Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Bookworm News: October/November 2011

Awards news
The 2011 Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. The citation from the committee said that "through his condensed translucent images he gives us fresh access to reality." The eighty-year-old recipient of the $1.5 million award beat off stiff competition, including Haruki Murakami, and has had his work translated into more than 50 languages - so there's no excuse for us all to not seek out his poetry.

The Forward Poetry Prize was also won by John Burnside, who had made the shortlist three times previously. He was awarded the £10,000 prize for his collection Black Cat Bone, which has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize alongside work by Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald, to name just a few.

Across the Channel it is a secondary school biology teacher who has won France's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, with The French Art of War (L'art français de guerre). Alexis Jenni will not receive a large monetary award as a result of being declared the winner, but will take his place in the hall of fame with previous winners Proust, de Beauvoir, and Houllebecq, and enjoy an almost guaranteed increase in sales and acclaim.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo won the £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award, which honours a book providing the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues. Smaller readers can enjoy the winners of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize: Cats Ahoy! (Peter Bently/Jim Field) and The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (Liz Pichon). And since young readers often become young writers too, let's mention Lucy Caldwell, who at age 30 has won the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers, for her novel The Meeting Point. Professor Peter Stead, founder of the award for best writing in any genre by a writer under 30, praised The Meeting Point as "a beautifully written and mature reflection on identity, loyalty and belief in a complex world."

Author proves beauty is more than skin deep
[image]Author Bethan Stritton is a mum on a mission to counteract what she believes is the damaging effect that the beauty and cosmetics industry is having on women’s self esteem. “The industry is spending billions of pounds to convince us that the only way we can be seen as ‘beautiful’ is to buy their products. As a result people are spending more and more on an impossible dream.” In her new book “Grow your Gorgeousness”, Bethan offers a way back to true beauty by helping women to celebrate themselves as gorgeous just for being who they are. The mum from the Isle of Wight, who lost two friends to eating disorders, uses personal development techniques and empowerment tools to help women of all ages and all body types redefine themselves, and could well prove a breath of fresh air in the airbrushed industry that we are subjected to on a daily basis.

Amazon's latest acquisition
In spite of charges from industry organisations including the Independent Publishers' Guild that such a move would create a monopoly, Amazon's acquisition of UK online retailer The Book Depository has been approved. The Office for Fair Trading decided that competition within Amazon marketplace would continue to be strong after the takeover, and pointed out that the Book Depository only accounted for 2-4% of the online market for physical books.

Pottermore no more?
J.K. Rowling's Pottermore website, which had been planning to emerge from closed beta status in October, now features this message: "Pottermore is currently unavailable. We are making important updates to the site, which may take some time." The Pottermore Insider blog offered an explanation: "Since we launched Pottermore, our one million Beta users have given us lots of amazing feedback, and we've been collecting their thoughts and comments so that we can make Pottermore the best experience it can be before it opens to everyone. After looking closely at all the information that we've gathered, we have decided to further extend the Beta period so we can improve Pottermore before giving more people access. This means the site will not be opening to new users in the immediate future, but please know that we will open registration as soon as we can."

Neil Gaiman meets The Simpsons...

Fox released images and an official synopsis for a new episode of The Simpsons, on which special guest Neil Gaiman joins Homer's book-writing team. Comic Book Resources reported that Gaiman also posted a clip from the show, with "a glimpse of a bookstore display showcasing the author's work, including The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1, and The Absolute Death."

...and Neil Hannon meets Arthur Ransome
Expectations are likely high for Ransome fans as Swallows and Amazons hits the stage. This literary adaptation takes the form of a musical adventure, with The Divine Comedy's lead singer, Neil Hannon, providing the musical and lyrical soundtrack. Directed by Tom Morris and adapted by Helen Edmundson (who adapted Coram Boy), the play is sure to please Hannon and Ransome fans alike, and best of all for younger readers, under 18s are half price on the more expensive seats.

Touchscreen gloves to light Kindle lovers' fire
For those who want to keep warm and still use their iPhones and Kindles, TouchAbility has launched a new range of touchscreen compatible gloves featuring special conductive fibres in all ten fingers. The genuine silver thread that these contain help to allow the electrical impulses from the wearer's fingers to be passed through the gloves, and onto the touch screen. This thread is barely visible, unlike many other types of touchscreen glove that have distinct pads of conductive material or contrasting coloured sections on the tips of one or two fingers.
Available exclusively at the TouchAbility online store for £12.99, the gloves come in 2 colours (grey and charcoal) and 2 sizes (medium and large). Also to go with the Kindle is the Blasted Boxset: five full-length novels by five different authors on a branded USB stick in a presentation pack, combining the convenience and affordability of ebooks with the gratification of a tangible product, for the price of a single hardback.

Dating for literary lovers is the new dating site from The Stage that connects singles with a shared interest in the performing, literary or visual arts. The tailored service for arts lovers enables users to search for others via their cultural interests, whether it's photography, reading, or the theatre (to name just a few). Creating a profile, uploading up to 10 photos and receiving 100 potential matches is free of charge and the perfect way for members to start exploring the service. As an exclusive introductory offer, is giving away 500 free one-month subscriptions. The subscription gives individuals the benefits of all the subscriber-only features including up to 1000 suitable matches and use of a safe, private messaging service. A free one-month subscription can be claimed by visiting As someone who met her husband online (albeit not through a dedicated dating site), I'd thoroughly recommend being open-minded about finding love on the internet: physical appearance will one day fade, and it is the meeting of minds and interests that ultimately keeps people together long-term.

