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Showing posts from September, 2008

Revolutionary Road trailer

Here's the trailer for Sam Mendes adapatation of Richard Yates' great American novel, Revolutionary Road, which was the subject of my degree dissertation a few years ago. The film is due to hit cinema screens at the end of January. I hope it will become the masterpiece that the novel was - the question will be whether cinema-goers can take the reality not just of the rigidly conformist 1950's suburban American, but the disturbing parallels with our own times.

Have I got a muse for you!

Adam Gopnik in the latest issue of The New Yorkerhas written a brilliant piece on Reeves' biography of John Stuart Mill 'Victorian Firebrand'. Halfway through he highlights the role played by his married lover Harriet Taylor who was more than a match for him, despite his celebrated intelligence being of the force-fed variety and hers not. Taylor had married and borne two children to the 'slow-witted' pharmacist John Taylor and one can only imagine how many, too many, women's potentials went to such horrific waste. Those like Taylor were lucky in that they met men from whom they could spark their own abilities. It is something I am thinking a lot about these days because of the next book I have planned - and have been researching in bits and drabs over the past few years. It is a book that will by necessity novelise the life of the long-term partner and 'hidden common-law wife' of a great thinker. This woman, I shall call her 'M' for now, was pol…

There is nothing sacred about history......

Most people, book lovers aside, can't fail to have missed news of the forthcoming UK publication of Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, which imagines the story of Aisha, the younger wife of the prophet Mohammed, due to be published by Gibson Square at the end of October. However, those who are so scared at having any sort of story related to Mohammed out there have set fire to Gibson Square's Islington offices over the weekend, sending publisher Martin Rynja into police protection, echoing the very long and tedious Salman Rushdie episode - which made him far more famous and successful than he would have been otherwise. It would be a lazy response for me to simply say that these arsonists are nothing but criminals - terrorists - enemies of free speech, even though that is what they have made themselves by not engaging in a non-violent debate. But what I find interesting is the state of mind behind such heated, irrational actions. We all of us, believers, atheists or agn…

On my 'To Read' pile...

Will Self's latest work, Liver, has me so intrigued that I can't wait to read it and may even push it to the front of the To Read queue and get to it straight after the D.H. Lawrence biog.

And, having stayed up to watch Newsnight Review (yes, I know it's Friday night) only to hear a unanimous groaning at the much awaited De Niro/Pacino film Righteous Kill, I also became intrigued by the review of Zoe Heller's latest novel, The Believers, which I shall reserve at the library the minute it becomes available.

There's also the latest offering from Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, Pompeii - The Life of a Roman Town which looks really good. Not so long ago, in an earlier post on this blog, I berated The Telegraph for featuring a podcast from some literary festival where not one person had an accent - and Mary Beard was one of the examples I had cited. Quick as a flash she came back and said she had the accent of her county - Shropshire. Having lived in Shropshire for a f…

Congrats Patrick!

Though I would post congratulations to friend Patrick Ness who has won the Guardian's children's ficton prize for his novel aimed at teenagers, The Knife of Never Letting Go which has earned the highest praise from the Prize Judges. Congrats and fully deserved! Read the full story in The Guardian here.

School of Life? Do me a favour!

The School of Life is the name of a new bookshop in Bloomsbury. Like that snobby, pampered, money-jaundiced literary coterie of a century before this shop aims to teach readers how to choose the 'right' type of book in a vein not altogether different from that of Woolf's dressing down of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy in her sanctimonious essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, despite claiming that she adopted a persona of 'the common reader'.

