Monday, 6 October 2014
Saturday, 4 October 2014
I've now left the Big Brother hou...I mean first Clore residential at Bore Place and am now stopping off at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where we are running an event with Will Self on the changing landscapes of digital reading and writing.
So, from a chandelier lit, cream leather sofa strewn, celebrity packed Writers Tent (Caitlin Moran is being interviewed at the next sofa, Michael Rosen is taking New York with The Fonz, and Malorie Blackman just walked in!) here are the latest reflections for the week.
1: On body language. Picture the scene: im full of cold, languishing in a comfy chair and trying not to slip into a fever induced snooze, when Wayne MacGregor - dancer, choreographer - starts his talk by commenting how quickly he judges people based on the way they inhabit their bodies. Needless to say I sat a little straighter. And couldn't help admire the fluidity of Wayne's body language, and his ear if presence. I'm now wondering whether some of my training budget might be spent on a dance class or body language for leaders type class. Could be very interesting.
2: On the building blocks. We had a session on the history of cultural policy with Robert Hewison in which he took us on a whistle-stop journey through 250 years of cultural patronage and censorship by the state. Some of the key repeating features appeared to be a see sawing between instrumentalism and aestheticism, between national and local, and between bottom-up and top-down. Interestingly in 1940 a precursor to the Arts Council was formed, the Council of the Encouragement of Music and Arts was all about encouraging people to make art, but was replaced postwar by the Arts Council of Great Britain, a Bloomsbury set organisation that believed in standards and wished to propagate professional, exceptional art. And very interesting 6 years that seems to me significant to a lot of the major debates still taking place. History holds us on the palm of its hand, whether we realise it or not. (not only was this session hugely informative, it reminded me how much I enjoy a lecture, some facts on which to build perspective, and the stories of history.)
3: On freedom. A session on start ups provided an insight into some different ways working and encourages us all to think outside the funded art subsidies. More than anything else though I was struck by the huge beaming smile on the face of Tilly a she spoke about being so happy to be working for herself. I saw it and I wanted it for myself.
4: A provocation for us all. What are the responsibilities of being a Clore Fellow? Are we comfortable with being considered 'experts'? And how can we ensure the world - not just the art world! - benefits from the investment that had been made into us?
5: On great leadership in action. Michael Day of Historic Royal Palaces took is through 10 years in the transformation of the organisation and having visited some of the places (Hampton Court and Tower of London particularly) over recent years this was a fascinating insight into the inside of the story. His 8 points towards great leadership gave a glimpse of rigorous, principled, responsible leadership, and I was particularly struck by his assertion that we have more choice than we often realise. That we can choose what we do to further our ambitions and that there is often a choice. Even spending a morning emailing is a choice we take. I might just try to remember this and try to take a couple of half days per week away from emails.
6: On companionship. Look at us! Aren't we an attractive bunch!
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
I'm already hopelessly behind on my Clore Fellowship blogging, and the almost total lack of mobile coverage here in the wilds of Kent can only be blamed for so much. Fortunately, the input here is so incessant that I have a notebook of thoughts to distill and share. And so here are some quick thoughts from the middle weekend of this residential. (and geek alert, they also had his Nobel Prize for Literature there: major excitement!)
1: On artistic practice. A visit to Chartwell (the home of Winston Churchill) was a fascinating counterpart to all the talk of leadership that has been going on here. Of course Churchill's oratory prowess and clarity of mind are impressive and inspirational factors in themselves. But I was also intrigued by how painting was central to his life, provided time and space to gain energy from everything else that was going on, and as a sandbox in which to play and to try out. There was a great quote I photographed (naughty naughty, there should have been no photography in the house!) which I attach below.
2: On working smarter, not harder. And in sacrifice and commitment. Ariane Koek spoke about the artistic programme she set up at the Cern large hadron collider. Amazing project with unbelievable outcomes. And Ariane is one of the most driven people I've met. But I was struck by her admittance that to do it, she worked 20 hour days for 2 years and neatly totally burned out. In the words of Ije Nawokorie from Wolff Olins last week, she was the 'doer in chief.' The person who made great things happen. But it reiterated to me how sensible and appealing it is to me to look at how you create a leadership culture in an organisation so that your hard work is sustainable. There is always going to be a question of volume and speed as being useful in their own right, but for me quality and sustainability are more important.
3: On quiet attention. One of the most interesting aspects of the first week here was at dinner each night where our facilitator Fearghus O'Conchuir would have a conversation, almost always 1 on 1, in depth, and that the person her was speaking to would look like they were having just the most amazing conversation. All the while, with people to meet and thoughts to think, I was getting caught up in wanting to talk to everyone and not miss anything. But I realised the great power there is in quiet conversations in a corner with one person. In giving complete attention and talking openly. I want to be better at this.
