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Reading Life: 24th November 2017

A promotional photograph for the 1953 film Roman Holiday

Reading has slowed down a bit as the preparations for Christmas have started but over all I’ve been reading quite a lot. I haven’t yet started the Young Writer books I took home from the event but once I’ve finished the book I’m currently reading it’ll be all systems go. Despite the looming award announcement date and the fact that before then there are a few things to be done, not least getting the decorations ready, I hope to have read a good amount of them, with ‘amount’ being the word rather than ‘number’ – I may well read a couple in tandem.

I also have Tony Peake’s North Facing still to read. I’m a bit late on the review for that one but I’m planning it for December.

At the moment I’m concentrating of J Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements; a good book if a bit too descriptive – lots of extraneous back story which explains why the book is over 500 pages. I have been wanting to read the author’s début, Maine, since its release date a few years ago but it’s proved difficult to find; the one and only time I found a copy it was very battered and whilst I did want to read it I didn’t want to pay full price. I liken the situation to that of Maile Meloy – they are likely different subjects and stories but the covers, at least in the US, are similar and both authors’ works are ridiculously difficult to find in Britain a month or so after publication. I do reckon I would prefer Maine but the one I’m reading is a fair enough substitute.

I’m holding off on the new Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen translation (Secret Passages In A Hillside Town) because a few pages in I recognised it as prime ‘certain mood/situation’ material. I very much want to read it and the few pages I read suggested it’ll be just as good as The Rabbit Back Literature Society but I want to be giving it all my attention.

I decided to start Mrs Dalloway but found it quite confusing; I’m not sure whether it’s a case of it being the wrong time or whether it needs longer or it’s just something that won’t work for me but as I was already reading it earlier than planned I’ve put it back on the December reading list. I was having trouble working out the time period and Clarissa’s age – had to resort to Wikipedia – and I knew carrying on at that point might make me uninterested. Perhaps it’s just not the right Woolf for me to be starting with.

Talking of a few pages, I’ve a mind to start ‘letting’ myself browse before committing to a read. I’ve always thought – at least in terms of my own reading – that reading a few pages to decide what to read next is unproductive, but I know it will help me to read the right book at the right time.

Something I can’t not talk about that isn’t book related – a couple of days ago I saw Roman Holiday for the first time. I’m going through an Audrey Hepburn film phase rather like my Marilyn Monroe phase a few years ago, and have got a box set of films. Well, I absolutely loved it and found it to be one of those media items that’s in a league of its own, akin to that idea that a book can be absolutely stellar but then there’s a category beyond that for which there are no words. I liked that the plot wasn’t bog standard and deviated a bit from the stereotypical royal-gets-away-and-or-meets-a-member-of-the-public theme and the ending was incredibly clever. Next up is a re-watch of Breakfast At Tiffanys; can’t wait, though in literal terms I’ll have to.

A question about Mrs Dalloway, then:

Does the story come into its own pretty quickly, and did you find yourself confused in the way I did? (If you can answer without spoilers, that’d be great.)

2017 Young Writer Of The Year Award Blogger Event

A photograph of Sara Taylor, Julianne Pachino, Claire North, Minoo Dinshaw, and Robert Collins

“To be paid to write novels is the single greatest privilege of my life”. — Claire North

Last week I and others got to meet four of the five shortlisted authors for the Young Writer of the Year Award. The writers read from their work and spoke about the past and future.

From left to right of this unfortunately bad photo: Sara Taylor (The Lauras), Julianne Pachino (The Lucky Ones), Claire North (The End Of The Day), and Minoo Dinshaw (Outlandish Knight). Chairing was Robert Collins, formally of The Sunday Times.

At the now-usual Groucho Club, we talked over wine and nibbles, various bloggers, including this year’s shadow judges, and publicists in attendance. The shadow judges are yet to meet up to decide on their winner but they’ve been in conversation about what they’re reading. I’m very much looking forward to hearing their decision, which will be announced next Wednesday.

