Tag Archives: Bookclub

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein

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The one thing you can often expect from Bildungsroman is little plot and that’s ok if the characters’ journeys are captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish.  I’m generally a fan of this genre (although I have a secret dislike for Catcher in the Rye – there, I’ve said it!), I’m a patient enough reader not to be troubled by the lack of “action” and I’m very happy witnessing characters develop, grow and learn about themselves.  My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, introduces us to Elena and Lila, friends from an early age, this book charts the ebb and flow of their connection as the girls endure the hardships of post-war Italy and how the social norms in their small community shape their lives and choices – all narrated by Elena.

The thing Ferrante excels at is the detailed and spot-on depiction of the intensity of women’s relationships; mother-daughter and girlfriends.  Elena’s voice in this book, which ends when the girls are 16, was very reminiscent for me of that love/hate emotion and natural competitiveness that springs from close friendship during formative teen years; the realisation that your friend is brighter than you, more beautiful than you, expresses herself better, is more confident around boys, is all-round more popular and it pricks that oddest of mixed feelings, jealousy and admiration.  It either spurs you on to be better or leads you to detest your friend.  Elena feels all of these things towards Lila and sometimes we get a glimpse that Lila also feels jealous of Elena’s good fortune at being able to continue her education when Lila can’t.

Ferrante is not afraid of confronting ugly human behaviour and presenting it with shocking honesty.  The complacent violence towards women and girls in this book is treated with accepted normality as is Elena’s first and unsolicited sexual experience at the hands of the father of a boy in her year at school, but perhaps more shocking to readers could be how Elena feels about and reflects on this episode.

Mostly though, this book is about two girls finding their way in life, making the best choices available to them from very few options in a neighbourhood governed by hierarchy, violence and tradition.

“Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”

 

 

 

 

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Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 3

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I am crap at this business of posting regularly.  It’s been over 2 weeks since I saw Kate Atkinson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I’ve still not managed to write-up her talk or anything else for that matter.  Having said that, everything she talked about was so fascinating I don’t think it really matters how tardy I’ve been with getting this out.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has been an ever present feature of the last 20 years of my reading life.  I have read all her novels in almost the sequence they were written, except this one.  Whilst waiting for Atkinson to take to the stage, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  We chatted as festival goers do; what have you been to? what have you got coming up? I told her my “I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s books except this one” story, whereupon the man in front of me, clearly earwigging the conversation turned and said “oh you just must, it’s divine.”  And I guess this is the thing with Kate Atkinson.  She appeals to a broad range of readers, because life in her varied stories is recognisable. She writes about every day, ordinary observations with such vividness that it plays out in my head like a film in glorious technicolor.  Her novels feature her trademark dry wit, always bringing a smirk to my face – they cheer me up.  This was the first time I’d seen her talk and she was no less interesting in the flesh than on the page.

A God in Ruins is a companion book to Life After Life, featuring at its centre Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy. Atkinson said she knew Teddy would have his own book.  She was saving him for it.  Asked about the timeframe of this new book, she told us the second world war is endlessly fascinating for British people, we can’t seem to leave it behind.  She has always written about being English and this book is no different; it is really about gaining a sense of Englishness in a post war setting.  The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from her coronation to her golden jubilee, provides the framework for the book although this may not be immediately obvious to a reader.  Atkinson said that when she wrote Life After Life she really inhabited the Second World War period and had done significant research, so when it came to A God in Ruins she already knew how her characters would behave, what they would say and how they would say it.  She had been working with wartime vocabulary for a long time, so everything felt immediately familiar and she did minimal research.

Atkinson also talked about her writing process.  Interestingly, she generally starts a book at the beginning and writes in sequence.  She tends to write the first chapter over and over (sometimes only the opening paragraph) until it is right, then she will move on.  As the book nears its conclusion, she tends to write almost constantly and her work flows more easily.  She holds the whole book in her head, so she knows where she is at any one moment.  Writing sequentially stops the temptation to write all the good bits first and leave the difficult stuff till last – which can only lead to disaster.  She finds writing beginnings and endings simple, it’s the middle bits that cause her problems.  My ignorance of the writing process became obvious to me when Atkinson was asked how long it had taken her to write the passage she read aloud (no longer than 4 pages).  I thought, maybe a morning? It took her a week to get it perfect!  She realises she has an odd attitude to editing and re-writing.  She loves doing it and sees it as a process of constant improvement.

Having an authentic relationship with her characters is vital to her as a writer.  She said “Characters require authenticity and the reader knows and can see when a writer fails at this relationship.”  Her characters always appear to her fully formed and are immediately in her head in all their amazing roundness before she starts a new book.  She is a writer who loves plot and structure, but character is everything to her and the driving force behind her work.  She also said that all fiction is about fiction and identity.  As readers we know we are reading a book, a work of fiction, so we want art, not reality; the skill is in making that art real.

