Tag Archives: Reading With Authors 2011

Reading With Authors #8: At Swim, Two Boys – Jamie O’Neill; With SJ Watson

  

Firstly Steve thanks for coming all the way to Brussels to join me, especially after you’ve just been travelling to Oz and back. It was a very last minute work trip but I have found a nice quiet café where we can have a good natter, what would you like to drink, I’ll get us lots of Belgian chocolates to have with it. Oh, was the Eurostar ok? 

Hi Simon! Yes, thanks, the Eurostar was fine. I slept for the entire journey. I’m still suffering with jetlag, I think. But it’s nice to be back in Brussels. I was last here for New Year’s Eve about eight or nine years ago. There were some spectacular fireworks and very nice beer. I don’t remember much more after that… 

By the way, no chocolates for me. I’ve returned from Australia about a stone heavier than when I went. They do look good, though.

Oh well, maybe just one…

When you chose ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ by Jamie O’Neill you actually saved it from a fate worse than a charity shop, as I had had it on my shelf for years and just thought ‘it’s huge, am I really going to read it?’ It felt like fate. Why did you want us to read this book together and with readers?

There were a few reasons. I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction, lately, so I fancied a change, and when it came time to decide what type of book I’d like to read I realised that it’s been a while since I read anything with gay themes. I remember loving things like ‘The Swimming Pool Library’, Edmund White’s books, ‘Becoming a Man’ by Paul Monette and so on. They were tremendously important to me as a teenager and in my early twenties, so I thought it might be nice to try something similar. Plus, if I’m honest, ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ has also been on my shelf for about five years – my partner loves it and has been nagging me to read it for all that time – so it felt like a good time to give it a go.

 But there’s something about a book that’s so long, isn’t there? It feels kind of daunting…

 Oh tell me about it, I was thinking ‘I am never going to manage this in time’. How did you get on with it as a read?

 Well, my first problem was finding it. We moved house earlier this year and haven’t unpacked all the books yet, plus I’d helpfully labelled all the boxes Miscellaneous. In the end I had to buy it again, out in Australia, so I began reading it on a beach in Sydney, on one of my days off. That was sort of weird, especially as the opening pages are so dense. I had no idea what it was about, so it was a bit of a struggle to get into it. But straight away I loved the poetry of the language – I think in some ways it’s a book to be read aloud – and that carried me through until I settled into its rhythm and started to understand the characters and their world. 

I thought this was going to be a real struggle for me for several reasons, the first being that it opened slightly like ‘Ulysses’, which I have tried and failed to read at least three times, I was expecting to be confused… then I was… and then suddenly I wasn’t did this happen to you? O’Neill introduces a lot of characters very quickly, but quite vaguely, so I was doing a lot of flipping back pages and keeping notes like ‘who on earth is Gordie’? Was this just me?

No. Exactly the same happened to me. It’s one of those books that creates its own world, but it’s not an easy read. Compared to many books today it asks a lot of the reader, but even in the early pages you can tell it’ll repay your investment.

How’s your coffee, by the way? I gave up caffeine while I was Melbourne so I’m kind of jealous. I did it on a whim, but I’m starting to wish I’d given something else up instead. Like chocolate. 

How can you give up on caffine, are you bonkers? It’s lovely, I am feeling very cosmopolitan right now. The book starts in 1916 as the famous ‘Easter Rising’ starts in Ireland, for the book is set in Dublin. I say famous, actually I had never heard of it and had to stop reading the book at about page 100 to go and find out. I don’t think the book sets it up for you, which I struggled with a lot, I was loving the characters (we maybe loving some, like MacMurrough who we will talk more about, is a bit extreme) but thinking what on earth is all this political/religious stuff? It was hinted at rather than explained for me.  

I agree. I was also pretty ignorant about that part of Ireland’s history. One of the things I loved about the book is that I feel I have a better understanding now of what happened at that time. But you’re right – the book doesn’t really give much of the religious and political background away. When writing it can be tricky to know how much background needs explaining, and how to explain it in a way that feels true to the story. You don’t want to end up in a situation in which characters are having conversations they wouldn’t have had, just to inform the reader about what was going on at the time! On balance I think the way O’Neill did it works, as the book is first and foremost a human story. 

What did you make of Brother Polycarp? I thought perhaps that was one element that felt unfinished, or unsatisfying at least. 

Did you, I thought there may be still waters running deeper, but he wasn’t a focus, or maybe I missed a trick? Once I got my head around the backdrop, which I would have liked O’Neill to paint in more detail, or maybe more clearly, the novel suddenly started to really set off. I think for me this was after the two boys, Jim and Doyle who are the great love story at the novels heart, finally met and also with the arrival of Anthony MacMurrough to the area after his release from prison, though this was about 100 pages in… 

I agree. I did wonder where the book was taking us in those early chapters. I didn’t get frustrated, as such, but I did feel that the story moved up a gear when Doyler and Jim met. I think it was because I still wasn’t quite used to the pace of the book. It’s almost languorous in places, and all too often we’re used to books with a bombshell on every page.  

More drink? Fancy some more of those chocolates, the pralines are lovely…

Thanks. I’ll have a hot chocolate, I think. And I will try a praline, but only because you’ve told me how nice they are. Oh, and pass me one of those marzipan fruits, would you? They’re fruit, so therefore have no calories, and quite probably contribute towards one of my five-a-day.

Hahaha, I have just eaten six of them so I won’t need the gym… this month. Hem, hem, moving on! I loved how the love story between the two boys developed, Doyler teaching Jim to swim seemed to me a great metaphor, and the aim of getting to Muglins Rock, a climax of sorts, though I was worried what would happen after… why is it there must always be a sense of dread in a love story, especially a homosexual one, why would I instantly think ‘uh-oh’? Did you, and did you enjoy how the love story developed?

I think the sense of dread, or threat, is probably vital in most love stories, if not all. Fiction has to have conflict, or else why read on? If they’d met and everything had gone swimmingly (pardon the pun!) then it would have been an unsatisfying read. But it’s interesting what you say about homosexual love stories. Maybe in some way the stakes seem higher, particularly in a story set in a time when homosexuality was totally unacceptable and gay people were regularly imprisoned, because there’s a feeling that these two boys have been incredibly fortunate to have found each other, against the odds, in secret, and that for their love to work they have to transcend a repressive and hostile society.

Of course things are better now, in the UK at least, but that’s still true to a large extent. And we mustn’t forget that there are parts of the world where even today Jim and Doyler would be imprisoned for life or even put to death for loving each other. But one of the things I love about the book is that it’s first a foremost a love story. The fact that it’s a love story between two men is almost immaterial

Of course the path of true love never does run smooth does it?

Certainly not in books, no!

I loved the MacMurrough’s even though I shouldn’t. Anthony is just letcherous and opportunist, whilst also almost mirroring the things that happened to Oscar Wilde, yet he is fascinating to read. His aunt Eveline is also a wonderful, if rather scary, character too. They were just so immensely readable I found, did you? I think the book needed them and not just for the plot.

I agree! I couldn’t stand Anthony at first, but his character opened up very quickly and I realised what a good person he is at heart. By the end he’s really teaching the boys how to love, and how to be who they are, knowing that their love for him will pale into insignificance next to their love for each other.