4: On group dynamics. One of the best things about Megan (my wife) is her endless championing of the quiet. Of the cake of observing the knock on effect of how we behave, not just in the obvious ways people respond but in what it does to them. We had a session in which there was lots of tearful, open sharing of thoughts and emotions. It was a wonderfully open and human outpouring of feeling. But alongside sharing and responding to the people who were bearing all, I was also looking around the room at the people who weren't saying anything, and I saw some closing off as well. Of course this is natural, but only by being aware to look for it was it visible. I'm not generally very good at this, but awareness in all directions is something that I want to be better at. And watching groups form and develop is always interesting to me.
There is lots more, too. There was an interesting discussion on how we analyse success and what excellence might look like for the arts and culture. It raised questions of production, consumption, and who gets to judge quality in art. These are all things I think about a lot and will return to in a number of reflections in the next blog on week 2.
In 48 hours I'll be back in the real world! Eek!
Thursday, 25 September 2014
Here in Kent the sun is still shining, there is a cat that remains timid of me, and the food is too plentiful and too delicious to refuse. Hence a definite bloated feeling. But rest assured, I've sent out for Coca Cola and the caffeine is eagerly awaited!
In our learning, it has been an intense couple of days. Lots of supported learning and mutual appreciation. The group growing together rapidly, and an evening in front of the fire. Now we're watching The Great British Bake Off and relaxing (and in typical fashion, I'm typing on my phone as the TV plays!). So, here are some brief lessons from days 2 and 3 of the course.
1: A unified framework for my philosophies. Ije Mwokorie of Wolff Olins talked about the culture of coaching he has fostered in the organisation. His thoughts on how the failings of organisations are often the failing of creating a leadership culture for all struck a chord with me. The way we can manage change and recode systems felt aspirational and something I want to be part of. I increasingly feel driven to be part of an organisation that has a philosophy for how it operates, as well as what it does.
2: A challenge. Fearghus O'Conchuir spoke of the role of the artist as a leader. He presented the idea of Fleadership, the nimble, irritating leadership of those who have nothing to answer for but their art.
3: An inspiration. Fergus O'Cunchuir and Marcus Davey on the importance of bringing artistic excellence and community involvement together.
4: The challenges of communicating the value of the arts to ourselves and wider societies. The importance of advocacy, the danger of Instrumentalism - seeing the value of arts only in the benefits it offers to the economy and society - and the many versions of value we have. To seek compromise, or to focus on diversity and multiplicity. And around this session, a realisation that how you say something is as important and what you say. If the arts wants to advocate for itself effextively and genuinely, it needs to find a way to express something of value to politicians and those not interested in the arts, but do so through a medium that celebrates the creativity and communication at the heart of the arts.
5: A warning. A reminder from Vikki Heywood to be selective about opportunities and not be flattered into leadership. She was excellent, full of sound bites of wisdom and exuding a real genuine-ness demonstrated in how she spoke rather than what she said.
6: On Authenticity. Realising that there are tau sides to the authenticity in me. Those skills I have that are innate (and which I may not value in myself as much as I should) and those that are conscious and worked at (which I might value too highly). The challenge for me is giving space for these two sides of my skills to shine, and recognising that for those I lead it doesn't matter where something comes from, but what it enables for them.
Tuesday, 23 September 2014
It is a beautiful misty cool morning here at Bore Place and I've been reflecting on yesterday's learning. To start with, I have 4 reflections.
1: An interesting reminder. Sue Hoyle (Director of Clore) spoke of leadership from the side, and leadership that makes things happen rather than leadership that places you at the centre. It reminded me of a leadership video that has been inspirational to me. The First Follower is a study in making things happen and is a model of leadership I admire and strive for. http://youtu.be/fW8amMCVAJQ
2: A direction for research. Marcus Davey (Director of The Roundhouse and former Artistic Director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival) spoke about his key inspirational being how to build a truly civic - ie useful to people and communities - organisation. I'm currently (finally) reading a book called The Gift Relationship, which is a study of ultruism as sec through the blood donation service in the UK and the US. I'm drawn to how the arts can impact, nurture and bring about better societies and think this may well be a direction I seek to explore through further study.
3 - A challenge. For me personally. How do I reconcile the practice of arts creation with the administration side. Can I be a leader without being a creator? Or are there other sides of creation that I need to build info my perception of the leader I want to be?
4 - Action. Sitting listening to Marcus Davey I started to think about expressing my values. Also started to jot down the start of some thoughts on what my core beliefs/values/thoughts are.
So some first day thoughts. And now for some self indulgent pictures of the site here.
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
I also want to say thankyou. Through this exemplary democratic exercise you have challenged the Westminster elites and placed liberal politics firmly on the agenda. Whatever the outcome, this is a victory.
There's a quote on the outside of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. It reads: 'work as if you live in the early days of a better nation' and is attributed to Alasdair Gray. I hope you get to find out what this is like. #indyref #YesScotland
Tuesday, 5 August 2014
This week, one year ago, I was in Cheshire attending a Clore Emerging Leaders course. A year on, I still feel immensely privileged to have attended that week-long residential programme, and am struggling to cram all the ways the course impacted on me professionally and personally into such a short piece.
