Monthly Archives: September 2011

Savidge Reads Grills… Rebecca Makkai

With my Savidge Reads Grills guests I like to have authors, and their books, that I am really passionate about. Rebecca Makkai has become such an author since I read her delightful debut ‘The Borrower’ a few weeks ago. Easily in my top five books of the year, if you haven’t read ‘The Borrower’ then you should (and I am giving some copies away today – one of the answers is in today’s post) because if you are visiting Savidge Reads you are most likely a book lover and ‘The Borrower’ is a book lovers book, no question. Anyway, I managed to catch up with Rebecca for a nice bookish natter, I hope you’ll enjoy…

Can you describe the story of ‘The Borrower’ in a single sentence?

A Midwestern librarian with Russian-revolutionary genes inadvertently kidnaps (or maybe is kidnapped by) a ten-year-old boy who’s been forced into anti-gay classes by his fundamentalist parents.

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

About ten years ago, I first heard of the phenomenon euphemistically known as “reparative therapy” – in other words, the classes designed to turn gay adults and adolescents straight, or to keep children from turning out gay. Apart from my private political reaction, which was… let’s just say “quietly violent”… I was fascinated by the fictional possibilities of those dynamics. I could have taken a closer view of that situation, of course, but what spoke to me was an outsider’s narrative, one where we see not the therapy but its results.

It’s a road trip tale of sorts isn’t it? What made you decide to take the story in that direction?

For one thing, Lucy, the librarian, lives in world of literary references – there are the more obvious riffs on young children’s books, but she also just thinks in terms of literary tropes and quotations – and so the fact that she launches out on a skewed version of the classic American road trip seems fitting. She’s escaping town, but not the literary prison of her own brain. I had fun playing with echoes of the road trips of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lolita and Huckleberry Finn, and even a little bit with the wandering around in Ulysses. Trips give a story an extrinsic structure, which is a nice thing to have, but it turns out they’re also incredibly hard to pull off because you’re at the mercy of the map and the speed limit. There were times I wished I’d kept them home, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell and in the end I loved giving them that journey.

There is so much that ‘The Borrower’ is about, you have the ‘anti-gay camp’, the history of a Russia we don’t hear so much of, religion and all it can do, both good and bad… How did you fit this all in together and also manage to make it entertaining rather than tragic, though it has highly emotional moments in it too?

I always think about building an echo chamber for every story and novel I work on. You put certain elements in the room together, and if you keep them there long enough and play around with them, they’ll start to echo off each other, speak to each other, and enhance each other.

Some of my short stories have been quite a lot darker than this novel, but there was something that was fundamentally amusing to me about the way the pieces of The Borrower were relating to each other. I suppose I could say that I found they were having a rather raucous party in the echo chamber.

Ian is a wonderful character, and he is the drive of the novel. If he hadn’t been a child at Lucy’s library she wouldn’t end up in the scenario she does. How hard was it to make Ian so utterly precocious and yet adorable in one?

I do teach elementary school, and so even though Ian isn’t based in the slightest on any particular child I’ve known, I have logged an enormous number of hours with ten-year-old boys. I believe they’re the funniest people on the planet, and I had a ball creating a fictional one. Yet although Ian is funny and bright, he’s also incredibly manipulative and doesn’t quite live in the real world. It was important to me that he not just be some angel child we’re all feeling sorry for, but a complex and damaged and hard-headed person. The paradox of Ian is that some of his more irritating traits are the same ones that will probably see him through childhood intact.

There is an assumption by most people in the town of Hannibal that Ian will be gay, his parents want to ‘straighten’ him out, how hard was writing about a boy who is prepubescent and yet is ‘already headed up the yellow brick road’?

The strange thing about Ian’s situation is that his parents are responding not to his sexual proclivities (he’s ten, after all) but to his effeminacy and bookishness. Lucy herself is not fully convinced that Ian will turn out gay, but I did as the writer have a lot of fun showing some of those very traits that led his family to be concerned (though to me those quirks were endearing, not alarming). My only struggle was to resist putting more of those moments in the book. I never worried about what he should do next as a character, because he always just showed up and did it, quite insistently.