And Eveline? She follows a long tradition in fiction of slightly bonkers posh women that I love. I love them in real life, too, though I don’t meet them often enough. Maybe I’d meet more of them here in Brussels? More chocolates, by the way? I ought to get a box to take home with me. You know, as a present? Or maybe two. Just in case.

I did cry at the end, don’t take the mickey, but I did. Did you?

I didn’t, if I’m honest. I thought the ending was intensely moving, and I did have a lump in my throat, but I’m weird about what brings on actual tears. I think it’s more to do with me and the mood I’m in than the book. Sometimes I can cry at Coronation Street, other times I can be the only person in a cinema not blubbing away. But I would never take the mickey! I love it when books do make me cry. Isn’t that why we read, on some level? To be moved?  

Right, this is definitely my last chocolate.

Jamie O’Neill turned the book around for me. Initially I thought this was going to be a book I wouldn’t enjoy. It seemed a little pretentious and confusing, yet after the initial hurdle of 100 – 150 pages I was swept up in it and the last 400 or so pages flew by. Did you find this?

I did, yes. But, unlike with some books, I wouldn’t say those first 100 or so pages ought to have been edited. I think they were necessary to the book, in order to introduce the reader to its world.  

I wonder if the plodding start has put other people off and what makes you persevere. I don’t think I would have had we not read it together, so thank you. Will you be picking up any more of Jamie O’Neill’s novels? 

I’m sure the beginning has put people off, which is a shame. It’s really a fantastic book, poetic and beautiful and amazingly rich. I think I will pick up some more of O’Neill’s work, but I also intend to re-read ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ one day. I read it in less than a week, and with jetlag, so I think there’s a lot there that I missed. I think it’s a book that rewards the time you give it, so I’d like to give it more time at a future date.   

I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. It was a lot of pressure, choosing a book, so I’m glad I went for one that surprised both of us!

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Filed under Jamie O'Neill, Reading With Authors 2011, SJ Watson

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you need anymore of anything by the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading With Authors #6: A Summer of Drowning – John Burnside; With Jane Harris

  

Well Jane I am not sure how you will feel about this, but thanks to the magic of the internet we have ended up in a wooden log cabin in middle of the Artic Circle which is most apt for our discussion of ‘A Summer of Drowning’. It’s a bit chilly so do grab one of those fashionable all in one sleeping- bag outfits hanging up. Whilst you’re doing that what can I get you to drink, anything to eat?

Ah yes, the all-in-one sleeping-bag suit, that most flattering of garments. And in lime green too! Many thanks – I must look a treat. As for refreshments, perhaps in honour of our book “A Summer of Drowning” we should eat Napoleon Cake and drink lashings of coffee (as the narrator and her mother do). Now, let me just zip myself into this suit . . . there! We’re all set to begin.

So Jane, you chose (and no that’s not accusation you can hear in my tone) this book ‘A Summer of Drowning’, which I believe is John Burnside’s seventh. What made you want to read it, well us to read it?

I think this book was on my mind when you asked me to do this discussion. I was wondering what to read next and since I was in a period when I felt extremely liberated and able to read anything I wanted (rather than just reading books connected to my own research) what little I knew of this novel appealed to me. I say I knew little about it because I never ever read a review of a book until I’ve actually read the book itself. If at all possible, I like to know nothing in advance. Reading about what happens in a book spoils it for me. It’s the same with films: I never read the reviews until afterwards. I like to discover stories for myself. So I knew very little about this book, apart from the fact that it was written by John Burnside. I met him once, almost twenty years ago. We did a reading together at Morden Tower in Newcastle, and he seemed an extremely nice, kind man. When I was thinking of what to read next, I found it intriguing that he’d chosen to set his latest novel in a Scandinavian country (I was hazy on the details at that point so wasn’t sure if the location was Norway or Sweden).

Ooh, we do the same thing with books; I don’t like to know much before either. Though in this case I broke with that rule slightly as I hadn’t heard of it so googled the blurb to see what it might be like and I have to say from the blurb I was really excited. It sounded like a wonderfully dark mystery meets fairytale all around the drowning of some boys and why suddenly these deaths happened, along with the spooky tale of this creature/thing called ‘the huldra’ on a remote island called Kvaløya. Did it live up to your expectations, if you had any? I know I was expecting something…

Well, like I say, I tried to read as little as possible about it in advance but yes, I had an expectation that it would be a dark Scandinavian mystery, with echoes of a lot of the stuff that’s there in the culture at the moment, in films like “Let the Right One In” and in mainstream crime novels by authors like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankel. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to thrillers and horror. I don’t read much in that genre because it affects me too much. I haven’t read any Nesbo or Mankel, though I may do, if I pluck up the courage. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I was hoping that “A Summer of Drowning” would have some of the edginess of one of those Scandinavian thrillers, without being too gory.

I can recommend the first Mankell, I though Nesbo was quite good. Neither of them have become favourites and I havent got on with the Larsson books. Can anyone recommend any books for Jane out there? Back to this book, and I hate to do this… but I didn’t like the book overall, I have to say. BUT, and this is a big but, I did like the sum of its parts. I will get the negatives out of the way first, and first up is the nature of the writing. There is no question John is a wonderful writer in terms of the way he puts his prose, but from the prologue alone I thought ‘goodness this is repetitive’. It was almost like he had to use every possible variation on ‘this is going to be a mystery’ and go on about it… admittedly in a beautiful way. Am I being too harsh as beautiful writing is beautiful writing?

He is a fabulous writer, isn’t he? I suppose I know what you mean about the writing being repetitive, and normally that would probably annoy me but I found it hard to dislike this book. I had a bit of trouble getting into it, at first, but once I did sink into its atmosphere – and atmosphere is, I think, the most stunning element of this novel – I almost felt like I was in a trance: a trance, or a dream which turned, at times, into a nightmare. I don’t know how he has done it, but he seems to have captured certain moods, emotions, states of mind, ways of being and ways of seeing, that I can hardly even put into words. There’s the immense lonliness of Liv, the narrator, and the sense of what it’s like to be young and living in a remote place. There’s the eeriness of being alone in a vast landscape, and what can be the sudden overwhelming panic and terror of that (something I’ve experienced a fair few times in my life). There’s the sense of being observed, and the addiction to observing, as experienced by Liv when she spies on her neighbours. Yes, at times, the prose was repetitive but I began to wonder whether that was part of the point – was this Liv, obsessively working things over and over in her mind, poring over every little detail, examining nuances, notions, neurotically trying to find answers to the mysteries in the story, unable to tell what was real any longer, and what was not?

More drink or nibbles Jane? Could you give the fire a poke while I am doing that?

But of course. No more cake, thank you, otherwise I’ll never get out of this slug-suit. But I’d love some more coffee.

My second critique is that the book seemed to have so much to say, so many themes and yet no anchor to the story. Some books have no plot and they work really well, this had lots of threads, mystery, the pedophilic storyline, the coming of age, the relationship with mothers theme, the magical fairytale/fable element, the underlying horror… I could go on and on. After I finished whilst I was left impressed by all Burnside had written I didn’t feel they all cohesively worked. Again maybe I am being too harsh or didn’t get it?