For The Lauras, Sara Taylor wrote both Alex and Ma’s stories at the same time. Alex was a gender in themselves, they were just ‘Alex’ to her. She started writing the book in 2012, before gender was a topic of discussion in the US and was writing it at the time she realised she’d be remaining in the UK. She wanted her book to speak back to Maureen Duffy’s Love Child.

Julianne found having only one setting too hard. She wrote her short stories and then saw the connections between them. The US publishers market it as a novel.

Claire North (Kat)’s parents were concerned about her having a ‘real job’, writing wasn’t seen as a career but she said they are proud. The author was first published at 14 and, now at 30, has written over a dozen books under three different names.

Minoo Dinshaw said that writing is the only thing he’s good at. He would like to try his hand at fiction in the future. He said that writing is a way of doing everything and being anyone, a thought that was agreed with by all.

I brought back with me the books I’ve not yet read and will be reviewing them in due course, hopefully before the award ceremony date (7th December) – it should be do-able in every case except, perhaps, Dinshaw’s book which is over 600 pages. Having only read one of the shortlist I can’t say I’ve a favourite yet, and judging by what we heard that may be difficult!

Helen Oyeyemi – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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…But this book may be yours.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 263
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-29936-3
First Published: 8th March 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2017
Rating: 5/5

An abandoned child looks for the lock that the key around her neck is linked to; a girl looking for a place in the world joins a puppetry school and her experience of the paranormal extends beyond the ghost in her house; an all-female university society seeks new members, detailing its history with the all-male society that led to their own creation.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a fantastic and fantastical short story collection of the sort that draws you in swiftly and keeps you glued to the page.

These stories don’t always come with a message or shocking ending like some, but there’s a grain of truth (or fictional truth) in all of them. What they are is incredibly enjoyable; the mix of fantasy and paranormal together with the balance of contemporary and historical is a dream to read. Then there’s the fact that often, stories are written in such a way that they seem historical when they aren’t, and it’s the magic of them that makes them feel as though they’re set in the past. Take the first story, for example, Books And Roses that has a big element of The Secret Garden in it, where things are not bona fide magical but do feel so. (Books And Roses also features a massive library so it’s beautiful in that way, too.) Is Your Blood As Red As This? calls in a paranormal, almost horrific, vibe, looking at ghosts and puppets, the second of which might be able to move by themselves. Then there’s the wonderfully titled If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think? which doesn’t tell you exactly what it’s about – you find out the consequence for unlocking the book but not the history or reason for what happens – but that doesn’t really matter. It’s bizarre, but here bizarre is a feature, something that you nod or even shrug about and then move on, the strangeness somehow making the book even better.

On the subject of stories sometimes seeming historic when they aren’t, the writing plays a big part. Oyeyemi’s prose is simply gorgeous, somewhere between the literary fiction of today and the glorious Gothic of the Victorian period. (Oyeyemi recently covered Emily Brontë’s writing for a television documentary so there’s an influence here. She’s also inferred a love of classics elsewhere.) It’s just lovely, the sort of writing you want to be reading for hours.

The book mainly looks at women but there are a number of men, and the book is diverse in race, setting, and sexuality. Sometimes these things are they with reason, so to speak – that is to say they are there for a studious reason – other times they’re just part of the story, the collection being a mix of stories for interest-sake only and ones that look into society. Indeed one story looks at one society in particular, focusing on the fictional Homely Wench Society of Cambridge, formed to rival a male-only one.

Do the stories go on on occasion? Yes and no. These are slightly-longer-than-usual stories, so it can feel you’re reading them for a long time, but as books go, the 263 pages really aren’t a lot and there aren’t any dull moments. The object of the book does seem to be to entertain first and foremost and perhaps leave you with something to think about. Above all, the experience of reading it is the highlight. With its admittedly random, long titles, no matter how interesting they might be, it can be difficult to recall later exactly what you were reading and for once that’s not a big drawback, the similarities in the tales being intentional with the same characters showing up various times.

In an entirely unrelated song from the 1980s, Radio Musica, British singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw sung ‘Experience has made me rich’. I note it here because that is the perfect way to describe What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Reading this book leaves a small mark in your conscious – whilst you may not necessarily wish it would carry on forever, your sense of literary knowledge will be better for having read it.

