Thursday, 30 June 2011

Bookworm News: June 2011

Summer reading
It's that time of year again - the time when broadsheet newspapers publish long and delightful lists of recommended books to read over the summer, which we can go through and circle with a blotchy biro to our hearts' content. Doesn't have quite the same effect on a screen, does it? Nevertheless, Online Degrees Hub's list of the 20 Best Books About Suburbia is certainly worth a peek (as perhaps evidenced by the fact that my Amazon wishlist now runs to 231 items for books alone. Nuts.). Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler's autobiography, Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?, could also be one to check out for music fans. For next summer, Carole King's autobiography is due out in the first half of 2012.

Awards news
I often feel that in Britain particularly we don't always pay enough attention to foreign literature - perhaps because our own country's output is so good. That's why prizes like the Caine Prize for African Writing are important for allowing us to be exposed to texts from across the world. Sometimes known as the African Booker, the finalists for this year's £10,000 prize for a short story are as follows:
  • Hitting Budapest (NoViolet Bulawayo)
  • Butterfly Dreams (Beatrice Lamwaka)
  • What Molly Knew (Tim Keegan)
  • In The Spirit of McPhineas Lata (Lauri Kubuitsile)
  • The Mistress' Dog (David Medalie)
I for one look forward to the announcement of the winner on July 11th :) In a similar vein, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize went to a writer from Peru - Santiago Roncagliolo - for his novel, Red April.
Another £10,000 prize up for grabs each year is the Ondaatje Prize, which was this year awarded to Edmund de Waal for his book The Hare With Amber Eyes. Honoured under the prize criterion of 'evoking the spirit of a place', it was judged the winner by such luminaries as Ali Smith, Don Paterson and Sarah Waters.
John Le Carré
The famous abstainer from literary awards, John Le Carré, did, however, accept the Goethe Medal this year. In sadder news, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, which honours the best work by a writer under 35, has been suspended for 2011 due to lack of funding. Past winners have included Angela Carter and VS Naipaul.

Share the magic of Disney's Winnie The Pooh with your little one - for free
Until September 30th, Fairy Non Bio and Fabric Softener have partnered with Winnie The Pooh to offer three free audiobooks for all the family to enjoy. Purchase any marked pack of Fairy, send off the receipt, choose your book, and have it sent to you. You can find out more here. 

Movies of Books
Coming out this year is the film version of Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin - surely a challenging and ambitious project, as anyone who has read the book will know. How to balance its heart and its gruesomeness? How to get across the confusion the reader feels at the book's beginning due to the clever and somewhat bewildering way in which Shriver sets us up? In any case, the film-makers have tried, casting Ezra Miller in the title role and with Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly as support. Out on October 21st this year in the UK.
Furthermore, having recently seen the frankly crappy version of The Great Gatsby on the big screen - the one starring Mia Farrow - I wait with interest for the newest version, starring...LEONARDO DI CAPRIO as Gatsby. Think I might just die of happiness (even though, somewhat confusingly, it's coming out in 3D). Out in June 2012.

For sale...
An extremely rare, unfinished manuscript by Jane Austen will be going on sale at Sotheby's on July 14. Entitled "The Watsons", it is believed to have been written around 1804, and is even more significant due to the fact that no other original Austen manuscripts survive. It is today believed to sell for anything up to nearly half a million dollars...get your wallet out, then...

And speaking of ancient texts...
A dictionary detailing the minutiae of the 'dead' language of Akkadian has finally been completed after ninety years' work.  Started in 1921 at the University of Chicago, many researchers dedicated their entire working lives to the project, and still did not live to see its completion. But it is indeed now complete: the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now available as a window into this world, through every conceivable type of text from recipe to prescription. More can be read about the project here - and, with the full dictionary retailing at around $150, your interest need not stop there; for a work of this magnitude, 150 big ones is surprisingly cheap. 
A 500-year-old book also went on sale in Utah for $35,000, making the Assyrian Dictionary's price tag seem like small change in comparison. The partial copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, a history book originally published in Germany in the fifteenth century, is now open to offers; I'll be interested to see if it makes its asking price.

Done with stalking Stephen Fry and having precisely no followers? For your entertainment, has compiled a list of 50 Impressive Literary Figures You Should Follow On Twitter. So if you've ever wanted to find out what the Fight Club author eats for breakfast or hang onto Neil Gaiman's every word - now you can. (Or, of course, follow me at @biancasbookblog ...don't know why I'm not on that list :p ).
And considering the increasingly digital future of literature, it's probably worth knowing about Google's deal with the British Library to digitize books, which will allow readers to search a quarter of a million texts that were originally published between 1700 and 1870. The plan is also to digitize 40 million pages of newspapers dating back 350 years - bringing knowledge just that little bit closer to everyone's fingertips.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Fortune's Rocks (Anita Shreve)

--The blurb--
"In turn-of-the-century New England 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford is spending the summer with her parents at their seasonal house at Fortune's Rocks. She is swiftly despatched to Boston when it's discovered she has embarked on an affair with a friend of her father's, but Olympia is already pregnant."

--The review--
Teaching high school for the past three years has only consolidated my belief that there is no child of this age who is mentally/emotionally capable of adequate parenthood. Children of this age, even the very mature ones, are naturally still in a very difficult emotional stage and state; although I am sure many would try to make the best of teenage parenthood, they still have many things to sort out in their minds and hearts, and so many things to enjoy while young and childless that are difficult or impossible to do once you have a little person in tow.

