World Book Night 2016


One of the ways of looking through the grim promise of cold, ice and snow still to come is to focus on events due to happen when the days are getting longer and, in theory at least, warmer and brighter.  April 23rd is a landmark date for me, a date when, normally, you can guarantee that the weather has taken a turn for the better and that Spring has really won the battle over its Wintery predecessor. I say ‘normally’ because I do still vividly remember queueing on the last Saturday in April, outside The Other Place, in the days when it was still first come, first seated, with the snow mounting ever higher round my boots and icicles beginning to form on the end of my nose.Normally, then, April 23rd is my day of triumph.  It is, of course, also Shakespeare’s birthday and, as we are remind this morning, World Book Night.

I haven’t taken an active part in World Book Night since the year of its inception, mainly because short of standing in the local High Street and handing out books to unsuspecting passersby, I have found it difficult to identify a local community who would welcome the gift in the numbers in which givers receive them.  The communities to which I belong are, by self-selection, already readers and, as the idea is to expand the reading population, to hand them out there would seem to be self-defeating.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop me taking an active interest in what books are selected each year and this morning’s announcement of the fifteen books chosen for 2016 is interesting, if only because it seems to me that it is rather more ‘populist’ than it has been in the past.  There are, for example, four first class crime novels on the list, including Sharon Bolton’s Now You See Me and Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin.  Both of these are the first novels in compelling series and this would make them an excellent choice if what you are aiming to do is encourage the recipients to read on after World Book Night is over.  In terms of local interest, however, if I was to apply this time round I suppose I should go for Jonathan Coe’s early novel, The Rotter’s Club. This is set here in Birmingham and is a wonderfully accurate description of what it was like to grow up in the city in the 1970s.  No-one who was living here at the time could fail to recognise the landscapes, environmental, social and political, that Coe describes but a friend of mine was actually at school with the author and he says that in addition the small details are precise in a way that only someone who actually lived through the experience with Coe could possibly appreciate.

You can find the full details of the list and descriptions of all the books on the World Book Night website.  If you are intending to apply I would be really interested to know which book you would choose and the type of community to which you would gift it.  Perhaps that would give me some ideas as to how I could get involved myself this time round.

Comfort Reading

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3One day last week The Guardian ran an article about comfort reading: the literary equivalent of diving for the cake tin at those moments when it seems as if the world is against you and nothing other than sheer indulgence will banish the horrors and restore your sense of equilibrium.  I’m sure we all know about both of these phenomena, if for no other reason than that the two very often go hand in hand.  What better way to cock a snook at the unfairness of the world than with a good book accompanied by a very large slice of cake?  And if it can be accompanied by a welcoming pot of tea all the better.

The comments that the article provoked, each with the writers’ own list of comfort reads, were fascinating, not the least for the number of times that the Harry Potter books appeared.  When we are in need of consolation many of us, it seems, go back to our childhood reading, reminders perhaps of that period in our lives when we could retreat from the unjust world without too many repercussions.

One of the items in the list made by a reader with the pseudonym ShutUpBanks, was all of Helene Hanff and this made me realise that I actually have two different sorts of comfort read.  When I am not well I automatically reach for 84 Charing Cross Road.   In fact, if you ever see me reading Hanff’s first exploration of her love affair with London and it’s secondhand book trade you should probably give me a wide berth because the chances are that I am seriously infectious.

However, when it’s just a ‘the world doesn’t like me and what’s more I’m not particularly fond of it either’ type of comfort I’m looking for then worryingly the first thing I’m going to pick up is a crime novel – hardly likely to make me feel better about society, you would have thought, immersing myself in the worst that it has to throw at me and exposing myself to the sort of unspeakable crimes that you’re likely to find in modern police procedurals.  Or, perhaps it is that seeing just how bad other people’s lot can be eventually reconciles me to my own.  After all, neither victim nor perpetrator is likely to find themselves treated to a comforting slice of cake and a pot of the best leaf tea going, are they?  What do you think?

Books Talking To Books

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70A librarian friend of mine has this theory that books talk to each other and that whatever book you pick up next it will have some link with the one that you’ve just finished.  I think she formed this one year when she found herself reading several books, one after the other, in which people performed various unmentionable acts with sheep.  I can’t be sure about that.  I have to say that despite her enthusiasm I wasn’t exactly drawn to the subject matter.  Anyway, I found myself thinking about that earlier this week when the Dickens course moved on to Oliver Twist.  One of the critical passages we were asked to read detailed Queen Victoria’s response to the novel and the entry she made in her journal about a discussion of the book she had with Lord Melbourne.  Her Majesty had been much moved by the plight of the people in the workhouse and wished to know what could be done about it.  It was Lord Melbourne who, in this instance, ‘was not amused’.  He wanted nothing to do with the book and Victoria quotes him as saying:

I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.

