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Next Stop Procrastination #10

An illustration from the original edition of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

I thought I’d do something different this time; there have been so many book-related happenings this week I thought it’d be good to list them all as well as my usual links. Lots of the award links are home pages so they will change over time.

Awards

The Man Booker International longlist
Wellcome Book Prize shortlist
The British Book Awards list
(Bailey’s) Women’s Prize For Fiction

London Book Fair and London Book & Screen Week

The new Hay Festival in Aarhus, Denmark
Winners of the Cameo award for adaptations
Highlights of the week

Individual Authors

Chigozie Obioma: who should I write for – Nigerians, Africans, or everyone?
Naomi Frisby’s awesome interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Another Sarah Ladipo Manyika interview, focused on her newest work
Jessie Greengrass on the art of writing short stories and related information on the Great Auk
Mrs Austen’s opinion of Jane’s books
On Daphne Du Maurier and her Rebecca
Anne Brontë – the sister who got there first

Miscellaneous Book-Related Articles

British humiliation and The Cursed Child
Book Riot’s list of 100 must-read lesser-known classics (some aren’t so lesser-known). There’s also a list of 100 books about books
Sex, death, and the short story
By fellow book blogger, Jenny, A rallying cry for more subgenres
How we read and how it affects us
The lost art of illustrating your favourite books
Technology and the evolution of storytelling
Salvador Dali’s illustrations for Wonderland
A very brief piece: the Japanese word for buying books and not reading them
When celebrities are photographed with books (on Marilyn Monroe)
Forgotten libraries of the ancient world
Chetham’s Library in Manchester
Fiction vs non-fiction: English literature’s made-up divide
A look at the ‘___’s Daughter’ trend
When pop culture respects readers
The right book at the right time
Podcasts and literary criticism

Other

Sara Forbes Bonetta – the West African god daughter of Queen Victoria
Aphantasia – where one cannot visualise imagery
What ‘my body, my choice’ means to me as a woman with a disability
Newly discovered 700-year-old Knights Templar cave
In search of language’s missing link

 
Reading Life: 15th March 2017

A photograph of a blackbird

I’ve read outside, sleeves pulled up to the elbows, twice now this month. Glorious. I currently have a couple of books I’m right in the middle of and a couple more I’ve put on hold for the time being. Those on hold I hope to get back to soon – I know I should finish them anyway but there’s the additional downside of it seeming as though I’ve read more books than I have: my reading log has six unfinished books on it which inevitably ups the overall number of ‘books’.

At the moment I’m concentrating on two novels – Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia and Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore.

The O’Reilly is a book I chose from a back catalogue. It’s one I heard a lot about around the time it was published and was intrigued by, but I’m glad of the space in-between its release date and my reading it. It’s about Aemilia Lanyer, a poet/minor courtier who lived in the 1600s. She was the first woman, at least in Britain, to be paid for her craft and knew Queen Elizabeth. ‘Craft’ in the other sense is also relevant – literature about her involves a level of what would have been termed witchcraft (herbs, potions) and Lanyer is known to have visited an astrologer.

Dark Aemilia

I’m glad I waited because I have added context in which to read it; Elizabeth Fremantle’s most recent release, The Girl In The Glass Tower, is another interpretation of Aemilia and so I liked the idea of hearing two different voices on the subject in a short period of time. Both books are indeed very different – whereas Fremantle’s Aemilia is widowed, poor, and focused on her possibly fictional friendship with the Lady Arbella Stuart (great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII), as well as the rumours of witchcraft, O’Reilly’s book takes place at court during Aemilia’s younger years and concerns the possible connection between the poet and Shakespeare. Both books are written in very differing manners so whilst they’re fictional you do get the feeling you’re reading widely.

(Of Shakespeare it has been proposed Aemilia was his ‘Dark Lady’, hence O’Reilly’s title. It’s suggested that Aemilia may have been his muse; the film Shakespeare In Love seems to have been a starting point for O’Reilly and after having read up on Aemilia, I was rather surprised to discover the film does not directly reference her.)

