Monthly Archives: April 2012

Lovely Little Lambs…

It has been another wonderful weekend and I have been bonkersly busy going off to the sea side, rock pooling, fun fair riding and finding bookshops. Plus doing more un-me things like helping do DIY and decorating, selling cheese (don’t ask) and going out on the town. I didn’t want to do a big post on more sea side escaping too soon, so in the interim I thought that I would share some pictures of some gorgeous lambs… and how crazily two grown men reacted to them…

They were seriously THE cutest things ever as being hand reared they run to you for food, like being picked up and then they want to cuddle you! They actually lean in and are so soft and warm, anyway…

I have always dreamed of having a farm one day and that includes pet sheep and cows (not to be slaughtered as I can’t eat red meat) and of course a library. Well, my uncle hasn’t got a library but he does have a converted barn and lots of animals which as you can see I tried to befriend. It is in the middle of the countryside, near Cumbria, and with the lambs and the buds on the trees it really felt like spring had sprung, if a little belatedly.

How was your weekend?

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Savidge Grills… Madeline Miller

Yesterday I told you about my current favourite book of 2012 ‘The Song of Achilles’ the debut novel by Madeline Miller. Well thanks to Madeline my love for classics, Greek myths and legends has been reignited (my Mum will be thrilled) and I am now keen to read ‘The Iliad’. Well, Madeline has kindly agreed to do a Savidge Reads Grills to talk about just those things, how being a debut novelist has been and how it feels to be short listed for The Orange Prize 2012…

Can you describe the story of ‘Song of Achilles’ in a single sentence?

The Song of Achilles retells the story of the Greek hero Achilles from the point of view of his best friend and lover Patroclus, beginning when the two are boys and following them through the events of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.

The story is about Patroclus and Achilles, whilst Achilles is a main character in The Iliad Patroclus isn’t.  What made you want to focus a whole story on the two of them? Was it the fact it was vaguer so you could do more with it?

I have always found myself gripped by that terrible moment in the Iliad when Patroclus is killed, and Achilles is overwhelmed by grief and rage.  It was fascinating and moving, and also mysterious because Patroclus has, up until then, been a fairly minor character.  I wanted to understand why he meant so much to Achilles, and who he was; I felt compelled to tell his story.  As it turned out, it was a wonderful form, allowing me all this freedom to invent within Homer’s grand structure.  But that wasn’t what made me tackle the story in the first place—it was about giving this forgotten, vital character a chance to speak.

Were you worried that with the heart of the story really being the love story between two men people might be put off by it?

There was a very small part of my brain that knew that some people might be discomfited, but I didn’t really think about them.  What was much more important to me was doing right by these two men, and the depth and complexity of their relationship.  Also, in terms of making them lovers, I felt like I was on pretty steady scholarly ground.  Though Homer never says one way or another, many ancient authors interpreted them that way.  If people didn’t like it, I figured they could take it up with Plato or Aeschylus.

You have such a love of classics how much fun was it to be able to write and include gods and goddesses, centaurs and the like?

A lot of fun!  I know that many modern retellings of ancient stories leave the gods out, but for me they were integral to the ancient worldview.  To be honest, I was a bit intimidated at first.  Though there are gods that act like clowns and fools in some of the ancient poems (ahem, Zeus),  both Thetis and Chiron are very serious characters.  I wanted to be sure that I was doing justice to the terror and awe that they would have evoked, as well as the ancient sense of how profoundly alien they were.

Where did your love of classics and ancient Greek history come from?

My mother.  She used to read me the Iliad and other Greek myths as bedtime stories, and the stories about the Trojan War were my particular favourites.  I loved that the heroes weren’t just cardboard perfection, but filled with rage and pride and grief.  Even with all the gods and centaurs, it felt more real than a lot of the other stories out there.  I felt like I was being let in on the secrets of the adult world: it was messy and violent and unfair, but also beautiful.

What would you say to recommend the Iliad to anyone who hasn’t yet read it (like me though don’t tell my mother as she is a Classics teacher, oops) for whatever reason? 

I promise not to tell!  I would absolutely recommend these stories to anyone.  One of the things that I find sad is how Homer has gotten a reputation for being high-brow, fusty and intimidating.  When these works were composed, they were intended for everyone, not just an elite, educated audience, and most of all, they were intended to be gripping—entertaining, funny (at times), and moving.

