Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Bookworm News (July 2012)

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012
The longlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize was announced this month, with several famous names sitting alongside debut novelists. Perhaps unsurprising given the series' success and popularity, Hilary Mantel features with Wolf Hall's sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Other famous names on the list are Michael Frayn for Skios, Will Self for Umbrella, and André Brink (who is nominated for his 21st novel, Philida). These individuals are in the company of several other novelists who have also written multiple books but somehow stayed off the radar: Nicola Barker (nominated for her ninth novel, The Yips), Deborah Levy (who is also nominated for her ninth novel, entitled Swimming Home), Ned Beauman (for second novel The Teleportation Accident) and Tan Twan Eng, for The Garden of Evening Mists (his second novel). Finally come the debutants: Jeet Thayil (with Narcopolis), Sam Thompson (for Communion Town), Alison Moore (The Lighthouse), and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry).

So who do I think is in with a shout? Rightly or wrongly, it is rare for a relative unknown to win this prize, so I would skew more towards Will Self as a possible winner (perhaps because I am already a fan of his writing). From among the more unknown authors, Ned Beauman - whose success at such a young age almost makes me wish I'd never heard of him - seems the brightest star thanks to a strong literary and journalistic track record, especially in the face of competition such as Sam Thompson's Communion Town (which gets very bad reviews on Amazon) and Alison Moore (whose debut novel, The Lighthouse, for which she is nominated, is not even available to the general public yet. The mind boggles). In any case - more on this subject once I've managed to have a closer look at the books. May the best win!

Banned Books Week
Yep, there's a week for this. And I think it's so unspeakably cool that I'll be trying to spearhead a week of related activities at my school throughout its duration (September 29 - October 6, for the interested). As part of the festivities, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression will help booksellers make videos of people reading from banned books and post them online. And we all know how much kids (whether reluctant or avid readers) love a video clip. More than 90 videos were produced last year by booksellers alone, with more than 800 videos being posted in total of people reading banned books on YouTube. Intrigued? Then check out http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/ for extra info. You'll find me in the resources section, printing out book lists and posters, and checking out display ideas and activities. And, if you're anything like me, you'll be buying one of these as well.

Join The Great Book Migration
The rest of the year is also packed with a whole host of stunning literary activities: as well as NaNoWriMo in November, you can also join The Great Book Migration. Vision correction specialists Ultralase, in conjunction with UK athlete Jonathan Edwards, have decided to track 100 books in a nation that spends an average of 8 hours reading per week (which, encouragingly, is higher than I would have thought). From Dracula to One Day, the books will be found in public places with 'Read Me' labels attached. The finders can then log where they found the book using QR codes, Twitter, Facebook or email. Keep your eyes open now...they really could be anywhere from airports to park benches. Plus, if you find a book, you not only get to keep it but are also entered into a draw to win a £10 Amazon voucher. So get hunting - and remember those who have lost their sight to a degree that they are no longer able to experience the joy of reading traditional books.

The UK's favourite fictional folk
A poll of over 2000 people has been conducted to reveal Britain's favourite literary characters. Some of the results are arguably surprising (with Hermione trouncing Harry, for one), but it's perhaps a no-brainer that a beloved Jane Austen character comes very close to the top of the list. With Bond fever sweeping the nation, however (see the Bond in Motion exhibition at Beaulieu, or the Designing 007 expo in London for more "shaken, not stirred" goodness), it's this fictional Secret Service agent who steals the top spot. Here's the list in full:

1. James Bond
2. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice)
3. Jane Eyre
4. Hermione Grainger (Harry Potter series)
5. Miss Marple (Agatha Christie)
6. Harry Potter
7. Gandalf
8. Bella (Twilight)
9. Poirot
10. Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy)

There are plenty of cinematic treats to look forward to in the near future as yet more books are transformed into films and released on DVD for our viewing pleasure. Bel Ami, based on the 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant and starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci, was released on DVD this month, and the newest incarnation of Les Misérables on the silver screen coming out at the end of December for some countries, and at the beginning of January for others. Starring such luminaries as Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, it promises to be a strong contender to the 1998 version (featuring the hunky Liam Neeson). Before that, though, is the first adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in October, which has Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent in leading roles. What with all this excitement (plus the new version of The Great Gatsby also coming out before Christmas), I may barely be able to contain myself. I might need a cinema subscription this term.
Thomas Pynchon's full back catalogue to be published in ebook form for first time
Celebrated US author Pynchon is probably most famous for Gravity's Rainbow - a weighty tome which not even I have read (although it's been on my Amazon wishlist for some time). However, this writer's back catalogue is about to become even more accessible to the modern reader due to being made available for ebook readers for the first time. Not only will Gravity's Rainbow suddenly become ultra-portable, but so will Against The Day, Inherent Vice, Slow Learner, and others. So now there's no excuse to not get cracking - although the nature of most ebook devices means other passengers on your commute won't be able to take a sneaky peek at the cover and be secretly impressed, sadly.