Dark Aemilia is a good book; there is a lot of period detail and O’Reilly’s evidently taken her time over it. The chapters are appropriately titled ‘scenes’ and there are a fair number of nods towards the theatre in the narrative but for me it’s proving a little too theatrical. Aemilia, here, is also quite black-and-white in her thinking and quite frustrating. I’m appreciating the book rather than actively enjoying it.

Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore is a book I picked up at the John Murray Fiction Showcase earlier this year. Many of the books highlighted will not be published until much later in the year; Gleeson’s publishing date was January. At the event the author made the book sound quite humorous and very intriguing; it’s about a group of friends who go on a weekend away – the story takes place over a couple of days. Growing up I always wondered why characters in books so rarely ate lunch and hardly ever bathed so the short time period in the book appealed to me. There are indeed more showers and much food and drink is consumed. The general style of it I’m enjoying – there’s a lot of white-space as the dialogue often consists of single words (the F word is one of them) and Gleeson has a pretty good knack for characters. Interesting is the way he writes the women, often in the male gaze and yet other times a lot more objectively, more as a woman would write them – I’m sensing a deliberate decision here to portray both genders from various perspectives. This said, when it comes to the female characters’ narratives (Gleeson’s narrative is third person and the chapters cycle through the characters, one at a time) they aren’t completely realistic.

Rockadoon Shore

I’m yet to work out where the story is going; at this point I’m under the impression it may just be an exploration. If it is an exploration then I’m not sure how successful the whole will turn out to be, partly because the scope is so limited. But it’s a good escape and relatively short, an easy read. As a slow reader I’m enjoying being able to read 70 pages an hour.

As a general update on the books I’ve put aside for now: Vanity Fair is still there, but now alive and kicking. I recently decided to re-start it which may be ill-advised as I was already half-way through but I could not see myself getting through it otherwise; Tender Is The Night lounges somewhere at home – I last picked it up at Christmas and I’m not worried about that; 12 Years A Slave is excellent, I’m just aware I can’t give it the full attention it requires; A Brief History Of Seven Killings I’ll be going back to after my current two books; With Her In Ourland I’m slowly making my way through. The ‘problem’ with the Perkins Gilman is it’s very much a lecture, a sort of fictional political tract, than a novel, and as Herland was so good it’s been quite a let down.

So that’s my reading – a bit all over the place at the moment, rather like me in general. I’m hoping it’ll settle down sometime soon.

What have you read recently?

 
Contemplating My Reading Statistics 8 Years In
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Men 7 21 8 13 14 5 15 22
Women 20 39 45 37 61 45 39 35
POC 4 3 4 4 9 3 4 13
Anthology 0 2 0 1 1 1 0 4
Translation 2 1 3 3 1 6 8 6
Pre-1970 1 8 6 6 3 1 9 4
Poetry 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1
Non-Fiction 2 3 5 6 9 3 3 9

This is data taken from my reading logs. Some of the data has been added retrospectively – as a prime example, I didn’t start keeping records until mid 2009 but having read few books in the prior months it was easy to remember what I’d read. As the years have continued and my goals and general reading interests have changed or increased, I’ve added categories of the sort that can be completed just from basic information, such as ‘Pre-1970’ – so long as the publishing date is online that one’s easy. There are many authors left out of this table due to writing as part of a duo or team – too many zeros in those categories to make it worthwhile.

It’s taken looking through these stats to see I’m not reading as I used to. As I started to add categories it became increasingly apparent that pre-blogging me and during-blogging me are rather different. Given there are 7 years in-between those times this sounds obvious – it’d be worrying, if I hadn’t changed somewhat, but some things stand out:

Taken as a whole, I have been reading far fewer authors of colour and far fewer books by authors white or otherwise that concern non-western countries. As I said previously, in the few years before blogging I read a lot of Asian authors and some books set in Asia by white authors. You can see that hike last year where I noticed the dearth of colour and made a decisive effort to improve. I tend to say yes when review copies are offered.

Without much thought, my reading is skewed towards women. It was before blogging, but not so much. I believe I have a tendency towards female authors due to the emotions/domestic/social versus political stereotypes. I prefer reading about individuals rather than great big armies, for example, and in my experience the likelihood that any one ‘army’ book will have been written by a man is high. Whether this will change as literary expectations of men and women change I’m not sure. I do reckon that if I wasn’t so big on historical fiction the number would be more balanced.