Like most bookshops The School of Life will offer recommendations. However, and here's the rub, this shop will charge fifty quid for the 'privilege'. Stuart Evers has written a piece for Guardian online here in which he says that "Personally, this kind of self-help gubbins leaves me cold, and despite the appealing store furnishings, I couldn't help but feel oppressed by the smugness of the whole affair. " The School of Life even has its own 'faculty' including the ubiquitous pop-philosopher Alain d…

Lawrence's tussles

I've put the Victorian Firebrand, biography of J.S. Mill to one side for the time because I've been swayed by the need to read John Worthen's D.H. Lawrence - The Life of an Outsider. Worthen has the most distinctive job title - Professor of D.H. Lawrence studies at Nottingham. (What would I like to be Professor of? What would you like to be Professor of?) I like Lawrence from what I've learnt so far - he comes across as a grumpy old bugger but I like that too - it's a Northern thing! And I can, to a certain degree, relate to his background too - brought up as working-class but wanting more, knowing more. The guilt of feeling that once you leave you are leaving people behind - not wanting to appear as though you are 'getting above yourself' but knowing that such nonsense is often spat by those who haven't managed it and have repressed it, or those who already see themselves above you and who on earth do you think you are? There's also the question of…

Clicking with David Foster Wallace

I first heard of David Foster Wallace last week when it was reported that he had killed himself. An American writer in his late forties he was immediately proclaimed by those on the Guardian's talk boards as being the best American writer of a generation. I immediately thought, 'why is it whenever someone dies they automatically become the 'greatest of their generation' type thing'. I thought it though - I didn't go on the GU boards and announce my contrary view, simply because, as I say, I didn't know him or his writings.

But I do understand those suicidal tendencies. Don't most people live lives of quiet desperation? So this morning I read one of his talks, featured in today's Guardian, given to kids graduating at some school in Ohio. And what he said to them is what a lot more kids should hear at that age. That life can often mean getting to thirty, or forty, or fifty without shooting yourself in the head. Or hanging. Or overdosing. It re…

The House of Wittgenstein

No, I haven't bought Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein yet simply because buying big hardbacks in a crisis economy is not the wisest move when you've already bought three new books in the past few days! But I will be ordering it from the library. I was, however, in Hatchard's on Piccadilly last Saturday and read the first few pages (they had it on display and everything even though Waterstone's a few stores down weren't expecting it in for another few days!) Ludwig Wittgenstein was a fascinating character. He was neurotic which isn't so fascinating by itself but tiresome as half the population are neurotic. But he focused his unlimited mental energy in pondering 'private languages', although he did spend much time in retreat, up in the Connemara mountains for one. It's easy to see why he made such an impact when he arrived at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell. I read a short work on him a couple of years ago and always remember how, whe…

Visual art as the springboard for fiction

Great paintings can tell equally great stories. Think of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring on Vemeer or even Siri Hustvedt's great novel What I Loved whose foundation is built on the perceptions of an art history professor as well as his friendship with an artist and his wife/muse. During the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1996 it wasn't the pickled cow or Emin's tent that really got me thinking about the story behind them but a very small - A5 perhaps - charcoal drawing of a naked girl whose back is turned away from the viewer and her hands are clearly held up against her lowered face. It is therefore safe to assume she was crying. And I thought about that picture for days afterwards thinking 'why'? I so wanted to buy that picture because of the question mark hanging above her head but also because of its universal appeal - just got out of her lover's bed only to be told it isn't working? Just got out of her lover's bed after…

The Tyranny of Youth

'From the Pulpit' in this month's issue of Literary Review is by Peter Washington, who has a well-constructed rant on what he sees is the tyranny of youth. He celebrates the older writers like Penelope Fitzgerald who wrote The Beginning of Spring at the age of seventy-two when most of society would have most at this age writing about deep mid-winter! We are, as a society, deep in youth fetishism:

It is not only the old in years who are invisible: they have been joined by almost everyone over thirty - or at least everyone who behaves as though they were...and the surrender of most publishers to literary pop stars, while established writers are allowed to slide into oblivion at ever younger ages.

