me gripped throughout. In the States the book is on the New York Times bestsellers list so it is definitely one for the summer suitcase.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

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Book Review : The Wars by Timothy Findley

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This book was a recommendation from another blogger. During the course of 2014 I am reading WW1 related books and I asked for some suggestions particularly any books dealing with the experience of Commonwealth soldiers .

Like The Lie and Wake which I reviewed here this a a novel rather than memoirs. Timothy Findley is described as being one of Canada’s foremost novelists although I have to confess that I had never heard of him before.

The novel follows the fate of young Canadian,Robert Ross. A family tragedy propels Robert to enlist  in the cavalry and after a brief period of training he is shipped off to France.

Even during training Robert soon realises that the image of a glorious and heroic war that he has been sold is probably not what awaits him and his fellow recruits.Whilst out for a run on the prairie, Robert and a comrade bump into Taffler, a former football star and now war hero, throwing stones at a bottle:

‘The distance,’ he said, ‘between our lines and theirs is often no more than a hundred yards. Did you know that?’

‘No sir,’

‘One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said,’ is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.

Once over in France we see the same picture and chaos that Robert Graves and Hemingway painted of their own War experiences.

‘Not a single man was on his feet. One man lay alive on a stretcher while at the other end the stretcher bearers curled like caterpillars – dead…………… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud – or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded. ‘

So far so Blackadder , but what is fascinating about this book is the structure of it. The story is circular………it ends as it starts,  although the significance and power of the beginning of the novel are not clear until we have followed Robert on his nightmare journey.

At times his story is told in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with  other characters and historical documents all of which  help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.

Transcript : Marian Turner – 1

You will understand from what took place, why I cannot tell you what he looked like. I suppose such things are of interest. Well- of course they are! (LAUGHTER) Everyone  wants to know what people look like. Somehow it seems to say so much about a person’s possibilities’

Findley also wrote short stories and plays  and at times the descriptions are overwhelmingly vivid. Robert and some comrades become trapped in an overflowing dyke in the pitch dark and on horseback. He is confused by the large objects that keep bumping against his horse’s flanks together with a heavy fluttering sound………only to discover that the objects are the bloated corpses of dead soldiers and the fluttering comes from the crows feeding on them.

As this is a book dealing with war experiences most of the characters are necessarily male. There are two particularly fascinating and not altogether positive women characters however.

The first is Robert’s mother. As we meet her she has already lost one child and fears, with Robert’s departure for the Front that she will lose another.Her descent into addiction and madness is reminiscent of a Eugene O’Neill character.

‘I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well-you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you but life I cannot.I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.’

The second is Barbara D’Orsey, his cold, hard hearted lover collecting wounded officers as a badge of honour only to abandon them when they need her most.

This is a harrowing tale of a young man’s quest for life whilst surrounded by insanity.It is hard to say too much more about this book without writing a spoiler, so I’ll stop.

At the end of the novel, ‘ the archivist’ finds a photograph of Robert and his sisters playing with a pony ;

‘On the back is written: ” Look! You can see our breath!” And you can.’

 

 

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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There are not many books that make me cry. I am not talking about a stray tear trickling down my cheek at a heartwarming finish……….this book made me sob uncontrollably at the end of it .

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the stories of two Afghan women: Shekiba, who lives at the start of the twentieth century ,and Rahima ,living in Afghanistan now, post invasion and post rebuilding attempts by the West.

Rahima is born into a family already scarred by the country’s recent history. Her father, known as Padar-jan, fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets . He returns home after the Soviet departure no longer a fresh faced teenager but a battle weary 24 year old. His parents hurriedly arrange a marriage for him :

‘At twenty-four years old , he was long overdue and they thought a wife and children would bring him back to normal, but Padar-jan, just like the rest of the country, had forgotten what normal was’

Rahima is one of five sisters in a culture in which only men are valued. We follow her through her girlhood…..she at least is able to gain some education, unlike her sisters. Her father’s ever increasing absences from home with the local warlord mean her mother is unable to get shopping and provisions for the home as only men can leave the house unaccompanied . Rahima is allowed to dress and be treated as a boy ,an old custom known as bacha posh, to help the household run more smoothly.

Shekiba is Rahima’s great-great grandmother. She is born into a more loving family but  her face is badly scarred as a young child rendering her unable to marry in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately Shekiba’s happy early childhood is brought to an abrupt end by the death of her siblings and then parents. Greedy relatives cheat her of her inheritance and she is cast into the world to make her own way.

Through the parallel stories of Rahima and her great-great grandmother we experience the dreadful injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan then and now. Women are sold into marriage, become the property of their husbands ,are routinely subject to violence and have no access to the outside world. Even a visit to a sister living nearby is only possible in the unlikely event of the husband’s agreement. Women are deemed ready for marriage at the age of about thirteen and often find themselves becoming the third or fourth wife of a much older man.

