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May 2019 Reading Round Up

Other than May being the month when I finished books – discussed last week – this month also marked my first non-fiction book of the year; I read two, in fact. (The scary thing to discover was that I haven’t read non-fiction since last February.) May was a very long month, cold and wet – it’s been pretty wintry here – but full of goings on. There have been book awards and interesting new releases, concerts, days out, and time with family.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Dolly Alderton: Everything I Know About Love – Alderton looks back on her twenties, her previous decade that was full of parties, drinking, and spending time with friends. An okay read.

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Guy Stagg: The Crossway – Hoping to heal from depression, Stagg embarks on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following ancient roads, staying in religious guesthouses along the way, and learning more about himself and the famous religious people of the various regions he passes through. A good book, but it could have done with more information about the journey itself and more positive descriptions of those Stagg meets on the road and stays with.

Fiction

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Maria Edgeworth: Belinda – A young woman, the last of several nieces to be taken under the wing of a notorious match-making aunt, enters society and surprises everyone with her differing personality. Worth reading – I believe – if you find a copy of the first or second edition, those that talk about interracial marriage.

It’s hard to choose a favourite here because I don’t really have one; the reading experience of the books above was good, but in terms of enjoyment the one in my mind is Michelle Obama’s memoir which I haven’t finished yet.

For June I’ve a rough plan to spend half my reading time on two books – Obama’s included – that I started in May, and half on ‘new’ books, which includes a reprint of an early 2000s novel and the Nicola Cornick I haven’t yet got to.

How many books have you read so far this year? (I’m on 19.)

 
Reading Life: 31st May 2019

A macro photograph of the side of a blossom

As I’d planned at the start of this month, I’ve put my reading time in May to use in finishing books, a couple of which were starting to languish on my list.

I’d been reading The Crossway for a few weeks, which isn’t a bad time for a book I’m not too sure about; it’s a good book, but there was a lot less about the pilgrimage itself that the author makes than anything else – the ‘whys’ were covered, but most often the ‘hows’ were left out. The best aspect of the book as it is, to my mind, is the history, for which Stagg has done a lot of research to expand on the stories he heard and read about along the way.

Belinda, if you saw my review last week (my last post in fact; it’s been a hectic week) you’ll note was partly problematic due to my having read the wrong edition (or the right edition depending on the era of the reader, and therein lies the problem). I have a mind to find a copy published by Oxford World Classics, try to work out exactly what I missed, but at the same time I’m loathed to make it a priority; I’m expecting that it’d be a case of finding a few paragraphs – which would be easy enough – but then combing through the text for the rest.

Having finished these books, as well as the Dolly Alderton that was a quick read, I’m now making my way through Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Peirene Press’ upcoming You Would Have Missed Me, the English translation of a Birgit Vanderbeke, their second book by the award-winning German author.

I read the first chapters of Becoming for my post on the British Book Awards, and knew at that point, already, that it was going to be a good read. Now, on chapter five, I can say it most definitely is. The pages are flying by. It’s a very open book, and the information about the social history of Chicago, provided by way of the story of her childhood, is fascinating.

I’m 40 pages into the 122 page Vanderbeke and I’m on a roll with it; I’m planning to go back to it after publishing this post, and I’m aiming to finish it tonight. Having struggled with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway I thought twice before starting – like the Woolf, Vanderbeke’s is written in a stream-of-consciousness manner – but it’s brilliant. The ‘stream’ here is used to return to previously discussed topics – it’s much like the way stand-up comedians loop back to their opening subjects during and at the end of their allotted time, just without the humour – and the voice, adult but in the context of the character as a child, and the themes, are fantastic. I’ll save the rest for the review.

There has been a lot less literary study or literature-inspired internet rabbit hole journeys this month; it’s been strange to write this post feeling something’s missing. I have been watching literary-related programmes however, most notably the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, which I’m loving almost as much as the first series of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (though I know they are very different!) The acting is superb, the breaking of the fourth wall a lot of fun (I’ve assumed this is so that we can hear from the source material itself, unedited), and the general execution of the story as a screen adaptation just very compelling. Unfortunately Anne Lister’s diaries are not on Project Gutenberg – I checked, though I think it’s likely that due to them being rediscovered and decoded recently, ownership – Shibden Hall, probably – will continue for a while.

 
The Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 Awards Ceremony

A photograph of Raymond Antrobus speaking on stage after he was crowned winner

On Monday evening, poet Raymond Antrobus was announced as the winner of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize.