Wishing you a happy holiday season with all of your loved ones :)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lunch Bucket Paradise (Fred Setterberg)

--The blurb--
"Here are the postwar dreams of a working-class California suburb, and the struggles[...]of those who came of age in that time and place[...] Fred Setterberg evokes that time when cake mixes, washer-drier combos, and a patch of lawn could inspire hope of even better things to come."

--The review--
Fred Setterberg's Lunch Bucket Paradise promises a vibrant picture of burgeoning America in its baby boom years. While this is achieved to a degree by the writer's occasionally eloquent prose and precise descriptions, as well as the way in which he brings his parents to life for the reader ('classic American characters', it's true, to quote some of the accolades on the back of the book), for the most part the novel was little more than a disjointed and dissatisfying read. This was exacerbated by a lack of resolution and the novel being inexplicably chopped into two different parts (one consisted of the main narrative, while another seemed to be made up of a rambling pseudo-political commentary), leading to a feeling of total disconnection from the book's original purpose. A greater sense of streamlining and focus would therefore appear to be required.

In many ways I was reminded while reading of the work of Doc Togden (although Setterberg's work is certainly better formatted as well as being better expressed in places). This is not a compliment; while we all have the story of our lives, it does not mean that all of our stories are worth telling. I was disappointed to find that Setterberg's work consisted mainly of swearing and discussion of sex and violence, which may appeal to ex-rugby players who miss the banter of the locker room, but did not appeal to me. The occasional moments of luminosity in description or character were not enough, for me, to save the novel as a whole.

I had also been hoping for a few more universal aspects of this novel which more of us would be able to relate to. Perhaps American baby-boomers can find things in here that they recognise on a personal level; as a British female born in 1980s England, I couldn't - not even in the loosest of ways. I now have no idea what to do with this review copy that the publisher so kindly sent me; perhaps I'll leave it lying around at work and see if an American baby-boomer picks it up.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Time Regained (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
""Time Regained" begins in the bleak and uncertain years of World War I. Years later, after the war's end, Proust's narrator returns to Paris and reflects on time, reality, jealousy, artistic creation, and the raw material of literature - his past life."

--The review--
I have often criticised throughout my reading of Proust's epic his frequently over-complicated and vague style which seems designed to tie our brains in knots. The final volume of the heptalogy, Time Regained, starts off much more clearly and lucidly, which makes us feel that the narrator has the benefit of hindsight at last - which, with it being set more towards the end of his life, seems fitting. At least initially, it is less furious and intense, and more thoughtful.

However, we are soon treated to a glut of the meaningless gossip that pervaded earlier volumes. While this gives us a clue as to the nature of the narrator's life and social circle, it is maddening at the same time - if you have no time for celebrity-type gossip in real life, you are unlikely to have much patience for it in literature. Some of it is perhaps intended to show characters up as being hypocritical, but the targets of their hypocrisy probably took place so long ago that the effect is lost. Proust's political commentary on the war is equally uninteresting and is clearly aimed at those who already have knowledge of or opinions on the subject at hand. 

There are even examples of bad style, such as the line "To return to Mr Charlus..." (it is surely an elementary rule of narrative writing that such transitioning phrases are not required), and the fact that the first-person narrator has access to conversations and information in this volume that simply would not be possible. Punctuation needs to be more varied (a person can only take so many commas, although thankfully a semi-colon does appear...on page 320), and the volume is also loosely or badly organised, to the degree that we risk missing key events. But then again, are all of our own thoughts beautifully organised? Probably not.

To go on: we do not end up caring much for the death of one of the recurring characters due to the estrangement between himself and the narrator. The narrator's self-deprecation and false modesty is extremely annoying (especially when in the same breath he then goes on to talk as if he were an expert), and yet we must admit that it is natural for even the hugely talented to have doubts from time to time.

Plenty of the novel, however, still rings true today. Narcissistic though they may be, it is the narrator's thoughts and relationships that are of interest, not the author's attempts at political comment (it should be noted that supreme effort is apparently required to divorce narrator and author in this work of autobiographical-fiction-meets-history-and-philosophy). There is great irony in the author's recognition that all we do, or are, is so insignificant against the world's might.

The passages of memory after the narrator's return from convalescence are truly beautiful and testify to the author's powers of description. Despite certain episodes seeming contrived, the author's ability to still be relevant and appreciated today is staggering: his comments on pop art (how far is it truly enjoyed by 'laymen' and how far is it still a middle-class hobby?) are as accurate now as when they were written. He is correct that things from our childhood reawaken in us a sense of hope and wonder, and he posits ideas that still give us plenty to consider (for instance: is something still real if only we experience it, or does it have to be shared or common in order to qualify? Does truth go beyond fact?).

While a new edition is perhaps needed in order to increase mass appeal (Lydia Davis' looks promising), this does not mean that Time Regained (or even the heptalogy as a whole) is not worth pursuing in its current form. Proust has the ability to make us laugh (with his caustic descriptions of characters) and to make us cry (with his moving descriptions of landscapes and feelings). By the end of the seven volumes, most people have probably spent a year or more with Proust, and by then he's like an annoying family member: he's eccentric, digressive, annoying, boring at some moments, confusing at others; but he's also incisive, witty, intelligent, thought-provoking, sensitive and deeply poetic. In short, in spite of his shortcomings, we love him anyway.