Washington sees this as a disturbingly widespread infantalisation, especially made apparent by that opaque term of 'creativity' which is, he claims
the stock-in-trade of every educationalist who tells us not to worry about grammar, punctuation or syntax so long as children le…


I've got three books on the go:

The Invisible Woman - The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens - Claire Tomalin
John Stuart Mill - Victorian Firebrand - Richard Reeves
The Nineteenth Century - Colin Matthew

Yes, all things Victorian! Preliminary research for what I hope will be a BIG, all-consuming project which I've had in the pipeline for a few years.

Review - The Elegance of the Hedgehog

It is 1.40 a.m. and I've not long finished reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Gallic). When I read about this book last week I knew I had to go out and buy it - even though it's still only in hardback. And I can see why it has become a best-seller in France. It is quirky and generally I like quirky. But I'm also in two minds about it.

It's the parallel stories of Renee, the fifty-four-year-old working-class concierge of luxury apartments at 7, rue de grenelle, and Paloma, the twelve-year-old-daughter who lives there with her sister and parents. I won't outline the story for you, read that here, but Renee and Paloma, whilst not knowing each other, are soul mates in their shared outlooks. They are both auto-didacts, and share that tortured world-weariness that is scathing of everyone who doesn't share what they think is the Truth of the world, seeing most others as stuck to the masks they try desperately hard to hang onto for fear of conne…


Today it was to the London Metropolitan University on the Holloway Road for LitCamp - a day of talks, mingling and discussions on all things literary - organised by the indefatigable Pulp founder Lane Ashfeldt. I listened to Bridget Whelan talk about how hard it is to continue writing whilst making a living in the day job and also an inspiring graphic poet, Jay Bernard. For my part I gave a talk on small publishing and my experience of it. I kind of felt I was preaching to the converted though to be honest, I felt was a big Bogus on my part. I definitely feel Bogus talking as a writer. I mean, there's this vocation, occupation or past-time that demands solitude from you - you get your head down and you write, and when you're not writing you're being as observant of others as you can so that you can feel your way into characters and storylines. And then there's this other part of being a writer, which is exactly the opposite - talking in public to people you don&#…

Booker Shortlist

The six titles that have made the Booker shortlist are:

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

I am pleased to note that Salman Rushdie didn't make it and Sebastian Barry did!

Chairman Michael Portillo said:

"The judges commend the six titles to readers with great enthusiasm. These novels are intensely readable, each of them an extraordinary example of imagination and narrative. These fine page-turning stories nonetheless raise highly thought-provoking ideas and issues. These books are in every case both ambitious and approachable."

The winner will be annonced on October 14th.

No brainer?

This story is yet another example of how little consideration small independent businesses are given in the UK and the embarrassing gap between how they are treated in France than over here. I used to work for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) who do a great job at lobbying government on the interests of small businesses. One of the most constant sore points was the favouritism shown to out-of-town-retail-centres (leaving the High Street more and more ghostly as a result) and the depressingly dull homogoneity of our High Streets. In France, chain bookstores are not allowed to discount books more than 5%, which makes a fairer playing field. In the UK, in embarrassing comparison, I can only think of one indie bookshop off the top of my head - Owl Books in Kentish Town. This situation is a symptom of a greater malaise towards small businesses in the UK, where small stores haven't got a snowball in hell's chance most of the time. In France variety and independent spiri…


I'm reading the French best-seller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.

Just back and just read...

What a week! It was, most of the time, very relaxing and very productive. I've nowhere finished on my work-in-progress, now called Running Home, but I did get quite a bit done so I'm not complaining. It helped being in the region of one of the book's main settings. If you haven't been to the Ribble Valley I would definitely recommend a visit, although not go out as far as I did. A bit too remote. I had no mobile phone reception for the entire week and the nearest shop was eight miles away. But the quiet worked wonders and just being able to hear nature made me think so much about how disconnected I am in the city. As soon as I got to the train station this morning and my phone came back to life telling me I had messages I felt my stress levels rise!

I was also able to get a bit of reading done and read Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved - a remarkable novel which I'm still thinking about and will no doubt write a bit more on in a later post. I also started on F…