My translation number has increased and it’s mostly down to reviewing for Peirene Press and Pushkin Press. I’d read a few translated novels prior to blogging but it was by accident, so to speak, for example when I read Shan Sa’s Empress for the first time, I didn’t realise that the book had been translated from the original French. Translation is something I’ve worked my head around slowly – I’m very much an original language person.

As said in my goals post, I want to read more classics, and I’m including in ‘classics’ some pre-1970 books; this is my version of classics, if you will, including the likes of Du Maurier and Thirkell. I added pre-1970 as a category to my list retrospectively last year. 1970 was the date I chose as my then and now point, somewhere between my birth date and what would be considered historical. It’s far from perfect – it effectively renders my parents’ childhoods historical and that’s just weird – but for now it’s the best date I’ve found. This number, this ‘pre-1970’ is a ballpark figure – I use it as an initial sorting method – many will not end up on my Classics Club list because objectively they really aren’t classics.

My non-fiction reading officially needs help. I’ve found I love narrative non-fiction, there is often so much detail in it, but it’s often long. For the most part my reading in this genre is limited to review copies so it varies, and as contacts and publishers change, so too has this number. However I can’t deny that I’ve a few hardbacks I’m still putting off.

Poetry I’m keeping in mind but not making any plans for. I’m starting to enjoy it much more – Andrew McMillan’s Physical and Sarah Howe’s Loop Of Jade have been turning points for me – but it’s a bit like my feelings for anthologies – I prefer longer works and do feel sometimes that adding a book of poetry, with its white space and general shortness, is cheating. Perhaps if I wasn’t a slow reader I would feel differently.

So there’s a lot I’m working on, a lot I’m keeping in mind, and I admit to loving having all this data. I know many of you will empathise with that last one and I know a lot of posts both here and on others’ blogs would not exist without it.

How are your stats looking?

 
Knowing About An Author: The Effect On Our Reading

A photograph of Marlon James

In the context of this post it would be more appropriate to use a photo of Elena Ferrante, but I don’t want to do that.

We know a lot more now about the lives and views of authors than we used to. I remember choosing books in Waterstones as a young adult; few included photos, some included mini biographies; while that can still happen, in those days you couldn’t just turn to the Internet to gain the knowledge. I find myself disappointed now when a book doesn’t have much author information in it.

We’re ‘supposed’ to be able to read a book in a vacuum as far as author information goes. People write articles about how we shouldn’t judge a book by its author but even if you try to adhere to this, you hardly have to make an effort to learn details – they’re a few clicks away. Authors are more often in the news or features section. You’ll often hear about them anyway. The increased access we have to authors is a great thing – it was the main reason I started events and made them free, because I wanted people to be able to have access to authors and literary events – but it makes it difficult to read a book without any extra details, details it could be argued are irrelevant. Our reading has changed: knowing about an author will impact on us somewhat no matter how much we try not to let it.

In thinking about this, the recent unmasking of Elena Ferrante comes to mind. I’m very aware that when I get to her work it will be with the knowledge of who she is. I wonder how this will affect my experience – so many people had already read the books and I had naturally (rightly?) assumed my reading would be similarly in the dark. I looked forward to it. How will my reading, now, differ to others’ for that reason? What would my experience have been if she hadn’t been unmasked? I do know that it will be different to what the author may have hoped because of the anonymity. I rather liked not knowing – yes, I felt curious, it was an exciting mystery – and not knowing wasn’t a drawback.

Album cover of Rurutia's Promised Land (2004)

Contrast this with a musician whose first album was released in 2001. Rurutia is a new age Japanese singer who until recently never showed her full face in music videos or photos. She used make-up and costumes, veils and lighting. As far as I can tell, allowing the photos, when they surfaced, and the gradual increase in quality of them, was her choice. Her real name is still unknown. While the mystery might have grabbed the listener’s attention, not knowing about her allowed your focus to be fully on the music.