That week has acquired an almost surreal quality in my memory: ensconced in a hotel with 20 other amazingly creative, articulate, generous, and fun people, cut off from the outside world, and ending with a 3am walk in the freezing cold as a snowstorm began to whip itself up. Clore felt like a cocoon in which I grew wings and emerged believing that I could fly.
But enough of the extended metaphors. Clore provided a space for reflection and learning, for trying new ideas and ways of behaving, for focussing on myself and understanding my skills and abilities and what I needed to work at. It opened my eyes and ears to the wider world of the arts and culture and enabled me to gain a broader picture of how other people work, what drives them, and what success has been like for them.
It was the people I met that have had the biggest impact on me. A spirit of camaraderie and shared trust existed throughout, and extended beyond the group itself to our fantastic convenors and the people who came in to talk to us, too. I was fortunate, too: in the very first session I met someone who I realised was challenging in just the way I needed. Someone who asked difficult questions and listened harder to my answers than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve been lucky to have been able to continue to collaborate in a mutual mentoring type of way ever since. We have hesitantly enabled each other to explore creative ideas to the stage where they increasingly feel ready to become a reality.
I’ve also benefitted from mentorship from a Clore Fellow who, despite my hesitation and propensity to change my mind, has been patient and pushed me and helped me believe that I have a good idea that could work.
I am afraid I have become a bit of an evangelist for the Clore Emerging Leaders course. I loved my experience and, quite simply, I wouldn’t be in the position I am without it.
Monday, 4 November 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest review by Julia Webb
Raptors is the work of Dutch author Toon Tellegen. Tellegen is one of Holland’s most well-loved authors and has written a series of award winning children’s novels, as well as adult fiction, plays, and over twenty collections of poetry, although Raptors is only the second collection that has been translated into English. Until recently he was also a GP.
I read this book earlier this year after it was recommended to me by a friend who had heard the translator read from it at Poetry-next-the-sea festival in Wells. I knew I would love it as soon as I read the author’s preface – it is without doubt one of the best prefaces that I have ever read. It begins:
'Years ago I invented someone whom I called my father.
It was morning, very early, I couldn’t sleep any more, I remember it quite clearly.
My father didn’t seem surprised at having suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, in his turn, invented my mother, my brothers and myself. He even, that very same morning, invented the life we should lead…'
With an opening like that I knew I was in for something unusual and special and I was not disappointed.
Raptors is one long poem made up of a sequence of poems, each of which can also stand alone. Each poem begins with the words “my father" and each poem also starts off with a statement – like a small proverb, about the father, often using common sayings from popular culture: e.g. “My father did not let sleeping dogs lie…” Each poem is like a miniature portrait or a small scene in which the father is the pivotal character. It quickly becomes clear that this fictional father is a tyrant, but that he is also a complex and multi-faceted character. Individually the poems might be short but each has many layers, and as a whole they build into a kind of verbal crescendo. I found I needed to read just a few of them at a time, and then digest them for a little while before coming back for more.
Tellegen is a master of language and plays with the reader in a very clever way. The poems work on our psyche on many levels. Tellegen uses the idea of the family as a framework and constructs and deconstructs it. He tells us stories, and those stories often conflict with one another. In effect each poem in the sequence is recreating the family stories of the narrator in the same way that we recreate stories of our own families in real life. Speak to ten members of any family and they will all have different memories and opinions of particular family events, or of family members − and who can say which, if any, version is true? Perhaps there is an element of truth and fiction in all of them. Or like with most families there might be different layers of truth. Tellegen uses this premise to take us on an exciting and surreal journey, and one that often left me, the reader, with conflicting emotions. Sometimes I detested the Father, but at other times I felt sorry for him. It certainly made me think a lot about family dynamics – and, coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family myself, I could definitely relate to some of it.
Tellegen has managed to make the language both emotionally loaded and playful, which is quite a feat to pull off. He also juxtaposes the everyday with the surreal to marvellous effect:
there was a gaping hole in him
in which my mother and my brothers
they sat at a table,
they laughed, played dice
and the hole in my father grew bigger
and shots were fired in my father,
and were arrested
a car stopped on the edge
of my father,
my mother and brothers got in…'
The playfulness and surrealism of the imagery put me a little in mind of poems in Homage to the Lame Wolf by Serbian poet Vasko Popa or the work of Charles Simic, but there is something almost Biblical about this collection too. This is also a very masterly translation. I imagine it would not have been an easy book to translate and Judith Wilkinson has done a great job. I found this book moving, disturbing and inspiring all at once. It was a joy to read and it reconnected me with my love for language. Reviewer George Messo said “It takes a book like this, seemingly hurled through the ether, to crack us on the head and wake us.” I couldn’t agree more − I imagine this is a book I will come back to again and again.
Raptors was first published in the UK by Carcanet in 2011. ISBN: 9781847770837; 96pp
Julia Webb is graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia. She is a poetry editor for Lighthouse literary journal, has had poetry and reviews published in journals and online, and in 2011 she won the Poetry Socity's Stanza competition. She lives in Norwich and teaches creative writing.
