Monthly Archives: October 2015

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

It has been brilliant having a good old sort out of books wherever they may be shelved, or indeed hiding, in the house as it has reminded me of the books I have to look forward to and also the ones that I have loved and the ones that I have loved and haven’t written about yet. One of the books which has probably made both the biggest impression on me, whilst reading and in the pondering it has left me with since, has to be Max Porter’s debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Such an impression did it leave on me (and so many thoughts did it bring) I had to read it twice within a short space of time.

Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if ever they forgot things about their mother.

It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

What or who Crow is changes on the page as often as it will in the readers mind. Is this actually a crow that has just happened upon the scent of loss and wants to do some good? Should we judge him on his dark and pointed exterior for the trickster we see? Is Crow a manifestation of a husband’s way of dealing with the emptiness that invades every thought or is the manifestation of the two boys missing their mother? Is it a father’s madness taking on the form of his slight obsession with the poet Ted Hughes* as some sort of coping mechanism and/or breakdown? Is he an entire emotion come to life filling every piece of emptiness in these three’s house and worlds post death? Could Crow be all of these things? It is up to the reader to make up their own mind.

One of the reasons that I was so gripped/intrigued/horrified by Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the character of Crow, who is a riddle in himself and a puzzle you want to solve. I was also completely captivated by the writing. I felt whilst reading that I was under some kind of spell in the way it mixes the reality of grief, and the horror of it, with a slightly giddy yet unnerving sense of the fairytale or the supernatural. There’s a raw modern narrative and a very quintessentially gothic essence to it which I also loved. It also feels in many ways like an essay to grief that is also a poem, the language is wonderful even when it seems utterly bizarre, you are hooked.

Look at that, look, did I not, oi, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.

The main thing that I really loved (if that is the right word) about this book however was the depiction of grief. I always have huge admiration for writers who tackle the difficult or the ugly things in life and, no matter how hard it might be to write or to read, embrace them and give us them with their full honesty, unflinchingly. As I mentioned when I read Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, grief is something which we really do not like to talk about and yet we all face and when we do we really need someone to talk about it with. Max Porter has created a novel which does this with a rage and a beauty that moved me so much.

Without sounding too daft, as I read this book I felt like I was going through grief again, in a strange way both for this fictional family that I have never met (because they don’t exist Simon) and for anyone I have lost in my life. On one page I would be slightly confused, the next I would be laughing like a drain, the following I would be howling and then there were those particular brutal bittersweet moments where we mourn everything we have lost and celebrate everything that we had, those memories which break our hearts but remind us of the wonder of love and the people we love or have loved.

The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.

*Oh, before I go I should mention the Ted Hughes connection which I have seen has caused some discussion over the interweb with many a bookish sort. If any of you are wondering if you need to have an appreciation of Ted Hughes and his Crow in particular my answer would be no… Because I have read very little Hughes and I had no idea that the Crow collection existed. Before you call me a heathen (possibly too late) I can say that having read Grief is The Thing With Feathers I have got a copy waiting for me at the bookshop to pick up on pay day. So not only did the book affect me greatly, it also got me heading for a poetry collection which is not my normal bag at all. What can I say? Something about the soul of this book resonated with me that I want to find out more around it, even though it is fiction. Yes, this book is that good, not that I needed to tell you again.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Faber & Faber, Max Porter, Review

That Old Chestnut, What Do I Really Want To Be Reading?

Hip, hip, hooray and cheers all round… I have finished reading my first novel in over a month. A huge thank you to Ruth Ware’s In A Dark Dark Wood which has proved the perfect thriller to (cliché alert) grip me and have me page turning like a loon, more on that soon. I have also spent some of the weekend streamlining, rather than culling, not only my mighty bookshelves but also my ‘read’ shelves and the shelves (yes, shelves) of books that I have yet to review that I have read this year.

I have pondered the books I have read to see if I want to keep them. I have whittled out books I thought I wanted to review but actually am not so sure I do (there are lots of Fiction Uncovered submissions etc where I am not sure it’s appropriate or, worse, if I have very much to say – ouch) and the ones I have been busting to tell you about and have been a busy sausage and not done, yet. The shelves (and shelves) of books I have yet to read has been the hardest to whittle down and to be honest I have barely made the tiniest of dints or dents or whatever. The reason being I feel I am back at that crossroads in my reading life we all go through every so often where we ask… What the **** do I really want to be reading in the future?