Yes, in a way I know what you mean and I think that ordinarily, all that might have frustrated me. I suppose, to begin with, I was expecting something more plot-driven, some form of detective element perhaps, with Liv solving the mysteries of the disappearances and strange occurences. However, once I realised that I wasn’t going to get that, I just allowed myself to sink into the narrative that Burnside had created. And in a way, the book was more scary and creepy than if he’d worked on consolidating the plot or tying up the loose ends. It was more nightmarish because the strange things that happen remain unexplained. It’s not even as simple as knowing whether what happens is real or all in the mind, or minds, of certain characters. I’m not a huge fan of magic realism (that’s an understatement, by the way) and I love the way Burnside kept the story rooted in the real, while, around the edges, it’s almost as though a hidden, terrifying world is peeping through, threatening to overwhelm reality.

I loved the idea of ‘the huldra’, a Norse myth of a woman who seduces men and then kills them or rewards them dependent on mood, and how Liv (our narrator) thinks she is embodied to Maia who is a local girl on the island. There was  something in that which reminded me of when you are at school and you think your teacher is a witch etc. I thought this theme and story arch was my favourite, was it yours?

Yes, I agree. I found all of that stuff incredibly creepy and scary. The encounters between those two girls, the description of the painting that Liv’s mother paints of Maia, the sense of Maia being a power that cannot be reckoned with – all extremely powerful. It really did give me chills. Even now when I think about it, it makes me shiver.

‘A Summer of Drowning’ is told by Liv, who is looking back on it as memories, did this work for you? I wondered why Burnside used it especially with regard to the ending which is ambiguous to say the least…

That’s an interesting point and it’s always a very niggling question for a writer, I think – what point in time do you tell your story from? I always agonise over that because it has such an impact on how your narrator will tell the story, how fresh it is in their mind, how much they have been able to rationalise or gloss over events, and so on. To be honest, I didn’t really question the decision that Burnside had made so I suppose it must have worked for me. I like where he has the character of Liv ending up – it seemed inevitable that she is now doing what she does, and there’s a delicious ambiguity right until the end, which I enjoyed.

I have to say the ending made me cross. Really cross. I felt like after all that I ended up at a loss, and I am not a reader who has to have everything spelt out for them, I felt cheated like I had made all this effort and what for?

Yes, I know you don’t need everything spelt out for you because of what you’ve written about certain other books (ahem!).  Like you, I don’t tend to like everything spelt out either. I’m going to have to think a bit more about “A Summer of Drowning”. I just finished it this morning, so it’s all very fresh in my mind. I can say though that it didn’t make me cross because about two thirds of the way through I had a feeling I wouldn’t get the kind of answers that one might expect from a mainstream thriller and so I put aside that expectation and tried to accept the novel for what it was, and to appreciate the consolations of being drawn into such a creepy world, while not being able to figure out exactly how he (the writer) was making me scared and unsettled.

That all said I would like to try some of John Burnside’s other books, maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with?

If I were you I might try “A Lie About my Father” which is Burnside’s memoir.

So over to all of you, pop a sleeping bag suit on and get cosy in the cabin with some cake and tea. Who else has read this and what did you think? Is it reflective of John Burnside over all? What other books would you recommend of his to Jane and myself? Anything else to add?

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Filed under Jane Harris, John Burnside, Reading With Authors 2011

Reading With Authors #5: Ruby’s Spoon – Anna Lawrence Pietroni; With Beatrice Colin

  

Welcome to the delights of South Manchester Beatrice, I hope you got here ok, was the traffic bad? Now can I get you a tea or a coffee and what would you like biscuit or cake wise before we begin? Would Fairy Cakes be an idea (I have become obsessed with The Great British Bake Off, so have whipped some up), as there is a fairytale theme with the book we are going to discuss…

Hi Simon. Glad to be here. No traffic on a Sunday. And yes a fairy cake or two would be great.

I chose ‘Ruby’s Spoon’ as it caused rather a stir in the publicity world when it came out in hardback and then sort of vanished. When I saw it at the time I heard it had witches and mermaids in it and do love an adult fairytale, would you say that is a fair summation having read it? What were you expecting?

I missed the stir so I hadn’t heard of it, but the reviews I read were good. I can’t say ‘adult’ and ‘fairytale’ really do it for me – I have a young daughter and have my fair share of mermaid stories such as ‘Ingo’ by Helen Dunmore. But I did go through an Angela Carter phase once and thought, hey, why not?  Being in Scotland, and ignorant of most of England’s geography, I can’t say I even knew where  Black Country was, but just the words, ‘Black Country’ did summon up something magically sinister.

Did you like it? I did though I did think that it was a little bit on the long side, is that unfair?

I found a lot to admire in it. Bit it was way, way too long and I really struggled to finish it. If I hadn’t been reviewing it for you, I don’t think I would have. I don’t know how many thousands of words, but it felt like it was at least three times the length of most novels.

I will admit the prologue made me think ‘uh-oh this isn’t going to work for me’. It didn’t seem to make any sense. I knew there was a witch on fire but apart from that I was stumped. In fact I was almost geared up to not like it. What was your reaction as the book itself, and the story, seems much clearer, in comparison to that?

I liked the opening. I found the writing brilliant, the descriptions vivid and unusual. If only she had changed gear for the rest of it. The whole novel was like the opening – tantalizing but elusive, coy and yet almost completely incomprehensible. There seemed to be almost no story, only description and revelation, exposition and exhaustively written detail.  Everything was given the same weight – a lengthy description of a walk along a path and then a crucial plot twist. It was all so convoluted. I felt as if weeks had gone past only to find it was only days.

And yet I loved the setting, the industrial landscapes and the button factory, the character’s names -Trembly Em, and Moonie Fly. It seemed that the writer had all this great material and yet didn’t know how what to do with it. It didn’t hang together at all for me – it was like listening to someone give a very poor rendition of the plot of a very good film. And then, and then, and then. Aaaaaagh. Sorry, I need some more tea.

Yes, apologies about that, I am being a dreadful host. There we go, lovely. The thing that I think I loved the most about the book was the sense of mystery. Isa Fly arrives almost out of nowhere and brings with her this mystery of why she is here and a feeling of change at the same time. I really liked this personally, it gave the book a drive and a pace, I wanted to know more…

I too wanted to know more. At first. But there was too much assumed, don’t you think? Why did Ruby want to go to sea so much? Also, with such a classic set up – stranger in town – the expectation is that something will happen. Most of what happened had already happened in the past. It was mostly an uncovering of old stories rather than being driven by anything current. I became rather annoyed when I realized that the hunt for Lily Fly was just a red herring. Ultimately though, I’m afraid that I was unable to suspend my disbelief and found my self having to drag myself through the story rather than being picked up and swept along.

Yes, I know what you mean about the revelations being more in the past than in the now, that’s a very good point. I couldn’t say I was dragged though, whilst I didn’t devour the book (I actually had other books I would turn to in order to give myself a breather) I did enjoy it once I picked it up ahain. A lot of the book relies on us having to empathise with or just enjoy spending time with Ruby. I worried that I just wouldn’t be interested or would find her a precocious type of early teenager, I couldn’t have been more wrong, she charmed me. Did she charm you?

