The Forum at the Writers' Arms

Go to the forum at the Writers' Arms if you want to start a discussion on any topic that interests you, or if you want to comment on what other people have said.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

The Stars in the Bright Sky, Alan Warner's sixth novel, describes a few days in the lives of six young women friends about to set off on a sort of reunion holiday, a week of sun, sex and stimulants.

Five of the women were together in Warner's novel The Sopranos when, as teenage choristers from a small west coast Scottish town, they were out on the loose and on the razzle. In The Stars in the Bright Sky, the girls are a few years older, in their early twenties. Three of the them are still living and working in the same town. They have cash in their pockets but their lives have hardly expanded, though one now has a baby and the town has a new nightclub. The other two have gone off to university, and one of these has brought along her beautiful, rich, upper-middle class English friend along.

A cultural divide threatens to split those who have left from those who have stayed at home. Manda, a single mother living with her family and now a manageress in her sister's beauty salon, is loud, rude, uneducated, bossy and self-centered, a Guinness-downing chav dreaming of fame and wealth from the lottery and Big Brother. At the other extreme is Ava, the rich English friend who is bright, confident, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. But the old friendships prevent the girls from breaking into two gangs. For all her obnoxiousness, Manda is often the pin that holds the group together, even when it is by uniting the others in their annoyance with her.

Though the story concerns six young women intent on every form of available experience and preferably to excess, this is not chic lit; the author is, after all, a male in his mid-forties. But nor is it fogey lit. There is a certain amount of tut-tutting in the book, but none of it comes from Alan Warner.

The events of the plot are played out in the sterile, commercialised shops, pubs, eateries and hotels of Gatwick Airport, and though for most of the story the characters text, argue, shop, lust and drink, the book says at least as much about how they navigate their way through a culture of class divides, global consumerism, celebrity, of instant gratification and its consequences.

One of the wonders of the book is that Alan Warner manages to allow the reader a degree of affection for the characters - even Manda - no matter how dreadfully they behave, and one of the most touching things about the novel is the charity and compassion that these young women reveal for each other.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth published novel, and her first since her award-winning novel of 2004, Small Island, a story of Jamaican migrants to Britain in 1948. In her latest novel, Andrea Levy takes us back to Jamaica in the early 1830s, on the eve of the end of slavery.

The central character and narrator of the story is July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation, the daughter of a female slave raped by Tom Dewar, the plantation's brutish Scottish overseer. While still a child, July is taken by the owner of the plantation on a whim of his fat complacent small-minded sister, Caroline Mortimer, to be her personal slave.

The story is punctuated by frequent instances of casual brutality - the whip, rape, manacles, thuggery - imposed by owners and their agents to enforce property rights and compel obedience, all done (without any sense of irony) to correct what the owners saw as the slaves' savagery, immorality and defiance of God's will. It is not hard to accept Andrea Levy's portrayal of the people who participated and acquiesced in this exploitation as being at best crassly insensitive mediocrities (such as Caroline Mortimer) and at worst vicious thugs (such as Tom Dewar).

Though they might seem themselves as enlightened, civilised gentlefolk, the white inhabitants of Jamaica are portrayed as shallow, exploitative and vicious when their interests are threatened, their lowest instincts barely covered by a layer of civility paid for by the lives and freedom of the people around them. It is a crisis that strips away this delusion of gentility causes the owner, John Howarth, to take his own life.

Andrea Levy's narrative is full of humour that gently masks tragedy and moments of revelation. The violence that Howarth witnessed was perpetrated by a bunch of white thugs dressed up in women's frocks. When Howarth goes to his bedroom and subsequently takes his life, July and her lover are hiding under the bed, she desperate to piddle.

Nor do the slaves of the story escape mockery, especially those who claim some sort of superiority by having association with their white oppressors, either by having a degree of white ancestry or by working in the house rather than the field. This theme is developed in the story of July's son, and subtly turned and brought up to the present day in the last page of the story.

While Andrea Levy has clearly done a great deal of research for The Long Song, I never felt that I was getting the sort of information download that sometimes blights historical fiction. The focus is always on how the main characters, especially July, negotiate their way through the fast moving events.

In a subject as huge as slavery, There can never be one novel that can claim to be the defining interpretation, but The Long Song explores the history of this too long episode and subtly raises issues for our contemporary multi-racial society.