Looking to detox pre-Christmas?
Yep, it's the C-word - but sadly it's necessary to think this far ahead if you're like me and just go mad when faced with a plate of mince pies. There are always going to be various methods of preparing for this and putting a damage limitation strategy into action (mine will probably be Weight Watchers...again). But another strategy could lie in the hands of the raw foodists, such as Rebecca Kane, whose new book is out now. Whether you're looking to lose weight, improve your health, change your relationship with food, feel more confident, or just discover new foods, a raw food diet (even for a short time) could tick those boxes. The author lost 4 stone this way and has coached would-be raw foodists for 10 years on this particular lifestyle, before now incarnating the raw food philosophy into an easy-to-digest book for your delectation. The book, entitled Turn Your Shine On, is supposed to encourage us to reconnect with ourselves, and its recipes and tips could even help alleviate conditions such as migraines and IBS. Although the book has meal plans, it also encourages readers to choose appropriate goals and manage their own progress between stages, balancing a 100% raw philosophy with a normal day-to-day lifestyle (which doesn't mean you can never eat lasagne or cake again. YAY.).
The pen is mightier than the sword
In this age of digital wizardry, it can seem alien or strange at times to pick up a proper pen or pencil. With my handwriting already having slightly schizophrenic qualities, I worry occasionally that without practice, the art of handwriting something beautifully could be lost. Ed Beerbohm, from Paperstone, agrees. “The resurgence of the fountain pen is yet another instance of our increasing appetite for nostalgia," he says. "The march of technology can be quite alienating and it is not surprising that some of us want to connect to a simpler past which the fountain pen seems to embody.” I still take great pleasure in writing handwritten letters to my special ones and fear that this, too, is a dying art. Reminiscing is supposed to be great for mental health (as long as you don't spend *all* your time doing it, presumably), so if harking back to simpler methods we can enhance our well-being, I'm all for it. I remember being at school in the late 1990s, where we were obsessed by pens of all kinds, from Parkers (Chris, I'm looking at you!) to scented gel pens (pretty much obligatory along with being total Spice Girls homies), stopping off at glittery pencils along the way. Encouragingly, fountain pen sales are rising - meaning that, hopefully, there are others out there who feel as I do. Now - where's my Parker?

Saturday, 28 July 2012

For A Dancer (Emma L Stephens)

--The blurb--
"Brought up in an environment riddled with substance abuse and neglect, Emma has big dreams and little chance of ever reaching them. By the age of fourteen she is on her own, determined to escape the mentality that has crippled her family, but to succeed would mean leaving behind her sister and betraying the only life she's ever known. From the Virginia countryside to the streets of Paris, through teenage motherhood and higher education, share Emma's tears and triumphs as she searches for acceptance in an exclusive world and finds love in the most unlikely of places."

--The review--
Over the past few years, it has become clear to the media, to universities, and most importantly to many students themselves and their families that a university education is no longer a golden ticket. Once the 'open sesame' to many prestigious jobs, it is now little more than an expensive library card, and the dismay associated with unemployment or having to take a job in a totally unrelated profession to one's degree is augmented by those who have got where they are on connections, or those who have renounced the idea of a degree altogether and gained their status through work experience. Through poor advice given to them combined in some cases with a lack of proactivity, many graduates languish upon graduation and begin to feel that their hard work has been worthless. 

Initially, Emma Stephens' story seems like a rerun of this plot line at the start of For A Dancer, where she laments having gone to business school only to find that the very market she has been learning about has essentially collapsed by the time of her graduation. Of course we all want someone to blame when something goes wrong in our lives; accepting that we have made bad choices (such as not getting the right work experience, or enough work experience, or have not done enough to seek the right advice or get the highest grades we could) is a very difficult thing to do, after all. The whining tone that starts off this memoir therefore means the writer runs the risk of alienating their audience. Even if readers have gone through similar tribulations themselves, running the "why me?" gamut of emotions can be tiresome to read and unhelpful in real life. However, there is thankfully more to Stephens' memoir than this initially unpromising opening, so readers are encouraged to persevere.