Friday, 25 October 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest review by Lara Narkiewicz
The Dinner describes an evening meal between two couples, bound together by the two men who are brothers. It initially seems like a dark tale of a brother’s resentment towards his sibling. But soon it becomes clear that the couples have not come together to discuss themselves, but instead to attempt to agree on how to deal with the fallout of a horrific act committed by their two sons.
I read this book a year ago and, at the time, felt that my enjoyment of the novel was overshadowed by my shock at the harrowing description of the actions of the two boys. Indeed, this isn’t a novel to be enjoyed, but one that asks difficult questions of the reader. How far would you go to protect your child, no matter what he or she had done? Would you betray your partner rather than your child? How well do you know those you feel closest to?
These are questions that have stayed with me every time that I have thought back to this story. They, and the quality of Koch’s humour (at times wholly dark), have rendered this tale as vivid in my memory as when I turned the last page. And it is very much a page turner. I felt compelled to find out what the boys had done and then exactly how their parents were to deal with it- or whether that was the real issue at hand.
Those who might compare The Dinner to We Need To Talk About Kevin are not highlighting the very different relationships between the characters. This is a novel that examines why people are compelled to do what they do, rather than Shriver’s examination of the nature versus nurture question.
This is not a story for the faint hearted but for those who persevere, there is plenty within these pages to consider and discuss. And despite it having been a best seller in the author’s native Netherlands, and its imminent development into a major film, I wouldn’t let this deter a more adventurous reader. It is a hugely rewarding novel.
The Dinner was first published in the UK by Atlantic Books in 2012. Edition shown is the paperback edition, published 2013. ISBN: 9781848873834; 311pp
As a young girl, my dream was to move into my local library or bookshop and live amongst all the books. Although this dream never came to fruition (much to my disappointment), I am in the very lucky position to work in the literature sector. I co-produce Summer Reads, Writers’ Centre Norwich’s reader development programme and love the winter months when readers help us to select the books to be promoted over the summer. With an undergraduate degree in languages, my passion lies in translated fiction and short stories. I know that my understanding of others and of the world around us has been helped immensely by my love of reading and I always try to read new books that will challenge me. This is what Summer Reads is all about- encouraging readers to try something new. I’m really proud to be a part of it.
Tuesday, 22 October 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest review by Sue Badger
This is a collection of poems and prose-poems set in 3 distinct parts, lyrical reflections on existence and connections: the minutia of memories of childhood (part 1), observations of the wider world in relation to self perception (part 2), and emerging sexuality (part 3).
The tone is set in the preface poem ‘This’, where the strident beauty of the thrush’s song is juxtaposed with the ‘common hell’ built by Man: “Whatever else there is, there’s this as well.” Existence, and the memory of past resonate through most of the poems: Maitreyabandhu, always modest and self-effacing, emphasises that while memories are imperfect or incomplete, it is the emotions evoked that are important. In Burial the strong recollections of his father unearthing skulls and bones are immediately tempered by “But that isn’t right, / .... I’ve mistaken/ my father’s story for the thing itself.” Both the pleasure and pain of childhood memories are explored in closely observed detail; occasionally in the observer’s 2nd person narrative, as in The Coat Cupboard, where the discovery of a keyring and grandma’s lipstick is far more profound than the emergence of a magical land such as Narnia; or the excellent prose-poetry of Copper Wire, where the evocative language describes a family outing to the seaside, and in which each parent and sibling discover delights personal to their desires: the mother a sunset, the father some buried copper wire... Suffering and embarrassment are recollected in Potato – a school child’s fear and humiliation, (sentiments alluded to over 200 years ago in William Blake’s ‘Songs of Experience’) : “Each little word got harder as the big word came along ...” culminating in the worst of punishments: “You’ll stand in front of class until you say it!” , or the cutting shame felt with the father expressing his disappointment in his son’s decision in Bottle Digging: “We drove in silence home.... And I’m still ashamed of what I did.”
In the 2nd part the poet explores the poignant acceptance of life’s existence in its simplest form, as in ‘Rangiatea’, (Maori for ‘the place out there’), but again recollection is obscured by confused memories: “He couldn’t decide if the island was real/ or just the interval between sleeping/ and waking, known only from the corner/ of your eye...”, and accepting that life cannot be measured by events that have occurred. Many of these central poems express an essentially Buddhist spirituality, as in ‘Letters on Cezanne’, where connections are observed, sometimes precise, sometimes obscure.
Particularly eloquent is the acutely observed relationship between him and Stephen in the final poems: emotional realisation is explored through gentle inference, where the need for secrecy and discretion is paramount and heightens awareness. An overwhelming sense of guilt pervades the poems, yet the yearning to connect – a look, a touch, a mutual recognition of urgency – drives the uncertain alliance on until Stephen’s early death lays realisation bare, and memories – always tempered by the ambivalence of truth and desire, are revealed to be as transient as Hansel’s crumb road.