I liked her, yes, but wasn’t enchanted. I didn’t feel as if I knew her well enough. I couldn’t get under her skin but that was because of the writing. We kept on being told that she was enchanted by Isa Fly but I couldn’t really feel it. Likewise, she keeps asking questions  – surely this is the reader’s job rather than the main characters? She seemed a little like a device.

Ooh, I hadn’t thought about that side of it. Yes, now you mention it she does ask a lot. But then I thought that might be so the reader learnt more. There is the slight concern if a character is asking too many questions there is something amiss somewhere I guess. I have to admit I did get a bit confused about the water initially. Not just because Ruby was so scared for it, which initially I just didn’t get, and because of the way it surrounded the area of Cradle Cross (brilliant name) in the middle of the Black Country which was landlocked too… erm, what? I didn’t think the map really helped me, I just got more confused.

I like maps in books. Although I now realize that didn’t I glance at it once as I was reading. It wasn’t the geography of the place that confused me but the geography of the plot.

Oh you are on fire today Beatrice, have another cake. Now back to mapping… I always worry a little if a book has a map at the front; it’s like when someone puts a family tree in a book at the start too. It worries me, does the publisher/author think that the reader cant manage this novel and if they think that then what hope does a reader have…

Yes, it makes you wonder if the publishers panicked at the last minute that no one would understand it.

How did you fair with the fact the book was written in the old Black Country, which is a huge character as a place in the book, dialect. How did you get on with ‘take me back wi yo’ and ‘he ay made it easy for yo’? I admit it was one of the parts of the book that I struggled with…

I also struggled with the dialogue at first but I did grow to like it. It gave the novel a real flavour and nuance. You could really hear Ruby’s voice really clearly. I liked that.

What I also sometimes struggled with and also really loved, weirdly, was the magical elements of the book. They added so much and yet slightly distracted too. Can you tell I feel a bit mixed about the book (I think I need it to settle with me a bit more) overall?

The juxtaposition of the gritty northern landscapes and mermaids and witches didn’t work for me at all.

Ooh controversial…

I felt it meant she could just keep changing the goalposts . Surely the 1930s was enough? I felt all the witches and mermaids stuff undermined the serious detail, the widows and their losslinen and absent men.  Did it need more? I would have found it far more moving and involving without the magical elements.

I thought the shades of the WWI in the background adding a real tension and spooky element, especially with all the widows in the town, really added something to the novel, did you find that? It made the book seem more magical, oh I don’t know how to put that into words… can you help using your writing skills Beatrice?

I liked all the WW1 stuff and the period detail too. An awful lot of work clearly went into the research and you get a sense of the real visceral joy that the author had in the details. And yes, it feels like a community very much in decline  – times are changing.

Now the start is sort of the ending, did you like that aspect of the book or did it sort of mean no matter where the author took us, and the mystery as we mention throughout is wonderful, you already know what is coming. How did you feel at the end?

Glad to have got there. No seriously, the book has real resonance and a lovely flavour. The voice, the descriptions, the brilliant writing and all that detail about Cradle Cross stayed with me. I now wonder if the author was deliberately playing with plot, with expectation of a what a plot should be? Can all the story be in back story? I don’t think so. It made me realize that what I love in novels is a good story, one with action and character development. Beautiful descriptions, evocative names and interesting narratives are nothing without a narrative that hooks you and a character who in solving a mystery is also digging deep into themselves.  I wish I had been moved at the end. Sadly, I wasn’t.

I’d love to read something shorter by the same author, however.  I think she has a huge talent.  It’s always hard to balance research with the constraints of the plot. In the end, however, you have to be brutal. Less is always more and space is as important in a book as detail. Hopefully her next book will be shorter, simpler and will give her characters room to breath and come alive.

Well thanks for coming and chatting Beatrice, do stick around in case anyone else pops by for a natter. In fact, I better get some more cups of tea on the go and more fairy cakes out and we can see if anyone wants to join us for more bookish discussion over afternoon tea, let’s see if any of them have anything to add or discuss.

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Filed under Anna Lawrence Pietroni, Beatrice Colin, Reading With Authors 2011

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

Some books you buy because you think one day you should really get around to reading them. This is the very feeling that I had when I snapped up a copy of Penelope Lively’s ‘Moon Tiger’ in a charity shop years ago because it had won the Booker Prize in 1987 and because I thought Lively was one of those authors ‘all book lovers should really read’, we all have books we buy in those circumstances don’t we? And yes I did say I bought this years ago, because after I snapped it up I promptly put it away in one of my book boxes and it then stayed lingering in the TBR pile limbo. If it hadn’t been for Natasha Solomons choosing it as our ‘Reading With Authors’ choice (discussion coming soon) I think that is where it might have stayed, which would have been a crime frankly as this is an utterly wonderful book.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1987, fiction, 208 pages, taken from personal TBR

There is, I think, a major problem for anyone wishing to write about ‘Moon Tiger’ and that is how to tell people to read the book without divulging the plot. You see ‘Moon Tiger’ is the life story of the beautiful writer Claudia Hampton, told by herself, starting from her childhood just after the First World War up to the present day, where we know she is in hospital at the age of 76 dying of cancer. This should therefore be easy to sum up should it not? Well, no, not really because we don’t get the book in a linear chronology by any stretch of the imagination, we have to work at it, and so (as I am going to tell you that you all have to read this if you haven’t before) it would spoil things to say anymore. I even think the blurb gives too much away.

It was actually this stopping and starting, backwards and forwards narrative (which I admit annoyed me for the first fifteen pages or so) that had me hooked into the book. It seems Claudia is in a delirious state, possibly from the drugs I imagine she would be on for her terminal illness, and so is slightly confused therefore her memory flits, and so do the tales she tells us. Only its not just that simple, Lively adds another brilliant twist. We get Claudia’s memories as she sees them, strangely in third person, and as the other person sees them. We get some very conflicting sides of each tale which I found fascinating. In fact sometimes she will do this with a situation but from four peoples perspectives. I loved it, I didn’t think I would but I did and I wanted to see how on earth Lively could keep making this work, which she does effortlessly. It also felt like a book and word lover’s kind of book, in the way Lively writes she almost tells us how she writes. I loved that too.

“The cast is assembling; the plot thickens. Mother, Gordon, Sylvia. Jasper. Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others, as yet unnamed, will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”

The other thing, apart from the clever way it is told and the great story I cant say too much about, that I loved about ‘Moon Tiger’ was Claudia herself, even though in all honesty she is not the nicest woman in the world. I found her relationship between Claudia and her daughter a difficult and occasionally heartbreaking one. (‘She will magic Claudia away like the smoke.’) She gripes about her life, she has incredibly loose morals (there is a rather shocking twist in the novel that I didn’t expect and made me queasy), isn’t really that nice about anyone and yet I loved listening to her talk about her life. I think it was her honesty. I wanted to hear and know more, even when she was at her wickedest.