Although part of the highly popular 'misery lit' genre, any gruesome details are left out, meaning that reading For A Dancer does not feel (too) voyeuristic. She is also darkly humorous in several places (although whether this is intentional or not is unclear), making this different to your average misery memoir. This is not to say that the reader never feels sad or frustrated on the writer's behalf: at times when many would give up, she is able to determinedly restore her courage, work hard and carry on in a way that is truly inspiring. Several readers will also recognise aspects of the author in others (or perhaps even in themselves), bringing home the sobering reality of Stephens' childhood and youth.

One cannot help but feel, though, that this autobiography requires some tidying up still, and it is therefore a surprise to find that it is already out in paperback despite linguistic errors such as "affect change" rather than "effect change" and "si vous plait" for "s'il vous plaît". Some parts of the story also feel rather rushed, and the mention of love in the book's blurb is curious given that the writer seems to experience every shade of lust, but rarely, if ever, love. In addition, the 'dancer' connection is far too tenuous and is never carried strongly through the story; while the lyrics of the Jackson Browne song to which it refers are highly relevant to Stephens' tale, this link is at no point handled with dexterity.

As with a lot of self-published work, then, it proves that writing is more difficult than Stephens (and many others) anticipate: you cannot just wordvomit onto a page and call it writing. It needs further crafting and thought than this, and cannot just be treated as yet another in a long line of professions the 'author' wants to try their hand at (Stephens acknowledges in her final chapter, more or less, that she views writing as such, having already attempted careers in medicine, real estate, acting, and others). On the plus side, Stephens is well aware of her flaws (like most of us) and knows that blame for the way her life has turned out is laid at her own door for equally valid reasons for laying blame with others. And, like most, she resolves to make the best of those mistakes, and although writing this memoir as a cathartic exercise is surely part of this process for her, For A Dancer certainly needs further editing and refinement before it is served to more members of the general public.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Diary of a Nobody (George and Weedon Grossmith)

--The blurb--
"Mr Pooter's diary is a faithful record of the daily grind in respectable suburbia and the city office. It tells of his constant war against insolent tradesmen and impudent junior clerks, his incomprehensible son Lupin, and his over-whelming feeling that the biggest joke is on him."

--The review-- 
Many twenty-first century comedians take delight in poking fun at the average Joe: stand-up artist Bill Bailey, for example, uses one delightful couple, Clive and Beryl Pocock, as the exaggerated epitome of Mr and Mrs Average (who enjoy shopping at Asda and are overwhelmed by pipe cleaners and tea breaks). Some even make it the basis of their entire comedic oeuvre, with Sue Townsend satirising your run-of-the-mill geeky teen in the Adrian Mole series and Ricky Gervais emphasising his main character David Brent's over-inflated sense of self-importance in The Office. 

But these modern comedians weren't the first by any means to latch on to this concept, and while the idea likely goes back many thousands of years to the times of ancient Greek and Roman comedy, another excellent example can be found in the annals of nineteenth-century literature, in the form of George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, which was originally serialised in satirical paper Punch with illustrations by Weedon. It seems that the brothers' talents for endless, as when they weren't penning this comic novel, they were busy in other comic avenues: George in working closely with musical comedy writers Gilbert and Sullivan, and Weedon performing as a comic actor.

This history of comic experience and expertise is apparent in the tightly-executed and humour-filled Diary of a Nobody. The 1892 epistolary novel focuses on the activity of Charles Pooter and his family, and we are soon drawn in to the minutiae of their day-to-day lives and Pooter's preoccupation with his social standing - without being so drawn in that we are unable to laugh. A careful balance is struck between predictability (we know when Lupin comes back home to live that it will all go horribly wrong) and keeping the reader in the dark (just what is Lupin hiding?), although arguably not all issues raised are satisfactorily resolved or explained.

The plot of the novel is well-controlled by its authors, and by just sticking to a few characters and giving them strong personalities (the execrable Cummings and Gowing, the flamboyant Lupin, the simpering Carrie, the embarrassing Daisy, and the dignified Mr Perkupp), the writers ensure a memorable read. They are also occasionally self-referential, with Pooter seeming baffled by his son's interest in the song "See Me Dance The Polka" - a song in fact written by George Grossmith himself. At the end of the novel, the door is left wide open for another sequel whereby hilarity could easily ensue; lamentably, the Grossmith brothers never did write a follow-up to Diary of a Nobody. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why so many film and stage adaptations of this work have been made over the years, and why so many modern comedians have been - and will continue to be - inspired by this seminal work of classic comedy.