The Crumb Road was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2013. ISBN: 9781852249748; 79pp
Sue Badger is a retired English teacher who has always enjoyed reading. She regards herself as a discriminatory (some may say intolerant) reader : with so many good authors out there, across the genres, why aim low?
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
As the MAN Booker Prize expands next year, there will only be more of this disappointment. And yet that strikes me as a brilliant thing. The Booker is all about celebrating great literature. While I don't agree with the idea that there is one 'winner' in literature, the Booker does an amazing job of getting people reading books they otherwise wouldn't try. The bigger the pool, the better the 'best' novels should be. I understand there are concerns about how the changes will make it more difficult for existing Commonwealth writers to win the prize. But as a reader, I just want the best books to discover.
Discover. That's what I've done this year. I'm not in a position to speak with authority on what should win having only read four of the six books but since when has lack of authority stopped anyone blogging online? From those I have read, I don't believe these are the six best eligible novels of 2013, but I do think they make an interesting collection. I'm looking forward to getting to NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names and Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on the four I have read.
Wow. I mean, wow. Eleanor Catton is one of the most lovely people I've met in literature. She spent a week at the Worlds gathering of writers in Norwich in 2012 and for much of the final day she went around seeing whether she could predict people's Zodiac signs simply by looking at them. She'd been researching for her new book, she said, and found it all fascinating. We played along, enjoying the times she got right at least as much as those she got wrong.
I find it amazing that all that time the book she was finishing was this one. The Luminaries is an amazing achievement that demonstrates a versatility of voice and ambition that is rarely seen in literature these days. I am only half-way through it so far, but what I've read is such a staggering feat of creative imagination that it rather blows me away. It is 1866 and a man arrives to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. He stumbles into a world of intrigue and mystery, a frontier community racked with corruption, jealousy, and petty squabbles. Structured around the movement of celestial bodies in the sky, The Luminaries is Victorian parody, a mystery novel told it pitch-perfect prose. Even at 800 dense pages, it is a rip-roaring read, full of intrigue and petty squabbles, history, and progress. That Eleanor is in her mid 20s shouldn't matter to judgement about the quality of her book. But that she has created a book so utterly different to her debut, The Rehearsal demonstrates just what a talent she is.
I'd love to see The Luminaries win. It's my tip and the one I'm supporting.
Is it too simplistic to suggest that Harvest is the longest retirement note of all time? Probably, but that was the feeling I came away with as I finished Harvest. Jim Crace has said that it will be his last book, and as it goes on Harvest becomes more and more about one man's last stand in the face of change.
It all starts of imperiously well. Crace's prose is slick and yet profound, the voice he conjures for his narrator reads beautifully. Walter Thirsk is an outsider who has found a home in a tiny isolated village, which is lived around collective subsistence farming. As the novel dawns we see two fires burning in the distance. The first, a group of newcomers raising smoke from a newly built dwelling, hints at threat from outside. The second, a larger fire in a barn of the manor house, seems to suggest that everything may not be well inside the village either.
Walter's narration is delivered in a mixture of first person singular and plural, an intermittent grand 'we' that represents the communality of the village, its interdependency, as well as his status on the fringes of it. And as change comes and land reform threatens to make this the last harvest of all, the plurality of the village becomes divided, the community swiftly atomised. The events are dramatic but it starts to seem a bit like creating a drama out of a crisis. And as the community breaks up, the prose loses its gentle elegance and the story dissipates.
I couldn't help being reminded of Julian Barnes's The Sense of An Ending, another sumptuously written novel whose plot gets rather lost as it progresses. Crace spends a considerable amount of time considering what it means to have something and then lose it, and what it means to leave something one has loved behind. I felt it became a little bit self-involved. It is such a shame, because there's no doubting that Harvest is a finely crafted novel. But I don't think it is a great novel. is it a great novel - I'm not sure it is.
Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those legions of writers that I've intended to read for a number of years, yet never found myself doing so. I'm delighted to have had this chance to read The Lowland which I thoroughly enjoyed. Lahiri's writing is assured and assuring; she is a writer for whom character is paramount, and tracing evolution of characters over time provides the narrative of the novel.
The Lowland follows the lives of two brothers from Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan. Inseparable as children, they grow apart as their different interests and beliefs take them in different directions. Lahiri tracks their lives, and the lives of those they are closest to, over 50 years of Indian, American and global history, seeing them excel and fail, all the time remaining surprising, passionate, believable characters in their own rights.
Perhaps one could criticise The Lowland as falling into a familiar trope in modern literature that sees characters escape drama in the 'Third World' to find safety and security in America. Its a recurring theme in recent literature and I find it overplayed and uncomfortable. There must be more to the immigrant experience to explore. However, Lahiri does it better than most and her writing is good enough that it doesn't impinge on the reading experience.