I think the key to enjoying them is two-fold: first find a translation you like.  Everyone has different taste, and what feels grand and solemn for one person might be creaky to another. If Fagles or Lattimore doesn’t appeal, try Lombardo; he’s less literal, but I love the fast-paced poetics of his translation.

The other thing I would recommend is listening to them rather than reading them.  After all, that’s how these great poems were meant to be experienced, and I think it really brings them to life in a way that the page sometimes doesn’t.

Why do you think the Greeks were so fascinated by the gods and goddesses and myths? Why the need for the marvellous stories? Would they have been like our modern day soap operas maybe?

There were absolutely versions of the stories that were like our modern day soap operas; there were also versions that were more like great novels, and others that were like great, mega-musicals, and others still that would been mini-series on the BBC.  These stories—just like the stories we tell today—are ultimately about human experience and human emotion.  Some of them have more bells and whistles, some are more literary, but it’s the same impulse: understanding ourselves and our place in the world, entertaining, debating and connecting with each other.

The book has now been shortlisted for The Orange Prize 2012 and is getting praise here there and everywhere, being your debut novel does this all feel quite bizarre?

It is absolutely surreal.  I am so honoured and awed to be in the company of the other short-listees, and honestly keep waiting to wake up. Especially after ten years of writing alone, it is wonderful and head-spinning to have the book suddenly be so public.  One of my favourite parts has been getting to connect with readers and other writers.

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

I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pen.  In second grade, I was obsessed with telling stories.  They were totally absurd of course, filled with dinosaurs and explosions and leopards, but I can still remember that giddy joy of pure invention whenever I opened my notebook.  Unfortunately, I was not as passionate about editing.  After you wrote a story, you were supposed to get it edited by the teacher, then copy it out nicely.  Instead, I would just go back and write another story.  Everyone else had dozens of pages copied out and pinned to the walls, and I had maybe one or two.   Luckily, I’ve gotten better about revising since then!

As for being a writer, that was something that I found much harder to claim, because it felt so presumptuous.  It was easier to think: I want to write.

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

I tend to be a binge-writer, which I think comes from all those years of fitting my writing into my teaching and directing.  I’m not one of those people who can sit down every day and write x amount of words.  Instead, I’ll take days off here or there, then find myself writing round the clock for a week.  I keep meaning to try the other way, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Also, going for walks is a huge part of my writing process.  Whenever I find myself really stuck I know it’s time to go for a good long turn through the neighbourhood.  There’s something about the motion that seems to shake things loose.

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

There are a lot, enough that I hesitate to say any.  I’m sure that as soon as I list one, I’ll immediately feel bad for leaving someone else out.  But, if you twist my arm: the amazing Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett and James Baldwin (I know, it’s probably cheating because he’s dead, but I just read Giovanni’s Room for the first time, and I’m still reeling from it, so I’m saying it anyway).  Also, Ian McEwan, Lorrie Moore and David Mitchell, Anne Carson and Toni Morrison.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

There are books I read that could definitely be classed as guilty pleasures, but I honestly try not to think of them that way.  Why should I ever feel guilty about immersing myself in stories?  As a reader, as long as I am loving the book, I think it should be embraced.  And as a writer there is always something to learn, no matter what.

For example, I have always loved to read fantasy, which is a genre that a lot of people look down on.  But some of our great modern masters are fantasy authors (Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, or Tolkien).  And, if we’re really being honest, Homer’s stories would be on the fantasy shelf if they were published today.  So up with pleasures, I say, and down with guilt!

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?

Phew, this might be an even harder question than the one about authors!  Okay, can I cheat and name three?  The first is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson which is gorgeous and amazing and indescribable and you should go read it right now.  The second is any book by David Mitchell, but especially Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.  That man is simply a marvel.  The third is Watership Down, which is a book that I have reread probably a hundred times.  Maybe more.  People always laugh at me when I recommend it, but truly it’s a first-rate adventure story, and Richard Adams was wonderfully clever about making it a true Homeric-style epic.

Can I add one more?  I absolutely LOVED The Sisters Brothers.

What is next for Madeline Miller?

More teaching, more reading, more writing.  Although I don’t think I will stay in the ancient world forever, I would like to stay there for one more novel.  One of the characters I most enjoyed writing was Odysseus, and I would love the chance to finish his story.  I have also always been interested in the women of the Odyssey (Penelope, Circe), so I am looking forward to exploring their stories as well.