Anita Shreve is the only person who has ever come close to changing my mind about this through the character of Olympia Biddeford. Whether this is because Olympia is not a realistic character, or whether this is because the author has shown the full maturity of certain young people, the impression we have as readers at least is that Shreve deftly combines the emotional and physical innocence of a flowering young lady with the emotional and intellectual maturity of someone really quite advanced. While there is a certain amount of idealism, though, the author does not keep us under any illusions: this is heading for trouble, and fast.

The antagonist, John Haskell, is guaranteed to polarise audiences: you will either understand him and empathise with him, and be on the side of his and Olympia's romance, or hate and revile him and side with his wife and children. But although the initial decisions of Olympia and John provide the book's kick-start, it is the decisions of others that prove the catalyst and make us want to keep reading, as their futures are repeatedly taken out of their hands. 

But there is more to Fortune's Rocks than mere romance and dalliance: the legal aspects of the novel are simultaneously well-researched and accessible, and this legacy is carried, albeit to a lesser degree, by the next generation of romantic novelists, including Jodi Picoult and Sophie Kinsella. But the difference between these novelists and Anita Shreve is not only to be found in the depth of research and character but also in the lack of vacuousness and the beauty of the prose provided by the author. This is not only romantic fiction - this is literary fiction of the highest order, and perhaps something that Shreve's inheritors have not been able to carry the torch for.

Although it takes a long time to reach the story's conclusion, we are not bored for a moment on the journey, and when we do get to the end, we are not only satisfied, but even a little disappointed to be leaving Olympia behind, having followed her for five important years of her life and seen her develop and grow while still remaining the same person. And so it is to readers' delight to find that Fortune's Rocks is only the first in a quartet set at the same beach house (with the following three being, in order, Sea Glass, The Pilot's Wife, and Body Surfing) - and when you have this reaction to knowing that in fact, there is more to come from this dream-like setting, that can only be a good sign.

Other works by Anita Shreve
Past The Island, Drifting (1975)
Eden Close (1989)
Strange Fits of Passion (1991)
Where Or When (1993)
Resistance (1995)
The Weight Of Water (1997)
The Pilot's Wife (1998)
The Last Time They Met (2001)
Sea Glass (2002)
All He Ever Wanted (2003)
Light On Snow (2004)
A Wedding In December (2005)
Body Surfing (2007)
Testimony (2008)
A Change in Altitude (2009)
Rescue (2010)

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Everything You Know (Zoe Heller)

--The blurb--
"Willy Muller has survived imprisonment for murdering his wife, years of hate mail from the public, and, most recently, the suicide of his daughter, Sadie. While recuperating from a heart attack, he finds himself drawn into the lonely world of his late daughter's diaries."

--The review--
Perhaps best known for her successful thriller Notes On A Scandal, which was turned into a bestselling film starring Cate Blanchett and Judy Dench, it is therefore arguably unsurprising that the author should have kept us all on our toes throughout her publishing career, with Everything You Know, her first novel, being no exception. The humour of Willy's compatriots balance out well the grisliness of Willy's own background and family; we read on not quite knowing how, or if, equilibrium will be reached.

The slightly engaging and yet slightly pathetic consonant protagonist, Willy Muller, keeps us hanging on by not letting us know until the very end whether he has been accused and subsequently imprisoned rightfully or wrongfully, and yet in spite of this suspense, when we are told the truth, we are not surprised - this being perhaps a testament to the skills of Ms Heller in building up character. Simultaneously, though, we are coached to believe that Muller is not necessarily a reliable narrator, and that therefore his confession may also be untrue. His relationships with his two daughters and their children have encompassed the whole spectrum of bad to nonexistent; why should his relationship with his readers be any more reliable?

Heller paints with scary precision and possible degrees of offensiveness a picture of Britain's lower classes, and, with equal accuracy, the own discomfort and prejudices felt (again, rightly or wrongly) by those seeing them from 'the other side'. Everything You Know, as with other books that I have read recently, seems to have as its principal message the idea that even if we do not follow in the exact same vein as our parents, they have the potential to make or break us more than any other influence. In the framework of this idea, then, it is thus natural that following on from Willy Muller's own shipwrecked life, his daughters' lives would be disadvantaged in their own ways (Sophie, by falling into a lifestyle controlled by drugs; Sadie, by becoming depressed and eventually committing suicide). However, Sadie's feelings that led to her suicide are not fully shed light on even by her diaries, which highlights the problem of how much is told about a single life (and brings us back round again to the problem of Willy's reliability as a narrator). The title of the book seeming to me to be too contrived, something about how much is revealed about someone, and in what way(s), may have been a better fit.

Strangely, while the novel is engrossing throughout, I suspect that this is mainly because we wish to find out the truth of the matter of Willy's imprisonment. Once this has been revealed, the book becomes forgettable, in spite of its ending of hope and empowerment. Ultimately the ideas that Heller presents are not new or original, even if the way in which they are presented is different: she may as well have prefaced the book with Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do...") and been done with it.

Other works by Zoe Heller
Notes On A Scandal (2003)
The Believers (2008)