With the Marxist Naxalite movement at its heart, Lahiri cleverly manipulates the readers' response to the strong politics of the characters. Udayan is, for a long time portrayed as making a futile stand for something doomed to failure. But one of the brilliant things about this book is how the last chapter transforms much of what came before it. It's a great example of what novels do best: placing one inside the skin of another person and showing life through their experience. In finally seeing Udayan's motives, the reader quietly questions what came before, re-appraising in subtle ways much of what happens.
I loved The Lowlands and expect it to be a big hit with readers. It is epic and involving and character driven. I don't think it will win, and yet I do think it would be a great winner were it to do so.
I must be honest: I could not finish this book. It wasn't that it was bad at all, just rather dull. The concept is a great one: Ozeki is trying to write a book according to Buddhist (and Quantum Mechanic) principles of time and place. So we have two characters (particles) existing independently of each other in the same time but different places. The narrative moves back and forth between a Nao, teenage girl in Japan who is struggling with being bullied and turns to write a diary to fill her loneliness, and Ruth Ozeki, a woman who finds the girl's diary washed up on the shore of her rural Canadian home. Nao's narration is engaging, playful and full of interesting glimpses into her life. However, Ruth's is dull and plodding. As a view of writers block, it is effective, her frustrated, stuck, mindset bleeding into the reading experience.
Ultimately, I just couldn't break into this book. I would read 10 pages then fall asleep. I would make promises to get on with it and read more. But I would find myself not wanting to pick it up. And finally I just moved on.
A Tale For the Time Being didn't work for me.
There's little to get excited about. I read about half, and that took me 2 weeks. At which point, despite constantly deciding to finish it quickly and then falling asleep, I just gave up. I'm confused how this possibly made it to the Booker shortlist.
And there we have it! Six books. A real mixed bag of themes and locations and styles. Because of its ambition, scope, and sheer demonstration of writing prowess, I'd like to see Eleanor Catton take home the prize. But it doesn't really matter. It is a great book, and will be read and loved regardless. That is the thing about prizes: we talk about them all the time and they can change writer's lives. And yet, a great book rises regardless of victory and a weak winner doesn't last long in the memory. That is the way it should be.
Monday, 7 October 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest review by Judith Lal
At first, I was unsure about Archipelago. A few pages in there is a mundane description of a father preparing some instant macaroni cheese for his young daughter and I thought it was all a bit tedious. But then suddenly it picks up and takes you on an amazing sea-faring adventure. In the process, it explores modern day piracy, politics and race, sex and grief, climate change and environmental degradation, and our complex currant relationship with nature. We also see a wonderfully moving portrait of father daughter relationships, often lacking in literature lately. I loved the girl child Océan who has all the resilience, vulnerability and charm of a six-year-old, and the nice descriptions of her various facial expressions and moods really animated her character. The rhythm of the prose seems influenced by Trinidad and is like the sea itself. The repetitions and easy rhythm seem deceptively simple and quick to read. The only thing that did stand out was the rather over used cliché of the sea as metaphor for woman with malevolent siren powers, but this small thing I could overlook.
The novel reminds me of Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver which I also loved, both coming in the new genre of clim-fiction. But reading this may encourage readers to try Moby Dick which is referred to a lot and also Old man and the Sea. Lots to talk about with this book, there is one erotically charged scene that could make uncomfortable literal reading as a post-colonial metaphor, the subject being large white man visits beautiful and available black sex workers on the island, but the scene has more to do with human emotions of joy and grief than with commercial exchange. Having read Roffey's other work, With the Kisses of his Mouth, I feel comfortable that the scene that is not out of place in the narrative and the portrayal of hollowing grief afterwards puts it into context. I'm interested in the way the author researched the material by sailing herself around the islands, there seems to be a real sense of environmental concern for this fragile network of islands. Nature is wondrous and scary, appropriate that the story of evolution is connected to the Galapagos. Just as we are connected to paradise so we have a responsibility towards it. Paradise is not isolated, nor unaffected by us. A prefect and appropriate summer read that is not afraid to deal with big contemporary issues. Archipelago is a book I shall definitely remember reading in a couple of years time.
Archipelago was published in the UK by Simon and Schuster in 2012. Edition shown is the paperback edition, ISBN: 9780857203113, 358pp
Judith Lal works in the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium library. Her pamphlet Flageolets at the Bazaar was chosen as a poetry book society recommendation. Her poems have been published in various magazines including Poetry London, Poetry News, The Rialto, Ambit, Magma, Mslexia, The North, and Aesthetica. They have also been published in the Indian anthology The Harpercollins book of English poetry.
Thursday, 3 October 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest Review by Pearl Crossfield
Maggot Moon is a young adult novel that has the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. Sally Gardner dedicates her book to 'the dreamers / Overlooked at school / Never won prizes - you who will own tomorrow' and this pretty well sums up both the protagonist of the story and the plot line. Standish Treadwell is a teenager who appears to suffer from dyslexia, who 'can’t read / can’t write' and is bullied at school. For him the words on the blackboard are 'just circus horses dancing up and down', they mean nothing and he prefers his daydreaming life because it’s better than being 'worried sick' all the time. Yet Standish is clever, has imagination and courage and eventually achieves a great victory, albeit a bitter-sweet one.