On another note, I would like to start directing Shakespeare plays again.  The hours I have spent doing that are some of the most rewarding, intellectually stimulating and enjoyable of my life. I have learned so much from it, both as a story-teller and a person.  In particular, I’m feeling the itch to take on Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s dark, angry, and hilarious Trojan War play. I’ve done it twice already, but I never get tired of it.

A huge thank you to Madeline for taking time out in her bonkers schedule to take part in Savidge Reads Grills. I have everything crossed for her with the Orange Prize. If you haven’t read ‘The Song of Achilles’ then you should… in fact you can win it here today! Simply leave a comment below saying what your favourite myth, legend or fairytale is and why and five of you will be pulled out of a hat at random next Saturday. Good luck!

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Give Away… The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

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 Bloomsbury (who I think I am having coffee with on Wednesday when I come back to London for the day) I have five copies of ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller, which you may have noticed from yesterdays post I loved rather a lot.

All five copies are kindly available internationally so wherever you are in the world (as I am aware you Savidge Readers come from all over the shop) you have a chance to get this fabulous book. If you love a really good story and wonderful writing you are in for a treat.

All you have to do is let me know what myth, legend or fairytale is your favourite and why? Or which character from one of these tales is your favourite. Leave the answers in the above post, looking forward to seeing which ones you have enjoyed!

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The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

When I was first sent Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ as a very early unsolicited advance proof copy last summer I swiftly passed it onto my mother. You see she is a classicist and indeed teaches classics, as well as English literature, so I knew she would love it. I also assumed being about the Greek gods, myths and legends it would therefore not be mine. I am sure my mother’s passion for the subject is contagious for her students but as her own child it occasionally got a bit much. I think it was the 12 endless hours in Pompeii during my bolshie early teens, when I was so bored I had the biggest sulk ever (even a rather rude painting my mother dragged us to find didn’t have the desired effect of cheering me up) that could have put me off. Or maybe it was getting 100% in my Classics exam at the school my mother taught at and having the mickey taken out of me that was the final straw? Either way I completely shut the subject out of my life. Hence why I thought ‘The Song of Achilles’ would be highly unlikely to win me over. Yet I heard Michael Kindness rave about it on Books on the Nightstand, it then got longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, and so I read it. I didn’t expect it to be a book that would reinvigorate my love for classics again or have me sobbing like a baby…

9781408821985

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (but borrowed from the library as gave my Mum the one was sent, oops)

No doubt you will know the name Achilles whether you have read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer or not (and I haven’t) and indeed will probably have heard the tale of the Trojan War. That said, whether you have or not doesn’t actually matter because with ‘The Song of Achilles’ Madeline Miller retells you the tale but in doing so gives it a new perspective from one of the most unsung heroes of the tale itself, Patroclus.

Born a rather frail specimen, in fact somewhat an embarrassment to his father Menoetius (one of the Argonauts no less), he is involved in a terrible incident that sees him banished to Phthia, the land of King Peleus, he soon becomes a very unlikely friend to Peleus’ son Achilles, who he couldn’t be less like. It is from here, and through Patroclus, that Miller brings us the tale of the Trojan War and all its adventure, it’s also here that she gives us a love story too. It is both the adventure and this love story that makes us read on.

Though it is never officially stated in The Iliad, it is believed, and inferred, by many that Patroclus was not just simply Achilles’ closest confident and right hand man but that they also became lovers. It is this dynamic of their youthful friendship that gives the book its sense of adventure and the love story what gives the novel its emotional punch. I don’t normally love a love story, but I really loved this one. I can’t quite put my finger on how, which is probably why it works so well, Miller creates such a believable and touching relationship between these two men starting from pre-pubescent friendship that becomes post teenage love because she does it so deftly but you’ll be rooting for them, even though we soon learn the gods have stated a prophecy which isn’t going to reach a happy conclusion for anyone concerned. Have a tissue ready, seriously.

‘After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still.  At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half-seconds, that the line of our gaze connected , were the only moment in my day when I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop in my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.’

Now here I must mention the Gods and the mythic creatures that do appear in the book. Some people choose not to mention them in modern twists on classics but I was relieved to see Miller was keeping them in (I mean why wouldn’t you as they make up so much of these old legends). That said, I knew that if she didn’t make them ring true, or make me conjure them in such a way as I believed in the unbelievable (a small ask) then she would have lost me. I needn’t have feared, as soon as Achilles mother Thetis appeared on the page I was sold hook, line and sinker.

‘The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon.  She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.’