Lucy is an accidental heroine, and an accidental librarian but by no means a stereotypical one. Where did she come from? Was there anyone you were basing her on?

I’ve only ever based one character on a real person, someone in an as-yet-unpublished story. Beyond that one instance, my characters are pure invention; and it’s the invention of character and plot that are the most appealing things to me about writing fiction. I have a few things in common with Lucy (I’m a second-generation American, and I work with children), but a lot of her character (her haplessness, for instance, and her lack of ambition) stands in direction opposition to mine.

Actually, in the interest of accuracy, I should admit that I’ve also based a dog in my novel-in-progress on a real dog. I didn’t do much to disguise his identity, but I’m not worried as I’m fairly sure the dog can’t read.

‘The Borrower’ is definitely a book for people who love books. I was taken back to my childhood and visits to the library and how it was a world of wonder. Was that feeling of nostalgia something you wanted to plant in the reader? Were you a devourer of books as a child?

It was, and I was. I did have to make a decision, in writing the scenes where Lucy recommends books to Ian, of whether I’d keep her recommendations very up-to-date (and thus more realistic for a modern librarian) or bring up some of the old classics that would take readers back to their own childhoods. I chose the latter, making Lucy a devoted pusher of those timeless old chapter books like The Egypt Game and The Hobbit. On my tour I’ve been reading the part of the book where Lucy fills Ian’s backpack with contraband books, and it’s been wonderful seeing the audience react to those titles. In some cases they’ve run to the bookstore’s children’s section after my reading and gone home with five old favorites stacked on top of The Borrower.

Before we discuss books further, lets discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I started writing stories when I was three, as soon as I could hold a pencil and make letters. Both of my parents were college professors, and my father was additionally a poet, so the typewriters were constantly going in our house and I just assumed that writing was something people did about as regularly as eating. I was around thirteen when I realized it wasn’t a bodily function but a potential career.

Right, back to books… Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

This is such a hard question, and my answer changes every time I’m asked. As of today… They’re not exactly  my contemporaries, but  they’re in their writing prime, and if I had three Nobels to hand out tomorrow they’d go to Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

I wish I had time for one! I have two very young children, so I’m under pressure to make my reading time count. My guilty pleasure right now is showering.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I really have to get out of the house if I want to get anything done, or I’ll end up with someone small in my lap. Beyond that, I just sit there and plug away. My grandmother was a writer (the Hungarian novelist Rozsa Ignacz), and I’ve seen a picture of her working at an outdoor desk at a summer house with a typewriter and a coffee pot on the table, a cardigan over the back of the chair, and a cigarette in her mouth. Apparently she worked like that all summer, chain smoking and drinking coffee. I deeply envy that setup, and I envy her living in the time before they knew what cigarettes did to you. Caffeine gives me hives, cigarettes are out, and my computer screen would glare in the sun… So I guess I’m down to the cardigan.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

I wish I could say I’d had the fortitude to avoid online reviews, but I’ll see them occasionally if they pop up on my Google Alerts.  For any author, there’s a lot of frustration and unhealthiness involved with the crowd sourcing of reviews, if only because there are so many and a certain percentage will inevitably be cranky, and a certain percentage will praise you in ways you don’t deserve. In my case, I think I’ve gotten a bit of a magnified effect on the reactions simply because it’s such a politically charged book. A few of the “reviews” out there online aren’t really reviews at all, but arguments about homosexuality and religion. The longer the book has been out, and the greater the volume of stuff out there, the more I’ve been able to turn my back on all that. As an author you want to be focused on your next book, not obsessing over the last one.

I was quite heartened, though, to learn the sheer number of book blogs out there, and to see the sharing of reviews on sites like Goodreads. So many of the changes going on in the literary landscape are scary or frustrating, but this is a genuinely good one: a shift from reading in isolation to reading and discussing together, around the virtual campfire. 