The drawings scattered throughout the pages feature the life cycle of the fly and the death of a rat. The drawings are cartoon-like and offer a skillful way of holding a distracted children’s attention. The images tell a story of death and regeneration, a life cycle explored through decaying matter and the food chain. Sally Gardner and illustrator Julian Crouch cleverly draw a parallel with an infestation of maggots both in the natural world and in the society the characters are living in, and alludes to the title and the somber themes of the book.
Any reader no matter what age could appreciate this book on several different levels. It is imaginative, with a clever use of language, Standish may not be able to read and write but he has a broad vocabulary, saying 'I collect words - they are sweets in the mouth of sound'. He can use words in a humorous way too, when describing a teacher he says, 'Never would I have thought that the hard boiled Miss Philips had such a soft, sweet centre'. Despite the short, tight chapters (some only a paragraph), and the humour, it is not a light read at all. It is a fable, but a rather bleak and grim one. We never quite get a sense of the setting and I found myself wondering whether the characters were perhaps living in an alternative history, a kind of post World War Two totalitarian regime. There could also be historical parallels drawn here with the deception of the moon landing, since there have been conspiracy theories about moon landings, hoaxes supposedly staged by NASA. I’m sure that each reader will create their own idea of this world but you probably need to be older to appreciate the historical realism, and to see what Standish, as first person narrator, does not see at first, the gap between the appearance and the reality. The characterization is good, particularly Standish, and despite his oddness and the weirdness surrounding him he becomes a rounded, real person, a “crazy brave muddle” who we want to find freedom for himself and his friends and family.
This is an unusual book, a quick read but a thought provoking one.
Maggot Moon was published by Hot Key Books in 2013. Edition shown is paperback edition, ISBN 9781471400445, 279pp
Pearl Crossfield has recently retired after a career working for an Insurance Company and Local Government. She can’t remember a time when she did not enjoy reading and recently studied Literature part-time with the Open University. After all, there's little better than being able to discuss books with other like-minded people!
Friday, 13 September 2013
Occasionally, upon sitting down to write a review, I find myself trying to picture George Orwell in his 'cold and stuffy' bedsit writing reviews. And as I do so, I try to ask the question: 'What would Orwell think?'
I admire George Orwell for his capacity to strip away all veneer of style and get straight to the meaning of a book. He's a total utilitarian; if a book doesn't do something, or if it doesn't reflect a political view he is comfortable with, it is slaughtered. The clarity of his critical eye amazes me, even where I disagree with the execution of it. And by thinking of him, I try to engender greater critical assurance in my reviews.
Were Orwell alive today and asked to review More Than This, I fear his vicious pen would be scathing. For Ness comes perilously close to presenting without outrage a fictional world in which global collapse has resulted in humanity willingly swapping personal liberty for something safe and comatose. There is even a character known as the Driver whose job it appears to be to ruthlessly maintain the status quo against any challenge. To Orwell, writing in the 1930s and 40s, More Than This would have seemed startlingly reactionary.
And yet, in making this comparison I find myself realising how different modern society is to that which Orwell would have recognised. Reviewers of today will be likely to frame discussion about this book as another statement of Patrick Ness's implacable refusal to cow-tie to the supposed conventions of what young adult fiction can and can't be about. Ness is every bit as radical as Orwell, though as thinkers they are possibly as opposite as it is possible to be. If there is a central concern in Ness's literature it is that human beings are sympathetic, even when at their most horrible, and that an understanding of the world lies in understanding people, warts and all. Where Orwell lives in the black and the white, Ness is in all the shades of grey between. I admire Orwell for his certainty about the world, but I love Patrick Ness for his uncertainty.
More Than This begins with a teenage boy, Seth, dying in icy cold water, his drowning body smashed against the rocks. Yet he wakes up naked and exhausted in a dusty, abandoned world that appears to be the suburban English street he grew up on. Is this an afterllife? Is he in hell, forced to spend eternity on his own, with vivid agonizing memories of his life assaulting him whenever he shuts his eyes? Memories of the tragedy that drove his family across the Atlantic to America, memories of friendship, love, and betrayal, and all that led up to his death. As Seth explores his new world and tries to understand what is going on, we can't help wondering: what is going on?
More Than This is at its best when it is least dramatic. The plot begins being about life after death and turns into a science fiction distopia in which humanity has abandoned a dying planet to live in a networked virtual reality and yet doesn't ever quite get anywhere. But around this, we have a story about feeling trapped as a teenager and certain that there must be more than this to life yet not knowing where or how it will happen. There is a wonderfully touching, supportive loving relationship between Seth and his best friend Goodmund, that will see it challenged by homophobic people the world over, but which shows everything that young love should be. Ness is a writer with absolutely no time for thoughts about what young adults should and shouldn't be exposed to. If it exists, it is fair game is his approach, and I congratulate him for it.
