Monthly Archives: July 2015

Get Your Glad Rags On For Gladfest 2015

I mentioned the other day how much I love literature when it is live and how I am a big fan of events in bookshops, hotels and of course festivals. Over the autumn I am going to be attending a few literature festivals and the first one, and indeed the only one I can talk about for now, is Gladfest which happens on the borders of North Wales and Cheshire and is just down the road from me, taking place in the most gorgeous venue with a brilliant line up of authors and events.

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If you love books (which of course you are, that is why you’ve popped by) then if you have yet to get to Gladstone’s Library, which you can see above, then you really should. It is the UK’s only Prime Ministerial Library after it was former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone founded the library in 1894 and donated 32,000 books from his own personal library at Hawarden Castle. Today, the library has a world-renowned collection of more than 250,000 items specialising in theology, history, culture, politics and literature attracting writers, academics, clergy and students from all over the world. The library is seriously stunning…

Theology Room Gallery

If that wasn’t enough, and frankly getting a sneaky wander around the library should be, the line up of authors is brilliant. Gladfest 2015 will be playing host to Patrick Barkham, Matthew Bradley, Jessie Burton, Robyn Cadwallader, Sarah Dunant, Richard Beard, Judy Brown, Sarah Butler, Zia Chaudhry, Martin Edwards, Michel Faber, Simon Grennan, Lesley McDowell, Michael Nobbs, Sarah Perry, Patrick Gale, Melissa Harrison, Peter Moore, Alice Oseman. I have my sites on seeing many of these authors when I head there for the day on the Saturday.

History room and reader

Oh and did I mention that is also a residential library with 26 bedrooms, dining room/coffee shop, Common Room, conference facilities, chapel and gardens. So if you need somewhere to kip there might be rooms but if you are a budding writer and need a retreat then head here and follow in the steps of authors like Sarah Waters, Sarah Dunant, Salley Vickers, Loyd Grossman, Tony Benn as well as many of the authors who will be in attendance.

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Oh and if you are a writer you might like to check out some of the talks and workshops on subject froms how to review your own work to how to be creative, and even how to inject fear and loathing into your writing!

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There are more than 20 talks and workshops taking place across the three day literary festival as well as music, singing, crafts and of course, delicious home-cooked food at the Food for Thought Café and the library’s famous, Gladstone Cookies. Gladfest will host a full programme of activities for young people including the ‘So You Want to be an… Actor, Director & Scriptwriter’ events as well as storytelling and discussions on Shakespeare and Roald Dahl.

Basically there will be blinking loads on! I won’t be staying there the whole weekend (but I have it in my sites on it for a future reading retreat one weekend) however I will be there on the Saturday to see Melissa Harrison, Michel Faber, Peter Moore, Sarah Perry and Jessie Burton. I am gutted to be missing Patrick Gale on the Sunday and the murder mystery dinner on the Friday but thems the breaks.

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The festival runs from the 4th to the 6th of September, I went last year and loved it, despite being terribly jetlagged. Tickets cost £6 for the talks and £10 for the workshops. To book, call 01244 532350 or email enquiries@gladlib.org or visit https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org For more information, times and how to book then do get your mitts on the festival programme here. Hopefully I will see some of you there that weekend – oh and of course I will be reporting on it, and podcasting from it, over the coming months!

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Mobile Library – David Whitehouse

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last two weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is David Whitehouse’s utterly brilliant Mobile Library which is one of those books that charms you so much and whose characters you become so attached to you hug it to you afterwards, like you were ten again.

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Picador Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered (I am tempted to have this cover made into some kind of tattoo design!)

Bobby Nusku is a twelve year old unhappy in the world that he is living. His mother has disappeared, he has tried to catalogue as much of her life as he can in a box of artefacts he keeps hidden, his father has met a new woman and both of them either spend the time ignoring Bobby, telling him off or being drunk. If that wasn’t bad enough his best friend, and protector from school bullies, Sunny has had to move away after a failed attempt to turn himself into the first human-cyborg. After witnessing an act of bullying on someone else, Rosa, he tries to pay for his cowardice by befriending her and in doing so comes to meet her mother Vera, and before long they all decide to escape their lives, quite literally, in a mobile library.