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Well, being American I really wouldn’t call anything my “favourite,” as we’re rather biased against the letter U over here. But picking a sadly U-less favorite from the book shelf opposite me, I’d say that anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home, the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, ought to find it immediately.

What is next for Rebecca Makkai?

I’m putting together a story collection, at long last. It’s called Music for Wartime, and the stories are linked thematically by… well, music and war. Or, more specifically, the response of the artist to a world at war. And I’m about a third of the way into my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s set at a defunct artists’ colony, and the narration moves backwards in time from 1999 to 1900. I’m having way too much fun with it right now.

A big thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to do an interview when she is very busy with young children and writing a new book. Please pick up ‘The Borrower’, or try and win a copy, because honestly it is wonderful.

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Filed under Rebecca Makkai, Savidge Reads Grills...

Give Away… The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

I don’t only like to share books I love with you by writing about them, when I can I also really like to give you the chance to win some of them too. Well, thanks to the lovely people at William Heinmann I have four copies of ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai, which I reallym really loved, to give away wherever you are in the world (as I am aware you Savidge Readers come from all over the shop). It’s a real book lovers book, so you are in for a treat.

All you have to do is answer two questions. First, which book does Rebecca recommend you all read in her Savidge Reads Grills and second, which book you have read this year would you demand all book lovers simply MUST read?

Leave the answers in the comments here and I will pick a winner when I get back from Brussels on Tuesday. Good luck. Can’t wait for your recommendations. 

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Filed under Give Away, Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

I really try to tone down and contain the amount of times I say ‘oh I’ve read the most amazing book, you must read it’ either on this blog or out in the real world. One such book is ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai which after finishing I wanted to almost scream ‘read this now’ to everyone I passed. This feeling can fade but several weeks on I am now going to urge you all to ‘get this book now’.

William Heinemann, trade paperback, 2011, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I would imagine that if I mentioned the words ‘road trip’ in context with a setting of a book it might put some people off. In fact it would probably put me off if I heard that same description. Yet ‘The Borrower’ is a road trip upon which ten year old Ian and his local librarian Lucy find themselves on after they accidentally kidnap each other. Sounds bonkers (current favourite word) doesn’t it, but it’s just brilliant.

Lucy, as she likes to remind herself and us, is not your typical librarian. In fact she’s an accidental one in a small town called Hannibal. As the person in charge of the children’s section she meets ten year old Ian, a bookaholic and slightly precocious boy who everyone believes is ‘already on his way up the yellow brick road’. It’s his melodramatic nature and bookish addiction (which also reminded me of me aged ten, and now at twenty nine, ha) that leads his parents to believe the same, something which won’t do and their religious views won’t permit, so they start to send him to classes that stop people being, or possibly being gay. When Lucy learns of this and Ian runs away, to the library, the pair become caught up in a mutual kidnapping and running away drama that spirals further and further out of control.

This also a book about books and anyone who enjoys reading them. It’s this love of books that makes this unlikely duo become such friends, add in Lucy’s outrage when Ian’s mum comes with a list of books he can’t read and demands books with ‘the breath of god in them’. It also made me really nostalgic of the books I loved as a kid and those precious visits to the library.

‘Somewhere on Route 80: “Let’s talk about books.”
“That’s a great idea. Okay, books. What’s the next thing you want to read?”
“Well I think I want to read The Hobbit. This one guy, Michael, in this class I go to, he said it was very good. Have you ever read it?”
“You haven’t read The Hobbit?” I practically screamed at him, missing my chance to talk about his “class”. Of course he hadn’t read it, I realized. He wasn’t allowed to read books with wizards. Not real wizards, at least. Oz the Great and Terrible was probably only acceptable for being a humbug. I said “Once we’re back in Hannibal, I’ll check it out for you.” But I really couldn’t envisage a scenario anymore when both of us would be back in Hannibal and I’d still have my job and Ian would gallop down the steps everyday to see me. “So you said your friends name was Michael. Is he your age?”
“Yeah. But that’s not really what I meant by talking about books. I mean fun stuff, like if you go to heaven and it turns out that one of the things you can do there is you can be anyone in any book, whenever you want to, but you can only choose one person, who would you pick?”‘