The answer is alas illusive because I don’t like my reading straight forward or clean cut, who does? I don’t only want to read one genre, I don’t only want to read certain authors (though it would be nice to return to some of the ones that I love and have failed to read again, as seeing Brooklyn reminded me) and I don’t want to only be reading books that change my life – that would be exhausting, sometimes you need some fantastic escapism be it ghosts, crime or fairytale, not that they can’t change your life. I want to read the odd prize winner, I also really want to head off the beaten track and go and delve into the lives of casts of characters I will fall in love with the stories of all over the world. Sooooo many books, so little time – it’s sods law isn’t it?

I do know that I want to avoid some of (not all, but some) the big shouty hyped books. Twitter has been giving me a slight headache when I have been popping back online, I am on less frequently yet the same titles and voices seem to be shouting about the same books. I was actually saying to Rob, Kate and Gav earlier today how it’s become quite odd going from someone so in the industry and the chatter to now being much more on the outside. That’s not a bad thing, it means I can go rogue, which is the plan I think. Though an unplanned plan, no rules and no deadline reading for me for a while I think*.

Over the past few months on and off I have said I want to give Savidge Reads a slightly new direction, I am just still not quite sure what it is. However with 2016 looming and a new period in my professional and personal life having started I think that whatever that change will come in January. I am just going to pick up books by whim until then and see where they guide me. After all that was what Savidge Reads was meant to be (and is on the whole) from the off; the ramblings (verbal and literal) of a book lover on his journey discovering great books, so let’s see where that takes us shall we – as obviously I am expecting you to all come along for the ride. In the meantime while that all tinkers in my head it’s back to that pesky question of which book to read next?

*Unless some amazing book prize comes a knocking.

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Brooklyn (The Movie)

I am not a big film buff. I love a good movie (and often quite a few bad ones) don’t get me wrong, however reviewing isn’t my forte, just watching them and then simply summing them up with ‘ooh I loved it’, ‘ooh it had its moments’ or ‘ooh wasn’t that a load of old bobbins’. So it might seem bonkers then for me to mention on this blog, which is after all for books, that I think if you don’t all book tickets to see Brooklyn, adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, as soon as you can then you are fools. And I should know because I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening last night…

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When I read Brooklyn (back in 2009 so do forgive me if it seems a churlish review, I have refused to re-read it) I fell head over heels in love with it as a novel. Usually this means that when I see an adaptation is coming out at the cinema I do an inward rolling of the eyes and think ‘not on your nelly’, however when I saw that it was being shown early as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival at the Fact Cinema (which I have always wanted to go to) it seemed too good a trip out to miss. I have to admit though up until the popcorn was in my hand and I was sat in front of the opening titles, I was really nervous. It was, to me at least, an almost perfect movie.

I won’t give the plot away but the film, or indeed the novel, are set around the tale of Eilis Lacey. Born into a poor family who have lost their father and breadwinner her sister Rose has found one of the scarce jobs in her town but for a better chance at life Rose has organised her sister Eilis to go to Brooklyn where many young women are making a life for themselves and even managing to send money back home to help there. We then follow Eilis as she leaves home, has to settle into a whole new way of life all whilst becoming a woman. Then, for reasons I shall not give away, we watch as Eilis has to chose between her old home and her new ‘almost’ home after struggling to belong. Well, for the first time in a long time I was greeted with a film that was as close to the book, both in story, character and most importantly atmosphere, as well as what I had envisioned in my head. I loved every minute.