In case you are thinking ‘oh Simon, you rotten spoil sport, you have given everything away’ I actually haven’t. Once on the road and off on the adventures of their lives so far, for good and bad reasons, much happens and they meet many people and get into various scrapes along the way. Also, Mobile Library actually begins somewhere towards its end and so we back pedal and then head towards a literal cliff-hanger we know is coming. Though we don’t know what happens after it, ooh that David Whitehouse is a teaser.

‘Are we in trouble?’ Bobby asked?
‘No,’ Val said, ‘not anymore.’
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the oceans ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.

I will say no more on the plot bar the fact that it involves camping in woods, creepy old mansions, an escaped convict and an abandoned zoo. The reason I mention all these things is because they were all things I loved in books as ‘a youth’ and of course still do, so there was a lovely nostalgic feeling as I was reading. There is no doubt that this is Whitehouse’s intention as actually the book takes on many tropes of the fairytales (for me the Ladybird Classics) that I would say 90% of us read or had read to us when we were small. Bobby himself, though admittedly without the ugly stepsisters or his parents giving a monkey’s how dirty the house is, is rather a Cinderella figure in some ways, Val his fairy godmother and the Mobile Library his pumpkin… though the story doesn’t follow the path of Cinderella you can see other nods to fairytale as you go, especially towards the very end.

One thing the book doesn’t have is magic, well at least not of the wands, spells, eye of newt or enchanted spinning wheel (or steering wheel, see what I did there – sorry!) kind. There are two other kinds of magic in it, love and friendship. Now any of you who think I have been kidnapped by some hippy commune bear with me. Love is something we cannot explain, there is no science behind it, there is no logic and the same applies to friendship, these invisible bonds tie us together for some unknown rhyme or reason. That is a magic of sorts and we take it far too much for granted which was something I felt strongly after finishing the book.

The theme of friendship also links onto the other major theme of the book which is what makes a family. The stereotypical family of 2.4 children and indeed the ‘nuclear’ family (whatever that meant, it sounds horrid) can no longer be defined so easily. I know this all too well with two half brothers, two half sisters and two step sisters – I know think of the Christmases’! Not only that though more and more people are creating family through friendships, I am Uncle (Sugabear in some cases) to a lot of my friends children because there are certain friends who you feel are more your family than your own family. Whitehouse looks at this through a group of people who couldn’t be more different and yet somehow – no spoilers – become a family of sorts. People who either have difficult or awkward family relationships or feel they have no real family at all.

These days she looked forward to visiting the doctor. As cold as his hands were, small talk was a welcome respite from the otherwise lengthy nothingness. Sometimes she considered faking symptoms, just to feel that rough chill against her body and talk about the changing weather.

Having read Whitehouse’s previous novel Bed, which shamefully I loved but haven’t reviewed, it is interesting to see that his theme of outsiders in society is still there. Interestingly I think Mobile Library is like a polar opposite look at these ‘underdogs’ because whereas in Bed the act of someone going to bed forever is about dropping out of society due to a lack of hope, here we have people desperate for love and belonging. Even when ‘Sometimes,’ she said to nobody in particular, ‘I worry that life is just the journey between toilets.’ there is a glimmer of hope and potential which may be fulfilled at some point. Isn’t that the essence of every great fairytale?

Yes, I am back to fairy tales again. Speaking of which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Mobile Library is also a book about the power and wonder of books. I need say no more, brilliant…

‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so the things that happen in them will happen to you.’
‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’  

I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.

If you would like to hear  David talking about Mobile Library in more detail you can hear him chatting with me on Fiction Uncovered FM and he will also be on You Wrote The Book next week, again with me but quite a different chat. Who else has read Mobile Library and what did you think of it? Which other books about books and grown up fairy tales have you loved? I always want more recommendations of those.

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Filed under Books of 2015, David Whitehouse, Fiction Uncovered, Picador Books, Review

The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2015…

So yesterday I had fun guessing what the Man Booker Longlist would be and now, as I you all want to know what it is before you hear my possibly garbled thoughts on it, here are the books that Ellah Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith and Frances Osborne all judged as being super special and the finest fiction…

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  • Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
  • Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
  • Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
  • Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
  • Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
  • Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
  • Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)
  • Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
  • Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
  • Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)
  • Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
  • Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)