Rahima’s life also shows us the corruption present today in Afghanistan’s political and commercial life, both are effectively controlled by warlords who bend and twist any controls imposed  to suit their own ends.

A powerful warlord is appalled to find that the rules of the new constitution insist on a certain quota of women representatives in the parliament. His aide and advisor explains to him :

‘I understand that sahib, truly. And believe me I don’t like it any more than you do, but these are the rules. I’m simply suggesting we find a way to work around the system so that we don’t lose all control over this area. The elections are coming up soon. We must plan for this’

The solution found is to put the eldest wife up for election. Unable to read or write and in fear of violence at the hands of her husband, she is a mere stooge and is told how she must vote during each session. Dreadful punishment is meted out to any female representatives who show independence or try to speak out.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is not a polemic however. It is a beautifully written and imaginative novel. The characters are realistically drawn and the setting is vividly brought to life.

At times alternating the stories was a little frustrating however there is a point to placing these two lives together. Shekiba and Rahima are not just blood relatives, they both live during times of great change in Afghanistan. Shekiba’s life serves to remind us that in the not so distant past, full independence was possible for the women of Afghanistan. We can only hope that the same can be achieved for Rahima.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell will be published in the UK on 6th May 2014. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Fathers and Sons…….and Nabokov

photo (3)What makes a good father? What makes a great novel? Can we ever be free of our past? These are some of the questions posed by David Gilbert’s New York set novel &Sons.

A.N. Dyer is an elderly Salinger-esque  novelist, haunted by his coming of age novel Ampersand and it’s hero, Edgar Mead. Haunted also by his relationship with his own sons… the elder Richard and Jamie; and the much younger Andy. Haunted too by his lifelong friendship with Charlie Topping ,in part an inspiration for Ampersand,  and whose funeral starts this novel.

Charlie’s death forces Andrew to face his own mortality and he convenes a family meeting to discuss the future for Andy, still a teenager.

The story is intermittently narrated by Phillip Topping, Charlie’s eldest son, a malevolent and very unreliable narrator. Phillip has discovered a store of letters and postcards from Andrew to Charlie when they were young men…..and crucially one from Charlie to Andrew.One of these is reproduced at the start of each of the eight sections……and so the background to Ampersand is revealed.

Meanwhile the relationships between Andrew and each of his sons unfold and we look, too,at the relationship an artist has with his creation.

This all sounds very intellectual but this is a very comic book . Not laugh out loud funny maybe but some very amusing observations , particularly of the world of publishing.

One of the funniest set pieces in the novel is a launch party thrown for the first book of the latest yet-to-be-discovered literary sensation….a spoiled little rich kid with zero self-awareness. Gilbert describes the gathered publicists,agents and novelists as :

....discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.

There are also sideswipes at the world of film making and acting, with Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the movie rights of Ampersand.As well as a look at the strange world of on-line success stories when a rather tasteless video of Jamie’s goes viral without him realising.

Other reviews I read of &Sons talked about Gilbert’s admiration for Nabokov and drew comparisons with Pnin,  also intermittently narrated by someone with a grudge so I decided to read it as a companion piece.

Pnin tells the story of Timofey Pnin , a Russian emigre from the Revolution, who is now just about surviving as an academic in a lesser know US university. It was criticised when first published not being a novel at all but a stitching together of comic articles Nabokov had previously written for magazines like The New Yorker. It’s patchwork birth does show a little but it is , at best, a very funny early campus novel.

It has a circular structure and finishes exactly where it started.Much of the humour is derived from Pnin’s always incomplete grasp of the English language and it’s idioms. The now lost world of the Russian emigre is acutely observed. At times the writing is very moving.

A visit to a fellow emigre’s summer house and a discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provokes a ‘ madeleine moment’ for Timofey. He is transported back to the innocence and beauty of a young love affair, with the horrible knowledge that the object of his affections was killed by the Nazis at Buchenwald. A truly heart rending memory that moved me to tears.

I would describe both these novels as near misses rather than direct hits BUT both are enjoyable and , at times, thought provoking reads. I am not sure I am any closer to answering the question of the author’s relationship to his creation. Any ideas?

My Top Five Books of 2013

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These are my recommended reads from this year…….five , in no particular order , and then 3 more I really enjoyed but Top Eight didn’t seem a catchy enough title!

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1.The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt

I have already reviewed it here on my blog . We follow the adventures of Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood accompanied by The Goldfinch, a painting recovered from a bomb attack , his talisman and his curse.

