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)