Surprise surprise as I was absolutely nowhere near correct as I only guessed three. What are my initial thoughts? Well, since you asked so nicely, I think that the list is as always an interesting one. I have read ? of them and am obviously thrilled about A Little Life being on the list, I may even have done a little dance in the lounge which is only for the eyes of my cats. I am also really excited to see Chigozie Obioma and Marlon James on there. I think what is interesting is that some of the big hitters everyone expected to be on the list aren’t. No Ishiguro, no Atwood, no Atkinson (boo), no Toibin etc – which I actually find quite exciting. Firstly all those books are selling like hotcakes so that’s them sorted, secondly it means there are some books that will get a chance to be discussed that might not have been. In the industry we all know of Tyler, Enright, McCarthy and Robinson but outside of the industry is that the case? And then there are even more to discover, I want to read Sahota pronto now, I loved his first. My only minor niggle is Gattis not being on the list, oh and where are all the Australian and Canadian authors. Anyway… I need to mull it all over a little more but overall I think its an interesting list I may well delve into. As it stands I want Yanagihara to win.

So what are your thoughts on the longlist? Which of them have you read and what did you make of them? Which ones are you now planning on reading? I am asking the latter question myself. I might go for all the ones I haven’t you know, maybe…

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Man Booker Prize 2015 Longlist Predictions…

Sorry I couldn’t come up with a more snazzy title than that this morning but having just spent a good hour or two going through my bookshelves, both of the books I have read this year and the ones I have yet to (which made me have a moment of weeping from the shame), so my brain is slightly frazzled. The reason I was doing this exercise was to see which books I thought would make it onto the Man Booker Longlist tomorrow, always a fun game which many people have joined in with already. I must say, before I reveal the list, there is no way on earth I think I am a) anywhere near right b) in a position where I feel I should be c) am not sure I want to be anywhere near right as I like the surprise of new to me books. How can any of us, unless we are one of the judges or the administration team, have a clue? I have just gone on books I have read and loved and books that I really want to read that I can see as being ‘Booker’ books, whatever that is – let’s not open up that can of worms! So here goes…

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A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
All Involved – Ryan Gattis
The Good Son – Paul McVeigh
Girl At War – Sara Novic
A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James
TheWallcreeper – Nell Zink

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I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers
At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison
The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall
The Well – Catherine Chanter
Tender – Belinda McKeon
Us Conductors – Sean Michaels

Note, I am missing one and that is because I don’t have it. I think The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma could also be on the list, it is one I am very eager to read at some point. Now you may be thinking ‘hang on a minute sunshine whatabout x, y or z’ well these lists are tricky and you can only go with your gut but I did have another 11 that I could have had on that list which at the moment I purged I thought could go either way…

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Yes, I know those are a pile of nine books but I cannot find my copy of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan and Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is on a very high shelf (yes those shelves in the picture above go on up very very very high) and I couldn’t reach it without getting chairs involved and all sorts. I loved A God in Ruins but I wonder if the clever sneaky very subtle twist will be a marmite effect as I know lots of people who (because clearly they have hearts made from coal surrounded by ice, ha) were left slightly unmoved by it. Anyway, any of the above and aforementioned, if not pictured, I would like to see on the list very much indeed. Though as I have mentioned part of the joy of it is the surprise that may await us.

Would I have a tantrum if any of these weren’t on the list? Possibly with A Little Life, which might be one of my books of a lifetime, and All Involved because I think Gattis has written a fascinating insight into gang culture which puts you on a roller-coaster from start to finish (unputdownable would be the cliche I would use if I could, oh… I have) and is crafted and characterised beautifully, and A God In Ruins will ruin you, if you have a normal person’s heart – hehehe. Annoyingly I have only reviewed the Atkinson as the other two will be on You Wrote The Book in due course so am holding off till then. Oh, I am rambling, let us wrap up. What I can say is that I am very excited about tomorrows list and will be awaiting it with much interest.

If you would like to see more guesses there are some at A Case For Books, A Life in Books, Farm Lane Books and over at Neil D. A. Stewart’s blog. Oh and if you want a whole different list you can vote on then check out the Not The Booker Longlist 2015 too. Now over to you, what do you think of the books I have chosen (have you read any?) and which books are you hoping will make the list and why? Let me know if you have had a go at predicting tomorrows list.