In other words, if I don’t have to look at them I don’t have to acknowledge that they exist and thus cannot possibly be expected to do anything about them.

Coincidentally (or was it really books talking to books again) on Monday I lead a group discussion of Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  This followed what was a third read for me and details of the first two and my response to the book can be found here.  One of the things that I appreciate about Fowler’s work is that she recognises that the question of whether or not animals should be involved in developing life-saving drugs is only easily answered if you or a member of your family is not in need of the resulting medication.  Nobody’s arguing these issues are easy, her main character, Rosie, says.  But in an interview the author offers a more nuanced position that is also explored in the book.

What I can say is that I think we should not be doing things that are invisible to us.  I think that people would not stand for the factory farms if they saw them.  We’re removed from this.  And now there’s a great effort to make it illegal to go into these farms and show people what happens…If we can’t bear to look at it then we should not be doing it.

What the eye doesn’t see the heart needn’t grieve over.

Nearly two hundred years apart the sentiments are the same.  Look the other way and we can pretend nothing wrong, nothing evil, is happening. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Dickens Update

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3As I promised at the weekend, a quick post to catch up with the Dickens course.  A very quick post, because as is the case with most (all?) online courses, and probably most others too, the suggested time needed each week to complete the work set is ridiculously underestimated.  I think it was advertised as three to five hours a week.  You can double the top of that estimate easily.  Not that I mind that, I just think courses should be more open about the necessary commitment, although they are probably wary of the numbers that would enrol if they were upfront about the hours.

I was talking about this with my Shakespeare group, yesterday.  We are studying Love’s Labour’s Lost and you will remember that the play starts with the King of Navarre and three of his Lords vowing to study for three years while they live a life withdrawn from almost all other society.  The idea isn’t Shakespeare’s own.  There really were such Academies in France at this time, drawing their inspiration via Renaissance Italy from those of Ancient Greece. Within moments, however, the King is forced to recognise the sheer impracticality of the idea.  Life imposes itself.  He cannot neglect his other duties. I know how he feels.  Finding ten hours in a week that is made up of 168 of the darned things (169 this week!) sounds as though it would be a doddle. Until, that is, you try to do it.

Anyway, I have got some of this week’s work out of the way.  We have moved on from considering the role of the city for the moment and are thinking about the extent to which you can legitimately see Dickens own biography in his writing. I am not going to rehearse the well worn arguments about biographical interpretations of a writer’s work.  I can see points in favour of both those who say never and those who say always.  I suppose my position is that most of us make decisions every day based on what we have experienced in the past and I can’t see why a writer should be any different, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make an active decision not to reflect those experiences in their writing.  I am probably in the sometimes camp.

What I do have a problem with, however, is those biographers who make inferences about their subjects with no evidence whatsoever and then present it as a fact.  My favourite example of this comes from a biography of Christopher Marlowe.  I had been having problems with the writer from the beginning of the text but when, talking about Marlowe’s reaction to the work of a Cambridge contemporary, he claimed if Marlowe read this, he was amused I finally exploded. If Marlowe read this, I think he might have been amused, I might just about have coped with, although I would have preferred him to tell me on what grounds he thought the playwright was so tickled.  I would actually have liked something along the lines of Marlowe read this and we know he was amused because we have his authenticated copy of the book and in the margin he has written ‘I am amused’.  That, however, would be crying for the moon.  The trouble is, of course, that once you hit a statement like this, one for which there is no real evidence, you begin to question all the other statements that have been presented as fact.  I know that biographers have to be prepared to make inferences from evidential material and we as readers have to be prepared to weigh the value of such inferences, but sometimes the writer goes to far.

So, I think I am going to take my Dickens cold and not worry about what is or isn’t biographical.  They are cracking good stories and for me that is ultimately what matters.


Sunday Round-Up

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fIn theory this ought to be a good day for writing blog posts.  There is, after all, a whole extra hour that can be dedicated either to reading books or to writing about them. Somehow, though, it never quite works out like that.  I get completely disorientated by the change in the clocks and although the autumn experience isn’t quite as disturbing as the one in the spring, when we lose an hour, nevertheless it will be the end of the week before my internal clock resets itself and life returns to something approximating normal.  This doesn’t bode well as I have a lot to get through over the next seven days with a class on Love’s Labour’s Lost to develop and teach, the work for my Dickens class to continue and a book club discussion for the following Monday to prepare, on top of all the other normal weekly commitments.  If I go under and vanish from view then it has been good knowing you all.