The ceremony took place in the Entrance Hall of the British Library. It was the culmination of several months of discussion and well over a month of concentrated publicity; the shortlist had been announced early in April; the judges announced last November.

Beginning with live music and time for drinks and conversation, there ceremony was then officially opened. We were welcomed by Rathbones (sponsor) and Andrew Kidd (co-founder of the prize). The shortlisted authors who attended were brought onto the stage for photographs and flowers. The Chair of the judges, Kate Clanchy, then took over to tell us about the judging process, the three judges’ general opinions of the books, and to announce the winner. Alice Jolly, she said, had been a close second.

Raymond Antrobus gains £30,000 for his poetry collection, The Perseverance. Clanchy had introduced him as winner saying it was “an exceptionally brave, kind book – it seemed, in our atomised times, to be the book we most wanted to give to others, the book we all needed to read”. In a show of wonderful humility, Antrobus thanked everyone and noted the poets he spotted in the audience, spending time introducing them. He then read a poem from his collection.

A photograph of Guy Stagg, Alice Jolly, Diana Evans, Carys Davis, Anna Burns, and Raymond Antrobus on the Rathbones Folio stage

Antrobus is a Jamaican British deaf poet. Born 33 years ago in Hackney, East London, he was considered dyslexic and severely learning disabled, his deafness not discovered until the age of 6. He performs his poetry often and was one of the first recipients of an M.A. in Spoken Word Education (from Goldsmiths, London).

The Perseverance, published by small press, Penned in the Margins, in October, explores issues such as his diagnosis, his mixed heritage experience, masculinity, and his beloved father’s alcoholism and later decline into dementia and death. For it, the poet has received the Ted Hughes Award, having included a redacted poem Hughes wrote about deaf children (‘Deaf School’), and writing a response to it; Hughes’ poem showed to Antrobus a lack of understanding.

The Guardian says the book ‘confronts deeply rooted prejudice against deaf people’. In an interview with literary magazine, Four Hubs, Antrobus said: “This book is me trying to find a use for all the things in my life that felt like a disadvantage, a nuisance, the things I once tried to hide”.

Have you read or do you plan to read any of the books that were shortlisted?

 
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society: The Book In A Book

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society book cover

Allow me a little extraneous backstory. I am constantly going back to The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society; I’ve read it twice since buying it around 2015, and have re-read sections about four times since then. Most recently the reason was the film; it had highlighted to me things I’d not really thought, the cultural aspects of Juliet’s period – clothes, for example. For some reason I’d always pictured her in 1990s gear, so caught up was I in the story of the war. I also think much of my overlooking of things was due to the fact of letters rather than regular prose, description of a certain kind. (Incidently, I enjoyed the film, and thought it handled the source material, the limits imposed by letters, very well.) It’s apt that I was always seeing the book, its cover, everywhere, because this is what led me to buy it – it had seemingly followed me around, taunting me to read it, and since I gave in it’s continued to follow me, if now at my bidding.

It was during one of those later dips into the book that I realised the meta concept – author Mary Ann Shaffers’ book is fictional writer Juliet’s book.

Juliet needs to write an article to ‘address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading… I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate’ (p. 28). Over the course of the novel we see Juliet finding material for this article (which ends up becoming a book) and in so creating this narrative for Juliet, Shaffers in turn writes the same book. Guernsey is a book in a book.

Of course this idea contains a fair amount of conjecture on my part; if there’s something I’ve learned over the time spent planning this post it’s that we unlikely to find more background to the writing of the novel than we have. Shaffers’ death before its completion – happily, she knew it was to be published, after having handed it to her niece to finish (if I recall correctly, Barrows’ input was mostly in the editing of it1) – means that what we already know, partly from Barrows, will likely be it. We have a brief background, that’s included at the front of the book – at least in the UK edition; it was a trip to Guernsey that American Shaffers made, as well as persuasion from her book club to write, that got her started. Given the content of the book, the fictional literary society (which we can give the catch-all term of ‘book club’ to), together with the ‘value of reading’, as quoted in the previous paragraph, it’s fair to say that Shaffers mixed her day-to-day reality with her experience of Guernsey2 – we can see why she wrote what she did, the further content than the occupation. Juliet needed to write an article, needed something to continue the success she found in being a best-selling novelist. Shaffers needed a book, needed to write something after her peers told her she should. It’s pretty similar.