More Than This doesn't grab me as intensely as his other books have. The distopia feels underdeveloped, the afterlife underwhelming. But the flashbacks are brilliant. I may like to try and imagine what George Orwell would think about a book, but I don't need to agree with him. Patrick Ness is a phenomenal writer. More Than This isn't a phenomenal book, but well worth reading nonetheless.
More Than This was published by Walker Books in September 2013. ISBN: 9781406331158
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest Review by Ann Browne
Fallen Land is probably the best novel I have read this year. It is set in the present, in the shadow of the global financial crisis, but there is a feeling of the not too distant future about the events. This allows the book to work both at the level of realism and of parable, a device which enables Flanery to present an extreme and powerful vision of a failing society.
The Fallen Land is America but it could be almost any developed society that is disintegrating or suffering economic, moral and social collapse. Its citizens have been cast out of what could have been a paradise. The American dream has become a nightmare. Built on the misery of others, the land and its people are rotting. This is a haunting and bleak picture of a society in which no one trusts anyone and where greed and fear have become its guiding principles.
Patrick Krovik, the character at the centre of the novel, is an almost archetypical tragic hero. He is a hard-working, self-made man, devoted to his family, determined to make a good and secure future for his children but with an obsessive, unthinking belief in the fulfilment of his American dream. Instead of succeeding he loses everything - his family, his business, his ambition and his pride. He is reduced to living without dignity like a trapped and wounded animal that must be put down.
Louise Washington, the other central figure, acts as a foil to Krovik. But there is no place for her memories or dreams in this society. In this world even social enterprises such as prisons and schools are run for profit and their regimes are organised in ways that are intended to produce unreflective automata rather than civilised citizens.
Krovik is destroyed and Louise cannot survive so what is the future for developed societies? Does it lie in the hands of those who create obedient robots without individuality, personal hopes or a sense of community? And will the inhabitants continue to trample on the past rather than learn from it, pursuing returns and revenue at the expense of civilised and humane values?
Fallen Land is an ambitious novel on a grand scale. It presents big ideas and asks big questions about society and the direction it might take. It has and will, I am sure, continue to stay with me.
Fallen Land was published by Atlantic Books in May 2013. ISBN: 9780857898777, 422pp
I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to be able to share my passion for reading, writing and language first, as a teacher of young children and later as a lecturer. Now that I am retired, I can immerse myself in books even more. Being part of the 2013 Summer Reads readers’ circle was an absolute joy. I discovered new authors and enjoyed discussing the books with others. I am sure that the 2014 readers’ circle will be just as rewarding and exciting.
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
*Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of this book.
Guest Review by Rachel Narkiewicz
For readers who can remember England in 1959 this was real nostalgia. A country still recovering from war, with its hardships and stiff upper lip approach to life. The memories of the local row of shops each with its smells and personalities. They always seemed familiar and unchanging. A reminder that so relatively recently fish fingers for tea followed by a munchmallow was a real treat. It is a far cry from the Malls we now have, filled with food outlets full of choice and excess. Where eating out is the norm for many. A reminder also, that in 1959 people were still hanged in this country. We might reflect on what constitutes progress in our society and what doesn’t. What does remain constant is that as people we still share the same hopes, fears and aspirations as those in 1959. We have the same secrets kept from our neighbours, our family and sometimes ourselves.
The voices of the characters in England’s Lane were strong and individual. It was easy to identify who was who just from the style of writing and the language used. Just as in life some characters were more complex than others. All those in the book seemed real. Even when their acts were extraordinary they themselves remained ordinary, which seems like the truth in real life. We have all experienced surprise when discovering that, for example, someone considered an upstanding member of community turns out to have had their hand in the till. The author has captured 1959 well. There may be an autobiographical element to it or maybe he listened closely to the memories of others. Whatever it was, at times it read as though the reader were watching a film; the imagery was that strong.
And yet, somehow this book did not hit the spot. Considering it had murder, deceit, extra marital affairs, prostitution and theft it did not turn it into anything other than a gentle page turner. There seemed to be very little passion. Some characters were faced with life changing events and sometimes it felt as though their almost pragmatic responses were placid in the extreme. It felt almost emotionless. It was English reserve in the extreme. For readers who lived in that era this could be a trip down memory lane. For readers to whom this time means little it may have less appeal.
England's Lane was first published by Quercus in August 2012. Edition shown is the paperback edition, published August 2013. ISBN: 9781780877211, 432pp
I am originally (and proudly) from the Black Country and was brought up in an industrial area in a household with no television. With no garden and little green space the local library became my refuge and thus began my love of reading. I am sometimes the rude person in the room absorbed by a book to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.
Being involved with the Readers’ Circle is a fantastic opportunity to read a large variety of books including some from genres I would not usually choose. I feel this expands my scope of reading and I very much enjoy sharing my views with others. Reading their opinions sometimes leads me to reconsider my thoughts and look at the book from a different perspective. I read for many reasons - to escape, to learn, to reflect and also just to enjoy! I can (just) imagine a life without television, films and music but never without books!