Other works by Marcel Proust
Swann's Way (volume 1)
Within a Budding Grove (volume 2)
The Guermantes Way (volume 3)
Sodom and Gomorrah (volume 4)
The Captive/The Fugitive (volume 5/6)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Bookish Bits and Bobs: On My Wishlist

With the rise and rise not only of online bookshops, but of Amazon in particular, it seems like everyone has an Amazon wishlist - but certainly not everyone uses them in the same way. My younger sister, for instance, makes a great effort to keep hers short so that she feels the goal of getting everything on the list remains realistic. My list, though, goes back years, and currently numbers 271 books. Sometimes I'll add a title and then remove it later - perhaps because I've lost interest, or I've managed to read it by borrowing a copy, thus removing the need to own it.

But even though I'm trying to be more minimalist - mainly by getting a Kindle and being a member of a library - the number of books on my Amazon wishlist never seems to shrink. I try to tell myself that I don't need to own something just because I admire it, and yet every time I step inside a physical bookshop and get to feel the covers and smell the new paper, I am reminded what beautiful things books are and fall in love all over again.

Some of the books on my wishlist are mainstays, not joining the fleeting titles that come and go from my list according to my whim. One of these was Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, which was out of print for years and going for insane prices - but thanks to a reprint by Vintage I was finally able to purchase it last week. May hope never die! So I thought I'd take this chance to take you through my top 10 wishlist mainstays, tell you why they're there, and hopefully inspire you to check them out too.

In no particular order:
1. Dreams: Pathways to Wholeness (Lisa Cornwell) I'll level with you. This lady was one of my favourite teachers when I was 13, but raging teenage hormones led to an inappropriate crush on her which probably only served to embarrass and alienate her from me. As well as being interested in the subject matter of her book, I am also interested now, as an adult, to know her more as an adult and to be able to get an insight into her thought processes.

2. A Desolation of Learning: Is This The Education Our Children Deserve? (Chris Woodhead) Chris Woodhead is not a popular man in the world of education. But while I'm often inclined to support the underdog, this is not the reason why I respect his opinions and tend to agree with what he says. He feels, and I do too, that education in Britain is lamentably not all that it once was and that it is not currently preparing young people adequately for their future. Being really incredibly interested in his take on the matter, this book landed on my wishlist.

3. Lost Laysen (Margaret Mitchell) Reading Gone With The Wind at the age of twelve was one of the biggest experiences not only of my reading life but possibly my whole life - so to find that there was another work by Margaret Mitchell out there was definitely a pleasure. I can't wait to read it - and hope I won't be disappointed after the experience of Gone With The Wind.

4. The Gospel According To The Simpsons (Mark Pinsky) I am, to put it lightly, a HUGE fan of The Simpsons: I own almost every series on DVD and never seem to get tired of watching it. I also already own The Simpsons And Philosophy, which I read during my third year of university and actually used as part of my degree to help me with a presentation about Plato. As well as making Plato fun, the reaction I got to the book was amusing and amazing in equal measure, with most being along the lines of "Is that serious?!" (to which I replied, usually, "Yes...and no..."). It's something fun to dip into that everyone can enjoy, and I'm sure that The Gospel According To The Simpsons will be the same too (not to mention What's Science Ever Done For Us?: What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, which is also on my wishlist).

5. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson) Apparently you're not a proper English student until you've read this one (which I guess makes the degree in English that I received four and a half years ago void...). I did attempt it, I swear. But I gave up. But that was before I read Proust (I finished In Search Of Lost Time TODAY, people!), so I'm understandably feeling braver/cockier now, and am determined to slay this mythical beast of English literature.

6. Dictionary of Gastronomic Terms (Bernard Luce) My husband and I are both food lovers, but with him being French and me being English, sometimes very specific food terms, such as the names of different types of potato, can leave us foxed as to what the equivalent is in the other language. This book looks like it could solve all kinds of arguments - it's a dictionary of gastronomic words and phrases, converting them between French and English to settle our culinary disagreements once and for all. At nearly £37 for a paperback on Amazon, though, it's not coming cheap...

7. Night (Elie Wiesel) As well as indulging my interest in German history, this novel appeals because it was recommended to me by an ex-student of mine named Steve: an intelligent young man whose opinions I greatly trust and respect. Plus, it's won a few prizes and shizz. Not that I'm shallow or anything. *cough*

8. Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (Donald Sturrock) The life and works of Roald Dahl have moved me more than possibly any other. He is probably the only writer who has kept me consistently entertained from childhood through to adulthood with such wonderful stories as The BFG and The Landlady. Luckily I'm not the only one in my family to be slightly obsessed with his work: a documentary about Roald Dahl's life a few years ago left my sister and I in tears, and we also both enjoy our occasional visits to the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden. So naturally a biography of the man, even if it contains information we already both know, is of great interest.

9. King of Shadows (Susan Cooper) Drawn to all things Ariel thanks to my research into the character from The Tempest, I was naturally intrigued by Susan Cooper's book about a young boy player acting in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The actor playing Ariel was also quite likely a boy player thanks to the character's androgynous if not female nature and high singing voice, so I'm all over this offering and am hoping it will lead me to discover even more of Susan Cooper's work - this is a new encounter with her books for me.

10. Dorothy Rowe's Guide To Life Looking at Amazon quickly plunged me into despair at the apparent lack of British self-help books on the market - too many of the books in this category are written by schmaltzy Americans whose hearts hurt and want us all to trust in God. I wanted a more stoic and stiff-upper-lip look at self-help, and it would appear that the best-known British self-help tome is in the form of Dorothy Rowe's Guide To Life (although perhaps it's cheating as Dorothy Rowe is technically Australian). I'll be interested to see if reading her work will restore my faith in the self-help market (and stop me from feeling the urge to fly towards certain people at work whilst holding a machete).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed The Way We Look (Mark Tungate)

--The blurb--
"Beauty is a multi-billion dollar global industry embracing makeup, skincare, hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, and even tattooing and piercing. Over the years it has used flattery, seduction, science and shame to persuade consumers that they have to invest if they want to look their best. In Branded Beauty, Mark Tungate delves into the history and evolution of the beauty business. From luxury boutiques in Paris to tattoo parlours in Brooklyn, he talks to the people who've made skin their trade."