Rebecca Makkai is certainly a big fan of books of all genres, this adds to her prose and not just in the words and descriptions she uses but also the style. We have a letters and one of Ian’s short stories interspersed in some chapters, there are also chapters in the style of other books such as ‘Choose Your Own Fiasco’ where Lucy gives you her current scenario and you have to decide for her by going to ‘number three or go to number five’ like those quest books I used to read. It’s a really inventive way of writing the book, there is even a table or two in there, and adding another dimension to the whole experience of reading, in some books this doesn’t work, in this one it did.

I could go on and on, in fact how have I missed the story of Russia’s history which is part of the book through Lucy’s father? Instead I will simply, yet strongly, suggest you read ‘The Borrower’ it’s a funny, moving and thoroughly enjoyable book and one which is going straight into my top five of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Rebecca Makkai, Review, William Heinemann Books

Bookmarked Crime Night… The Report

Last week was the second Bookmarked Literary Salon and what a criminally good night it was. You all know how much I love a good crime novel so to have the legendary Val McDermid and wonderful debut novelist M.J. McGrath (or Melanie as I’m now allowed to call her) was bliss for me. I went and did that silly getting nervous thing again, fortunately it didn’t last long and we were soon chatting away between having our photos taken together before it all started off.

After each author had done a reading it was time for a good old natter, you may notice we changed the seating from last time so it’s less authors vs. hosts. The conversation flowed and it all went far too quickly.

Val had some really interesting insights into how crime is changing through technological advances and not just in the case of solving crimes but in what you write. Her son has been reading some of her earlier novels and after reading about Kate Brannigan hunting down a phone box for a few pages asked why she didn’t just use her mobile phone? We also discussed social media, how psychopaths are using it to their advantage. Apparently there is now a twitter account called Vance On The Run which is apparently Jacko Vance, Val’s own creation, who is trying to follow her! How mad is that? Mind you I follow Jackson Brodie on twitter, erm let’s move on…

Melanie had tales to tell from quite another world, the arctic, and how her friends can Facebook her and tell her they have a dislocated shoulder but can’t get to a hospital or drugs delivered because they are so remote. As she spent lots of time in the arctic as a journalist (and wrote ‘The Long Exhile’ which I am now desperate to read) she also had wonderful tales to tell of the Inuit life and how she became a figure of fun after locking herself out her house, with only ten minutes till she would freeze to death, and getting to grips with peeing when it becomes an icicle mid-flow. Oh and a brilliant semi-tragic tale about a hunter who met his match with a polar bear he was after. It was utterly fascinating.

Too soon and it was all over. Time to sign books for the wonderful audience who came along, including Polly of Novel Insights, and made it such a wonderful event we didn’t want to end.

In fact we loved it so much we might just be having another meeting of the same minds next year, we shall see. Val and Melanie have said they will and Melanie even wrote a contractually binding comment in my copy of her book, so I’ll be holding them to that!

Thanks again if you were in the audience, I did speak to some of you but not all. It was a wonderful evening and if you couldn’t make it I hope this post gives you a feel for the night. I’m loving this salon malarky, can you tell?

Bookmarked will be back in just under two weeks, time really flies, on Monday the 3rd of October for a Victorian themed evening (with two of my favourite books of 2011 and their authors) of ‘Sensational Stories’ as Jane Harris will be discussing ‘Gillespie and I’ and Carol Birch will be talking about ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’, as well as all things Victoriana based, to say I am excited would be an understatement. I hope to see you there (if not I will report back again)!

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Filed under Bookmarked Literary Salon, M.J. McGrath, Val McDermid

The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

I would like to pretend that after having read ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ I had popped Kate Summerscale’s first non-fiction novel ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ onto my to be read list. That wouldn’t be true. In fact for some reason I didn’t even go and look it up, and yet when I saw Sue Perkins raving about it on the BBC’s ‘My Life In Books’ (which I am hoping they bring back) I thought ‘ooh that sounds like the perfect book for me’ and indeed it was a real treat, and one that showed sometimes life really is stranger than fiction.