“Harry Jamieson has a damp handshake, damp opinions steeped in the brine of the local Rotary Association and the Daily Telegraph, an appalling homestead on the outskirts of Henley with tennis court, swimming-pool and sweep of gravel that apes the country estate to which he aspires. I have not spent more than half a dozen hours in his company since the wedding. This, let me say, out of charity as much as self-preservation: the poor man is terrified of me. At the very site of me his vowels falter, his forehead glistens, his hands dispensing gin and tonic or Pimms No. 1 fumble with ice cubes, send glasses flying, cut themselves with the lemon knife.”

So I loved ‘Moon Tiger’. I don’t think there is much more that I can say other than read it. This is yet another prime example of why I think I need to get off this almost constant contemporary road of reading, I am missing out on gems like this (and I don’t just mean Booker winners or books from the 80’s – I mean all sorts of books) and that is something I have to work on. So a big thank you to Natasha Solomons for making me read this wonderful book. I am very excited that I will be talking about it further with her in the near future, and again with you hopefully.

Have you read this and what did you think? Where should I go next with Penelope Lively, I think I could currently happily binge on her books after this one, what would you recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Man Booker, Penelope Lively, Penguin Books, Reading With Authors 2011, Review

Reading With Authors 2011, An Update

So there is some good news and some not so about ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ this morning. Unfortunately myself and the lovely Natasha Solomons haven’t managed to catch up, and through the magic of the internet also have you, in her summer house to discuss ‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively yet. It is coming I promise I am just not quite sure when, I have hidden aside some of her favourite biscuits for when we do though. I will be putting my thoughts on ‘Moon Tiger’, to say I loved it would be an understatement – where oh where has Penelope Lively been all my life, up later today so if you have read it (and I think a few of you were) we can natter about it twice in the next week or so. So what is the good news?

Well I think I mentioned in the first post on ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ that there were two more authors who were planning on joining us for cake/biscuits, coffee/tea and conversation over the next few weeks, I can now reveal who they are. First up we will be joining Jane Harris somewhere delightful to discuss John Burnside’s ‘A Summer of Drowning’ (I have always wanted to try John Burnside) and then at the end of the ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ we will be discussing ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ with SJ Watson. I am thrilled both authors are joining us. So now the ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ schedule looks like this…

  • Sunday 7th of August: The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis with Belinda Bauer
  • Sunday 14th of August: Pigeon English by Steven Kelman with Naomi Wood
  • Sunday 21st of August: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susan with Paul Magrs
  • TBC: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively with Natasha Solomons
  • Sunday 4th of September: Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni with Beatrice Colin
  • Sunday 11th of September: A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside with Jane Harris
  • Sunday 18th of September: Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor with Isabel Ashdown
  • Sunday 25th of September: At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill with SJ Watson

Hope you will be joining me later to talk about ‘Moon Tiger’ and hopefully see you at some of the future meeting of minds too come.

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Filed under Reading With Authors 2011, Uncategorized

Reading With Authors #3: Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann; With Paul Magrs

So Paul only a day late, oops, blame the Transpeak (I actually almost got stranded in Matlock last night, not funny)…we’ve nicely invited ourselves (Savidge Reads and it’s readers) to your house, well your Summer house actually. Are Fester and Panda here? Can we get a nice cuppa we’ve brought biscuits (though no digestives or fig rolls), what would you like? 

Really, I think we need pink champagne for this one. And some sort of fancy nibbles. I’m amazed you went to such effort and dragged up again, Simon. You look fantastic, but mind your hem as you come trolling across the lawn. Come and sit on one of these garden chairs where all the neighbours can see. I’ve got some Dolly Mixture we can pretend are prescription drugs. Aren’t you a bit too warm in your beaver, by the way?

Oh yes, I must get rid of this thing, in fact seeing as you tricked me into fancy dress when you haven’t I might just pop and get changed… there that’s better. All normal now, well normal-ish. So Valley of the Dolls, why did we choose it again? 

I wanted an excuse to reread it. I love the old movie, and there’s a fantastic biography of Jacqueline Susann that makes me laugh and laugh. She had such a rackety life and career, and she was determined to make it. But she behaved so badly and was so tasteless and brilliantly vulgar. I love the movies about her, ‘Ain’t She Great’ with Bette Midler, and ‘Outrageous Me’ with the wonderful Michelle Lee. And, a number of years ago, I was completely gripped reading her novel ‘The Love Machine’ while on holiday in Paris. I wanted to go back to the first novel to find out why and how she’s so readable.

Did you enjoy it? Do you think Valley of the Dolls deserves its cult status?

I’m not sure! It was huge at the time, of course. Mostly because (if we are to believe biography by Barbra Seamann and the two biopics) Susann was such a whizz at self-publicity. She went on TV and book tours – but she also did things like taking breakfast and coffee to the lorry drivers who were transporting her books around the US. It has sold insanely well over the decades and I say, rather than a cult value, it has a kitschy one. It’s a pure product of its era – an absurdly outdated piece of pop culture. It’s camp, of course – but despite itself, rather than setting out to be self-consciously ironic and amusing. It’s too stodgy and earnest, I think, to be a true Cult classic. It terms of vintage tat, it’s the literary equivalent of one of those scary half-dolls with no legs and knitted frocks that sit on top of toilet rolls.

I’ve been a bit up and down with it, I loved it initially but Anne’s story seemed to go on a little bit too long, I was glad of the narrative change weren’t you?

Yes, I was – at the two hundred page mark, or whatever it was. It was heaven to get into the stories of Jennifer and Neely. Anne is too good to be true – she’s a bit winsomely perfect, and she drives me up the wall, really. My feeling is that Anne was Jacqueline Susann’s idealized version of herself. (Susann posed for adverts, and TV, etc – and knew that world.) And so the writer indulges herself in that strand of the story – Anne’s ever so slightly sanctimonious point of view. For me, though, it’s when Helen Lawson, the singing battleaxe comes on stage, that the book really lights up. She’s incorrigible and frightful and behaves quite justifiably like a monster throughout. The scene in the ladies’ lavs when Neely rips her wig off and shoves it down the loo is my favourite in the whole novel.

Did you have a favourite between the ‘Dolls’ out of Anne, Neely or Jennifer? I know I did, can you guess which?

I reckon you liked Neely best. Don’t know why. Oh yes, I do.

You might just be right there though I am intrigued as to why you think that, maybe that’s a conversation to have another time… it might have something to do with the scene you mentioned, maybe… 

As for me…well, if I can’t choose Helen, then I’d choose Jennifer, I think. I love how useless she is! She doesn’t even notice that her Italian crooner husband has a mental age of ten! She falls into a lesbian relationship because she quite likes skiing and getting stroked! She plumps up her breasts each night with cocoa butter and goes about in a haze of self-worshipping stupefaction! And she winds up in mucky French arthouse movies cause she can’t think of anything better to do! And then she winds up committing suicide because of something her STUPID second husband says at her near-deathbed – and Jacqueline Susann thinks we should worship her perfection. Amazing! 

I was surprised how moving, and slightly depressing, Jennifers story was. This to me was almost the heart story of the story if that makes sense…

Oh, I just answered that above. I thought she was a bit of a dope, but I was fond of her. Why do you think it’s her at the heart of the book? Because she pays the highest price for their lavish and extravagant lifestyles?