Firstly the acting is marvellous. Saoirse Ronan as Eilis is just superb, as she goes from an innocent, slightly giddy and occasionally cheeky to a homesick vulnerable wreck and then onto a more confident women with some very difficult decisions, she inhabits the role wonderfully, and what is wonderful is how she plays Eilis when she becomes slightly unlikeable which I found wonderful. I also thought Emory Cohen was wonderful as the loveable love interest ‘Tony’ and their relationship was spot on, even if he was slightly cuter and more clean shaven than the Tony I had in my head – but that says more about me than anything. The supporting cast were also wonderful. Julie Walters as Madge Kehoe, the Irish housekeeper in Brooklyn was, as always, wonderful and stole almost every scene she was in, though without the wonderfully played roles of the other girls there (by all the women who played them) they might not have been so funny, I could have watched and entire TV series around the dinner scenes set there. Jim Broadbent was very good as Father Flood,  though I don’t think it taxed him much it didn’t matter because it was Jim Broadbent and he is just good stuff always. Huge kudos should go to Eilis’ sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) as well as the marvellously awful Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) whose subtelty and intensity in all their parts was wonderful.

And it doesn’t end there, even though I am now in danger of making this sound like an Oscar’s speech, I thought the director, costume designer and sets and settings all need a huge round of applause as 1950’s Brooklyn and Ireland both came to life fully formed with these characters in front of my eyes, the locations becoming the two biggest characters in the whole movie really. Finally, Nick Hornby (yes, him) has done an amazing job of adapting it all to create the whole plot behind it and seems to have seen all the wonderful things that I love in Toibin’s writing (the intricacy of the small moments, the sadness, the joy and the laugh out loud – no one instantly thinks ‘Toibin, he’s a funny one’ but he is and Hornby sees it, those dinner scenes and small snatches in conversations) and magnifies them slightly highlighting them and just making it all a joy to watch. So go see it.

I have now come away with a huge reinvigorated love of the cinema and have already booked tickets for Spectre on Tuesday and might have to see if anyone wants to see Suffragette this weekend in the interim. I am also going to go and dust of some Toibin as I think that is who I shall be reading next, though I also want to read Patricia Highsmith’s Carol before that comes out at the cinema in a few weeks.

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My Worst Reading Slump… Ever!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Who ever thought I would be quoting Charles Dickens on this blog, yet here we are. In all seriousness though the last few weeks/months have felt a little bit like that. In going to America on my Readers adventure, heading to book festivals in Ilkley, Harwarden and Durham and then spending last weekend in London I have been having a gay old time left, right and centre, as it were. I am also really enjoying my new job and my new team. Yet all this has come at a slight cost in the terms of reading. When I say slight I mean epic, I have not read a whole book for over eight weeks the longest time since I gave up reading for 5 years in 1999.

Actually, that is a teeny weenie over exaggeration as I have read some books in full, just with big gaps in between meaning the reading of them felt somewhat disjointed. Yes folks, I was book juggling, that horrid state where several books seem to be all up in the air in your head at once as you read bits of one and then the other and another and go back and forth and around in circles. This was not helped by a secret project I was doing for a book prize, sifting their submissions before they went to judging panel back in late August and early September. I was book juggling with fire and I think I got somewhat burnt, even though it was ever so much fun reading for that prize and then reading for America and trying to read for festivals. But I think it got too much and the slump arrived.

Admittedly, this reading slump arrived without me noticing it – the sneaky thing. On arrival back from The Readers Roadtrip, I was unaware that I had not picked up a book for almost a week, probably because I had spent so much time talking about books. What I did notice was that being away from the buzz and shouting of Twitter, which I love but sometimes you hear the same books being shouted about or the same voices shouting, and that I felt the need to have a bit more calm. My desire for buying books hadn’t left me, I had bought twenty in the USA and then five more in Ilkley and more damage in Durham – yet the urge to sit and read wasn’t there, admittedly in the last two cases my trains were filled with stag and hen parties in both directions which wasn’t conducive to reading.

Yet whilst all this was going on I was still having many a wonderful chat about books (when not at work, though actually we are quite a booky lot at Culture so maybe that is slightly untrue) just not actually picking them up and reading them, then it seemed I couldn’t. I was talking all the book talk rather than actually fully participating. I had done so much dipping in and out and multi reading I just think I needed to stop and so for a week or so I avoided books, reading about them, talking about them, blogging (I know, I have been a quiet bookish bear) about them – the end. It was bliss… For a few days and then I got twitchy, then a bit grumpy, then full on edgy. Then I started to resent all the books in the world, let alone on my shelves, that I have yet to read and all the time that it might take to read them. Ouch, hard times (oh a second Dickens reference, I really am ill) and dire times indeed.