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Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven when I was in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina. My lovely roomie, Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand, was reading it while we were at Booktopia. He was really enjoying it and it was fair to say that when he was seen with it in his company, or when it was heard he had it, there was almost a fever of anticipation and a buzz going through the many Booktopia attendees. I asked what it was about, as naturally Michael and I spent the entirety of our room sharing talking books, and was told it is about the start of the end of civilization and then the aftermath twenty years later. I think you could hear my eyes rolling around the whole of the U.S and I may have made some snarky comment along the lines of ‘oh, that’s not something that has been written about before is it?’ I came back to the UK and Station Eleven  was soon being talked about everywhere, before swiftly becoming many people’s (lots of whom I trust immensely) favourite books of 2014. After someone, who will remain nameless, but who bloody loved this book sooooo much dared me to read it on the promise of £50 if I didn’t like it I decided it was time. Well, I never got the £50 because I loved it and was of course furious I hadn’t stolen Michael’s proof off him when I had the chance.

Picador Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Station Eleven opens, aptly, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto where well-known (more famous in his youth) actor Arthur is taking on the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that is until midway through the show he collapses and dies from what initially appears to be a heart attack. Yet within hours not only is Toronto feeling the beginnings of what seems to be a pandemic flu, the whole world is following suit. Through the eyes of a seemingly unlinked group of people we watch as flu turns out to be a deadly virus and the end of the world is coming.

Yet Station Eleven is not simply an end of the world novel, in fact bar the initial millions of deaths (99.9% of humans have died, he says casually) in the first few days we are soon sent to the year Twenty when those who somehow survived, or were immune, to the virus are carrying on in a new strange world. Here Mandel focuses in more particularly with Kirsten, part of The Symphony, travelling around North America performing Shakespeare as they head through the wilderness we see both a future that is much simpler (no phones, no television, no electrics) yet where humans living at their most base start to want powers of other kinds. All I will say is ‘cults’ and we know how fascinating, if utterly bizarre, some of those can be.

There was much to love and admire in Station Eleven. Firstly I found the fact that Mandel chooses to write about the very beginnings and then skip to twenty years after the end of civilisation, really interesting. Many authors would have gone full throttle with the horror of what could happen as the humanity falls and then deals with everything’s slowly breaking down and running out. Mandel however, bar a few of the tiniest flashbacks, leaves that all to our imagination which of course can be much worse. I wondered if she felt, like I did when I rolled my eyes back in Asheville like a wally, that maybe this is ground that has almost been covered too much, isn’t how and if people survive after that all the more interesting? It turns out it is.

Before we head to that I do want to mention how brilliantly she does write about the pandemic as it sweeps across continents. It is utterly bloody terrifying as it could all happen so easily, especially if we think what happened with Ebola recently, all it takes is the virus to get on a few plans with a few people and off it spreads. I don’t suggest reading this book on a plane next to anyone with a cold. I thought this also had a real emotive weight on several occasions, with particular reference for those who die not long after including one leading-ish character far from their loved ones and indeed surrounded by strangers (who I won’t name, but I wept) as well as those people who we only see the merest glances of through survivor’s eyes.

“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic?”
“I remember.”
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realised, Hua was afraid.
Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport?  He was aware of all of them breathing around him.

In the year Twenty things are no less emotive or terrifying, just in a very different way. People who have survived the pandemic might die simply treading on a rusty nail as there is no treatment. People are also suffering as with no police/official control/government some lesser individuals see this as a way to form their own controls be it husbands and their behaviour to wives, criminals and murderers lingering just out of eye sight ready and waiting, or self appointed rulers ready to spread wisdom from the past they use old documents and twist the words of or simply make them up themselves. We watch the way someone’s nature, be it good or bad, can come to the fore.

It is interesting to read how the ripples of the past end up affecting the future in ways unseen. Throughout Station Eleven Mandel seems to use it to talk about many things. There is fame and why people become so obsessed with it, we have the fame (or the fading of it) for Arthur in the past, and the seeming need for infamy of ‘The Prophet’ in the future. We look at what truly lasts after the world is ravaged, yes there are aeroplanes and cars and all those sorts of things yet without power they become useless, what really become valuable are documents, words, trinkets, memories and history, even pop culture is celebrated for some of the positive attributes is has in a desolate future.

We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.

I really like books with layers and Station Eleven has those in bounds. On one level it is just a fast paced and fascinating look at the end of one civilisation and potential beginning of another. There is plague, there is murder, there are cults, there are loves lost and found. There’s also a lot going on under that; we are reminded how vapid celebrity culture can be and yet how obsessed we can become with the famous on our many devices, rather than getting to know a neighbour; the importance of words and culture; how important kindness is. I could go on, the power of all of these and more subtly resonates through the book. The most powerful thing of all though is hope, especially in other people and their choices to be good. That was the message I was left with as I left a world that seemed like the future yet reminded me to look away from all my screens and remember a simpler past – where books ruled.