In part it is that, it’s the bit of the book that sort of hit me the most. I think it also felt like Susann was the most passionate about this part of the book. It read differently to the rest of the novel for me, well her third person narrative did. I think… In it’s day this novel was a sensation in part because it shocked so much, do you think it has dated? Did you think any of it was shocking still?

I believe it was the lesbianism and the oral sex that were eyebrow-raising back in the day. Also, the exposing of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. All of that is old hat to us now. What seemed shocking to me now was how the women’s dependence upon men and marriage is completely taken for granted. These are successful, independent women and they’re still desperate for a bloke to pop the question. To me, though, the most shocking thing is the casual homophobia. There’s all this derisory, dismissive talk of ‘fags’ as lesser beings, necessary but barely tolerated in this world of showbiz. It’s outrageously shocking to modern sensibilities. Were you surprised by it, or is it just something where you think – it’s part of the way the book has dated? Or do you think it still rings true?

I didn’t think anything of the ‘fag’ stuff, I might have slightly arched an eyebrow at it, but that was just the time of the novel. I agree with you totally on the whole ‘need a man theme’ I couldn’t believe all these women, well apart from Anne, thought all they needed was to be a wife and life would be ok. In that aspect, and a few others I do think this novel is so much more than just a trashy shocker isn’t it…

I’m not sure it is, on this reading!

Really I am surprised, whilst I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to do, it’s no ‘Peyton Place’ in my mind – which is true genius and is in part a trashy shocker and also a wonderful tale about a time in America’s past and the history of women and their rights (and gossip) at the time. This didn’t quite hit the nail on the head for me, but I did think it had weight.

It’s not wittily or cleverly constructed…

Oh some of it did make me laugh a lot, occasionally for the wrong reasons…

It reiterates the prejudices and mores of the society is depicts – there’s no clever, ironic critique going on. The characters are all clearly types. It doesn’t step outside the genre, create an ironic counterpoint to it, or exceed its bounds in anyway. It’s stodgy and overlong and points out the bleeding obvious. BUT… it also feels like the invention of a genre. It’s the genesis of what would, by the 80s, be called a bonkbuster. With a glitzy spot-laminate paperback cover, an ensemble cast of deeply-flawed sexy monsters brimming with ambition, revenge, etc etc.

I would agree about the stodgy aspect of the books, it needed to be about 100 pages shorter I thought. Initially I wanted to give Susann the benefit of the doubt when Anne just went on and on at the start, I thought it was building to ‘the fall’ and it was but not really enough to warrant that never ending opening narration. I don’t think I ever liked Anne. You can see how it’s influenced novelists of today can’t you, I am not just thinking of Jackie Collins etc…

And it becomes Dynasty and Dallas on TV. I think Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives’ is maybe the ultimate expression of the type. Or, if you’re looking for the innocent entering the big city, commerce and the sexual economy and eventually winning through – Barbra Taylor Bradford and ‘A Woman of Substance.’ Or even Shirley Conran’s wonderfully stupid ‘Lace’ (‘Which of you three bitches is my mother?’) As time moves on it becomes less about our heroine ‘finding herself’ as it as about becoming a brilliant business woman.

As the novel goes on there is a sense of impending doom throughout, well there was for me anyway, did this make you want to read on, as it did me, waiting for awful things to happen or were you worried for our femme fatales? 

Yes – terrible sense of doom. Any novelist worth their salt puts their characters through the wringer. But in the glitzy bonkbuster there is even more impetus to create victims. My favourite doom-sequence in Valley of the Dolls is Neely getting shoved in the nuthouse by Anne. I love the fact that she gets fat and gets out and becomes a huge star again, stealing Lyon from under Anne’s prim nose. I wish we’d seen more of Neely reveling in her revenge. Maybe it’s too early in the genre to make one of the lead characters an out-and-out villainess?

I would have liked ‘nuclear’ Neely, I kept thinking that. There was a bit too much simmering and being a bit cross and not enough utter villainy.

I wonder if ‘Vanity Fair’ is the true beginning of this genre? Or even ‘Moll Flanders’? Or ‘Fanny Hill’? Or the ‘Wife of Bath’?  Has the scandalously enjoyable fuck-book always been with us, do you think?

Hahaha, I think they should have that as a new genre in the bookshops, can you imagine? I think maybe Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ or ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon could have been the start of it actually. They were the true shocking ‘sensation’ novels filled with murder, incest and all sorts of shenanigans.

So – thanks for coming round, Simon. Will you read any more Jacqueline Susann, do you think? ‘The Love Machine’ is a wonderful saga about the world of US TV in the 60s. Then there’s the book about her poodle and one about Jackie O, or there’s her crazy science fiction novel…

Thanks for having us all round Paul. I might give Susann another go, I expected to run after another of her novels, well maybe walk swiftly, after reading ‘Valley of the Dolls’ but I wasn’t quite as hooked, gripped or even scandalized as I had hoped. Right let’s hand over to everyone else who has popped by. I only hope we have enough pink fizz…

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Filed under Jacqueline Susann, Paul Magrs, Reading With Authors 2011

Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

There was quite a lot of furore when the Man Booker longlist came out wasn’t there? First up there was all the titles we hadn’t heard of, then there was the fact the big names were missing, and then there was debate over which titles should definitely not be on the list. ‘Pigeon English’, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman, seemed to be the novel that became the particular scapegoat in all this and so, along with the fact it was one of my ‘Reading With Authors’ choices with Naomi Wood, it became the one I most wanted to read first in part to see what all the fuss was about.

Bloomsbury, Fiction, 2011, 263 pages, sent by publishers

There is an underlying issue with ‘reviewing’ a novel like ‘Pigeon English’ and daring to critique it. It almost makes you wonder should you dare to because the subject matter is a delicate one, in the main it seems that Stephen Kelman took the story of school boy Damiloa Taylor’s death and wrote a fictional response about/to it. ‘Pigeon English is told by eleven year old Harrison Opuku, a young man who is also an immigrant from Ghana now living on one of the tower block council estates in London. This is an area of street gangs, poverty and violence; in fact the novel opens with the death of a school boy who Harrison sort of knew.  

“Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy. I could bring him alive in that way. It happened before, where I used to live there was a chief who brought his son back like that. It was a long time ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t work this time.”

Writing in a child’s narrative has become something of trend in modern contemporary writing, long before ‘Room’ we had ‘What Was Lost’ (and indeed the theme of child detective comes up in this book as Harrison and his best friend decide to hunt the killer), it is also a hard act to balance when on a tough subject. Can you hold the reader’s belief? Does the narrative ring true? Does the simplicity of the voice dilute the events that are happening? Sadly, for me at least, whilst I loved Harrison’s view on life, which often made me laugh out loud, it took away the impact of the novel. When you are spending time in the company of this lively witty young man you are also left missing a lot. I never felt I got to know any of the other characters deeply, the other school kids like X-Fire (pronounced Cross Fire) or Killa became almost like cartoon caricatures, his sister and mother has no real back story other than one being the matriarch and the other a bit of a pain. I also felt like there was a whole back story in Ghana I simply didn’t know enough about. Oh and I haven’t even started on the talking pigeon, something I didn’t think was needed or added anything other than making me a bit cross.

