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Hay Post Preview

My intention for today’s post was to detail happenings here and to post lots of photographs, however something that can’t be banked on is internet connection – I’m typing this in a valley area where the wifi is poor. So here are a few photographs, made small; I’ll post in detail once I’m back.

A photograph of Helen Fielding talking to a fan at the Hay Festival

A photograph of Samanta Schweblin and Hari Kunzru

A photograph of a banner in Hay town that says, books are a uniquely portable magic, the Kindle is dead, long live the book!

A photograph of a tent on a green

A photograph of Madeleine Thien signing a book

 
Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

Book Cover

Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

Book Cover

Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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A Book Launch, A Multi-Author Event, And A Visit To Southampton Old Cemetery

A photograph of Meike Ziervogel reading from her latest book

It’s been a very literary weekend.

Friday evening saw the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s fourth book, The Photographer, at Waterstones Piccadilly. Longer than her others, Meike is calling it a novel rather than a novella. The book was inspired by her grandparents, one set in particular, and their lives during the Second World War. It’s about the people of Germany – Meike was aware that she was of a generation that could write about that time; those prior could not.

There were a couple of readings and a general discussion with chair Rosie Goldsmith, and Stephanie Bird of University College London: thoughts on German documentaries and films regarding the War; literary fiction and the way that plot is important to Meike because actions speak louder than words; how the four of the books are connected, having written one to get to the next and so forth. I picked up a copy of the book – it’s only a tentative plan, but I’m hoping to review it soon. And I got it signed, which in regards to Meike’s work was a first for me.

A photograph of Choc Lit authors Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas, and Laura E James

I spent Saturday afternoon attending the Southampton stop of publisher Choc Lit’s author tour. Choc Lit are visiting a few different cities and the authors at the events are those nearby; this time it was Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas (one half of the writing duo published under the name Isabella Connor), and Laura E James, in the order they are sitting in the photograph. There were a number of us and the afternoon consisted of a good introduction and discussion by and between the authors, lots of time to talk to everyone there, and a quiz to finish. And a fair amount of chocolate, cake, and books. During the latter section there was an opportunity for the writers amongst us – those other than the four mentioned – to pitch their work.

A photograph of a tombstone and a monkey puzzle tree at Southampton Old Cemetery

Sunday was a free day. I read – little surprise there, I think – and decided to get out and enjoy the sunshine visiting the old cemetery we have in Southampton, an activity a lot more peaceful and positive than it might sound. Situated in the middle of Southampton Common, the cemetery was opened in 1846; nowadays the only burials are those added to existing plots, a few a year. Very tall statues abound and there’s even a small mausoleum. Most of the stones have corroded to the point of illegibility and some areas are so old and overgrown they look empty, but in the context of a historical space, there is a lot of beauty to be found in it… and there’s also a monkey puzzle tree, as you can see above. Here are more photographs:

A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery

How was your weekend and what was the last event, literary or otherwise, you attended?

 
Which Series Would You Have Liked To See Continued?

A photograph of various books from different series

What it says on the tin; looking at series that ended rather than any that may not have been actively finished, if that makes sense. (The photograph is just books from different series.) Most series I read are Young Adult, particularly fantasies, so that’s what my choices are. The series are His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, and The Chronicles Of Narnia, one paragraph each, and thoughts include spoilers.

It’s kind of (hopefully?) happening now, but like many people I wanted to know if Lyra and Will of His Dark Materials would meet again. I wanted to find out if they were successful in their quest. Should a continuation happen? Whilst this is a mute point now, with the upcoming publication of The Book Of Dust, I’m not sure whether a continuation would work or not. I’ve written about my feelings for The Amber Spyglass; I wonder if Pullman had continued the series at that time, if it would have just got worse. Perhaps The Book of Dust will benefit from the years that have passed since the completion of the trilogy. But I don’t think the story can work without Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. How a story would work without them I don’t know.

I’ve read many articles and reviews in which people say how much they loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but disliked Mockingjay. I didn’t dislike the last book but I stand with general opinion that it was a poor finale to an otherwise strong series (albeit that I have my reservations due to the similarities with Battle Royale, a book I won’t lie in having read but know a bit about). I think the thing with the first two books is that although the Games are horrific, they are fun in that sort of can’t-stop-reading way, much like people think reality TV is awful but they’ll still watch it. The fast-paced action and also, I reckon, the element of knowing what you’re getting, combined, perhaps, with the shock of it all, made the first two books what they were. Without it, the third book couldn’t win. So I would have loved to have stayed in Collins’ world in terms of the no-holds-barred way she explored her subject but I wouldn’t want to read a continuation of the series as it stands. It wouldn’t make sense for another book to be included unless it had been a book slotted between the first two and the third, or if it was a spin-off. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of spin-offs, Xena excepted, so I’m not sure I would read one anyway. The story has been completed.

I think The Chronicles Of Narnia could have continued for many more books and people would have enjoyed it just as much – so long as it continued adding characters and new travels rather than looking at Heaven post-The Last Battle. It would be different – perhaps we’d emphasise new characters over Lucy; perhaps Susan could have returned and Lewis made her a more prominent character without the hate – but I think it would have still been just as good. Looking at how wonderful both The Magican’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are, as very separate parts of one whole, he could feasibly carried on without issue.

You?

 

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