Literary Fiction

What do you think of, I wonder, when you hear the phrase literary fiction?  It was bandied around rather a lot last Wednesday when the group reading that book I was finding so troublesome met for our monthly discussion.  Only a third of the group had managed to finish it, although to be fair they had all enjoyed it.  The rest of us, for one reason or another, had admitted defeat.  I did try to battle on to the end, despite all your good advice, but when I found myself setting out to clean the kitchen for the second time in as many days just to avoid reading I knew that a line had to be drawn.  The member who had chosen the book was severely disappointed in us and several times during the evening she commented on the fact that she really enjoyed literary fiction.  The implication was obvious.  This was literary fiction, and it was clearly not for the likes of the rest of us.  The implied hierarchy in both books and readers was fairly obvious as well.

Literary fiction is a difficult thing to define.   I’m fairly sure I know what the fiction bit means but after that I start to fight shy of anything concrete.  On Wednesday it seemed to mean ‘books that you have to work really hard to understand and even then will only appreciate if you are very very clever indeed’.  I tried to think of books that I would describe as literary fiction in the hope that I would find a common thread linking them which would offer enlightenment.  My first thought was just about anything by Colm Tóibín, Jim Crace or Julian Barnes.  When I read works by these authors I have a sense that every word on the page has been carefully weighted to account for what it adds to the novel as a whole before being allowed to stand.  There is a rhythm to their writing, whether it is at the level of the sentence, the chapter or the entire book. I come away from a first read blown away, but knowing that there will be more to gain from a second, third or even fourth read.  Crucially, I look forward to subsequent readings.  I add that last thought because I suspect that my reading group colleague would argue that all that was true of her choice of book. The important difference for me being that I had to fight my way through it the first time and wouldn’t go back to it if I was paid.

I suspect that for some people literary fiction is defined in a negative way in as much as they would see it as that which is not genre fiction.  Now that, I think, really does smack of literary snobbery.  I will fight anyone who argues that Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction is not literary or what about P D James’ crime fiction, especially from her middle period.  I first came across Katharine Kerr’s fantasy novels when one of them was included in a corpus a friend was working with and the quality of the writing stood out so strongly against the other data that we just had to break protocol and find out what it was she was reading.

So, what is literary fiction?  If it is fiction I have to fight in order to even begin to understand it, then I will gladly admit to not being clever enough and let it pass me by.

Emergency Poet

I was going to report on how the Dickens course is going, but this post is long enough as it is.  I will come back to that midweek, perhaps.  I did just want to say, however, that those of you who commented on my entry about Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet might like to know that Deborah herself came by and left a thank you message in response to your enthusiasm for what she is doing. You can see what she has to say here.

A New Road Or A Secret Gate

Image 1Yesterday morning I went to the memorial service for an ex-colleague of mine.  It was both a sad and a joyful occasion.  Sad because Chris died far too young, yet joyful because he was a man full of life and those of us who gathered had so many happy memories to share.  He was interested in everything and always eager to pass his enthusiasms on to the students he taught and, through his media work, to the wider public.  You couldn’t be bored around him because he would always have some new scrap of information that he had just discovered and which he was itching to pass on to all and sundry.  As someone said, Chris bored was a dangerous to be around.  He would have to find something to be interested in and given his extreme sense of humour that something could turn out to be dramatic.

I was surprised then when one of the poems chosen for the service was Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.  I’m sure that you know it.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If ever there was someone who travelled down as many roads as possible it was Chris.

I love this poem but more because I love the idea of taking the road less travelled and not being phased by society’s reaction than because I think it isn’t possible to deliberately step aside and take another way.  I have a young friend who all her life has marched to the beat of a different drum and who, when she finishes university at the end of this year, already has a job lined up in a field that will bring her very little in the way of material or financial recompense but which will fill each day with hard work, friendship and gladness.  She will take the road less travelled and she will make a tremendous difference.  Chris also made a difference, but in his case because he took so many roads.  I thought the other poetic choice was better thought through.  Not perhaps of quite the same literary merit but very appropriate for a man who was always conscious of living in the land that inspired much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Chris was always looking for that new road, that secret gate and I shall miss sharing the news from strange places that he brought back with him from his wide ranging journeys.

Emergency Poet

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3One of the things I find myself bemoaning is how little poetry I read these days.  At one point I would take a poetry book with me as the perfect way to pass the time on a long journey: something that I could dip in and out of without losing the sense of what I was reading as a result of the inevitable interruptions. Maybe it’s because I don’t seem to do long journeys by public transport any more that I’ve fallen out of the habit, I don’t know.  I was gratified then, yesterday morning, to find that, despite my lack of  recent attention to the genre, I was acquainted with all the poems that turned up in a radio interview with the Emergency Poet.