--The review--
This book blog is only really starting to take off, with requests for me to review hard copies of books being few and far between, so I was naturally pleased to receive the request from Kogan Page to review a complimentary copy. As a long-time beauty blogger, I was also pleased to receive it, as I don't tend to be asked to review many books on my site (the last was an American coffee-table style publication, Be...A Woman, back in 2008). I was wary, though, of the "self-published" impression I had of the publisher, as I feel that this industry still has a lot of work to do to build its credibility (although as it turned out I was mistaken - Kogan Page is a small independent publishing house, not a company for those wishing to self-publish). Nonetheless, the author's credentials (work published in The Times, Stratégies, and The Independent, among others), filled me with enough confidence to pick up the book and begin reading. 

In spite of its initially specialist-seeming premises and topic, the style in which the book is written is extremely accessible without being patronising, meaning that marketing professionals and beauty aficionados alike should have no difficulty in enjoying it (although the summary of each chapter at its end - Beauty Tips - seems a little too dumbed-down in its style, even for amateurs). The stories from times past, anecdotes from industry insiders and peeks behind the scenes, alongside history and statistics, all contribute to making Branded Beauty an enjoyable and intriguing read. Illustrations would have been nice, but the reality is that the majority of the stories are sufficiently compelling on their own.

The writer's chronological approach makes it clear how the rise and rise of marketing has changed the way we not only look, but also look at ourselves. From this point of view, too, he is at risk of being led astray from his original purpose: from about halfway through the book, it is less and less about analysing how marketing has changed our appearance but more about exposing the controversies behind brands, such as the airbrushing scandals that have plagued certain very large brands, and the fact that not all brands marketing themselves as ethical are as squeaky clean as they may first appear. Nevertheless, even if Tungate does not perhaps 100% achieve his original goal, it makes interesting reading as we try to get past the suspiciously small samples of women on which products have been tested, and get back to the personal histories of what can now all too often seem like faceless global corporations.

But there was one deviation I could not tolerate. Part of Tungate's digression consists of repeatedly taking cheap swipes at the integrity of beauty bloggers. It is suggested and stated strongly throughout that beauty bloggers (along with beauty ediotrs) are traitors, propagandiists, straitjacketed, commercial, and untrustworthy. While I can see how Tungate may have reached this conclusion - I know that I for one have been frustrated at far too many magazines where features on products are as far from honest reviews as possible and are closer to being infomercials - it is far too sweeping to speak of beauty bloggers in the same breath as the magazines that do this. Equally, even though I cannot speak for other beauty bloggers, I wonder how many Tungate himself has actually spoken to: as well as trying to do this myself, I have met many other beauty bloggers who are concerned primarily with transparency, providing honest opinions, and allowing readers to make informed choices - not with glossily providing perfect impressions of a brand or product (regardless of how much the free products we are sent may happen to be worth). Such statements cast gross slurs on community journalists who are just trying to do a good job - and, more to the point, often do it voluntarily alongside more mundane day jobs. In addition, alongside the various assumptions delineated above, there are blatant errors, such as saying that Stri-Vectin SD is a Sephora own-brand product (it isn't).

As mentioned, the book is enthralling for its highly visual sense of history, its amusing and well-chosen anecdotes, and its extremely ambitious and up-to-date scope. Exploring the positives and negatives of the beauty industry, it is bound to be of interest to many. However, it fundamentally fails in its mission thanks to its deviations from its original topic, occasional factual errors, and near-libellous slurs against people like myself, whom the book's publishers so badly want good reviews from in approaching us. Should Tungate wish for this book to be published by a mainstream publisher, I fear that it would lamentably require significant revisions in order to be up to standard (a shame; I was hoping that this book would restore my faith in the credulity of independent/self-publishing houses). For Tungate's intriguing content, I could possibly forgive him and delve into his other books on this subject. For certain aspects of his professional conduct within these pages, though, I may need to think twice.

Other works by Mark Tungate
Luxury World: The Past, Present and Future of Luxury Brands (2009)
Branded Male: Marketing to Men (2008)
Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara (2008)
Adland: A Global History of Advertising (2007)
Media Monoliths: How Great Media Brands Thrive and Survive (2005)

cross-posted to Bianca's Beauty Blog

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A Secret Kept (Tatiana de Rosnay)

--The blurb--
"It all began with a simple seaside vacation, a brother and sister recapturing their childhood. Antoine thought he had the perfect surprise for his sister Mélanie's birthday: a weekend by the sea at Noirmoutier Island, where the pair spent many happy childhood summers playing on the beach. But the island's haunting beauty triggers more than happy memories; it reminds Mélanie of something unexpected and deeply disturbing about their last island summer. When, on the drive home to Paris, she finally summons the courage to reveal what she knows to Antoine, her emotions overcome her and she loses control of the car. Alone, waiting for news of Mélanie, Antoine reflects on his life: his wife has left him, his teenage children are strangers to him, his job bores him, and his father is an ageing tyrant who still poisons every aspect of his life. How did he end up here? And, more importantly, what was the secret that his sister wanted to tell him?"