Andrea Levy has an extract from The Long Song on her website.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The National Poetry Competition 2010

The Poetry Society is accepting entries for this year's National Poetry Competition. Click here for details. The closing date for the competition is 31 October 2010. You can enter online or by post. Check the rules for entry on the link above.

The judges this year are George Szirtes, Deryn Rees-Jones and Sinead Morrissey.

The winner of the prize in 2009 was Helen Dunmore with her peom 'The Malarky', which can be read here. Helen Dunmore's novel, The Betrayal, is on the long list year's Man Booker Prize; there is a review of the novel in an earlier post.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The TV Book Club - The Weight of Silence

The last of the summer reads at the TV Book Club features The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf.

The story concerns the disappearance from their homes one morning of two seven-year-old girls, Petra and Calli. Calli is a selective mute, the result of some terrible experience in her young life. The family home is disturbed by her father who travels frequently for work and is also an alcoholic. Her mother tries, but fails, to get Calli to speak, but Petra manages to befriend Calli and starts to interpret for her.

The story takes place over 18 hours or so, during the search for the girls. It is told in the present tense, and in the first person by successive characters (except for Calli who is represented in the third person). Two questions emerge: what has become of the girls, and why doesn't Calli speak?

The contributors in the studio all agreed that The Weight of Silence
is an easy read, a page-turner to read beside the pool. The series is, after all, reviewing summer reads. There were, however, serious doubts about whether the serious issues raised by the book - the horror that Calli has experienced, as well as the realities of alcoholism - are treated seriously enough. One of the TV reviewers said she didn't want to know what had happened; this is after all light ho;iday reading. But, as another reviewer said, if the author wanted to create light summer reading, then she could have chosen a topic better treated lightly.

This episode, the last in the present series, can at the time of writing still be viewed here on the programme's website. The series returns with ten new titles in January.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

Today sees the launch of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival.

The range of events is huge. Today's sessions alone include poetry for the under ten, novelists on the Man Booker long list, honour killings in Jordan, elegance in science, and that's not the half of it. Several are already sold out, a testimony to the festival's reputation as the UK's biggest. Click here to find out what is on today.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is formed of three sections, each an account of journeys made by the narrator, Damon, and his interactions with other travellers. Which said, it should not be thought that this is travel writing, though it is in part a reflection on the nature of travel, or at least the reasons that provoke Damon to travel.

In the first section, subtitled 'The Follower', the narrator comes upon, Reiner, a German walking along a Greek road. This encounter leads them to visit other sites together, and later they agree to make another journey in Southern Africa. But when this new trip to Lesotho starts, a tension between the two develops, caused so it seems to the narrator by the German's wilful superciliousness.

The second section, 'The Lover', finds Damon travelling through southern and eastern Africa when he encounters three Europeans, a Frenchman and Swiss twins, Jerome and Alice. The friendship that forms through the rigours of the journey sees a sexual attraction, unfulfilled at this stage, develop between Damon and Jerome. They invite Damon to visit them in Europe.

In the third section, 'The Guardian', Damon accompanies a friend, a woman recovering from a serious mental illness, on a trip to India. When the woman suffers a relapse, Damon has to deal with the crisis that develops.

In each case, Damon longs for some sort of contact with his companions that ultimately fails. The journeys involve interaction with uncomprehending local people; they frequently experience the threat of violence and exploitation. Their travels are obscurely motivated; the ruins that they trudge around seem a poor recompense for their efforts. Reiner seems to regard Lesotho as some sort of personal adventure training course. Damon at one point says, "movement has always been a substitute for thought." Later, he says, "A journey is a gesture inscriped in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there." And yet for all this, Damon's compulsive yearning to travel is an essential fact of his life, and these journeys are profound experiences. The text is his reflection on these experiences.

The book is told largely in the close third person and we witness the events from the perspective of Damon. However, the narrative quite often slips into the first person, recalling these past events. Here is an example from the beginning of the first section, in which Damon sees a man walking towards him:

"When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget."

A little later in the first section, the narrator says of some ruins that they visit, "I can't even remember what they are now...." The second section begins, "A few years later he is wandering in Zimbabwe."

The essential nature of the text is that it is, despite its sense of immanence, Damon's later reflection on these encounters. At several points in the text, Damon describes the sensation of feeling as though he is watching himself as events unfold, as though he is standing outside himself. For all the drama on the road that the narrator describes, Damon is primarily involved in unsentimental self-examination.