So then, in effect, Shaffers is the writer ‘part’ of Juliet. Shaffers uses Juliet’s experiences to look at the affect reading can have on people, to look at the way it can be used, both conventionally and unconventionally – if we consider its role as a loophole for which the residents of Guernsey could get around the banning of meeting in groups – and the way it brings people together in various ways. Most obvious is the use of the literary society with its colourful cast of characters; there is also the beginnings of Juliet’s trip – the love of Charles Lamb uniting two people, as well as the fact of the secondhand book trade in itself. There’s the use of what we can call marginalia for its effect – the name of a reader written into a book, which forms a connection as the book passes hands. (Here Shaffers brings in the musings of a reader who finds evidence of a previous owner, connecting the two readers in her fictional reality.) Reading brings Juliet and Dawsy together, it brings residents of an occupied island together, and its final result is that it brings the history of Guernsey to a wide readership, both the off-stage readers Juliet is looking to reach and the real-world readers of Shaffers’ novel. All those values of reading that Juliet lists, Shaffers satisfies in her work. And as to the practical, educational side, well, that’s what the literary discussions are for.

On page 34, Amelia Maugery notes that Juliet’s bestseller (Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War3) had provided her with an update on what those in Guernsey didn’t know about the war elsewhere. Juliet’s response, page 35, includes, ‘…the Spectator felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote and that humour would help to raise London’s low morale. I am very glad Izzy served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is – thank goodness – over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading.’ This somewhat coincides with Shaffers’ book – a happy tone where appropriate – and as much as she provides the bad, it is in effect an antidote to it, showing the humanity in an otherwise inhumane situation. (It’s interesting to compare the book with Caroline Lea’s more recent When The Sky Fell Apart – a book about occupied Jersey that uses a different method to tell a similar tale (the occupation of the Channel Islands). Happiness in the face of occupation, friendship and society doing what they can.

I’ve wanted to explore this topic without too much contemplation of facts because I found a lot more there for the taking than there was when just looking for the book’s backstory. There is so much of the idea and reasons for literature in itself in this book and the crafting of it that we’re not going to hear about directly from the authors. However there is this, at the end of Shaffers’ part of the acknowledgements that needs to be looked at:

If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

It surely does.

Footnotes

1 From the acknowledgements of the book (Bloomsbury edition): “…Annie, who stepped in to finish this book after unexpected health issues interrupted my ability to work shortly after the manuscript was sold.” Barrows took it on once it had been passed to an editor. Wikipedia (n.d.) notes, ‘After the manuscript had been accepted for publication (2006), the book’s editor requested some changes that would require substantial rewriting’, however there is no citation for this.
2 From the acknowledgements: “I had travelled to England to research another book and while there learned of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. On a whim, I flew to Guernsey and was fascinated by my brief glimpse of the island’s history and beauty. From that visit came this book, albeit many years later.” Shaffers also notes her daughters insisting she sit down and type, to get the book written.
3 Issac Bickerstaff was the pseudonym Jonathan Swift used as part of a hoax to predict someone’s death.

References

Shaffers, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie (2008) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Bloomsbury, London.
Wikipedia (n.d.) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, accessed 16th May 2019.

 
British Book Awards 2019: Non-Fiction Narrative Book Of The Year

A photograph of the Non-Fiction Narrative of the Year shortlist - the books are stacked on top of each other on a wooden surface in front of a brick wall in the sunshine

An update is at the bottom of this post.

Tonight, at a large awards ceremony in London, the winners of the British Book Awards (‘Nibbies’) will be announced. A set of prizes that have been given out yearly since 1990, the Nibbies are the awards of The Bookseller magazine, which has itself been around since 1858. Called ‘the BAFTAs of the book trade’, the Nibbies are comprised of eight awards which are judged by eight different panels and the idea behind them is that they champion books that are ‘well written and brilliantly published’ – honouring both author and the publishing team. There are then a variety of awards for industry people, publishers, and book shops.

The categories for books are: Debut Book of the Year; Children’s Fiction Book of the Year; Children’s Illustrated & Non-Fiction Book of the Year (new for 2019); Fiction Book of the Year; Fiction Crime & Thriller Book of the Year; Non-Fiction Lifestyle Book of the Year; Non-Fiction Narrative Book of the Year; Audiobook of the Year. It’s a lot of categories but, as I noted when writing this, it ensures books are compared with others that share a subject, whilst not being too niche.

Philip Jones, editor of the magazine and chair of the judging panel, has said that the shortlists ‘showcase the breadth of talent available to publishers in the UK, after a year in which international writers… have shown that there is a real hunger for stories, well-told, that originate elsewhere but reflect back on us… today’s books sit at the intersection between culture and politics, and between entertainment and reality’.