HarperPerrenial, paperback, 1997, non-fiction, 248 pages, from the library

I admit that before I opened ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ I had never heard of Marian Barbara Carstairs, who was known as Joe Carstairs, who was proclaimed ‘the fastest woman on water’ as a world champion and record breaking speedboat racer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I have to say, as some of you might be thinking, the idea of a book about boat racing could be quite dull but if anything could be said about Joe Carstairs the last thing they could think of would probably be dull. In fact as Kate Summerscale found out, when a relative of Joe’s wrote to her to write an extended obituary in the Telegraph (where Summerscale worked), Joe Carstairs was a rather extraordinary woman.  

Joe was not your stereotypical young girl who stood to inherit a great fortune being the granddaughter of Nellie Bostwick, one of the original trustees of Standard Oil, and a multimillionaire of the time. She didn’t want to run out and meet a husband for a start, instead having lots and lots of lesbian affairs, including one with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly (who I thought sounded fascinating and want to find a biography of, anyone know of any?) It appears Joe was never quite herself in childhood, brought up by her mother who never spoke of her father and who married men and had affairs like it was going out of fashion, and after falling off a camel at London Zoo at the age of five Marian B. Carstairs felt that she was reborn as the person she should be ‘Tuffy’. But ‘Tuffy’ grew up and soon became ‘Joe’, a woman who liked boat and car racing and preferred the company and clothes of men.

“Captain Francis disapproved of his wild stepdaughter. ‘He thought he’d cure me,’ recalled Joe, ‘but he didn’t.’ This wildness, the sickness which was not cured, was even then a euphemism for her masculine behaviour. When Francis caught the little girl, aged eight, stealing his cigars, he punished her by ordering her to sit down in his study and smoke one. If you’re sick, he said, go out, throw up and come back. Joe, who had been pilfering his cigars for some time, sat down and calmly smoked her way to the end.”

It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.

It’s also fascinating because of the time period it covers, the developments in those years (both in technology and science, the latter makes a very interesting story as her mother was part of a movement to use ‘testicular pulp’ as a healing substance – which went wrong), and the eccentricity of Joe’s family and the people close to her. In fact I won’t list every single wonderful story or event; you should simply read ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ and find out more.

I have to add her that whilst I think any biography could probably have been made interesting by such an eccentric and fascinating person as Joe Carstairs, I think Kate Summerscale makes her come truly alive. Summerscale must have also had quite a job on her hands in trying to separate the fact and the fiction from Carstairs life, as the tapes recorded of her telling her tales sometimes proved to be just that. Summerscale includes these ‘exaggerations’ and if anything it made Joe Carstairs more real to me, I liked her even more. So I am thankful to Kate Summerscale for telling her story in ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, which I should add won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, and for Sue Perkins for enthusing about it. I hope I am now passing on that enthusiasm to all of you.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Harper Collins, Kate Summerscale, Review

Reading With Authors #7: Even The Dogs – Jon McGregor; With Isabel Ashdown

  

Hello Isabel, welcome to the penultimate ‘Reading with Authors’ blog. After being in the snowy Arctic last week I thought we might settle in South Manchester again, though I apologise as you have driven quite a way and we seem to be having thunderstorms…

Please, don’t apologise – I’ve had quite a hectic week, and the change of scene will do me good.  It’s a bit wet and murky out there – shall I leave my wellies by the door?

Oh yes please do if you don’t mind. The fires on so do pop through to the lounge, oh let me take your brolly, what can I get you to drink? What nibbles would you like?

I do love a real fire.  I hope you don’t mind, I’ve brought Charlie-dog with me.  He won’t be any bother; he’ll just curl up by the hearth and sigh every now and then.  For me?  I think a nice little tawny port would be rather good – perhaps a few pistachios to nibble on as we chat . . . And if it’s not too cheeky, I don’t suppose you could rustle up a sausage for Charlie?