I’m aware this sounds harsh, and indeed there are many things that make this book highly readable. Harrison’s voice rings true and is a delight, it’s a novel very much ‘of the time’ and I it was highly readable – almost too readable for its topic. I wanted Stephen Kelman to give me more though, I wanted the wonderful ‘council estate whodunit’ thread to be more of a story rather than a game/accidental thread/plot device, I wanted to know much more about his mother and what was going on with Ghana. There was a certain vagueness, or maybe it was simply too closed in a horizon which children can have, for me and that turned what could have been a fantastic book into a good one but one that didn’t pack any emotional punch for me. If you have read this book then you will know it should have hit home harder all the way through but especially at the ending.

“You could see lighter burns on Miquita’s hands all shiny like wax. They weren’t even for a good reason like Auntie Sonia’s burns, they were just a trick. Killa only made them so Miquita would admire him. I even felt sorry for him then. I didn’t even have to burn Poppy to make her admire me, I only had to make her laugh. Somebody should tell him, laughing is the best way to make them admire you. It’s even easier than burning.”

All that said I would recommend ‘Pigeon English’ but maybe not so much for the adult market, and here I think Bloomsbury have missed a bit of a trick. This is a book with a wonderful child’s voice that should be being pushed into schools and aimed at a young adult market. In that setting, and with that audience, I honestly think this book would have an incredible impact. I would also recommend this as a good ‘book group’ novel, it’s a great one for discussion. Not just for its subject matter, but also for the joys and pitfalls of the child narrator in fiction.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? I feel a bit like I am being ‘bah-humbug’ about it, but I did enjoy reading it, and whenever I did pick it up I certainly read it quickly. I just felt something was missing amongst all the signs of promise. I will certainly read Stephen Kelman’s next novel. You can see a discussion between Naomi Wood and myself about ‘Pigeon English’ here, be warned there was almost a fig roll fight so watch for any low flying biscuits.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Man Booker, Review, Stephen Kelman

Reading With Authors #1: The Man Who Fell To Earth – Walter Tevis; With Belinda Bauer

Welcome to the first ‘Reading With Authors 2011′ I have popped the kettle on, there’s a mountain of biscuits for everyone to help themselves too, now all we need is out guest co-host for todays events. Oh hang on, I think she’s at the door, there goes the doorbell.

  

Firstly Belinda, though do make yourself comfy on the sofa with that cup of tea, I want to say thank you so much for choosing this book and making me read it. I have to admit the fact that I don’t tend to gravitate towards sci-fi, I don’t think I would have read this – especially with ‘aliens’ being highly present. I am so glad that I did. What made you choose this book for our little book club?

Hi Simon, lovely tea and biscuits! I chose The Man Who Fell To Earth because I loved the film directed by Nic Roeg, which I first saw in about 1980. I really like sci-fi, but particularly the earth-bound near-future kind, so this fitted the bill. Actually I’ve been meaning to read the book for ages, so thanks for the opportunity!

So I guess the first thing we have to say is did you like it, I think it’s rather obvious that I clearly did, what were your thoughts after the final page?

Well I did like it, but ultimately I was left feeling slightly disappointed. I felt that Nic Roeg had captured everything that was amazing about the book, and left out everything that was weak about it, which to me makes the film the better representation of the story. I’d be interested to know how you felt as you finished the book. Also whether there were aspects of it that irritated you or did not ring true…

Well, looking back on it there were several aspects of the book that didn’t quite ring true with me. I mean, the whole alien humanoid coming to earth for one, I don’t really believe in aliens. However what amazed me was how Tevis made me believe. I honestly could imagine there were possibly these humanoid’s walking amongst us and the spell never broke for me. I was thinking about this book all the time. Initially I have to say that I wasn’t sure I was going to like Thomas Jerome Newton, the humanoid of the title, very much. I couldn’t work out his intentions, especially in the way he cashed in on the technology that he had. I felt I couldn’t trust his motives initially, did you feel the same?

I tried not to think about the film as I read the book, so that I would come to it fresh, and I agree that Tevis builds quite a nice bit of tension in his depiction of Newton. I definitely felt as though his extreme frailty might be a red herring and that he would suddenly turn out to be some kind of superman/demon. But I like the fact that that did not happen.

This of course completely changed. I don’t think I have ever read a book which seems to capture an utter loneliness and the sense of being, by all appearances, part of society and yet is a complete outsider. It really pulled at my heart strings and was truly, erm, alienating (forgive the pun). I did wonder if this was a device that Tevis had used on purpose, it evokes sympathy don’t you think?

I totally agree. I feel that it’s the book’s greatest strength – this sense of the sheer heartbreaking REALITY of this alien far from home, missing his family, on a doomed mission. It’s so at odds with most depictions of alien life, and I think that’s why the book still has a following now. It definitely evokes sympathy, because I found I was very quickly on Newton’s side, and rooting for him to succeed.

There were genuinely so many things I loved about this book, one had to be the unrequited love between Betty Jo (who I adored) and Thomas, it just seemed so touching and also we all know about being in love with someone who doesn’t love us back don’t we? Did you think Thomas took advantage of Betty Jo’s feelings or did you think he simply didn’t understand it?

I like to think he simply didn’t understand it, because he treats her a bit like a pet. Or possibly that he was being faithful to his wife, even though there was a good chance that she could be dead. Mind you, I think it’s quite interesting that Tevis paints Betty Jo as a rather blowsy drunk…

I think that’s why I loved her…

…rather than someone a hero would conventionally fall in love with. Do you think her feelings would have been reciprocated if she had been a beautiful young virgin, or a drop-dead gorgeous siren? Maybe Betty Jo –who is indeed a marvellous creation as an alien mouthpiece – is more a symptom of the way women were viewed in the late 50s/early 60s when Tevis wrote the book? A reader of the time might understand exactly why Newton does not reciprocate!

I have to admit that I did get very upset; I am wondering if you can guess where this was…

Well I was obviously devastated by the disastrous experiment performed on Newton at the end of the book, which is just so cruel and ignorant. But both in the book and in the film, my most uncomfortable moments were watching Newton descend into alcoholism and lose focus on his mission. I think it is a gut-wrenching depiction of the slow slide into addiction. How about you?

I have to admit, his first dealings and introduction to alcohol I found quite comic. I wondered if Tevis was making a point by making what was initially comic spiral out of control in such a dark way. Weirdly though this book is never melodramatic is it? I found the prose was quite to the point, I am not saying it wasn’t wonderfully written as it was, but there is a certain distance and coldness which forces the reader to put emotions into the actions towards Thomas and in a way how alien his outlook on the world is. Did you find this the case?

Yes, I think Tevis has the perfect prose style for this book. There is certainly a sense of alienation and distance, which is a wonderful mirror of his protagonist. I’d be interested to know whether it was deliberate on his part, or whether this was simply his usual style and the story played to his strength.

The book was first published in 1963; did you think it has aged well over time?