--The review--
Having enjoyed de Rosnay's debut, Sarah's Key (which sells in France as Elle S'Appelait Sarah), I was pleased to see her second novel, A Secret Kept (sold under the title of Boomerang in France) available in "livre de poche" (books in France are absurdly expensive for about a year before being released in this format). I therefore gave up my €6,95 and settled down to read it. Initially, though, I was disappointed by there being too many sexual references for my liking (do I really want to read about penises during my commute? Really?) - which, moreover, seemed to be there for no real purpose other than to shock - and by the amount of name-dropping of contemporary products (iPods and Facebook both feature - is this really obligatory to sell books these days?). The protagonist's relationship with his sister also seemed strange, with a few too many comments on her physical appearance than it would seem normal for a big brother to make.

In addition, de Rosnay does not adopt the male voice with 100% success. We know it is a female writing, which perhaps clouds our perceptions, but even without knowing this, I'm not sure that anyone would believe completely in Antoine's persona. We get the feeling that de Rosnay is projecting very female concerns and depth of self-analysis onto a male narrator, when in reality, most men are probably not as brooding and are more straightforward. Eventually, the novel becomes less about Antoine's relationship with sister Melanie and more about his relationship with lover Angele, which would be fine were it not for the totally unrealistic manner of them getting together, and were it not for the fact that the development of this romantic relationship is apparently at the expense of the loose ends of Antoine and Melanie's story being tied up.

Do not, either, read this book for a realistic portrayal of life in Paris: it's all plush 16th-arrondissement apartments with concierges. I have not yet found a book set at grassroots level in Paris, rather than just telling Anglophone readers what they think they want to hear about the city (perhaps I should write one?!).

However, there are some redeeming features, even though the story doesn't have the same pace and flawlessness of Sarah's Key (there are episodes in A Secret Kept that don't seem to be there for any real reason). We believe in the characters of Melanie, Clarisse and Blanche, as well as those of Antoine's children and ex-wife (although here, too, we are led up the garden path with ex-wife Astrid's relationship with Serge, which is never fully explored or resolved). The author's strength is in plot, with the accident not being the whole story but a catalyst that takes us into a journey spiralling down into Antoine and Melanie's family history. We also have a brief dalliance with a possible murder mystery as we are forced to question whether the death of Clarisse is really a tragic accident, or something more, and with this as bait, combined with other family happenings and the more intriguing vicissitudes of Antoine's burgeoning relationships with his children, de Rosnay draws us in and keeps us there.

The title under which it is sold in France, though - Boomerang - seems far more appropriate, as the story is not so much about a secret being kept but the unveiling of it. The notion of one's family history coming back to you and being discovered therefore seems better expressed under the French title. In spite of the novel's numerous imperfections, it proved an enjoyable but easy read - even if, like many other reviewers, I could not resist the temptation to compare it to the perfection of Sarah's Key.

Other works by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah, 2007)
The House I Loved (Rose, 2012) 

Friday, 30 September 2011

Bookworm News (September 2011)

Goethe Prize awarded to Syrian poet
The first Arab writer to win Germany's €50,000 (US$72,286) Goethe Prize, Adonis receives a prize awarded every three years on Goethe's birthday to an individual whose work reflects the spirit of the German master. The Guardian reported that the jury called him "the most important Arab poet of our time," and praised his "eminent literary talent, his cosmopolitanism and his contribution to world literature. Just as Goethe popularized Arabic poetry with [his book] West-Eastern Divan, Adonis carried the accomplishments of European modernity into Arabic cultural circles, with great effect," said the jury.

Guardian First Book Award longlist announced
This year's longlist for the £10,000 (US$16,247) Guardian First Book Award--open to all first-time authors writing in or translated into English, across all genres--is "fiction-heavy," with six novels, three works of nonfiction and one poetry collection. The Guardian reported that a "series of regional reading groups, run in partnership with Waterstone's bookshops, will now assist the judging panel with choosing a shortlist." The list of nominated writers includes Booker-shortlisted Stephen Kelman and artist and writer Erin Morgenstern.

Have a lovely time
A family travel writing competition celebrating the beauty of Britain is calling for submissions. The contest at has a top prize of £200, a second prize of a weekend stay at the Park Inn in historic York and an English Heritage family pass for everyone finishing in the top ten, as well as a copy of Travelling with Children, by Catherine Cooper, one of the competition’s judges. There’s also a mystery prize on offer for the entry voted readers’ favourite after the competition closes on October 1, 2011. Journalist and author Linda Jones who edits Have a lovely time, and is Catherine’s fellow judge, adds: “We want to celebrate all that’s great about family tourism in our stunning land. That might include breathtaking adventures in the Lakes, laughing til your sides ache at a family-friendly Edinburgh festival, savouring the splendour of the West Wales coastline, a Devon cream tea or a knees up at a holiday park…or of course plenty more. “Wherever you love to find quality family time in Britain – we want to hear about it. We’re looking for entries about family holidays, breaks, days out or adventures. “Perhaps your stories could be inspired by firing your imagination at an English Heritage ( property – as we’re delighted they are backing our contest – and there are so many adventures to be had for you and your family. We won’t tell you what we mean by ‘family’ – so long as you feel the title fits, that’s fine by us. Perhaps the break you want to write about is a first one without children when they’ve flown the nest. Maybe you don’t have children but consider a beloved pet part of your family." A first entry is free but if you’d like to try more than once, there’s a fee of £5 per subsequent entry. If you’d like a professional critique of your submission you can pay £12.50 for feedback on your style, structure and content. A proportion of all fees paid will be split between Have a Lovely Time’s chosen charity, CCPA ( (formerly NACCPO) and their support for an organisation called the Torbay Holiday Helpers Network ( which helps offer free holidays, to families who have seriously ill life threatening/limiting, terminally ill and recently bereaved children.