It simply gets better and better from here on in. What was truly wonderful, and this is just a personal thing I guess, was how it made me want to go back to all the Greek and Roman myths and legends that my mother used to tell me and re-read them. It sort of brought out a passion for these tales that I had long forgotten. I actually cheered when Chiron the Centaur appeared on the stage, seriously I was so excited, ‘a centaur!’, and found myself smiling as I remembered the names and the tales of other characters mentioned in the novel.

‘At night we lay on the soft grass in front of the cave, and Chiron showed us the constellations, telling their stories – Andromeda, cowering before the sea monster’s jaws, and  Perseus poised to rescue her; the immortal horse Pegasus, aloft on his wings, born from the severed head of Medusa. He told us too of Heracles, his labours, and the madness that took him. In its grip he had not recognised his wife and children, and had killed them for enemies.’

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. It’s now made me want to read ‘The Iliad’ (watch out for a read-a-long with Michael Kindness and I in due course) which I would never have thought of reading before. I also want to dust off my copy of ‘The Greek Myths’, dig out Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and get my hands on David Malouf’s ‘The Ransom’ too. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

Have you read this and if so what did you make of it? What novels based on Greek Legends, or reworking them, have you read and would recommend? Oh and, Madeline Miller will be on the blog tomorrow, as will the chance to win some copies of this marvellous book. In the meantime thoughts and recommendations most welcome.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Madeline Miller, Review

Beautiful Beaches, Boats, Beards and Giants; A Return Trip to Liverpool & The Wirral

A few weeks ago I had the joy of visiting Liverpool for the first time, not long before my thirtieth birthday in fact. Well I have been spending rather a lot more time in Liverpool and the Wirral over the last few weeks, most weekends actually, and the more I get to know the city and its surrounding areas the more brilliant I think that it is. So I thought I would share some pictures of you of where I have been spending a lot of time and who with.

Have I ever told you that I really, really love the sea (odd considering that I don’t like books set on the sea isn’t it)? I think it reminds me of my childhood in Newcastle, where I met the lovely Polly of Novel Insights no less, where many a weekend was sent making sandcastles. Well drive a mere thirty minutes from Liverpool and look what greets you…

That’s actually Wales you can see in the distance, the home of Gav, though alas not as near as it looks. This wonderful secret expanse of beach is just near Thurstaston and, me being me, I almost felt like I could be on the private beach that runs behind Manderlay in ‘Rebecca’. It is really hidden and there wasn’t a person in sight…

Then it started to get very broody and the air very chilly…

Before the rain poured down and The Beard (who is the reason I am spending so much time in the Wirral and Liverpool) and I decided it was time for shelter…

Before we went off to West Kirby in the hunt for some rock pools, as this was my favourite thing ever to do of a weekend when I was a kid. West Kirby has one of the most bizarre yet beautiful things on its beach; a Marine Lake. This means when the tide goes out the lake stays and you can do a beautiful walk between lake and beach which has a very surreal effect, almost like walking on water.

We found some rock pools and did some crab hunting; I wanted to walk off to the island in the distance but wasn’t allowed.

I had visions of ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and everything, I will upon it next time. Though after finding a beetle in my salad whilst having Scampi in a fish and chip restaurant I am not sure how hurriedly we will be returning there. It was all too soon time to go home as dusk fell and yet it was nautical all over again the next day as we ended up on the Ferry across the Mersey (if you don’t hum the song after that I will be amazed), yes that is right, The Beard got me on a boat heading to Liverpool as we were in search of giants…

If you think I am joking, I’m not. Last weekend saw two giants walking through the city streets of the city in a cultural homage to the Titanic anniversary. You can find out more here. We thought we might have missed them, and then we knew we had because there was smoke everywhere from the opposite side of the river and the giants went sailing off in the opposite direction.

I have to admit I wasn’t that fussed, The Beard had suggested we go to the city centre to see them and I thought there would be crowds. It seems I was right as when we approached the opposite site of the river we were greeted by something which we thought only royalty would witness. Look at all the crowds! Who knew Savidge Reads had such a following in Liverpool… oh no it was for the giants wasn’t it?

Out of nowhere horns blasted and music started, causing The Beard to re-enact a scene from Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ which made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I think some of the other passengers thought I was having some sort of episode.

So what was the cause of the horns and the music? Well within seconds the giants sailed past us, and not in the distance, literally right past us.

How jammy were we? So that was last weekend, who knows what the Wirral might hold for me this weekend… which starts today as The Beard, Polly of Novel Insights and myself are all having dinner tonight, and involves me helping sell cheese (I love cheese, I will eat it all) with The Beard in Lancaster. Any tips for Lancaster things to do or bookshops? I really must find more second hand and independent bookstores in and around Liverpool really next mustn’t I?