I think the basic story is still very resonant now because it concentrates on very human emotions and vulnerability. However, the detail in the book is what makes it feel outdated. What the film did which the book does not, is carefully avoid any direct reference to exactly what these amazing technologies are that Newton has brought to Earth with him. That means that the film stands the test of time better than the book, which seems set very squarely in the 60s, or even in the 50s in that Cold War paranoia that prevailed about aliens and flying saucers. Some of the technologies described, like the little steel balls for playing music, have a certain prescience about them but much of Newton’s empire was built on rapid development of 35mm photographic film, which of course now seems almost laughably quaint. This is always the danger with reading classic sci-fi, I realize, but it does interrupt the flow of the narrative, and interfere with the suspension of disbelief. I guess that sci-fi writers hope that if their ideas become dated, it will be because they are so close to what really comes to pass.

The whole way through I felt that all the nuclear wars and the carnage that Thomas leaves behind on Anthea (what a name for a planet, it made me think of Anthea Turner) was a warning to what could happen on earth as technology evolves. Would you agree that Tevis was making his position clear on his concerns for the future of the world?

Yes, I think that can hardly be in doubt. Newton indicates as much to Bryce. In this respect, Tevis was certainly shrewd, if not visionary. Even the extent of the terrible drought which is killing Newton’s planet seems like a precursor of climate change. I believe Tevis taught English at a university in Athens, Ohio, so I guess that had some bearing on the name he chose for the planet!

Would you read another of Tevis’s novels?

I would, would you? I like his cool, succinct style and I’m quite intrigued that he wrote The Hustler, which is about bar-room pool players and was also filmed. But his book Mockingbird sounds great – a future where robots rule over illiterate, drug addicted people. I think I’ve lived there… Thanks for the inspired idea Simon (not to mention the McVities digestives!). I’m embarrassed to say that this is the only novel I’ve read in the past two years because I’ve been so busy writing. It was really good to read something that wasn’t about crime and death! I hope your readers enjoy the rest of your series of chats.

No thank you Belinda, it was so nice of you to pop by. I am also thrilled you chose this book; I honestly wouldn’t have read it and now am keen to read much more, the robots ruling book sounds good… I’m not so sure about the bar-room pool players I have to say. Right let’s see what the other readers have to say… come one everyone have a seat, grab a biscuit and tell us what you thought.

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Filed under Belinda Bauer, Book Thoughts, Reading With Authors 2011, Walter Tevis

Simon’s Bookish Bits #30

I thought whilst I am busy with ‘The Book Cull of the End of Reading Days’ today and various meetings with Waterstones and my co-host Adam for Mondays delights I would bring back my bookish bits (they haven’t been seen since January so needed a bit of dusting off and airing) which have as of today hit the big 3-0! So here are some links and the like that I have loved of late…

  • First up, which is probably old news but was new news to me, the Guardian’s First Book Award has caused some kerfuffle by sharing its submissions. I can’t decide if I like the idea, we have been debating it for The Green Carnation Prize (which extended its deadlines this week due to so many submissions), or not to be honest. I do like the fact you can vote for a title not on the list though, so maybe it’s a good thing? What do you think?
  • Speaking of awards (and indeed the Guardian again) what has become one of my favourite events of the year, the Not the Booker Prize, opened this week. You can vote for one title to be put forward (as long as it is eligible of course). I have cast my vote, which was for the wonderful ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall – I know I haven’t shut up about it, but its that good – let me know if you vote, there has already been some, erm, disharmony and mass voting. Ha.
  • Speaking of disharmony that leads me to a little plea for people to come and join the Man Booker Forum. I don’t know how many of you are currently reading the longlist but you are a lovely lot and it would be nice to see some friendly faces, even if you are behind a nickname, on their as its all got a bit tetchy on there… I might have got a bit grumpy about it and said my piece.
  • The lovely Kimbofo has done a brilliant list of other literary links that you should have a look at. She has also had my bestest friend in the world, since the age of three, and book blogger Polly of Novel Insights on her Triple Choice Tuesday this week so do look at that too.
  • Remember tomorrow is the first in the ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ series. Belinda Bauer and I are ready to be live on the virtual sofa all day with tea and biscuits tomorrow so do pop by for a discussion on ‘The Man Who Fell From Earth’ by Walter Tevis.
  • Finally a reminder that on Monday in the heart of Manchester there is a new literary salon called Bookmarked starting. You might know one of the hosts, in fact their was an interview with him over on Nick Campbell’s A Pile of Leaves blog. This month is ‘Debut Night’ and will see Sarah Winman and SJ Watson on a very real sofa at Waterstones Deansgate AND you could win a chance to meet them for a private chat, and a glass of wine, before hand. I so hope to see some of you there.

Right off to cull books, good weekends ahead all of you, any plans or any special reading ahead?

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Filed under Simon's Bookish Bits

Reading With Authors 2011

Back in February (I am surprised it was this long ago) I mentioned the fact that after having loved doing the Not The TV Book Group I fancied doing it again, sadly the other hosts weren’t sure what they could commit to this year, so I was mulling the idea of doing something similar and different over the ‘early summer months’. Well its not the early part of summer, but summer it still is, and finally (and possibly a little last minute – but you guys are great at rallying round) I can reveal my plans for ‘Reading With Authors’ which is going to be taking place during the Sundays of August and September 2011., and something which I am hoping you will be able to join in the whole lot of or on and off…

Why has it taken so long? Well, there’s been all of the Bookmarked (only 8 days to go… eek) and Green Carnation Prize madness whirling in the background and also the authors taking part are busy bee’s and so choosing titles together and dates that they are free has been a tricky process, but now it is done and here are the books we would love you to read along with us and when…

(thanks to Gav Reads for the image)

  • Sunday 7th of August 2011: The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis with Belinda Bauer
  • Sunday 14th of August 2011: Pigeon English by Steven Kelman with Naomi Wood
  • Sunday 21st of August 2011: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann with Paul Magrs
  • Sunday 28th of August 2011: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively with Natasha Solomons
  • Sunday 4th of September: Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni with Beatrice Colin
  • Sunday 18th of September 2011: Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor with Isabel Ashdown

There are two more authors and their choices of books to announce in the next week, but I wanted to get the information out there sooner rather than later as the first one, with the lovely crime writing Belinda Bauer, is only a week a way! If you are thinking ‘only a week, that’s no time’ well I had that slight panic too. However Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is only 186 pages and it’s stunning! I have a feeling that, as with ‘Flowers For Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes, this is a sci-fi book that is about to make me rather emotional and cry quite a lot. Who knew?

The idea behind all this is that it brings books, authors and readers together in a new way. The weekly author and I will have discussed the book, that will go up on the blog, and then we hope those of you who have read it too (pretty please) will come by comment and myself and the author will add comments creating a great discussion.

I am hoping that all the other books are going to be as good as the first promises to be. Some of them, as you can see from the list, are quite recent, some might have been chosen for the Man Booker (Naomi and myself chose ‘Pigeon English’ a while ago, neither of us having read it at the time, and were patting ourselves on the backs on Tuesday) some are cult classics and some are ones that have gone under the radar. All of them are books that the author and I were eager to read… do we all like our choices? You will have to wait and see! What do you think of the list so far?

I do hope you will be joining in!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Reading With Authors 2011