Other works by George Grossmith
A Society Clown (Reminiscences) (1888) 
Piano and I: Further Reminiscences (1910)

Other work by Weedon Grossmith
From Studio to Stage (1913)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Winnie and Gurley: The Best-Kept Family Secret (Robert G Hewitt)

--The blurb--
"When they met in 1906, Winnie Griffith was the headstrong fifteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy small-town merchant and Gurley Hewitt the hardworking twenty-year-old orphaned son of a Methodist circuit rider. When they fell madly in love, nobody approved. It took them two years to overcome the opposition, and then they married. It was a romantic beginning. This is the story of its tragic end.
Award-winning artist Robert Hewitt is the youngest grandchild of Winnie and Gurley. Throughout much of his life the family conspired to keep him ignorant of his grandparents' story even as they were hanging onto a large horde of memorabilia and materials that, all together, told the tale. All of it ended up in Winnie's gargantuan black trunk, the same trunk in which she'd carried her schoolgirl wardrobe back and forth on the train to Rollins College. After Winnie's death, at her specific instruction, the family gave the trunk to Robert. Reader response to his 2010 memoir of the toys and activities of his childhood - No Instructions Needed: An American Boyhood in the 1950s - made Robert open the trunk and follow the clues. In Winnie and Gurley: The Best-Kept Family Secret, he invites us to join a quest for family truth in which he unwinds the threads of deception and memory. The result is the discovery of an all-American mix of ambition and ardor all but fated not to end well. Definitely a Who Do You Think You Are? kind of story, Winnie and Gurley: The Best-Kept Family Secret is a book to be relished and thought about about anyone who's ever wondered if things were exactly as they seemed in his or her family."

--The review--
An apocryphal story that's often to be found in collections such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul series shows a teacher asking their class how many of them know something about their parents, then grandparents, then great-grandparents. Progressively fewer and fewer hands are raised, and it's chilling to think that in just three generations, most of us will be forgotten by our descendants. Stories like Winnie and Gurley go a long way towards preventing this happening in author Robert G Hewitt's family (although he is an only child, and never mentions having any children of his own, so it's possible that the story dies with him anyway).

In any case, the circumstances following the death of the protagonist, Winnie, combine with an extraordinary treasure trove of evidence and memorabilia to create a spellbinding narrative. Part biography, part mystery, and part photojournalism, the format is equally unique - but it is for this reason that buying Winnie and Gurley in the form of a physical book is more advisable than purchasing it as an ebook, purely to maximise the quality and enjoyment of the photographs and documents provided. These are interspersed throughout the book, with informative captions, and are best viewed close up in the highest resolution possible and on good-quality paper, rather than on a screen.

The story is not always told chronologically, but this doesn't make it difficult to follow (although this is not to say that the inclusion of a simple family tree would not have helped). To the contrary, it makes compelling reading, with the reader desiring further, detailed explanations of what has actually occurred within the family. However, it is in some ways clear that the book is not ready for publication beyond the ebook format: graphics at times seem amateurish, information is at times repeated unnecessarily and occasionally the story appears disorganised, which is always a danger with choosing a non-chronological format. An editor would need to take a red pen to this before traditional publication was considered, but the reading public would surely benefit from the result. The combination of genres as mentioned above means there is something in the tale to appeal to all, and Hewitt's style is trusting and only semi-formal, giving the impression that he is telling the story to you personally.

It's possible that some readers find the ending unsatisfactory, as ultimately the mystery is never resolved, but this is true to life, where not all mysteries are resolved. Even though this is the case, what remains is a precious legacy not just for the Hewitt family, but for readers everywhere.

Other work by Robert G Hewitt
No Instructions Needed: An American Boyhood in the 1950s

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Starlight (Stella Gibbons)

--The blurb--
"Gladys and Annie Barnes are impoverished sisters who have seen better times. They live in a modest cottage in the backstreets of Highate with Mr Fisher, a mild but eccentric old man living secretively in the attic above them. Their quiet lives are thrown into confusion when a new landlord takes over, a dreaded and unscrupulous 'rackman'. He installs his wife in part of the cottages in the hope that there she will recover from an unspecified malady. With a mounting sense of fear, Gladys and Annie become convinced she is possessed by an evil spirit..."

--The review-- 
When an author has such success with just one novel from their back catalogue (in Stella Gibbons' case, Cold Comfort Farm), it is perhaps tempting to avoid releasing the rest of their works so many years after they were originally published in order to avoid the risk of criticism that this exposes them to - after all, they have a lot to live up to when the writer's most successful work has sold millions and been made in numerous stage and film adaptations. So how far has it paid off in Gibbons' case?

Many of her other works prove incisive, well-developed, humorous, and tautly told, with winning characters to boot. My American is one such work which stands up sufficiently on its own to rival the strength of Cold Comfort Farm and its sequels, and Gibbons' short stories are also promising. However, others, such as Nightingale Wood, are readable enough at the time but ultimately prove forgettable. 