Oh Charlie has made himself at home straight away, what a cutie, and rather appropriate given the title of the book… not the theme I hasten to add. We’ve had sausage, mash and beans for lunch, I happen two have to sausages spare. Are we settled? Right… lets get cracking onto the book, you chose our choice of ‘Even The Dogs’ by Jon McGregor, what made you want to read this, and put it forward for our little book group today?

Well, I was browsing in Waterstone’s one weekend,  going wild and splurging my annual royalty cheque on a small handful of other people’s books . . . when I picked up ‘Even the Dogs’.  The blurb on the back cover sounded compelling: a man’s body found in his ruined flat at Christmas.  It didn’t give away much more than that – and the reviews were good, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I was really glad you chose on of Jon McGregor’s books actually Isabel. I read ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ and was left rather non plussed by it, this was pre-blogging, and yet I remember at the time I knew there was some beauty in its silence and its prose, I just didn’t think it was the right book for my reading life right then. Had you read McGregor before and did ‘Even The Dogs’ live up to what you were hoping? Did you like it?

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Jon McGregor’s books before.  Many of my friends had read ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ and of course he is highly acclaimed, having been twice long-listed for the Man Booker.  So this was my first experience of reading his work, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed ‘Even The Dogs’, but I definitely got a lot from it. I thought it was quite unlike any book on addiction that I have read before. There was no glamorization and the horror of it all wasn’t done for effect, in fact it seemed that Jon McGregor wanted to simply tell the stories of that kind of life, and not just through Robert who I suppose is the main protagonist of the book, as they are. Would you agree?

Like you, I read a fair old bit.  And afterwards I’m usually left with a particular sense of my experience: it was beautiful/ it was funny/ it was sad/ it touched me/ it was uplifting/ it stays in the memory/ (and very occasionally) it was awful . . .  ‘Even the Dogs’ straddled the ‘it touched me’/’it stays in the memory’ categories.  As much as I’m pleased to have read it, I would caution other readers – it’s not an easy book, and I mean that at an emotional level, because the prose really is beautifully spare and effortless.

It’s a rather melancholy book isn’t it?

It is.  But sometimes don’t we need that, to stay connected to those aspects of life that are more difficult to look at, to allow us the joy of the lighter moments?  Light and shade, if you like.

I did worry at the start, I have to admit. The fact we are given the opening line of ‘They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away’ before a gap so it reads as a statement made me wonder if this was going to be a book that was slightly sensationalized, and would be of an experimental vein. Yet it’s a very simplistic book isn’t it?

In one sense it is.  It tells – in a kind of backwards and forwards narrative – the story of a man who has died alone in his flat.  However, with the over-layered voices of the people who knew him it becomes a complex, multi-stranded, and not always entirely reliable narrative.  In a way, it’s this unreliability of narration that grants it such honesty and draws the reader on through the often disturbing images McGregor paints.

The whole ‘we see’ everything initially rather annoyed me, I was thinking ‘why is it we?’ Yet it worked. In fact the ‘we’ thing does start to make you feel like you have lived through everything that Jon McGregor writes about in ‘Even The Dogs’ doesn’t it? I was wondering who ‘we’ were, I thought we were ghosts of the people of Roberts past? I began to feel as if I was one of the people that had been with Robert and all those around him, a very clever device, and almost made me empathize, though I don’t think that would be the case for everyone would it?

It jarred with me too, at first.  But once I’d read beyond the first fifteen pages, I had shifted into the rhythm of the book and I was with it.  The multiple voices felt to me like the presence of those people (both dead and alive) who’d known him, and at the same time I felt they were almost an echo of the cacophony of Robert’s life – the ceaseless chaotic voices/choices/errors/trauma of the world he inhabited.  I found the experience of reading the book quite stressful, because the tension and pain of that existence is so raw on the page.

I thought the way that we join Robert at the end of his life, when he is just a nameless dead body, and then are rewound through some parts of his life, fast forwarded into others was very affective. And indeed the way we go to moments of his life and are then suddenly following his body to the morgue or his funeral. It gave the book more of an impact I would say, would you?