If you would like to hear Emily St John Mandel talk more about Station Eleven then you can hear her chatting to me (I know, how lucky was I) here on this episode of You Wrote The Book. I would love to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven, a spectrum of which you can see here on Adventures with Words, Tomcat in the Redroom, Mookse and the Gripes and Lonesome Reader. I would also love to know which of Emily’s previous three books you have read (as I now have them all) and what you made of those?

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Filed under Emily St John Mandel, Picador Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #66 – A.M. Bakalar

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in London, I will be staying in The Shard again I am sure, to meet author A.M. Bakalar, or Asia, and to have a nosey around her bookshelves. Before we do though do grab some Paczki, Sernik or maybe some Piernik (they are all delicious) and a drink and let’s get to know Asia and her shelves…

A.M. Bakalar is the author of Madame Mephisto, published by Stork Press in 2012. Madame Mephisto was among readers’ nominations to the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. She is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English since Poland joined EU in 2004. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian and The International New York Times. She was the editor of Litro Magazine Polish Issue and recently her essay ‘The Future of Paper Books’ has been published in Wasafiri Birthday Edition. Asia was born and raised in Wroclaw, Poland. She lived in Germany, France, Sicily and Canada before she moved to the UK in 2003. She lives in London, with her partner, a drum and bass musician.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

Everything I read I keep on my bookshelves or any other space I can find for them. But a few months ago I was told there were cracks in the walls which hold some of my shelves, and the living room was becoming a danger zone, in case the books start falling down. Which, frankly, has happened a few times when I tried to place one more book on top of the other so with a heavy heart I began to stack the books I can live without on the floor until I give them away. Now, I try to keep only the books I really really love, and if I read something I’m not super excited about, I add it to the pile of give aways. This is incredibly hard for me because if I could I would make my house one big library but my partner is not too thrilled by the idea. He has a big collection of drum and base vinyl records but his takes less space. There’s a lot of negotiation going on when new books arrive as I try to find place for them.

I keep books in my home in London and I also have boxes of hundreds of books in Wroclaw, Poland, my mum is taking care of them. One day I’d like to ship them to London, when we have a bigger house. I used to have a flat back in Poland and I had to pack all the books in boxes and store in the basement. One day my mum called me there was fire in the basement. I almost had a heart attack thinking all my books are gone. Then my mum said: ‘Guess what, everything burnt except the books.’ Call that luck or some intervention of a Book God, if one exists.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I have to organise otherwise I wouldn’t be able to find anything but it still takes me a while to find what I want. In the kitchen I only keep books by African authors and theory of literature; postcolonialism, comparative literature and world feminism. I was doing PhD in Nigerian and Zimbabwean women’s fiction before I decided to write fiction. A lot of books in that section reflect that period, and any new fiction out of Africa goes there. This is a place where I write as well so there’s a big section of research books depending what I’m working on. And, there’re a few shelves with books that are waiting to be read. I pile them in the kitchen until they are read and moved around. And some cook books as well. In the bedroom I only keep science fiction and books by my bedside.

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The living room is devoted to fiction in translation, British fiction, books from Poland, non-fiction, poetry and drama, graphic novels and books by Middle Eastern authors. In the bathroom I keep a few titles as well, for a quick read when taking a bath. Once I finish reading something I pile it onto a small table until there’s no space and then I distribute them to various sections around the flat and I stack them alphabetically. A few years ago I had a personal book stamp and used to add a date and place where I got a book but there’re so many of them I can’t be bothered anymore. I have a Kindle but can’t stand reading eBooks which my partner finds incredibly disappointing because he thinks one day we will both be buried under the books and it will be all my fault.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