Victorian Prize for Literature
Kim Scott won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia's richest literary award, for That Deadman Dance, which "explores the relationships between 19th-century British settlers and the indigenous people on the coast of Western Australia," the Wall Street Journal reported. In June, Scott's novel won the Miles Franklin Award, making him the first indigenous writer to earn that prestigious award twice (his novel Benang won in 2000). "It’s reassuring and gratifying and should be confidence boosting," Scott said. "We’ll see. Last time I won a couple of awards for a novel, that was my last novel and that was about 11 years ago, so I wouldn’t want to have to wait that long before I wrote another one." That Deadman Dance is scheduled to be released in the U.S. and Canada in January.

Authors protest against online libraries
A number of authors and authors' groups have filed a lawsuit in New York to prevent universities from creating online libraries with millions of scanned books. The Authors Guild and the Australian Society of Authors, among others, joined eight individual authors in filing a copyright infringement lawsuit in Manhattan, claiming that the scans of seven million copyright-protected books were unauthorised.

Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award
The lists of finalists competing for the £30,000 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award has been announced ahead of a winners' ceremony due to take place on November 3rd. Shortlisted titles cover rethinking of ways to fight global poverty, the rise and fall of the dollar, and the differences between good and bad strategies.

Putting Potter powers and the Oxford name into ordinary interiors
According to the Telegraph, Oxford University has designed a new range of interior furniture and accessories to capitalise on its links with the Harry Potter films. The 400-year-old Bodleian Library lends its name to a bookcase worth nearly £4000 while a Harry Potter-style dining table, named the Oxford Collection, is priced at just over £2500. The furniture, inspired by 800 years of history and archives, intends to hark back to the many scenes set in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, which were filmed in Christ Church College's dining hall. One emeritus professor of the college was horrified, describing the venture as "vulgar, inappropriate, and unauthorized by the university at large," accusing it as "cheapen[ing] its image".

Returning banned books to the shelves
The Mark Twain work "Eve's Diary" has been put back on the shelves of a Massachusetts library more than a hundred years after it was originally banned. Library trustees unanimously voted to return the book to circulation, reversing the board's 1906 decision to ban the 1905 story, which is written from the perspective of the Biblical Eve, and was banned thanks to its nude illustrations of Eve.

Fashion dictionary adds new words to aid Debenhams shoppers
An influx of new terms that have emerged from the fashion press, such as 'jardigan (a cross between a jacket and a cardigan)' and 'tregging (the love child of trousers and leggings)', has forced high street retailer Debenhams to update its fashion dictionary that it gives to shoppers. The retailer's fashion dictionary has already had an influence on more mainstream tomes, with the Oxford English Dictionary taking terms from the book, such as 'jegging' and 'mankini' for its own pages for 2011. New fashion phrases added to Debenhams' reference list include shinos (short/chinos), athleisure (clothes to take you from work to the gym), and glittens (mittens that roll back to reveal gloved fingers). The new copy of the Debenhams Fashion Dictionary is out now.

Four hundred books banned from Algerian international book fair
Algeria's culture minister reports that 400 books were banned from the country's international book fair recently. Banned books supported themes including colonialism, terrorism and tacism, and books attacking the national liberation struggle against France were also not allowed in. More than 500 publishers participated in the festival from around the world, with Lebanon being the guest of honour thanks to its 70 participating publishers.

Roald Dahl Funny Prize
What better way to celebrate Roald Dahl Day than with the announcement of this year's finalists for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize? For the first time, schools will be involved in the judging process. More than 400 pupils from England have been selected to read the shortlisted titles, discuss with their classmates and pick their favorite funny book in the relevant category for their age. Their votes will then be combined with the votes of the adult judging panel to find the two winners. Category winners receive £2,500 (US$3,970), and will be honored November 8 in London. The 2011 shortlisted books are:

Funniest book for children aged six and under
Bedtime for Monsters by Ed Vere
Cats Ahoy! by Peter Bently, illustrated by Jim Field
First Week at Cow School by Andy Cutbill, illustrated by Russell Ayto
Limelight Larry by Leigh Hodgkinson
Marshall Armstrong Is New to Our School by David  Mackintosh
A Place to Call Home by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

Funniest book for children aged seven to fourteen
Animal Tales by Terry Jones, illustrated by Michael Foreman
The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz Pichon
The Get Rich Quick Club by Rose Impey
Letters from an Alien Schoolboy by Ros Asquith
Penny Dreadful is a Magnet for Disaster by Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Jess Mikhail
The Wrong Pong by Steven Butler, illustrated by Chris Fisher

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Red Bull Flying Bach: the ultimate clash of cultures


Classical music meets breakdance and high culture meets urban art at Red Bull's Flying Bach. Breakdancing champions Flying Steps are not only dancing, but visualising and reviving Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

They are now touring in five countries on the Red Bull Flying Bach European Tour, utilising twelve extraordinary locations in Bonn, Copenhagen, Zurich, Vienna and Istanbul. Venues include the Burgtheater (Vienna; Nov 5-6 and 12-13), Schiffbau (Oct 21-23), Halic Kongre Merkezi (Nov 25-27) and the former chamber of the German Bundestag.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Booker Prize Shortlist 2011

With the release of the Booker longlist in August, it's my little game every year to see if I can guess what will make the cut when it comes to the announcement of the shortlist in September. I'm usually wrong on an epic scale. I was therefore quite pleased to see the degree of my accuracy this year after predicting that the shortlist would contain "one of the two big guns [Barnes or Hollinghurst], or, if not them, [...] Kelman's offering." The shortlist does indeed contain one of the big names (Julian Barnes' A Sense of an Ending is on the list), and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English made it too. But what of the others who made it onto the shortlist?