I don’t know if you’ve come across the poet Deborah Alma, aka The Emergency Poet,  I have to say that until yesterday I hadn’t, although from the information on her website she appears to be reasonably local to me.  The basic idea is that she and her 1970s ambulance, accompanied by Nurse Verse, appear at festivals, libraries, schools and various literary events to offer consultations for the sick and needy followed by the prescription of an appropriate, and hopefully, healing poem.  To quote from her website

a mix of the serious, the therapeutic and the theatrical, the Emergency Poet offers consultations inside her ambulance and prescribes poems as cures.  In the waiting room under an attached awning Nurse Verse dispenses ‘poemcetomols’ and other poetic pills and treatment from the ‘Cold Comfort Pharmacy’…

Dressed in white coat and stethoscope, Emergency Poet travels in her 1970s ambulance, accompanied by Nurse Verse or the Poemedic…anywhere where poetic help may be urgently required…

The poetic version of the Novel Cure, I suppose.

A full consultation takes about ten minutes but if you haven’t got time for that or if the Emergency Poet is busy then you can get a supply of ‘poemcetomols’ from the nurse or poemedic.  These appear to take the form of small capsules with a section of a poem inside.  Yesterday the radio presenters found themselves prescribed works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Keats and one of my favourite e e cummings poems:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Unfortunately, I find that I’ve missed a local appearance by just over a week but I shall certainly keep an eye on the website to see when Deborah Alma is next going to be in the area.  I suspect a ‘poemcetomol’ would do far more good to a troubled soul than any amount of its pharmaceutical counterpart.

A Moral Dilemma

imagesA brief and late midweek post, I’m afraid, after what has truly been a week from hell; a week that is actually being made much worse by a book.

Tell me, what do you do when a book that has been set for your reading group turns out to be (in your opinion, at least) a duff?

At the moment I am ploughing my way, around fifty pages a day, through a book that I have to be ready to discuss next Wednesday evening.  I know that the person who chose the novel thinks that it is marvellous.  As far as I’m concerned it is as dry as the ships biscuit that I suspect some of the characters survived on, not to mention falling over itself trying to be clever. On the principle that life is too short to continue reading books like this, under any other circumstances I would have tossed it at least a couple of days ago, but this is for a book group and the whole idea is to read other people’s choices so as to expand our literary horizons.  I keep plodding my way on in the hope that at some point it will explode into a blaze of glory and I will achieve enlightenment.  At the moment, I am still fumbling in the dark.

So, what would you do.  Press on regardless and meet your moral obligation or give up and read something to lighten your life instead.  I tell you, just now, even Oliver Twist  is more uplifting.

Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.


The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.


I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!

Prologue or Epilogue?

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70Over the weekend I re-read Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows for a discussion with my Monday afternoon book group.  One of the elements that came up as we talked was the author’s use of a prologue, a device which appears to be increasingly common in modern novels.  I come across them most often it seems in crime fiction where they tend to serve as a way of filling the reader in on an occurrence that has happened before the primary event line begins.  This might be the actual crime whose investigation is going to form the main body of the story or possibly an event that occurred many years previously but which acted as a trigger for what is about to take place.  Either way it helps to place the reader in a superior position to that of the investigating officers because initially, at least, we have more information then they do about what is going on.

I have to say that I am ambiguous about these prologues.  What is not to like about feeling superior you might ask, but sometimes I simply don’t want to engage with the information they give me.  This is probably because many of those that you come across in crime fiction are particularly brutal providing, as they do, details of some poor individual’s last moments. However, I don’t think I have the animosity to them on principle that one friend of mine does. She flatly refuses to read them and has been known to go as far as striking repeat offenders of her reading list.  As far as she is concerned they are a sign of lazy writing.  She wants the details they contain woven into the main story rather than having them presented flat out at the beginning.

I have to admit to having a more than passing interest in this topic at the moment as I have the beginnings of an idea for what might become a major project to do with both prologues and epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays. So I was more than usually interested in what Shamsie does in Burnt Shadows because, although the passage is announced as, and appears where you would expect to find, a prologue, the material which it contains actually serves as an epilogue.  As a result you read the book in anticipation of finding out how one of the main characters ends up in the situation you now know is going to be his fate after the book concludes.  I am not someone who reads the last page first so that I know in advance where a story is going, although I have friends who habitually do read that way, so I am even less certain how I feel about this than I am about how I feel about prologues in general.  What I do know is that in this modern prose incarnation they are performing a very different role to that which they fulfil in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and it would be interesting to trace the line of development.

How do you feel about being presented with a prologue at the beginning of a novel?  Do you know of any interesting examples?  And what about a prologue that reveals all?  Does it stop you in your tracks or make you want to read on on the grounds that the journey is more important than the destination?