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Where Or When Does A Book Begin

A photograph of a book sat on an opened book-sized envelope

“Where – or when – does a literary text begin?”

The above quotation from the first chapter of An Introduction To Literature, Criticism and Theory by Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett, is something that’s often mused upon in articles but not always so… bluntly. Certainly it’s a question that’s asked in so many words, but more often it’s an idea in itself, a thought that gets banded around when people talk of authors and readers seeing things differently and believing that particular aspects of books should be shown or written in particular ways.

I think there’s at least three stages of the book process – rather than the writing process to consider: the forming of the idea, writing the text, and the reader’s reading of it (which in this case is largely focused on the experience rather than the exercise).

The forming of the idea is perhaps the most exclusive part of the process. Until or unless the writer decides to share their thoughts at this stage, it belongs solely to them with no outsider influence. (I say ‘belongs’ in the context of the experience of a text, where each reading of a book and the resulting thoughts or imaginings and so forth belong to that reader.) A text does in effect begin here, with the thought, but there’s obviously no physical evidence of it and everything about it can be shared or withheld as the writer sees fit, so few would know the entirety of it. At most, in terms of a concrete beginning, we’re dealing with content akin to quotations, extracts. But for the author it is the beginning. Perhaps it’s also the beginning for fans, when news of a work in progress is shared.

However once the book has been out a few years focus largely remains on it rather than its development, meaning that it could be said that there’s a time when the idea is the beginning and then a longer time when it is not.

With the writing, it depends on your view. From the author’s point and likely their editor or friends and family, the text has begun. It’s always in mind, it’s discussed, likely a lot. There’s that interesting division of beginning and ending, where the author celebrates the launch of a book and the ending of all the hard work, and the readers celebrate the launch and the beginning of their journey into the pages. If the author has chronicled the writing process on a blog or in newspaper/magazine articles, the book may begin for readers there; some fans may view the very first mention of the book as the beginning of it.

In terms, of course, of generality, it could be said a text begins when readers start reading it. This is when the discussion between author and reader starts happening, when an unlimited number of interpretations and imaginations occur, creating new thoughts and visual imagery than the one that up to now has most if not solely been just the author’s own. If we view a book’s success by how many sales it makes, how much discussion there is about it, then there is surely a strong case to be made that the book’s release date is the date the book begins.

It’s a sliding scale of access, if you will, ever more branches of a tree that starts with the author, extends to their publishers and friends, and becomes impossible to quantity after publication.

Perhaps it’s simply individual – where does a text begin for you, whether you’re the author or reader (more likely in this case, the reader, because I think it’s fair to say an author will consider planning and the moment of the idea as the beginning)? So many different opinions… it would be impossible to state a definite time because all three periods of time are valid. For me it has a lot to do with the discussion around the book – whether the book is part of a series and therefore discussion happens long before the release date (or in the case of Philip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, the book’s been alive for 20 years…). If there’s hype, then actually holding the book in your hands can feel like the middle of the overall story, where the hype is the beginning and the final page the end. Books I haven’t heard about or for which there’s been less discussion, that first page is it. If there’s not much information about the author’s writing progress with the book, the idea of its existence is very much that, an idea rather than any true beginning.

What do you think – when does a book begin for you?

 
The Trouble With Goats And Sheep: Who Started The Fire?

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This is a question I had right up until the end of the book, in fact in a way I was still asking it after the closing pages. Cannon is both cunningly opaque – if you’ll forgive my 7am workday phrasing – and obvious, a not unclever mix that manages to be both literarily inspiring and literally frustrating.

Firstly, it’s best to put the fire in context: why was it started? The inevitable answer is that it was to cause damage to Walter. How much damage can’t be guessed, exactly, but we can assume that whilst some people wanted harm to befall him, whether it be verbal harm enough to cause him to leave of some sort of physical injury, the person who actually caused the fire was wanting devastation.

Why Walter? Because he was different. The residents didn’t understand him – nowadays we might say he is a bit odd, and the description ‘autistic’ would probably get throw around somewhere. Due to their lack of understanding, the neighbours thought he was nefarious and a threat to their children.

Who, then started the fire? It isn’t until the very end that Cannon relents and gives you a bit to go on – Mrs Forbes tells Sheila Dakin that she knew someone was in Walter’s house when everyone thought it empty, and then comes the blackmail: the photographs might be gone, but she’ll remember what was there. Mrs Forbes has something on Sheila and if Sheila doesn’t want it widely known she’d better stay mum about Mrs Forbes’ lighting the fire. Page 450 of the paperback version; the first line refers to Mrs Forbes’ cat being scared by Walter’s taxi:

‘Nasty taxi, scaring you off like that.’
Mrs Forbes kneaded Whiskey back again.
Sheila Dakin was frowning at her. ‘What taxi was that, Dot?’
‘The one that brought Walter and his mother home.’ Mrs Forbes carried on kneading, and gave more kisses to the top of Whiskey’s head. ‘I said to Margaret, it’s no wonder he ran off. Big, scary car like that, pulling up in the avenue in the middle of the night.’
‘You knew she was in the house?’ said Mrs Dakin.
Mrs Forbes smiled, ‘I thought they both were,’ she said.

…And then Mrs Forbes talks about photographs being gone but memories staying.

We know it was Mrs Forbes, beyond the above, because of the way Walter’s tea towels are found folded up on the range – Cannon talks about tea towels a couple of times in the book, providing a hint, but at those points it’s difficult to see any relevance, particularly as everyone in the book is… particular. Walter tells Grace and Tilly about the way he keeps his tea towels, and that doesn’t involve folding them. Later on we see Mrs Forbes’ tea towels in her home, folded neatly.