I was hoping that with the release of the shortlist more previews would be available on Amazon - with the price of books these days, how are people supposed to be able to have a valid opinion on what they think should win otherwise? By reading the reviews of the broadsheet journalists who get free copies and parroting their opinions? Anyway, Amazon seems to see my point for the shortlisted novels at least, with all except AD Miller's Snowdrops being available for preview. I therefore went in and had a second nosey around the first few pages of each.

Already being sold by Barnes' and Kelman's offerings, I decided to concentrate on the others. Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch, is poetic and raw in equal measure in describing its gruesome matter. Descriptions are simple, striking and accessible, with short sentences quickening pace and longer ones adding suspense and panic. With my only criticism being that the grim choice of subject would not put it at the top of my reading list, I can still nonetheless see why it could win: it grabs you from the off, with the retrospective narrative voice adding further intrigue, as we immediately want to know how the protagonist has got from the awful 'there' to the apparently calmer 'here'. In many ways it epitomises the purpose of literature: to inform, entertain, share the experiences of others, and give us an alternative prism through which to view the world.

Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers is equally graphic but more defensive. Information is revealed slowly and in a controlled manner, but perhaps a little too slowly: it is more pedestrian than Birch's effort, where we are immediately thrown into the action, and this may cause readers to lose interest more quickly. Nevertheless, we are given a mysterious commanding character called The Commodore, and the narrator's responsibilities and profession are as yet unknown. These are all reasons to continue reading.

Finally I came to Half Blood Blues, which I described in my previous Booker-related post as having a compelling premise but let down by disappointing prose. Upon rereading the preview, it is with a sinking feeling that my initial impressions do not appear to have changed. The use of dialect seems contrived and stilted - but having just embarked on the study of Of Mice and Men for the third year running with my eldest students, it is perhaps only natural that just about anything would be weak in comparison to Steinbeck's sterling command of colloquial English. But this is not to say that Esi Edugyan's work lacks promise - phrases like "twisted beauty" and "clotted shadows" are gems to be treasured.

So who do I believe will win? I'm inclined to go with my initial predictions of Julian Barnes or Stephen Kelman. It seems mean to name another author on top of them when a) AD Miller's work was unavailable for preview, and b) to name another author would effectively mean I was naming 50% of the shortlist as potential winners, which seems rather silly or unfair odds.

I realise the irony in what I have just done, given what I said before: I have just reviewed these Booker-shortlisted works for others' reading pleasure. I encourage you, though, to not take my word for it: go and read the previews as I have just done, or even buy the whole book to read before the winner is announced in October. By all of us getting involved and informed, we can get a truer impression of whether the elected winner is also the people's winner, and not just that of a circle of judges.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolano)

--The blurb--
"The rich seam of Nazi literature has, until now, been sadly under-explored. Here for the first time acclaimed novelist and poet Roberto Bolano provides a long-overdue and meticulously researched survey of the writers who have contributed to pan-American Nazi literature. Carefully documenting the lives, politics and literary works of these writers in exhaustive and compelling detail, this is the definitive account of the writers who have shaped the literary landscape of the Americas."

--The review--
This book's deliberately reactionary and taboo-breaking title is probably what encourages most readers to pick it up, inciting in people a dormant and perhaps slightly morbid interest not only in Nazism but also the desire for insight into the minds of those who not only believed in the principles espoused by Hitler but also wrote about them. The blurb implies that what you are getting is a historical and biographical document, and to a degree this is believable. However, readers' suspicions are aroused when some of the writers' dates of death are significantly in the future (2013+). At first we wonder if this is a typo; then, after several occurrences and a bit of Googling, we realise that the whole thing is nothing more than an immense fiction.

It is the lateness with which we work out the fictional nature of the book that leads us to mistrust the author and causes our attention to wander. We become increasingly disengaged and uninterested, especially given the narcissistic, unsuccessful and depressive personalities of the characters described; when repeated over and over with only a few variations, it all begins to wear rather thin and it lacks wit all the way through. And once we have had time to digest the notion of this being fiction disguised as fact, Nazi Literature In The Americas seems even more pointless; why not present it more transparently as fiction? Why not link the characters more explicitly to Nazism and Nazi literature (in most of the characters' cases, their links to Nazism and Nazi literature are tenuous to non-existent) if that was what you wanted to do? The upshot is that the author's aims become increasingly confused and ill-thought-through. The spew of praise on the inside and outside covers is therefore very difficult to believe in.

As an attempt at satire and commentary it is weak at best. As one Amazon reviewer puts it, "unless you are sufficiently well versed in the literary figures of the Americas then for the most part this book is like being told joke after joke where you don't understand the punchline". Equally, the author is inconsistent (switching out of the third person and into the first for the telling of the final character's story) and frequently leaves stories unfinished in a way that does not fit in well with either fiction, history or biography. I understand that his more stolid works of fiction are better, and at some point in the future I would be open to attempting these. However, there's definitely more than one reason that this book was found with a £3.99 sticker over its £16.99 price tag, so it's going straight onto the "to sell" pile.

other works by Roberto Bolano
By Night in Chile (2003)
Distant Star (2004)
The Savage Detectives (2007)
Amulet (2007)
The Skating Rink (2008)
2666 (2008)
Antwerp (2010)
Monsieur Pain (2010)
The Third Reich (2011)
*NB Many of these works were published posthumously.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Visible World (Mark Slouka)

--The blurb--
"The unnamed narrator of The Visible World, the American-born son of Czech immigrants living in New York, grows up in an atmosphere haunted by fragments of a past he cannot understand. Nowhere is this more true than in regard to his mother, Ivana, a spontaneous, passionate woman moving ever closer to genuine despair. As an adult, the narrator travels to Prague, hoping to learn about a love affair between his then young mother and a member of the Czech Resistance named Tomas, an affair whose untimely end, he senses, lays behind Ivana's unhappiness. Ultimately unable to complete his knowledge of the past, he imagines the two lovers as participants in one of the more dramatic moments of the war: the actual assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official."