This was the part of the book I found most difficult, at a personal level.  As I said earlier, the book jacket reveals very little about the story and the circumstances of the dead man’s life and death.  As ‘Even the Dogs’ unfolds we gradually witness Robert’s descent into a world of alcohol and drug addiction, and we start to piece together the events leading up to his final days.  My own father died at the age of 50, from alcohol-related disease and so Robert’s story was poignant, and painful, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.  I think the harsh reality of the post-discovery scenes were astoundingly candid – and very real.

Do you need anymore of anything by the way?

No, thank you.  These pistachios really are good aren’t they – though I’m having trouble getting into the last few closed ones?  I don’t suppose you’ve got a hammer . . . ?

No, but I do have a chisel. The setting of the book is also hugely important. This kind of derelict and almost uninhabitable world adds to the atmosphere and yet these are all places we have seen, even if just in passing or on the peripheral. I thought it made the book more real, maybe that’s just me?

Let’s face it; we see these people daily, don’t we – the dispossessed, the strangers living at the edges of society?  We recognise them by the stooped posture, the anaesthetised gaze, the two-week stubble.  We’re afraid of them; afraid to make eye contact, afraid of their unpredictability.  But if we could look deep beyond the inebriated mist of their eyes, we might see another life, perhaps several other lives, once lived.  The stripped-back setting of the book brought these figures to the foreground, and forced us to look them in the eye – and that is the genius of the book.

It’s also a book of silence in some ways, this reminded me of ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ actually, we miss lots of bits of Roberts life and so are left to fill in those spaces aren’t we?

The writing is so spare; you can almost hear the book breathe.  McGregor gives only tiny glimpses into Robert’s life – in fact what he does give us feels almost like a series of Polaroid photographs – but those images are enough to allow us to join up the dots and feel as if we have some idea about his history.

How would you sum up this book? Is it one you will be recommending to other people, if you haven’t already of course? 

‘Even the Dogs’ is a raw, desolate, powerful story told with compassion and great honesty.  In a way, I think it’s a book everyone should read, at some point in their lives.  But let’s be clear: it’s not a light beach read and it certainly won’t cheer or uplift you as a reader.  However, it is a book that will provoke the human senses and remain with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

What will you be reading after this? I think I might have to turn to ‘Villette’ as so many people have recommended it for Brussels; I also need to catch up with the Tess Gerritsen series I can’t get enough of. You?

I’m just reading a non-fiction book for a change – Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’.  It’s a great read, lots of belly laughs and poignant insights into the life of that crazy fool Brand.  After that I’ve got two superb looking debuts at the top of my teetering pile: ‘The Somnambulist’ by Essie Fox and ‘Girl Reading’ by Katie Ward.  Well, it’s been an absolute delight to spend an afternoon of booky chat with you Simon.  So kind of you to welcome us into your lovely home – let’s do it again sometime soon.  Oh and Charlie says thanks for the sausage.  Look, he’s smiling.

Some lovely book chatter, nibbles and a smiling dog, what more could you want on a Sunday. I guess we should hand over to anyone else who is popping by, right lets make some more room on the sofa’s…

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Filed under Isabel Ashdown, Jon McGregor, Reading With Authors 2011

Books by Belgians or Based In Brussels… Can you Help?

If all goes to plan I will be off to Brussels at the end of next week on a mini break (for work, so not so much of a break actually). That sounds more leisurely than it actually is as the itinerary will be quite full, but there is some travelling around and ‘time of my own’ to go and explore, wander the streets and find little cafes to sit and read in. And that’s where I wanted your help. What books by Belgians or based in Brussels could you recommend?

I’ve got the obligatory travel/city guides from the library…

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…But I do like to have some fiction from the country with me too. Some crime might be good, so could some quirky literature, or indeed a classic. In fact any suggestions are welcome. I will be taking Daphne Du Maurier with me but have room for one more book. Can you advise?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness