A Year in Reading started out well; January, February and March have ticks beside them. But then things went to pieces. By April I was trying to make Mary Poppins do double duty – as a book that has been made into a movie (already checked off in March) and a re-read from childhood. Cheating on my reading challenges – that’s what it came to.
There were some books I did read, but not in the month assigned to them:
A book from another country – Sydney by Delia Falconer. (I think Australia counts as another country).
An award winner – Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (actually it’s only been nominated for the Costa so far, but if there is any justice in the world it will win every literary prize going in 2015.) Cheating again – it’s a slippery slope.
Reading Bingo was marginally better, but again with the cheating.
Morrin Rout hosted the event, armed with a long list of questions submitted by BDS convenors. I loved that the event kicked off with a chat about hairstyles – just like every book club I have ever belonged to! Diane’s was described as “artfully tousled” and Morrin’s as “strangely thatched.” Eleanor, her beautiful sleek long locks flowing down each side of her face, just smiled enigmatically.
Here’s how it went:
How has your background and upbringing influenced your writing?
Diane said she was the first person in her family to go to university. She had been a voracious reader as a child, but her family was unschooled. She always keeps her mother in mind as her sole reader. This gives her books a wide readership range.
Eleanor comes from a family of readers – there was no TV in her home. She credits her brother’s reaction to a short story she wrote when she was 7 or 8 years old with her writing rule: always to see your work as your detractors might see it.
How do you get into the minds of people who are not your age, gender or nationality?
Diane (The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black): It helps if you are a shy, quiet observer. Observation and listening make up seventy-five percent of the work. Always stretch a bit beyond what you believe you are capable of. The rest is a kind of magic.
The Luminaries is such a complex novel, how on earth did it come about?
Eleanor: I knew I wanted to write a historic novel about the West Coast gold rush (1864-1867). Overall it took me five years, and there were long periods of incubation in that time. I found a wonderful website called Solarium where you can see the exact position of the planets and the sun, moon and stars for any date in the past. For two weeks I studied the skies over Hokitika for the three year period in which I was was interested. In particular, I noticed Mercury (which represents trickery and deceit). So in a way, the story had been constellated for me. But it was a real headache to write and I have many, many folders in my computer under the heading Luminaries!
Where did you get your ideas for these two books? What were your influences?
Diane: The Bellman and Black book began from listening to the radio (BBC Desert Island Discs, to be precise!) The radio is where all good books should start, in my opinion! Then I wanted to write a ghost story where a really robust character is haunted, but set it somewhere unscary. So the question becomes – is he mad or is he haunted? I was also fascinated by the vast London emporiums of mourning paraphernalia. Oh, and I always knew, from way back, that I would write about a character called William Bellman.
Eleanor: Jung got me thinking about Astrology.
At what point in the writing of your book did you know what the title would be?
Eleanor: Right at the very start of the book I knew it would be called The Luminaries.
Diane: I only worked out the title right at the end!
At this point I had a balancing meltdown with my muffin, my coffee, my notepad and pen and I missed Diane’s answer. If any reader who was at this event can remember Diane’s answer, or indeed can add any more information to this blog, just comment below!
Because of the small number of invited guests (thanks Book Discussion Scheme), I felt more connected to these two authors than I would have done in a large packed venue. And, as a result, I feel inspired to read both The Luminaries and Bellman and Black. You can’t say better than that now can you?
I loved this book long before I read it, I concede maybe for all the wrong reasons.
I loved the author’s name – even if you do nothing else, say the word Bulawayo several times. Let it roll off your tongue, a slight stress on the “way” syllable, feel its roundness roll out like the Matopos Boulders that, as a tourist in Zimbabwe, you would most certainly visit. Beautiful.
I loved the title. It is a book in which names are very important.The names of characters, like Prophet Revelation Bitchington Mborro; Paradise, the squatter camp; DestroyedMichigan for Detroit; Bastard and Godknows who are Darling‘s friends. In politically volatile Africa, even the names of streets and buildings can change almost overnight. To this day, my Durban taxi trips require some verbal fancy footwork: If I say “Can you take me to Aliwal Street”, the driver will answer : “Do you mean Samora Machel?” If I ask for Samora Machel Avenue, he will always reply: “Oh, Aliwal Street”. But we get there in the end.
I also loved the book cover, so funky, so bright, so youthful. Because, NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe, is young and this is her first novel and it is quite brilliant.
And then I read it.
It is a book of two halves, the first part set in the euphemistically named Paradise, a squatter camp in Zimbabwe. The second half is set in America where Darling, the main character, has been taken by her Aunt – with the promise of a better life.
As with all fiction, there is what is happens and there is how what happens is described. Many awful things happen. Do you want to read about a botched attempted abortion with a wire coat hanger on a young girl impregnated by her grandfather? No you do not. Do you want to read about the words Blak Power smeared in faeces on the bathroom mirror of a house that has been broken into? No you do not. Do you want to read about a lonely father, estranged from his daughter, dying of AIDS in a shack in Paradise? Probably not. But read it you will, because it is beautifully written and finely observed and has nuggets of joy and laughter and empathy the likes of which you may not have beheld for a very long time.
For me it is mainly a book about leaving a place where you were born, your homeland, and making a life in a new place and all the excitement and yearning that accompanies this migration. The fullness of lack is contrasted with the emptiness of abundance. For make no mistake, people left and are leaving Zimbabwe:
Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost. Look at them leaving in droves.
And then there is the writing. Interspersed with staccato juvenile backchat, there are long repeated sentences whose Biblical cadence make you feel those passages could be sung. Her writing has few conjunctions and she favours repeated words for emphasis. She has killer similes and metaphors and for all the sadness of the subject matter, you will laugh. She is doing something different with English and you should read it to see what you think. As the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is quoted as saying:
Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.
But I have saved the best till last. NoViolet Bulawayo is appearing at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival in Christchurch this weekend. Sure you can read the reviews, of course I recommend you read the book, but you could actually meet her and hear her speak.
Writing comets like this do not often traverse our skies.
The full list of winners of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is:
New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and winner of Best Picture Book category: Prizes: $7,500 for the New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and $7,500 for Best Picture Book The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka (Penguin Group (NZ), Puffin)
Reading Bingo is also shaping up to be a bit of a bust – I’ve got five squares crossed off my 25 square grid. And it’s May!
I actually cheated and chose Mary Poppins for both Reading Bingo – “A book that became a movie” and A Year in Reading – “In March read a book that has been made into a movie”. Tragic, but needs must. Now I feel the need to repeat (yes, hysteria is creeping in here) – it’s May and I did not re-read a favourite book from childhood in April. Would Mary Poppins do for that as well?
So far we’ve read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Harvest by Jim Crace. Both books I never would have picked up left to my own narrow devices so perhaps challenges are good for something other than driving me crazy. Both very good books in different ways – how do the Man Booker judges ever decide which is best? Next up is The Testament of Mary – this was the shortest book on the list so of course it had to be the only one I’d already read.
If I was a Man Booker judge what would I think? Actually I’d think “what was I thinking when I took this on?”. I’d have to put aside my opinion that Colm Tóibín is a stone-cold genius because Jim Crace probably is too if Harvest is anything to go by. I’d have to fight my impulse to give the prize to NoViolet Bulawayo for having the best pen-name in the world. Crace has said that Harvest will be his last book. We Need New Names was Bulawayo’s first. The Luminaries is 832 pages long, The Testament of Mary 81. How to compare?
Actually I’ve just realised We Need New Names crosses off a sixth square for Reading Bingo – “A book set on a different continent”. Things are looking up.
Everyone knows about Road Rage – where all other drivers are idiots, your blood pressure soars, you discover swear words you weren’t aware you knew and, when you glance in the rear view mirror to glare at another driver, you don’t recognise the face looking back at you.
But you may be less familiar with Book Rage. Some of the symptoms are similar, but it usually happens at a book club, surrounded by friends, eating delicious nibbly things, sipping wine and doing what you love best – talking about books. And then WHAM, out of the blue, Book Rage flares up.
I’ve belonged to reading groups most of my adult life and here are four of the books that nearly tore those groups asunder:
The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas). You don’t know who you are as a parent until someone else slaps your child. At a barbie. The discussion might start out civilised, but child rearing practices can divide even loving couples, never mind a group of ladies only loosely linked by their love of books. Be warned, it could turn ugly.
Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen). No one saw this coming, but in retrospect, books about animals do run the risk of degenerating into emotionally charged “cruelty to animals” accusations. These are always taken personally. You may not get offered a second glass of wine.