2. The Luminaries   by Eleanor Catton

Another slab of a book that I have already reviewed here.

Deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize,  this is a murder mystery with a Victorian feel and an astrological structure.

3. Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

A searingly honest account of the search for identity of two young people. Told in narrative style but also through blog posts, Ifem and Obinze journey from Nigeria to the US and London . Both have experiences that cause them to confront their  perceptions of  themselves as well as other people’s preconceptions of them as Africans. Whilst they are away, Nigeria is changing and they both return to a country very different to the one they left. Above all, however, this is a love story.

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4, A Tale For The Time Being  by Ruth Ozeki

This was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It tells the stories of Ruth,a Canadian writer,  and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao ,whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the shores near her home in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Nao’s diary recounts her own struggle against bullying as well as the story of her grandmother, a buddhist priest, and her uncle, a reluctant pilot in World War 2. Ozeki plays with time, place and memory to create a magical tidal wave of a story.

5. The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A metaphysical crime thriller. Marias uses the voice of a female narrator, something he said he would never do, to examine the nature of love, loss, time and storytelling.There is a playful poke at the publishing industry and the ‘conceit’ of being a novelist.

It’s a novel and once you have finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novels imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with,a plot we recall far more vividly than real events….

A masterpiece.

And now the honourable mentions…..

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1. The Night Rainbow  by Claire King

Meet Pea, who’s struggling to make sense of why her mother is so sad and what she can do to help.Quirky and evocative, this is a real page turner with a big surprise.

2. Nothing Holds Back The Night   by Delphine de Vigan

A blend of autobiography and fiction, this is a woman’s struggle to understand her mother …..and her family. Outwardly gifted, successful and privileged, privately they are torn by violence and dark secrets. Beautifully written.

3. Dear Life  by Alice Munro

The latest collection of short stories from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thought provoking and moving, she makes every word count. Train will hit you like an express at full speed. 

So that is my round up of the year’s best……..I would love to know your top reads of 2013.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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In the summer of 1974 Julie Jacobson’s life changes forever. In attempt to escape her dreary home life in New Jersey, she wins a drama scholarship to Spirit-inThe-Woods summer camp for gifted children.

There she is chosen to become one of The Interestings, a group of six friends and will be known as Jules for the rest of her life.Meg Wotzer follows the lives of all six from 1974 through adolescent traumas to college and on into adulthood, marriage and then middle age.

Wolitzer shows us that life’s journey is unexpected.  Both success and love are hard to predict . Women struggle to find their identities particularly in the world of work  What does a woman have to do to be seen as a serious person? wonders one of the female characters trying to break into theatre production.

Jules never loses the sense of not quite belonging she felt from the moment she was asked to join The Interestings. Even in her adult life she finds contentment and fulfilment difficult to obtain.She envies the sense of entitlement that others in the group seem to have and carry with them on into adulthood.

The book has some very witty observations of middle class life and recreates perfectly that far away time before the internet when even to use the phone at home could be a struggle against parental edict. A funny wry and often moving look at what it means to be alive.

 

 

The Luminaries

Here is my review of the Booker prize winner:-

Finally finished this………what to say ? Well,obviously it’s very long……….and written in the style of a Victorian mystery story. At first it is a little confusing as all the characters are introduced almost at once in a very long opening sequence in which they all recount what they know of the death of one character and the disappearance of another. Gradually the stories interweave and we learn more and more about them, their motivations and their pasts. Much has been made of the structure of the novel which is based on astrology. Can’t really say I understood the point of that……however the effect is that the chapters gradually become shorter and shorter……just as the tension is building. An excellent read!

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Stoner by John Edward Williams

Decided to read this as a result of all the recent hype…….according to Ian McEwan, one of my favourite writers, it is ‘the best book you have never read’.

A campus novel set in the first part of the twentieth century, Stoner begins and ends with the death of the eponymous hero William Stoner. At first an undistinguished student of Agriculture he soon becomes diverted by literature and Letters and ends by becoming a Professor of Literature at the same university.

Stoner is the tale of the ‘little guy’….his heroic struggles are largely with himself. An inability to reach out emotionally to others : his parents, who he loves but largely abandons, his wife with whom he remains locked in a loveless marriage and his colleagues who fail to understand him. His inability to hold on to the opportunity for love that life offers him…his daughter who, like his parents he leaves to her fate or to maintain his relationship with Katherine in the face of society and faculty disapproval.

Written with great delicacy and empathy this truly is a forgotten gem. The influence on McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is clear to see. Stoner is not a naturally appealing character but Williams gives us a window into his soul. We understand him and suffer with him. Williams was clear the Stoner WAS a hero despite his mundane and unfulfilled life.

A joy to read….A classic of American Literature.