The writing throughout In a Strange Room is sharp, economical and precise. Much of it has the rich intensity of poetry. It is a model of concentrated expression, and for that reason I found reading the book a longer and fuller experience than its 180 pages might suggest. A marvellously good piece of writing.

Poetry surgeries at the Poetry Cafe - 4 October 2010

Writers who would like to have their poems read and discussed by a prominent professional poet might be interested in the poetry surgeries run four times a year at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. The next series of half-hour surgeries is to take place on 4 October. The session with poet and sociologist Carole Satyamurti will take the form of a discussion. You are encouraged to send in a few poems in advance to allow her time to read them.

The poetry of Carole Satyamurti has been published by the Oxford University Press and Bloodaxe, and she has won many awards including the National Poetry Prize. She has taught with many institutions including The Arvon Foundation and the Poetry School. You can read some of her poems here.

The Poetry Cafe, run by The Poetry Society, charges £20 per session for non-members, £15 for members. Check the website for details.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Seabrook College is one of Ireland's premier private schools for boys, and Skippy Dies is the tragi-comic story of several months in the long but fast changing life of the place. The two central characters are the lonely and largely unnoticed Daniel Juster (a.k.a. Skippy, on account of his resemblance to the well known kangeroo of the same name) and his fellow student, the corpulent scientific genius-in-the-making and champion doughnut-eater, Ruprecht Van Doren (a.k.a. Van Blowjob, a.k.a. Van Boner, on account of his being fourteen years old and all his classmates think endlessly and largely fruitlessly of sex). While Skippy stumbles along - way out of his league - in pursuit of haut-bourgeois frisbee-playing man-eater-in-training Lori Wakeham from neighbouring St Brigid's school for girls, Ruprecht refines his machine that will allow him to travel down the tiny strings that link together the 11 dimensions of the universe from Seabrook to some parallel world, and thereby win himself a Nobel prize.

Interwoven with these stories are the lives of other members of this community: disillusioned and directionless Howard, coward and history teacher; psychotic drug-dealing Carl, for whom an early wasteland grave or lifelong encarceration seem equally likely outcomes; Gregory Costigan, Acting Principal, determined to quietly ditch the school's Christian ethos in favour of modern business methods, all the while celebrating the very marketable 140th anniversary.

But while the story evolves the comedy of these characters dreams, it also reveals black tragedy and horror: cancer, sexual abuse, addiction, blackmail, death. It's a great achievement of Paul Murray's that he can make these hopeless and often horrible people so compelling.

Skippy Dies is a tale of huge misunderstanding and a little discovery, of emotional dishonesty and incompetence, of people trying anything - alcohol, the White Goddess, the faeries, drugs, M-theory, sex - to make sense of a life of which they clearly have a slender understanding and less control.

The death of Skippy is the least surprising element of the book because not only is it announced in the title, but also it starts on page 1 and is completed by page 5. Nevertheless, how Skippy meets his tragic end and how others deal with it is the engine that drives the narrative through this 660-page novel. Paul Murray manages to be both moving and laugh-out-loud funny. His portrayal of these sex-obsessed adolescents (and several of the adults), who understand little about themselves or the world around them, is brilliant. Skippy Dies is a long book, the longest on this year's Man Booker long list, but for me the language is always spot on, the narrative stays brilliantly in full sail, and the characters remain vivid and engaging whatever horror Paul Murray calls up for them.

Incidentally, and following on from the last post, Neil Jordan is to make a film adaptation of the book. Who would you cast in the leading roles?

The film of the book

Novels and short stories have of course provided the inspiration for many films. If you take the first ten of the IMDb's Top 250 films as a measure of popularity, half of them are adaptations of a work of fiction:
1 Shawshank Redemption (Steven King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption)
2 The Godfather (Marion Puzo's novel of the same name)
4 The Godfather II (as above)
7 Schindler's List (Thomas Keneally's novel of the same name)
9 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey's novel also of the same name).

Add to this list the many well-known and frequently reincarnated characters from Dracula to James Bond, from Romeo and Juliet to Poirot and the debt of inspiration that the movies owe to fiction writers and dramatists is obvious.

But the result isn't always happy. For one thing, turning several hundred pages of fiction into ninety minutes of screen time generally means some things have to be cut. More irritatingly, when a book that you love - and have imagined and visualised and interpreted as you read it - is reinvented by a team of directors, screenwriters and actors, their version can be very different from your own.