Fifty Shades of Grey (E. L. James). This was a particularly tricky one for me as I had already taken a vow not to even touch the book. So this book was already causing me significant stress in the workplace. When it showed up at my book group, I launched into a vitriolic attack on it – even though I had not read it, and never ever would. This stance neatly divides people into those who believe you can’t have an opinion on something you haven’t tried, and the rest of the thinking world.
The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing). Most Book Rage starts like this. One person (in this case me) puts a book she loves into the club. Someone in the group responds with comments like: “I never knew any Rhodesians like that” or: “This book is rubbish“. Next thing I hear myself saying: “Well, you’re wrong” and recklessly amping it up to – “You’re all wrong“. Then I stomped out of the room to the toilet where I tearfully felt I would have to leave any book group that did not appreciate a Nobel Prize winning author. When I looked in the mirror, I saw staring back at me a person I barely recognised. A horrible book snob. I returned to the group. They gave me a cupcake and a coffee. I took Doris Lessing out of the club. We never spoke of it again.
How about you? Do you have any books that have have caused harsh words to be said, that have cut deep beneath the veneer of civilised behaviour, that have lost you friends?
A book that maybe made you learn something about yourself?
When I counter-challenged her to #readwomen2014 she raised me A Year in Reading and we were off. So far I have managed four things off Reading Bingo, but my sheet doesn’t have the tidy lines that were so exciting on Housie cards in 1970s booze barns, more a scattered set of crosses. I’m too busy trying to make one book do for two challenges to be systematic.
So far I’ve only managed it with Franny and Zooey. It met both the Reading Bingo challenge of reading “A book that is more than 10 years old” and the Year in Reading challenge “In January read a book published the same year you were born”.
The trouble with reading a lot is that it just makes you want to read more. Franny and Zooey reminded me of how much I loved the Glass family and how I should go back and read all the Glass stories. At least they’re short.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Guardian Best Books of 2013) made me think I should read about her family and more of her fiction before I embarked on her biography. Happily I could use The Knox Brothers for “A book of non-fiction” in Reading Bingo. And perhaps the The Golden Child could do for “The first book by a favourite author”(it’s her first fiction book).
Then I foolishly left myself short of books when on holiday and had to buy a second-hand copy of Middlemarch. I’d always planned to read it after listening to it on talking book, but it’s languished on my For Later list for years. The task became more urgent when it had to be read before My Life in Middlemarch, a book about how important books can be in our lives. As if I need to read about reading. But it has had great reviews and Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker pieces are always good.
Unfortunately I’m so deep in my reading challenge addiction I chose an edition of Middlemarch with a blue cover just so I could cross off the “A book with a blue cover” Reading Bingo square . It’s so musty it nearly asphyxiates me every time I open it and as I finish each page it detaches itself from the ancient glue that has held the book together for the last 40 years.
It’s a bit tragic, but the challenges have actually given me a new enthusiasm for reading. Now to manipulate the Man Booker short list titles into meeting at least two criteria of my reading challenges each…
My excitement at Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize was intense, but before I got around to blogging about it, Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker. Now that there are hundreds of holds on The Luminaries it’s probably time to look for something to read while we’re waiting.
If your next read must be from a prize-winning author you can’t go wrong with Alice Munro. You won’t have to wait because four holds is the highest number on any of her books at the moment and most don’t have any – you can pluck them off the shelves.
Munro has been called the ‘Canadian Chekov’ but I find that vaguely patronising – why isn’t Chekov ‘the Russian Munro’? She is, in the words of the Nobel committee, ” the master of the contemporary short story”; she is only the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; she is actually readable, unlike many other Nobel literature laureates; she is modest and she shares a nationality with lots of other great writers and musicians.
And Joni Mitchell, my personal heroine, 70 on the 7th of November 2013.
Who is your favourite Canadian? Writer, musician or ice hockey player? Or politician? Pierre Trudeau passed for a hottie among the Commonwealth Prime Ministers of my youth; mind you he didn’t have much competition.
Not long now until the winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced. Kia ora Eleanor Catton and best of luck. From me and all of us at Christchurch City Libraries – librarians and library users alike. I wonder what the Man Booker equivalent of Break a leg is – Bust that Man Booker?
The Man Booker Prize will be announced at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday 15 October 2013 – 7 to 11pm (BST). So we will be at our desks or having breakfast here in NZ – the event starts at Wednesday, 16 October 2013 at 7am.
NZ Listener will be there:
We’ll be tweeting live from the 2013 Man Booker Prize ceremony in London. Coverage starts around 7am this Wednesday, NZ time.