MY ‘INTIMIDATING TBR’ TAG

Lovely  Eve Messenger  tagged us all for this more unusual book tag – ‘My Intimidating TBR’ Tag. I do like completing the tags occasionally and couldn’t resist giving this one a go. Like Eve, I’m encouraging everyone to join the fun and consider themselves tagged.

  1. What book have you been unable to finish?

magic

‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a book I was so excited to read, keen doesn’t cover it. I have read two thirds of it; found it inspiring, funny and wise at times. Then I will find a section which for me is annoying, cliche, blasé and undeserving of a such a good writer. For this reason alone I still have not got round to finishing this book.

Here is a taster: 

‘The courage to go on that hunt in the first place – that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one…when courage dies, creativity dies with it.’

‘The writer Rebecca Solnit puts is well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work.’

(PS. I recently finished her brilliant ‘The Signature of All Things’ and can highly recommend this book.)

2. What book have you yet to read because you just haven’t had the time?

birds

‘Birds Without Wings’ by Louis de Bernieres

A while ago I read an interview with Louis de Bernieres of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ fame. Whilst he appreciates the fame and success the book and later the film brought him, he considers his more recent novel, ‘Birds Without Wings’, the true classic and worthier novel. At 625 pages of intense and literary writing this is a book that deserves time and concentration so I’m still waiting for that perfect (many long) moments! This brief outline explains the scope and setting: 

‘Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.’

3. Which book have you yet to read because it is a sequel?

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‘Our Own Country: A Novel (The Midwife Series)’ by Jodi Daynard

In March 2015 I reviewed ‘The Midwife’s Revolt’ and when I came across the next book in the series I could not pass up the opportunity to see whether Jodi Daynard keeps up the pace and emotion in her latest novel.  I hope it does not cover too much of the same ground however.

‘In 1770s Boston, a prosperous merchant’s daughter, Eliza Boylston, lives a charmed life—until war breaches the walls of the family estate and forces her to live in a world in which wealth can no longer protect her.’

4. What book have you yet to read because it is a new release?

small-great-things

‘small great things’ by Jodi Picoult

As a great fan of Jodi Picoult I always keep an eye out for her latest book. Her current novel-in-progress, ‘small great things’, is due out on 8th November 2016 and along with her fans around the world I’m looking forward to this latest sure-to-be bestseller. As usual she doesn’t shy away from controversial weighty topics; this time it’s race. 

‘Ruth, an African-American nurse, has worked at a CT hospital for nearly twenty years as a labor and delivery nurse. So when a young couple, Turk and Brittany, come into the hospital to have their baby, it is business as usual — until Turk calls in Ruth’s white supervisor after the birth. He says, “I don’t want her or anyone like her to touch my boy,” and pulls up his sleeve to reveal a Confederate flag tattoo: he and his wife are Skinheads.’

5. What book have you yet to read because you read a book by the same author and didn’t like it?

history

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tart

It wasn’t that I didn’t like ‘The Goldfinch’; at times I adored it, wallowing in the long descriptive passages, caught up in the general premise. However, it was just TOO long and verbose. I’m tempted though to try and read another one of her books, particularly ‘The Secret History’. Once again the description is enticing but I’m torn. 

‘Under the influence of their charismatic Classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.’

What do you think? Has anyone read this? Should I give it a go? 

6. What book have you yet to read because you aren’t in the mood?

the girl

‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ by M. R. Carey

This book was a Christmas present and one I do want to read, that I keep meaning to read but somehow the moment is never quite right. Not one for night times, not one for sunny happy days, not one for low depressed days. Hmm…still I’m intrigued though. 

‘Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.’

7. What book have you yet to read because it is humongous?

penguin

‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story. Volume 1’ edited by Philip Hensher.

Having seen the editor of this short story collection talk in November 2015 at the Royal Society of Literature I truly meant to have read this earlier. Again it was a present and I can’t wait to read the stories contained within but its size has caused certain reservations within me. Not the 702 pages, rather its actual tome and tomb-like weight – having been spoilt with the light weight of a kindle and paperbacks it will be annoying to not be able to hold it with one hand, not to be able to snuggle up and be cosy to read in the evenings. However, I will tackle this soon…I mean it. Then there is always volume two to put on my Christmas list. I had to laugh when reading Philip Hensher’s comment in the General Introduction when he writes that: ‘This anthology could easily have become twice as long as it is’. Was that a threat?!

8. What book have you yet to read because it was a cover buy with bad reviews?

None!

9. Which book on your TBR is the most intimidating to you?

mason

‘Mason & Dixon’ by Thomas Pynchon

This book has been on my TBR since forever, quietly disappearing to the bookcase before finding its way back onto my bedside table. The book is the most intimidating I’ve ever come across. I just about get the first few pages but its style is so dense and complex; yet I feel I should be better than this. I read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Pynchon as a student and was hooked. I want to do this one justice and might persevere – or maybe not. 

Here’s a taster for you of the first sentence:

‘Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,— the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,— the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.’

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection; as always I would love to hear from you about some of these selections or about some of your own Intimidating TBRs. If you’re tempted, please do the Tag!

‘SURELY THE POETRY IS IN THE PLOTTING.’

RSL_Pritchett

 

They say you should never arrive too early. We thought fifteen minutes before the start was safe, but apparently not as the photographer seemed to have become welded to his position in front of us with the lens aimed directly at my friend and I. We tried to seem busy. Talked. Scribbled in my notebook a little. I felt as if I’d returned to my university days. Finally I lifted out my phone and took some photos! That seemed to do the trick as the photographer moved and at last I could concentrate on my surroundings watching the rest of the audience gradually enter in twos or threes.