Honestly, I don’t remember the first book I bought. I remember the first money I ever made was weeding out the garden of my grandmother’s neighbour and I spent it on books but I have no idea what I bought then.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I have some books which disappointed me but I still keep them, until I give them away of course. One man’s thrash is another man’s treasure. Reading is so much fun I don’t really care whether people feel embarrassed when they look at my books. One of my friends told me she only reads very violent crime fiction and her mother suggested perhaps she should not invite men for tea to see her book collection as they will be scared of her. But she loves her books so they are stay where they are. I had people feel uneasy about some of the books I have, e.g. Dying for the Truth. Undercover inside the Mexican Drug War by the Fugitive Reporters of Blog Del Narco, but there’s a yellow tape around it with a warning so they think twice before opening it.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There’s a book my mum read to me when I was a child, a collection of all Hans Christian Andersen’s stories published in 1969 in Poland. It has my drawings in it when I was small and some over thirty year old dried flowers between pages. For a long time my mum refused to give to me but I managed to convince her. Apart from emotional value it is simply a beautiful book, bound in orange cloth with incredibly delicate pages, and front and back pages of dark indigo sky with stars.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Both of my parents love reading and my dad has a wonderful collection of science fiction books, while my mum reads everything else. I was always encouraged to read pretty much everything.  But there was a book they kept hidden behind their collection: John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It was a true undercover operation I had to resort to in order to lay my hands on this book. I would wait until they were both gone to work or ran some errands. I would sneak into the room to read a few pages at a time until I heard a key turn in the lock and frantically place the book the way it was on the shelf so they wouldn’t notice. I would always pretend I was just looking at something to read, with my cheeks burning and praying they would leave again so I could finish it! I think I read this book a few times like that, even memorised some fragments, but sadly I don’t remember any of it now.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I try not to borrow books from friends as I never give them back. I usually write down the title and the author and buy it. Every year I buy a small notebook where I write down titles of books I want to read. Once I buy it I cross it down so I know I got it. I still go back to some of the notebooks from few years back and slowly go through them. I read over 100 books a year and buy around 150. And my parents buy me books as well, especially books translated into Polish which are not available in English, and some Polish books as well. I’m beginning to think I have OCD when it comes to buying books.

AMB 3

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

1988 edition of Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs, which is waiting to be read. A massive over 800 pages long Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal  I love reading on herbs and plants and their history. Davi Kopenawa’s The Falling Sky  on Yanomami culture and cosmology. I’m finishing Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice  which I really enjoy reading. And there’re some science fiction books as well: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Peter Watt’s Echopraxia and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I also got really cool collection of drawings by a Lebanese author Mazen Kerbaj, Beyrouth. Julliet-Août 2006, in French, English and Arabic. During the Israeli attack in 2006 Kerbaj posted a kind of cartoon diary on his blog and it was published in a book form.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Complete translation in ten volumes of The Mahabharata. I have the first three volumes translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, the great Indologist who began the translation at the University of Chicago. When I studied English Literature back in Poland we had an amazing Sanskrit scholar, professor Joanna Sachse, and once every week we had lectures on Indian literature. For an hour professor Sachse was telling us the story of The Mahabharata. I was mesmerised. It really made the huge impact on how I perceive books. (Talking about the power of storytelling!) And since then I’ve always wanted the read the whole thing. The problem with The Mahabharata is that it’s the longest epic poem ever written, almost two million words! So it’s physically impossible for one translator to finish the work because a lifetime is not enough. I’ve been buying each volume every few years. I hope I can still read the ten volumes before I die.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I was told I’m slightly mad because of the amounts of books in my place and I guess I am. I’m just totally obsessed with reading but I love it anyway.

AMB 1

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A huge thanks to Asia for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can find out more about her at her website here! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of A’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

It seems that the successes of word of mouth recommendations are still alive and well if we look at Elena Ferrante. Her publishers have not spent lavish amounts on publicising her, in fact no one knows who she is as she likes to keep herself a secret somewhere in Italy (though she could be in Brazil or Bognor for all we know). Yet her latest novels which form the Neapolitan Novels series and start with 2012’s My Brilliant Friend are selling like hotcakes, some several tyears after originally coming out – that is such a brilliant story of readers suddenly loving something en masse and then spreading the word. So after being reminded, quite sternly but passionately, by Daniela of Europa Editions (who publish them here in the UK) that I really, really, really needed to read them recently, I have finally done so…

Europa Editions, paperback, 2012, fiction, translated by Ann Goldstein, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend starts with something of a mystery. The novel opens with our protagonist Elena, who could actually be the author indeed, as she receives a call from Rino, the son of her close friend of over sixty years, Lila, to tell her that his mother has gone missing. Elena isn’t surprised, for it seems Lila has always been quite ‘a character’ since their friendship and has always said that at some point she will vanish from the world and if Lila is going to do something she does. Elena instead of worrying, decides to write down the story of her friendship with Lila from the grimy streets of Naples of their childhood, and so begins My Brilliant Friend.