--The review--
Having spotted that this was recommended by the Richard and Judy Book Club (praised as their Best Read of the Year), I picked it up with confidence, knowing the Madeley/Finnigan duo to be responsible for the meteoric rise of such literary successes as Notes on a Scandal, Brick Lane, and Starter For Ten. Strangely, I had not heard of this particular recommended read; by the end I knew why.

There are errors right from the start in the respect that the narrator, by telling the story in the first person, ends up giving the reader information that he could not possibly have had access to; telling the story in the third person would have therefore been far more appropriate and far less distracting. It also decreases our trust in the narrator and causes our attention to wander (a problem with another book that I've had recently - but more of that another day). Other elements, which are not necessarily errors but perhaps just personal preferences or observations, can also be criticised: the author is precise in emotion and detail but not in plot or character. Overall, he is just far too vague, to the point of it preventing us from fully understanding the story.

Having read Edmund de Waal's excellent history-biography-memoir hybrid recently, the bar had already been set rather high. It did not help that Slouka had apparently been trying to do something similar to de Waal but failed due to a lack of straightforwardness. The comparisons on the back of the book to Ondaatje and Kundera therefore begin to seem completely over-complimentary, unjustified, and overly generous. This is a shame, as it is a potentially rich and promising story that is ruined by shoddy writing skills.

By the time we get to the climax, we no longer care, due in part to its slowness in coming. There are some moments of eloquence that really resonate - but for the most part, the author skirts around the story and makes us wonder what he did to Richard and Judy to make them dispense such a laudable accolade. It is a little worrying, to say the least, that barely a week after reading it I have forgotten the vast majority of it. We get the feeling, ultimately, that the author used this work as a chance to exorcise his own personal demons relating to his family, with little thought for the readers themselves.

Strangely, in spite of all this, The Visible World seems to have scored highly on Amazon, as have his other novels and non-fiction works. It is stranger still, then, that despite good reviews and the prize bestowed on him by the great morning sofa, the author is still apparently relatively obscure, not even apparently meriting an entry on Wikipedia (and I had seriously never even heard his name before reading The Visible World - let alone those of any of his books). Does this mean that the writer's work is just interminably bad? Or is it that the only thing that's bad is the luck he's had? After all, you can be a good author who is just unrecognised - and God's Fool, his fiction debut, does not seem entirely without its charms. But for its sheer forgettability alone, I think that in general I'll be giving his work a wide berth.

Other works by Mark Slouka
The War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (1997)
Essentialism (1999)
God's Fool (2008)
Lost Lake (2008)
Real Life (2010)
Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (2010)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

--The blurb--
"Santiago is an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world in search of a worldly treasure as fabulous as any ever found. From his home in Spain he journeys to the markets of Tangiers, and from there into the Egyptian desert, where a fateful encounter with the alchemist awaits him."

--The review--
Disconcertingly, despite having had both an English and a French copy of The Alchemist on my bookshelf for a number of years, I could not actually remember if I had read this story before or not. The reason for this is perhaps as follows: upon (re)reading it, I found that Coelho's poetic strengths as found in Eleven Minutes are not as obvious here. The author's strengths are in setting and detail, and then, to an extent, character, rather than in plot - the whole of The Alchemist just seems a bit thin, and takes on the manner of a children's story, rather than being in the style of a spiritual book for adults. While that's a good thing, in a way, if it makes the story more accessible to a wider range of people, it could have easily done with extra padding and extension.

The Alchemist is ultimately a sweet and sentimental fairytale that lacks concrete relevance to our own lives - in the end, it contains nothing that we can apply directly. More development, as mentioned, is certainly required overall, especially when it comes to explanations of some of Coelho's concepts, such as The Soul of the World. The story does contain some pleasing and thoughtful maxims, but it does perhaps depend on the reader as to whether they are happier with this than with something more directly advisory. This is perhaps exemplified by the fact that after the number of five-star ratings for this book on Amazon (184), the next highest number of ratings is actually in the one-star category (where there are 62).

It is fitting that the protagonist ends up back where he started, and this endows the book with a satisfying and cyclical appeal. Ironically, even though this is Coelho's best-selling work, I did not find it to be the best of his oeuvre; go elsewhere for something more inspiring and less woolly. 

Other works by Paulo Coelho
The Manifest of Krig-Ha (1974)
Theatre of Education (1974)
Hell Archives (1982)
Practical Manual of Vampirism (1986)
The Pilgrimage (1987)
Brida (1990)
The Greatest Gift (1991)
The Valkyries (1992)
Maktub (1994)
By the River Piedra I Sat Down And Wept (1994)
The Fifth Mountain (1996)
Love Letters From A Prophet (1997)
The Manual of the Warrior of Light (1997)
Veronika Decides To Die (1998)
Essential Words (1998)
The Devil and Miss Prym (2000)
Fathers, Sons and Grandsons (2001)
Eleven Minutes (2003)
And On The Seventh Day (2004)
The Genie and the Roses (2004)
Journeys (2004)
The Zahir (2005)
Revived Paths (2005)
Like The Flowing River (2006)
The Witch of Portobello (2006)
Life: Selected Quotations (2007)
The Winner Stands Alone (2008)
The Aleph (2011)