Starlight falls somewhere in between the two. While perhaps not a long-lasting classic in the way of My American, it has too intriguing and distinctive a basis to be best consigned to the annals of history in the way of Nightingale Wood. The main characters are potentially charming, but are frequently too caricatured in appearance and in foibles of speech to be taken in any way seriously. The relationship between Peggy and Arnold is equally improbable and the reader at no point truly believes in it, meaning its resolution seems equally implausible. 

The at-times solid relationships and situations that Gibbons does create for us in Starlight, though, are frequently let down by a lack of detail. For instance, it is not clear why the 'rackman' (or landlord) would strike such fear into the hearts of Gladys and Annie, and it's possible that today's readers require a little more historical context for a fuller understanding (even extensive Googling furnishes the 21st-century reader with no further enlightenment). The concept of 'starlight' is only thinly threaded throughout the novel, in a way that is nowhere near substantial enough to make the link with the title obvious. Subplots (such as Gladys' relationship with her former employer, or Peggy's relationship with her current one) are glossed over and rushed and the reader is left feeling as if they have missed out in some way.

This lack of attention to detail (which is most uncharacteristic of Gibbons' work) results in an equal deficiency of empathy and sympathy towards the characters, and even those that we should have arguably cared about the most (such as the lovable yet eccentric Mr Fisher, or the long-suffering Erika) have their stories cut short or so rushed that we cannot care too much about how they end up. It is a shame that a story with such a unique and original basis could have fallen so short of expectations, especially as it does not seem that it was beyond Gibbons' capabilities to fulfil these.

From all of these observations, great hope in the novel can still be found. Although imperfect, it merits a second read so that readers can extract details that they may have missed the first time through, and certainly has a place among Gibbons' more widely-read works.

A full list of works by Stella Gibbons can be found here.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Girl From The South (Joanna Trollope)

--The blurb--
"This story follows a group of the young and single - children of 60's swingers. They are bedevilled by indecision, choice, tradition, and their parents' marital history. The men can't commit, the girls can't reconcile independence and maternity, the rules seem to be vanishing. And time is passing."

--The review--
Light-hearted novels by Joanna Trollope such as Marrying The Mistress and A Village Affair have sold in their thousands across the UK and beyond. Ordinarily they constitute perfect reading for tired commutes and beach lounging. But what of one of her lesser-known works, Girl From The South (which is now ten years old)?

Attractive for its range of contrasting settings, readers are also perhaps intrigued by the way in which the cast of young Brits and Americans collide, and how their relationships fare as a result. This would appear to be a promising premise, but Trollope lets us down not through the characters or even the premise but thanks to the lack of detail she gives.

While it is certainly possible that such non-committal and immature people exist, and that there are people who act as they do, we are not given enough detail as to why this is. The "children of 60s swingers" theme is not played upon nearly strongly enough if the author wanted to include it, and Gillon's background and family history is a complete enigma. Her Southern US heritage is evoked nicely through her family members, but the reasons for her feeling like the "black sheep" of the family are unclear. Readers would benefit more from this novel if Trollope had shed some more light on this. Even though the 'being yourself' element is strong in this novel, the 'finding yourself' strand could have been elaborated on further.

Girl From The South is packed full of beautiful descriptions and sage life advice, but a novel cannot be carried on this alone. Empathy is indeed possible thanks to the unrequited love experienced by Tilly and Ashley, but this is as far as it goes. The majority of the other characters seem implausible, forgettable, or just incomprehensible. Although they are human, it often still proves difficult to identify with them. Even when characters are more developed, such as Gillon's parents, the whole effort still feels shallow, superficial, and like it could have gone further (incidentally, the situation in which Gillon's parents find themselves is never fully resolved, and neither is the childhood and youth of Gillon's grandmother Sarah. This lack of resolution was equally disappointing). There is the impression therein that Joanna Trollope "knows" her characters well and yet chooses not to pass this knowledge onto us.

So much potential in the plot and characters ultimately comes to nothing, with the settings perhaps being this novel's strongest point. New readers are better off starting off with stronger Trollope classics, such as The Choir, and leaving Girl From The South for the library bargain table.

Other works by Joanna Trollope
The Choir (1988)
A Village Affair (1989)
A Passionate Man (1990)
The Rector's Wife (1991)
The Men and the Girls (1992)
A Spanish Lover (1993)
Next of Kin (1996)
The Best of Friends (1998)
Other People's Children (1998)
Marrying The Mistress (2000)
Brother and Sister (2004)
Second Honeymoon (2006)
Friday Nights (2007) 
The Other Family (2010)
Daughters-in-Law (2011)
The Soldier's Wife (2012)