As the awards are tonight I thought I’d look at the six books in an ‘at a glance’ fashion; I’ll be reviewing one or two in the weeks to come.

A photograph of Dolly Alderton's Everything I Know About Love

Everything I Know About Love is a memoir about Alderton’s teenage and early twenties years, told in a sort of essay fashion; it goes back and forth between various places and times, detailing Alderton’s experiences with drink, drugs, sex, and relationships both platonic and romantic, an open account of her growth as a person. Alderton is a journalist for The Sunday Times and a radio presenter; through reading her book you learn about her shorter periods of time in television and about her freelance career. The book is written in a casual, carefree, manner which suits the content, enables the humour to work very well, and means that the book is an easy read in a very good way. Speaking at the Curious Arts Festival last year, Paul Blezard, who interviewed Alderton, said the book is about ‘the honesty of growing up and learning from it’. (My post on this is here.)

A photograph of the book The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister by someone known only by the title of their book, this is a collection of stories of life inside the courtroom. It’s ‘both an account of the human cost of the criminal justice system and a guide to how we got into this mess’. Written in a jovial tone, it’s about the issues in the system and what needs to change; it’s won a couple of awards already. The author cites themselves as pretty average; it’s the everyday of someone who deals with things we don’t tend to consider everyday things.

A photograph of Ant Middleton's First Man In

First Man In by Ant Middleton is a memoir of Middleton’s various careers and what he has learned through them. The author is a former soldier, adventurer, and is currently the ‘Chief Instructor’ for Channel 4’s show, SAS: Who Dares Wins. (This year 25 people will go to the Andes; people eat, sleep, live together, whilst completing a tough course.) Middleton has been in the Special Forces. He spent time in the Special Boat Service, the Royal Marines, and the 9 Parachute Squadron Royal – the three are the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the Elite Forces.

A photograph of Christie Watson's The Language Of Kindness

The Language Of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse. The author of the Costa First Book Award winner, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, Watson’s prose has a particular flow; even if you’ve not read the novel, as I haven’t, you can see the writing background. Beginning with a short summary of how she came to be a nurse – a previously indecisive sixteen year old finding reward working for patients with the charity now called Scope – Watson details many periods of her career, individual stories of hospital stays, good health and happiness alongside sadness, with a close attention to privacy for those involved.

A photograph of Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury

Fire And Fury is Michael Wolff’s ‘Trump era exposé’, an account of the early days of Trump’s presidency by a journalist who was afforded particularly good access to the White House in the first hundred (and more) days of the time, and also followed the campaign. As Wolff details, few on the campaign team thought that Trump would be elected, and Trump had a concession speech prepared. And as the election was very different to others, there was a lot to get used to. Told in a style that’s anything but dry, and featuring mirade interviews, it’s proved a popular book so far.

A photograph of Michelle Obama's Becoming

Becoming is Michelle Obama’s memoir, a hefty tome of a book that, though I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, is surely worth every one of its pages. Told in a lovely detailed and, dare I use the word everyone else has, honest, tone, she tells the story of her early years to the present, with stories that hold particular memories – the preface contains a brief summary of life as First Lady and the return to life outside the White House; the first chapter is focused on early piano lessons in her aunt’s apartment against a background of her general family situation. The book is also on the shortlist for the Audiobook of the Year category (and it’s narrated by Obama herself). A book by and about someone well loved and respected for a great many reasons, who is incidentally also known to be a big reader – this is the book I’d be betting on and would be happy to see win.

Update at 11PM: Michelle Obama won this category as well as Audiobook of the Year. In a video message she said to those gathered at the ceremony: “This is an incredible honour. I want to thank the British Book Awards for this recognition, as well as Penguin Random House UK and everyone who helped bring this book to life – especially the readers. It’s been such an uplifting an powerful experience to share my story with everyone across the United Kingdom these past few months. I especially loved the opportunity to connect with so many bright young women, like the incredible students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Mulberry schools in London, whose stories reminded me so much of my own. Two years ago, when I started writing this memoir, I wasn’t thinking about awards; my biggest hope was simply to create something meaningful for the people who read it, something they might be able to connect to their own lives. Because I know that my story isn’t unique. It’s the story of a working class black girl learning to make music on the piano with broken keys, of a high school student who wondered if she’s good enough, of a mother trying to balance a career, two daughters and a husband with big goals, while carving out a better sense of herself. I want to thank all of you for allowing me to share my story. My greatest hope now is that each of you will share yours too.”

Have you read any of these or have any thoughts as to which might win?

 

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