Her final thoughts were on reading.  She told us that when she writes, she never thinks about her readers in terms of what they may want.  There are too many readers to satisfy them all.  Her advice was “You have to be your own best reader first, if the book is good for me as a reader, then I am happy.”   She added that she has spent most of her life reading.  Reading is the best apprenticeship for any writer.  In fact she said “If you want to write, you have to read everything ever written”  I’d better crack on then!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Jackson Brodie & Me

Life After Life

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 2

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Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson

The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker.  The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.

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She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it.  She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage.  Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death.  Clearly, a new direction for the bard.  Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular.  “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”

Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips.  It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery.  There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).

You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow

What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.

I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all.  But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.

Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation.  She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.

Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze.  She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances.  She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past.  She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.

Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded.  She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire.  She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page.  She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.

She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago.  It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard.  As the angel fell, he folded in his wings.  He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die.  This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche.  She finally managed to get it into this book.

She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself.  But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently.  She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer.  “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now.  Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”

I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV.  This latest encounter has only made me admire her more.  We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.

Next up – Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 1

My Bedside Table 2

Back to the bedside table…

The pile of books at the back of the table is made up of the next books to be read or books I dip in and out of as and when I fancy it.

After the recent interest in Birdsong due to the lovely BBC adaptation, one of my bookgroups chose Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks as our next book to read.  I have to confess that I’ve read a few of his and none lives up to Birdsong (although Engleby is brilliant in an unsettling way), so I am looking forward to reading this war romance to see how it measures up.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is also a bookclub book.  Anne Bronte is probably the lesser known of the Bronte sisters, but don’t underestimate her…oh no, this lady packed a punch in her day.  This book caused uproar when it was published, as it concerns a woman, Helen, who leaves her husband because he mentally and physically abuses her and her son.  Such behaviour was unheard of in Anne Bronte’s day, but many women will have suffered like Helen.  It was a shocking novel at the time and was chosen by a fellow bookclubber for that reason, our theme being “books that caused a scandal when published”.  There are so many books that fall under this banner, but goodness, most of us have read them all.  It is refreshing to come across something that isn’t normally found on the classic newspaper lists.  I have to admit that I have cheated a little when it comes to this book, as Woman’s Hour serialised an adaptation just after we chose it and I was captivated from the first installment.  I cannot wait to get stuck into the book.

Susan Hill is a fascinating writer and reviewer.  She is one of those people who seems to know so much about books and writers.  I came across this book, Howards End Is On The Landing, here.  It is a memoir of her reading life.  She wanders the multitude of bookshelves in her house that bend and heave under the sheer weight of the books she owns, some of which she hasn’t read or forgot she even had in her collection.   She decided to spend a year re-reading and discovering books on her shelves rather than buying new ones.  This book is an account of her rediscovering well-loved titles and discussing the merits of one book over another, one author over another.  Her aim to find a definitive 40 titles that she could not bear to live without, but it has to be only 40.  Imagine how hard this would be…the discussion about Shakespeare is particularly amusing.  But there is more to this book than merely Susan talking about her favourite titles.  There are some beautiful anecdotal passages in which she describes her encounters with some literary heavyweights.  These private vignettes add a human angle to the books she writes about and reminds us that writers are just like the rest of us.  The great thing about Susan Hill’s book is that you don’t have to read it in one sitting.  I love just dipping in and out of it.

When I got married a couple of years ago, we themed our tables around the books and writers we loved.  I bought some old books with titles that had something to do with marriage from a lovely local charity bookshop.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the contents, only the titles.  We mixed these up with books by our favourite authors and decorated our tables with them.  The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett was one of them.   I didn’t know anything about Arnold Bennett, and then coincidentally read about him in 2 different places in the same week.  The first was in Susan Hill’s aforementioned book.  She doesn’t say much about him other than he was a prolific writer of novels and diaries.  I then read an article about him in the Guardian and realised that I owned one of his books.  Hence it is now on my bedside table as I intend to pick it up at some point soon.  Strangely enough he also had an omelette named after him after he requested that the chefs at the Savoy make him something special.

I no longer recall why One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on my bedside table.  I finished it a long time ago and absolutely adored it.  I suspect it is there because I want to read it again.  I’m not going to write more than that about Marquez right now as I suspect he may become a regular feature.