However in the last few days things have changed a little. Whilst in London at the end of last week and over the weekend three things happened that made a switch. Firstly I saw Nina Stibbe (who my boss who was with me is a huge fan of) talking about her book and other books at Stylist Live. Secondly, staying at my friend Catherine Hall’s she told me of a book that she had read and really loved and we chatted about some random books the other had never heard of. Thirdly, I went and had a massive wander around Foyles on Charing Cross Road and just mooched and looked at some books I had never heard of before… the bug was coming back slowly.

It then took and actual bug to break the book slump curse. As on Monday night I was felled by a stomach bug from hell and spent most of that night and 50% of yesterday being sick (the rest of the time I was trying to work from home at my kitchen table, dedication) and then today feeling rather delicate. At lunchtime I was feeling a bit woe is me and the like and so I settled down on the sofa with…

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…A children’s book and  I was hooked. All I needed was something simple, stunning and magical. Now it seems the sickness bug has gone and the book bug is back, which will hopefully mean the blogging bug is back to. Though I think I need a good cull this weekend to get me fully back on track, I have my sights on my unread books and the piles (and piles and piles) of books I have read and haven’t reviewed. Maybe a fresh start of sorts and a spring, well autumn, clean is called for? Anyway I am back, nice to be back in the bookish world with you all again.

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And The Two Signed Copies of Margaret Atwood Go To…

Apologies for the blog silence, more on that in the next post, however I am back and about and there will be some new posts very soon. Before that though I have the results of the two signed copies of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress give away, as chosen by the random number generator at Random.Org. And the winner, who everyone is going to want to be best friends, or best relative, with now is…

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…Sarah Jasmon, congratulations!!! I have sent you an email so do get back in touch so the lovely folk from Virago can send you the two signed copies asap!

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The Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015…

Has just been announced and it is… Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings!!!

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I haven’t read it yet, even though The Green Carnation Prize judges have been telling me to since they longlisted it as has Frances of NonSuchBook. So I know what is going in my bag to London with me on Thursday (or possibly tomorrow as I am in a weird book funk) for train rides and snatches of time that I get to myself from then until the weekend! Have any of you read it yet and what did you think?

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Durham Book Festival; It’s Been A Bookish Blast

So. That. Is. It. Durham Book Festival has come to an end for me. It has been an absolute bookish blast with over two days of non-stop bookish delight. I have been introduced to authors old and new (to me or debuts) and enjoyed every minute. From the Gordon Burn Prize (which I have now decided I want to judge one day), to the finale event discussing Wearside Jack it has been brilliant. Pat Barker thoroughly entertained me and made me want to read everything that she has ever written, I got to join in with a fascinating debate on hard evidence, I saw Lauren Laverne talking fashion, got to take part in Read Y’Self Fitter giggling away with our tutor Andy Miller, be thoroughly freaked out about the state of modern Russia and heard Patrick Gale and Liza Klaussmann talking about sexuality and sexual secrets. What more could you want and where else could you get all of this other than a literary festival?

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It has also been a real hoot (as you can see from my naughty gleeful look captured above brilliantly by Picador’s Emma Bravo) and the lovely team at New Writing North and Durham Book Festival have been wonderful hosts and putting up with diva demands, well they probably would have if I had made any. I didn’t honest. I got to meet lots of lovely people who I have not met before but I have spoken to for ages on Twitter, like the brilliant Ben Myers and Andy Miller, as well as some lovely faces that I have met before including some of the lovely young talented reviewers that myself and Lauren Laverne have given masterclasses to and who I had some ace chats with at the events…

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And they will be the lovely folk who will be blogging and reviewing for the rest of Durham Book Festival on the Cuckoo Review website and on the festival’s blog BECAUSE THE FESTIVAL IS NOT OVER and you can still go and see some corking events (Philip Pullman, Carys Davies, Stuart Evers, Mary Portas, Bill Bryson and more) over the next week, which they will all be reviewing on the site along with some of the books discussed and more. All good stuff!

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