Mrs Forbes knew both Walter and his mother – not all that much older, it seems, than Mrs Forbes herself, and most certainly innocent – were in the house, and was angry enough about the situation the residents had constructed to kill.

The one saving grace is that it turns out the other residents weren’t thinking that far – well, if it can be called a saving grace.

 
Nicholas Royle – Ornithology

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Anthologies for birds, now in 140 characters or less.

Publisher: Cōnfingō Publishing
Pages: 177
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-59660-3
First Published: 2nd June 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A man obsesses over a woman he meets on Twitter whilst his neighbours seem to follow each other around. A man puts up shelving with his girlfriend as a man in a second block of flats across from him puts up shelving with the same girlfriend. A person who admires the ever-rarely seen birds about his house gets sick and finds an unknown entity inside him.

Ornithology is a collection of short stories on variations of the concept of birds and what they are. Individuality, identity, the modern world and phrasing, and the difference and likeness between birds and humans are all considered in what you will come to find a strange, weirdly horrific collection.

The collection bares a resemblance to Max Porter’s recent Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in fact for those of you who’ve read that book referring to it is a fairly good way to describe Ornithology. That eerieness of Porter’s book and its is-it-really-happening factor is here, too, in Royle’s collection. It’s a weird mix of respect for wildlife and the destruction of it, in many ways presenting an extreme version of the mix of protection and moves towards extinction we see today, with its often literal gobbling up of animals and transposing of what birds do to their prey onto the human condition. Different levels of strangeness appear throughout with the stories arranged in such a way that you start with the hint of magical realism and end up in the realms of science fiction and literal horror.

Some stories barely approach the main subject, using it more as a lean-to, whilst others are heavily invested. The first story, Unfollow, is a particular highlight and its placement sets the tone for the rest of the book; it’s a story in which social media and our appropriation of an onomatopoeic word are at the forefront of a tale that looks at a person’s worry that they are stalking someone online against a backdrop of people physically stalking each other. The Obscure Bird, a few stories in, looks at our relationship with each other and with birds, in a literal, all-consuming, way.

When it comes to the horror stories – in particular – some are better than others. There’s a reason for this – the book is a collection spanning years of work. The unfortunate fact is that these works on a theme inevitably include plots that are similar, resulting in a lessening of impact as you go along; on their own, each story is very good, with the usual slight differences in literary enjoyment you’d expect. It’s best to read this book slowly; it favours a dip in, dip out approach.

Overall, this is a top notch collection that keeps you thinking and provides a lot of literary pleasure. Consumed more slowly than a rogue human eating birds – it’s a strange beast, but there’s much beauty in it.

I received this book for review.

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Latest Acquisitions (September – October 2017)

I didn’t realise the last time I posted about acquisitions was January. High time for another; I may write about books in my Reading Life series but unless I’m actively reading/considering reading any one work at that time, it’ll get missed.

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A J Waines: Lost In The Lake – You knew this was coming! This is the author’s latest book and one we’ll be focusing on in our conversation. (I’ll be recording the event and may well write about it here as we’re working with a slightly different approach.)

April Munday: The Heir’s Tale – Released just last week, this is April’s latest book, a medieval romance with a blurb that has me thinking of Elizabeth Chadwick – awesome. You’ll know April from my blog comments; we’ve known each other a while. Look out for my review, it’ll be posted later this season, and may well prompt another foray into stories about the Middle Ages.

Hanif Kureshi: The Last Word – Those times when you read about something, are intrigued and then start seeing it everywhere. Mix that with finding a book that’s a comedy (reminds me of Alan Bennett), a semi-quick read, and a heavy discount, and buying happens.

J Courtney Sullivan: The Engagements – I’ve wanted to read Sullivan’s Maine for years, but it’s proved very difficult to find in Britain. (I once found a copy but it was very battered and not worth the brand new price.) This is the next best thing.

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Jane Harris: Sugar Money – I saw this in an article last week and noted it was going to be released on 5th October. I studied American slavery and abolition at university and it’s one of the subjects I’ve retained a big interest in. And when you add the author’s name to that… So, yesterday morning, I looked online for stock at my local Waterstones and there was a copy. I got there after work and it was nowhere to be seen on the shelves; I finally found it on the trolley, yet to be shelved. Bit of a laugh with the member of staff; I was most certainly allowed to take stock from the trolley and it was great it hadn’t even made it to the floor before being sold. With this book, I think my December reading list is complete.

Peter Ackroyd: Civil War – A couple of years ago I bought the previous book in this series in hardback, an impulse buy that nevertheless made absolute sense because, as I believe the common phrase goes, ‘because Tudors’, and thought I might get the next. Never did, and I passed that time when hardbacks are replaced by paperbacks. Then a nephew wanted a toy dinosaur, I found myself in The Works, and there was the book for £3. (For anyone not in Britain, The Works is mostly an art shop but they also sell a whole heap of discounted books.)

Tony Peake: North Facing – From the publisher, a book about South Africa set in the political upheaval of the 1960s. I can’t pretend to know anything more than that but the publisher, Myriad, have proved to be good so far.

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway – Readying myself for Christmas; I was planning to buy Orlando but it wasn’t there when I went in and I decided to take that as a hint that I should be starting with something else.

As you can tell by the essay above, I’m pretty excited about these books! I should also stop spending money on brand new books and concentrate on my backlog. Best intentions and all that. I’m currently living by the famous quote from Erasmus.

Do you ever go to buy a book on its release date?

 
Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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