To try and explain My Brilliant Friend simply a tale of two girls growing up together, which I have seen it described as, I think is quite lazy. Okay that is the overall plot; we follow them from early school days until one of them gets married. Yet friendships themselves are complex relationships and also have their own trajectories. Elena and Lila initially become aware of each other before becoming best friends, falling out, becoming friends again, running away together, starting petty jealousies and competitions and then having the testing time of their teens where one is able to carry on going to school and one is not. This all sounds relatively simple, we have read such stories before, yet I don’t think I have read friendship written so frankly and intricately before, even the complexity of forming a friendship at a young age.

Lila knew I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time – with no discussions, only looks an gestures – as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into darkness.

I don’t know about you but I can still remember those moments of forging friendships as a kid and how hard it all was to gage, especially when all you wanted to do was play house or build She-Ra a castle in the sandpit. For example, I remember when my friend since 4 years old, Polly, gave me the signal in the playground we could be friends when she made her fingers into a gun and shot me. We hadn’t spoken much before, twenty-nine years later still the best of friends. Anyway the reason I mention this, is not a detour of waffle as you might think, is that it illustrates how Ferrante almost instantly made me empathise with Elena and Lila whatever it was they were going to go through and how your friends just become your friends even when (this doesn’t apply to you Polly, if you are reading this) sometimes you wonder if you actually like them as a person, though of course the person we know in private and the one that they appear in public tend to be very different, most of the time.

Lila was malicious: this, in some secret place in myself, I still thought. She had shown me not only that she knew how to wound with words but that she would kill without hesitation, and yet those capacities now seemed to me of little importance. I said to myself: she will release something more vicious, and I resorted to the word “evil”, an exaggerated word that came to me from childhood tales. But if it was a childish self that unleashed these thoughts in me, they had a foundation of truth. And in fact, it slowly became clear not only to me, who had been observing her since elementary school, but to everyone, that an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila.

Friendship isn’t the only thing that we read about, nor is it the only thing that is intricately written about. The neighbourhood and the neighbours are also a huge part of the book, and what a neighbourhood it is. Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.”  And she is not half wrong; there are extramarital affairs, brawls, madness, assault, business wars, class wars and one-upmanship, even murder. The book brims with intricate tales and moments that weave behind the curtains of the houses around Elena and Lila and occasionally to sit at, or be talked about around, their dining tables. Yet what I thought was marvellous about this was that there are no bangs and whistles or big fanfares, things happen and Ferrante writes about them frankly without much drama just great writing.

He gave me ten lire and we all went, silently, to the top floor of a building near the public gardens. There, next to the iron door that led to the terrace, where I was clearly outlined by slender segments of light, I lifted up my shirt and showed them my breasts. The two stood staring as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. Then they turned and ran down the stairs.
I heaved a sigh of relief and went to Bar Solara to buy myself an ice cream.

I am not normally a fan of the coming of age novel, or indeed the more fancy title for it, bildungsroman, I was strangely charmed by this one. In part I liked it simply because it is a tale of two people growing up somewhere very different from me so from the foods to the customs I was intrigued. What I found really interesting was the aspects of the competition verses the companionship of the girls really interesting (I have seen this happen with many of my female friends with their female friends) and how each girl tries to keep both dynamics going yet also trying to figure out their futures where class, education and even beauty are all part and parcel of success according to the society they grow up in at a certain time in a certain place.

I am pleased I have finally read My Brilliant Friend and spent time with Elena and Lila, I am looking forward to finding out where their friendship will go in the next three Neapolitan Novels as well as what happens to the people and the place around them. I am doubly thrilled to have finally read Ferrante though whose writing just gets me; the people, the situations, everything seems so vivid and real. I found myself completely engaged without needing any gimmicks or over blown plots, just a story of two girls and the complexities that friendship brings. I now want to read all her books, especially as I have heard some of her standalone ones can be incredibly dark, so I will be on the hunt for those in particular soon. How lovely to find a new to me author with so many more books to discover.

Have you read My Brilliant Friend and if so what did you think? Have you read the rest, or more, of the Neapolitan Novels, what treats (without spoilers) do I have ahead? Have you read any of Ferrante’s other standalone novels and if so what did you make of them? Questions, questions, questions…

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