When nearly full with three hundred eager writers and their friends a hush fell on the lecture room as the three ‘stars’ of the evening entered. Three highly distinguished authors with many worldwide successful books between and with an intimate knowledge of the UK and US markets.

As an entrant to the V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize short story competition  I had been invited to the awards evening at the Royal Society of Literature (RSL). The society was founded nearly 200 years ago by King George IV to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’. New fellows use Byron’s pen or Dickens’s quill to sign in and the sense of history was palpable from the surroundings alone, set near Somerset House at the Royal Institute of Art, London. 

V. S. Pritchett  is regarded by the RSL as one of the country’s finest short story writers and the society set up this prize in 2000 to commemorate his birth. 

The judges for this year’s competition were Philip Hensher, Adam Mars-Jones and Rose Tremain and before the prize -giving there was a discussion between the three of them about the short story. Here are a few snippets of what they had to say. 

As author of 16 books, including award-winning ‘Restoration’  and numerous short stories Rose Tremain has been published in over 27 countries. She believes that writing short stories is the closest a fiction writer is to being a poet. She thinks that short stories can be considered a form of poetry in themselves. Philip Hensher, the chair of the discussion, disagreed strongly with her comment, asking how stories such as the Sherlock Holmes ones could ever be considered poetry? At this Adam Mars-Jones interrupted quietly and said, ‘surely the poetry is in the plotting’. 

Rose Tremain considers it essential on not knowing yourself where the story is going and that this is part of the journey, telling your reader to come along and find out. Endings can vary and some be such as Mark Twain’s ‘snapper’ tales which have with a real bite at the end.

‘The fictional becomes real, the real becomes fictional,’ said Rose Tremain.

Her stories often start with an image or as a result of overheard conversation. Once during a particularly bad  winter storm in America she heard one man say to another that it ‘is really good for roofters’ and from this one sentence she wrote a short story.

As for the fictional becoming real, Rose Tremain read from her short story ‘The Housekeeper’, where the Daphne du Maurier’s fictional Mandeville Hall is recreated as reality with Daphne du Maurier becoming a character in the story who visits the hall one summer.

Adam Mars-Jones, a novelist and also book, film and theatre critic, has just released his memoir ‘Kid Gloves’, admitted he has not written short stories for decades although he considered them a good tool for learning. His co-authored collection of short stories on people living and dying with AIDS was published in 1987.

He mentioned his dilemma of wanting to write one particular story about AIDS but was stuck as he did not want to use the word AIDS – even then, before the world of texting and emailing, he felt it was too shouty, too powerful and would dominate the story. In an epiphany one day he realised he could just substitute that word with another, in this case ‘slim’ and after that he could write the story. It was imbued with a a sense of humour which worked very well.  

Philip Hensher, who has written numerous books including his semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Northern Clemency’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, has recently edited the two rather large  tomb-like volumes of ‘Penguin Book of the British Short Story’, considers the short story as a ‘witness’ on topical current events surrounding us, such as the World War II short stories. He reiterated the ‘immediate topicality’ of short stories and their ability to address urgent social issues. However he did recognise that the best short stories could also be totally irrelevant to current affairs.

Markets for short stories were discussed at length and I never knew how vibrant and well-paid the short story market was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Between 1890 and WWI there were at least 34 magazines in Britain printing short fiction. One of those mentioned was the ‘Strand’ magazine which had a huge circulation and could as a result pay handsomely for stories. In 1914 when the average  annual salary was £ 400:- a year the ‘Strand’ paid £ 350:- per story. Imagine selling a short story for £ 27,000:-!!  As Philip Hensher says ‘No wonder there was eager competition among writers; no wonder the best writers of the day, including Rudyard Kipling, DH Lawrence, Bennett, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells, placed the form at the very centre of their creative practice’.

There was disagreement about the expose these magazines offered to ‘experimental short fiction’ with Adam Mars-Jones believing the magazines did not afford many opportunities early on for this kind of fiction whereas Philip Hensher felt strongly that they did, although they would lead with a ‘safe story’ and often put the unusual experimental ones on the back pages of the magazine.

Although the short story market in the UK is languishing it is still vibrant in the US, the ‘New Yorker’ being a prime example of excellent literary short fiction, the writers agreed.

Another issue quickly discussed by the judges is the seeming unpopularity of the short story by the general public. Rose Tremain feels that the short story requires more effort from the reader as it is often full of original thinking and written in a tight structure which results in the reader having to peruse the work critically. This can be considered exhausting and as a result puts off potential readers. Novels by contrast she says resembles ‘a bouquet’, far easier to read with less expectation on the reader. 

After an evening of interesting discussion and readings the winner and runner-up to the £1,000 Royal Society of Literature V.S.Pritchett Memorial Prize 2015 was announced. Following on Philip Hensher’s earlier point about topicality both stories were strong on current issues, one based in China, the other in Ukraine. 

The sponsor’s of the prize, Christopher and Jennie Bland, announced the winner– Jonathan Tel with ‘The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant’. Unfortunately he was in San Fransisco writing a story about the current crisis in Syria so his agent picked up the £ 1000:- award. The runner-up was Nick Sweeney with ‘Traffic’. 

All in all, my friend and I had an exciting inspirational and enlightening  evening surrounded by so many like-minded people and listening to ideas from successful writers about the short story. Wine and refreshment afterwards were most welcome! 

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