Some books require context. There are books that don’t make sense until you read about what the author wanted to do, others that seem a political tract – for example – that prior research better prepares you for. In these cases, knowledge enhances your reading. But otherwise it could be said to harm it or to distract – are you too focused on the author? Has reading about them changed your stance on the work?

Do you prefer to know about an author in advance?

 
Caroline Lea – When The Sky Fell Apart

Book Cover

And the ground and the people too.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 363
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-23107-3
First Published: 24th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Britain leaves the Channel Islands to fend for themselves and the Nazis order surrender or else, the people of Jersey must make their decisions – evacuate or remain? Maurice feels he has no choice at this time – his wife is too ill to travel. Edith, a healer, feels the need to stay in her homeland and tend to those who require help. Claudine has no choice – her mother will not leave. Dr Carter, an Englishman, should leave but feels similarly to Edith. As the Nazis swarm in those residents who chose to remain try to make the best of the situation whilst staying low and staying safe, but, as they know from news of France, it will be nigh on impossible.

When The Sky Fell Apart is an extremely harrowing, brutal tale of Nazi occupation, a book that offers a few laughs to keep you going but stays true to its objective (assumed) of showing just how bad the war was in places not often considered. It’s a book that is impossible to say you enjoyed but is important.

On that ‘assumed’ objective it is best to comment further – whilst this is fiction, you can see Lea’s mission throughout. This book is a very, very, well crafted, structured, tale that shows what life was like. If The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed the aftermath of life in Guernsey, then When The Sky Fell Apart looks at the occupation – yes, a different island but similar location – at the time. Indeed if you’re at all interested in the effects of World War II on the Channel Islands, you should look at both books as each provide something different.

It’s important to remember the objective when considering the elements of writing Lea has included. This book uses many devices, in particular one near the end that is very frustrating because although Lea has provided the necessary background to allude to the possibility that the character would do such a thing – to use a vague example – you want it to be different. It’s a case that in real life it may or may not have happened but Lea has chosen the possibility that it would in order to take her story where she wants it to be. The characters are manipulated but with good reason, and it’s never a sweeping change, never not believable, just frustrating.

Of this particular plot point, the good reason is that Lea wants to demonstrate just how far people might go to save themselves and implicate others. She puts in place a couple whose lives have previously literally been saved by two other characters – those saved do not have any qualms about gaining information and harming those who saved them. There is also an element of straight out hatred.

Lea never holds back on the horrors of war, delving into it enough that it’s traumatic. There are, as said, a few laughs – very much laugh out loud, in fact – that remind you of the daily life the people were still living. They aren’t quite enough to make you feel comfortable again but they do help character development – almost all Lea’s characters feel very real. The focus on this little group of people means that you may well forget that they are living on a populated island – it’s easy to picture an almost barren land (aside from the effects of occupation) – which is unfortunate but not necessarily a drawback – to focus on a larger group or the population in general would have just diluted the horrors, made individuals into numbers, an element of war that Lea comments on.

The book does not follow the path you may have expected. It remains horrific to the end – given the subject matter it’s worth saying that this book does not follow any sort of positive outcome. We all know the eventual outcome of the war and so Lea sticks firmly to the events during.

The author stays objective when detailing troops; the horrors are numerous but like authors before her – Irène Némirovsky comes to mind on this point – she includes good people, or, more specifically one person to demonstrate, who get caught up in it. In this case there is a focus on disability among the ranks.

The text itself is solid. The book is written in the third person and whilst there are narrative sections that use very modern wording, the dialogue is authentic – instead of being jarring, the book simply reminds you that it’s historical fiction. There are times when things are repeated unnecessarily – the author’s choice of metaphors in particular – that are noticeable and there are a few times when things are explained that aren’t needed, but these don’t impact the story enough to change your overall experience.

When The Sky Fell Apart is exceptional. Its lasting images, in particular, may well haunt you for a number of days. It’s one of those books that is difficult but nevertheless important. Do not go into this when you are needing to escape, don’t read it when you’re down. This book should be approached with an attitude to study, learning, rather than any sort of literary enjoyment.

But you should most definitely read it.

I received this book for review.

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