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).