Some novelists are clearly very happy to be part of this, often, as was the case with Mario Puzo, working on the film script, thereby earning for themselves a well-deserved extra pile of dosh. But the relationship is not always a happy one.

Graham Greene was one writer who had a very mixed opinion of the efforts of film makers who adapted his books. He was pleased with the films versions of Brighton Rock and The Third Man, both of which he worked on. He also liked the Hollywood version of This Gun For Hire, which he wasn't involved in. However, when directors changed the plot or the characterisation, he became quite irate, as was the case with early adaptations of The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American. And he first viewed George Cukor's film of Travels With My Aunt when it was broadcast on French TV; he turned after ten minutes.

This year, a new version of Brighton Rock has been filmed, and there are reports that Travels With My Aunt and The Fallen Idol may also be remade. I wonder how he would have rated them.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Short creative writing courses at LSBU

The London South Bank University is running three courses in creative writing, starting in September this year. Follow these three links to find out more about the courses:

Introduction to Creative Writing

Romantic Fiction Writing

Writing Prose - Advanced

The TV Book Club - The Devil's Acre

The seventh episode of the present series of the TV Book Club featured Matthew Plampin's second novel, The Devil's Acre, a novel set around the real attempt by US pistol manufacturer, Samuel Colt, to expand his gun-making business into Britain in the mid-1850s.

Britain at this time was moving towards war with Russia and, seeing this business opportunity, Colt moves into premises in Pimlico, Westminster, down by the Thames, where he plans to make his guns. Pimlico at this time was a warren of squalid slums, rank alleyways and courtyards, and fetid drains, and for its conditions and the crime that they generated the area was known as the Devil's Acre, hence the title of the book. Contributors to this episode of the TV Book Club all commented on the strength of the book's description of the London of the time.

But, as Matthew Plampin makes clear in a video interview, the book also looks at the international arms trade, in which Colt can be seen as an early participant. Colt is depicted as an bearlike, aggressive, amoral figure, driven only by the determination to win business, undeflected by the consequences of this commerce in death. Pimlico was close not only to cheap, exploitable labour but also to the seat of government at Westminster.

Into the plot is also mixed a love affair, as well as a planned political assassination by a group of Irish migrants in revenge for the British govenment's response to the potato famine.

The Devil's Acre is, as Joan Blakewell said during the programme, a tale of adventure, intrigue and murder. "It doesn't go down the path of emotional insight. That's taken for granted." Despite a brief and inevitably tedious discussion of whether it was a 'boy's' book rather than a 'girl's', there seemed to be a consensus of approval among participants in the programme, including the Bookaneers reading group from Blackpool, whether for the historical depiction or the adventure, or both.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore's 2001 novel, The Siege, describes the struggle for survival of Russians during the Siege Of Leningrad, an ordeal that lasted 872 days and cost well over six hundred thousand lives through starvation. Principal among the characters of this novel are young sweethearts Andrei and Anna, and her baby brother, Kolya.

The author's latest novel, The Betrayal, finds the characters in the Leningrad of 1952. The couple are now married; Andrei is a hospital paediatrician and Anna an assistant in a children's nursery. Kolya - now that his and Anna's parents are dead - is with Anna and Andrei, a surrogate son for the childless couple. Their circumstances are reasonably comfortable, but their quite life and happiness is threatened by the arrival at the hospital of the dangerously ill ten-year-old son of a high official of the Soviet security apparatus.

Leningrad - and the city is a powerful presence in the book - has recovered from the tragedy of war, but memory of the desperate privations of the siege are still vivid. However, now the greatest danger to ordinary Russians is not a lack of food and fuel, but the arbitrary and often vicious exercise of power by the state bureaucracy. The show trials and other purges murderous are history, but Stalin's paranoid antisemitism finds one final victim. Thus starts the irradication of the baseless, so-called Doctors' Plot.

The Betrayal is an account of ordinary, decent people trying to survive in the particular circumstances of this state which, while laying claim to scientific rigour, is in fact debased, violent and self-serving. Among the many betrayals, large and small, that these circumstances generate, one at least is the betrayal of the efforts and beliefs - however misguided - of those who thought they were working towards a new and better world.

I admit that I have a high regard for those writers, for example Dostoevsky, Orwell, Greene, Coetzee and of course Solzhenitsyn among many others, who illuminate the survival of private individuals in the face of public political forces. Despite the great attention that is paid nowadays by both the news media and fiction to the dangers of crime, political events and the operations of the world's states are I think the greatest inhibition and danger to our happiness and way of life. Helen Dunmore's book tackles this big subject.