Hope you enjoyed this picture post; I like to feel I can take you all away with me now and again. Are you fans of posts like this or would you rather I stuck to books? What have you got planned for the forthcoming weekend? Lancaster recommendations also welcome.

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Guilt – Ferdinand Von Schirach

Last November I happened upon a collection of short stories that resonated with me and I found I couldn’t really stop thinking about. This collection was ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach, all tales fictionalising some of the cases he has come across, and even defended, in his time as a solicitor. When his second collection ‘Guilt’ dropped through the letterbox I was thrilled, yet I did have trepidations as ‘Crime’ had rather unnerved me with how some people get away with truly terrible things, would it be the same in ‘Guilt’ or could it be even worse?

Chatto & Windus, hardback, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 2012, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If you are of a squeamish disposition or someone who worries late at night about all the most unlikely scenarios that could happen to you the next day (we have all done this at some point haven’t we?) then I am not sure I would recommend the second collection of Ferdinand von Schirach stories, translated by Carol Brown Janeway. You see, like his previous collection ‘Crime’, Ferdinand tells us of the most unlikely, dark, horrific or traumatic things that can happen to people and how the perpetrators can get away with them.

In this collection we have children running cults, drug barons who are afraid of nothing and know no limits to revenge, a seemingly harmless old man who turns killer at a train station, a briefcase with horrifying contents and endless secrets. All incredibly tantalizing and weirdly fascinating. Two of the most disturbing tales, ‘Funfair’ (which is anything but fun) and ‘The Illuminati’ (which would make quite a horror film), will possibly never leave me. I think about them now and shudder before thinking a) how on earth did anyone get away with such things and b) how on earth did it not make the press?

Not knowing the British legal system (other than for Visa applications, getting a passport as I haven’t killed anyone… yet) I couldn’t really compare what goes on in the German system, but I did find myself thinking ‘oh that wouldn’t happen in the UK’. But would it, or does it already and we just never hear about it where we live, or only get to hear the odd horrific crime now and again, not every crime must be reported for whatever reason must it? This is where if you are someone who can worry about a piano falling on you on every street you turn (I used to think this and that a shark might suddenly appear in the local pool and eat me, I have sought help and am fine now, ha) you should maybe rethink reading it, but if you have a grim fascination with the most bizarre and terrible things people can do then you should give this a whirl.

I should say that not all of the stories are utterly horrific. Awful things might happen but Ferdinand has an interest in looking at why people did them, after all there are many accidental murders or ones commited in self defence, one such tale with a brilliant twist is ‘Comparison’, it is tales like that and ‘Anatomy’ which shocked me so suddenly I laughed, which make you really think how you would judge something if you knew all the facts.

Yet again Ferdinand von Schirach delivers a very intriguing and insightful, if occasionally difficult to read, collection with ‘Guilt’. I hope he keeps them coming to be honest, is that awful? I also wonder if he might ever give a full length novel a whirl, could there be a true life case that he could ‘fictionalise’ that could last for a few hundred pages and keep us held. Or could he come up with something dark and original using the uneasy and bizarre he sees in his day to day work? If you haven’t tried ‘Crime’ or ‘Guilt’ do give them a try, if you dare, I will definitely be reading whatever Ferdinand von Schirach produces next.

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Persuasion…

A very quick post on behalf of my mother before a book review (finally, I hear you cry, we thought you had stopped reading) later on this afternoon. She asked me this on the phone just before the event for World Book Night on Monday so I hope I get this right. What she needs is a piece of fiction, it doesn’t have to be massively long, persuades, in a paragraph or two, another character to do something.

It initially sounds really obvious, and I nearly stated as much on the phone, until I thought about it and was stuck. You see all my examples seemed to be unreliable narrators persuading me they were telling the truth… which takes a whole book. Mum needs some short examples, the characters can be persuading good or bad things from the other, to discuss with the children she teaches. So if you can think of any, could you leave them in the comments below? I am genuinely stuck for ideas.

Thanks in advance from me and my mother, back later with a book review honest.

P.S As I am mentioning my mother here, I will quickly mention the news that Mumsnet (who someone described to me as a ‘Mummy Mafia’ and ‘the new Women’s Institute’ online, both ideas which thrill me) have asked me to become part of their blogging network, how nice!

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