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The Absolute Right Mood And Time

A photograph of a copy of Helen Oyeyemi's What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours facing forwards against a shelf of books, and with a rose lying in front of it

Yesterday was a particularly strong example of a reading phenomenon that I don’t think has a name.

At some point in the last two years, I bought Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and a little while later I attempted to read it. I want to say that these events happened in the last year – it feels like that’s the situation and it would make yesterday’s reading more interesting – but I have the hardback which was published in March 2016, so it can’t have been much longer than that date.

On trying to read the book I found I couldn’t get into it. I remember thinking the writing was lovely, but that it was too heavy a subject and needed a lot of attention. I considered what I’d surely considered before I’d bought it, that Boy, Snow, Bird had proved to be nice but a bit of a mess, and that buying the new book had been a bit of a silly idea.

I left it and left it and didn’t really have even a vague notion of returning it to for a very long time.

Well, in comes yesterday, I was wanting to read something on my shelves and as I was heading over to the books I received last Christmas that I still haven’t read, my eyes fell on the Oyeyemi and I thought I’d give it a go. I didn’t expect much.

It’s now Monday morning and it’s off the currently reading list already. I started it just before lunchtime and spent the rest of the day reading. I absolutely loved it; it was everything I look for in a book. Granted it was completely bizarre and didn’t always make complete sense, but those two things were more a positive feature than a drawback.

Being in the right mood to read a book is often discussed. So too is timing. And I think both of those ideas may have applied to me, but usually you get a sense that you’re reading the wrong book. That first time with the Oyeyemi felt, on the face of it, perfect, but, particularly in yesterday’s case, as I read the pages I’d read before it seemed to be a completely different book.

Perhaps it was because I was wary then, of reading another Oyeyemi, whereas since that time I’ve read interviews with her and have come to understand that the bizarre is a long-used feature. Maybe this time because I was resigned to the idea that I might end up shelving it again – I went in with the thought to take a quick peek and certainly didn’t envisage spending the rest of my day on it – it worked for me. I don’t know. But I think I should pay more attention than I do to that feeling of it being the wrong mood, wrong time, even when I’m otherwise raring to go.

Interestingly this doesn’t tend to happen with review copies. It does sometimes but generally not. Perhaps in those cases I’ve spent long enough beforehand contemplating them.

What books have you put aside with indifference only to return later and love them to pieces?

Hanif Kureishi – The Last Word

Book Cover

Or words, plural. Many.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 344
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22755-1
First Published: 21st October 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Harry is charged with writing a biography of Mamoon Azam, a literary giant; his editor promises it will launch his career. And so Harry goes to meet Mamoon and his Italian wife – his second wife, previously a fan of his work – and stays with them for a time, getting to know them both. There’s a lot to Mamoon’s life that Harry thinks should be included but the literary star has other ideas.

The Last Word is a somewhat comic novel looking at the situation and life of a fictional, rather pretentious person. Some reviews have said it seems to be a parody/based on V S Naipaul – Naipaul’s love life as reported on the internet does match Mamoon’s, albeit that Mamoon’s in this case is incredibly exaggerated.

The novel begins well and is very funny, but it quickly becomes stoic, with Harry, Mamoon, and Liana spending their days talking about various subjects and doing nothing else. The slight philosophical vibe of the book becomes overdone and repetitive, the plot never really going anywhere.

In addition to this the main characters are difficult. Harry spends his time talking about his strong feelings for his fiancée, Alice… whilst in bed with Julia, a person who works at Mamoon’s. Is this whole situation and sexual promiscuity likely part of the whole parody? Yes, but when there’s no really story arc to it and it’s included just because, it’s hard to say it’s of any worth.

This is to say that no one in this book learns anything, there is no character development at all and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the book, except perhaps, if it’s simply a sort of inside joke about another, factual, writer.

If you know a lot about Naipaul – if we consider it could be about him – then you might enjoy it but beyond the first few chapters (which are admittedly stellar) it’s difficult to say this one is worth your time. The type of comedy has a lot to recommend it – in another book, perhaps.

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