Despite the terrible times the novel describes, The Betrayal is ultimately a hopeful book. The efforts, of these individuals at least, to preserve and regenerate outwit the forces of violence and stupidity.

Click here to read an interview in the Scotsman with Helen Dunmore.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A map of the life of Graham Greene

Today's post is a link to a map of the life of Graham Greene. I'd like to start by confessing that this is certainly work in progress, but I hope it will interest people who enjoy the writing of Graham Greene.

He is well known not only for his writing but also for his journeys all over the world. However, unlike many people nowadays who travel as students or during gap years or in their twenties, Graham Greene, who was born in 1904, undertook most of his journeys outside of Europe after the age of fifty. It is true that he went to Liberia and Mexico in the 1930s, travels which are recorded in Journey without Maps and The Lawless Roads. But he made his travels to many of the other places described in his books, including Vietnam, Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, Congo South Africa and Panama, after 1950. Many of the locations that he visited are identified on the map, and more will be added.

Perhaps the stories and locations of many of his novels create the impression that Graham Greene lived the expatriate life of many of his characters. Scobie the passed-over policeman in The Heart of the Matter, Brown the failed hotelier in The Comedians and Fortnum the drunken cuckold in The Honorary Consul spring to mind. Unlike them, however, Graham Greene lived most of his life in England, and only moved to the south of France in late 1965. As you will see, a large number of the tags on the map describe places and events in Britain.

There is a lot still to be done to make the map even approximately representative of Greene's long and active life, and I am sure what is already there could be improved. So I hope that if you come back to the map you'll find something new, and of course if there is anything you would like to add, don't hesitate to post a comment.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Kate Kerrigan at The TV Book Club

The sixth episode of Channel 4's The TV Book Club featured Kate Kerrigan's Ellis Island. Like earlier episodes, this one - which can be viewed at the programme's website - includes a video segment where the author introduces her book.

The novel moves from rural Ireland in the 1900s to New York in the jazz age of the 1920s, and tells the story of Eli Hogan who leaves Ireland to save money in the US so that she can pay for medical treatment for her husband, who has been injured in the war of independence. But in New York, she finds not only cash but also a world of sophistication - lifts, trouser presses, jazz - that is a world away from the simple life back home.

Kate Kerrigan herself describes the book as a love story, but as she says in the video, the book also calls into the question the relationship between money and happiness, money and love.

As several participants in the programme commented, the bones of the story might suggest this is a bit of light romantic fiction. However, all agreed that Ellis Island is more than that. Among the things that appealed to people were the strong sense of place and the description of the time. If anything, several of the programme's readers would have liked more. The overall conclusion of the people in the studio as well as the Guernsey reading group featured this week was that it was a good relaxing read, and more than the simple piece of romantic fiction they had anticipated.

To read more of Kate Kerrigan, visit her website. She has her own blog, kate kerrigan's good room.

If you have read Ellis Island, add your comments below.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Man Booker Prize long list 2010

The long list for this year's Man Booker Prize has been announced, and I have to admit I've been tardy about getting the news out, since the list was announced last Tuesday. The list is given at the bottom of this post.

The short list will be announced on 7 September, and by that time The Writers' Arms will have provided a review of each of the long-listed books. So drop by from time to time to read the view here and add your comments if you have read any of the books yourself.

Andrew Motion, who is chairing the panel of judges, has emphasised that the 13 books on the long list have been chosen "without reference to the past work of their authors." However, if you have read something that one of these writers has published, why not add your comments in order to create a fertile debate here on this year's list.

You may have noticed an interesting dialogue in yesterday's Observer between Patrick Neate and Robert McCrum on the merits of this year's list. It raises the question of what exactly the Man Booker is for. Feel free to add your thoughts below!

The judges joining Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, for the 2010 Man Booker Prize are Rosie Blau (Literary Editor of the Financial Times), Deborah Bull (Creative Director of the Royal Opera House, dancer, writer and broadcaster), Tom Sutcliffe (journalist, broadcaster and author) and Frances Wilson (biographer and critic).

Here is the long list for 2010. Many of these books are only currently available in hardback, which makes them relatively expensive even with the discounts on offer these days. If you follow the links below and hunt around, you may be able to find out when the paperback editions are due out.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue, Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy, C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)

Lisa Moore, February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain, Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
(Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House - Jonathan Cape)