The saddest title on my bedside table is the next one; What Can I Do To Help by Deborah Hutton.  This book is on loan from a friend who knows that one of my close friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and when I first found out, I struggled with how I could best be of practical help.  It was really useful at the start, but I think I can return it now as I have realised that, for me to be myself is all my friend needs.  I never really got on with self-help books.

I love getting a quick blast of wit from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.  These poems are so readable and a bit like the Guardian column “What I’m Really Thinking”.  They all have the same mocking tone of a wife, partner or sister of a notable man assessing their achievements and failures.  It’s just hilariously amusing.

The final 2 books are slightly linked.  A bit like the Susan Hill and Carol Ann Duffy books, there are times when nothing but a short story will do.  Raymond Carver is a master in this area and this book is a classic example of how books lead you to other books.  I was reading a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.   In it, he talks about having stolen the idea for his title from the Raymond Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Now, I don’t own that book but we did have Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Mr Fiction Habit couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it.  At about the same time I heard one of Carver’s stories, The Fat Man, read aloud on a podcast I subscribe to…it all led me to the book on my bedside table.  The other collection of short stories, I recently snaffled from the Guardian and I’m sure that some of the stories will lead me to yet more great writers…

My bedside table

How do you open a blog?  It’s difficult to know how to start and what to write about first.  I want this to be the place where I record my general ramblings about the books I read and love.  They are such a huge part of my life.  Therefore where better to start than with the books I am reading at the moment.

So, what does my bedside table say about me?  You wouldn’t know it by looking at the picture, but I have recently culled some books from my bedside table.  So in its current state, what can you tell?

Well, the tissues and paracetamol suggest that I have been unwell recently – this is true.  Two days on the sofa last week, first time in a long time.  I am on the mend but haven’t cleared away the things that kept me going.  The framed drawing of me was made at school for last year’s Mother’s Day by Little FictionHabit 2 (LFH2).  I couldn’t possibly put it anywhere else.  The old copy of the Guardian’s G2 has a crossword in it that I’ve not done yet, so I’m saving it!

Now to the books; they suggest that maybe I am incapable of putting books back on the shelves once I’ve completed them, therefore I must be a slovenly sort.  Maybe they suggest that I over-commit myself when it comes to reading, that I probably never finish what I start, or am indecisive and therefore keep piling more and more onto the table in the hope that something will jump out at me?

The last two points are not really true of me.  I nearly always finish what I start to read.  Mr Fiction Habit says that life is too short to read a book you are not enjoying.  He is right to a certain extent, but I very rarely pick up a book I don’t enjoy in some way.  There have also been times when I have been unconvinced by a book in the early chapters only to be blown away by the end.  I am also generally decisive about what to read next.  This is helped to a certain extent by the fact that I am a member of 3 bookclubs.  My reading matter tends to be chosen for me!  It is in this respect that I am perhaps over-committed!  I do find time to read my own choice of book, but probably not often enough.  I am reluctant to give up any of my bookclubs though, as they are made up of 3 very different groups of friends and I have been introduced to all sorts of writers because of them.

So let me run through the piles of books and attempt to explain why each of the books is on my bedside table.

The top book is the one I am reading at the moment.  Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road.  This is the sort of book that most people read in their late teens or early 20s almost as a set text to growing up.  I never got around to it then, but it was recently chosen by one of my bookclubs under the theme “classic road trip books”.  This book certainly falls under this banner.  I haven’t finished it yet, so I may write about it at some point.  Under that book are 4 books I got for my birthday last week.  Pure by Andrew Miller, the recent winner of the Costa award, is a saga set in pre-revolutionary France.  Having recently read A Tale of Two Cities I am intrigued to read this view of that time period in Paris. The London Train by Tessa Hadley is a story of two lives connected by a train journey.  Unfortunately this isn’t a copy with the lovely original linoprint cover.  Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson will be my first attempt at reading a book by this author.  I have found her fascinating to listen to when I’ve heard her interviewed on the radio and am looking forward to starting this memoir of her childhood.

The last book is the only one of the 4 new books that I have actually finished.  In fact I almost had it done by the end of my birthday.  It is a beautifully illustrated tome called Habibi by Craig Thompson.  This is a graphic novel with the most divine illustration, that you can spend hours looking at a page and still find more to look at.  I have read a couple of graphic novels before; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds being the one I remember most fondly.  I began reading the weekly installments of this story in the Guardian when it was serialised prior to publication, and then received the book one Christmas.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lent it to someone who hasn’t returned it and of course I now don’t recall who the borrower is.

Habibi, however, is in a different league altogether.  In fact I want to witter on about it so much now that I’m likely to hijack this post if I’m not careful.  I will write something about it in a future post.

Let me tell you about the other pile of books another time…