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Showing posts from October, 2010

The anxiety in Franzen's Freedom

Most discussions and debates on contemporary fiction inevitably include the male heavyweights, if only to bemoan their longevity, predictability and ubiquity, if not of books, then of media presence: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie. With the recent hoopla surrounding his long-awaited latest, Jonathan Franzen can now take his place as one of these staples of contemporary western literature. Whilst I can complain about these middle-aged men's domination of the literary market, I can also admit to contradictions in my enjoyment of some of their work. I admired McEwan's Saturday and immediately felt the influence of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but never got on with Atonement. I like a lot of Roth's work, including The Human Stain, Everyman, and even The Humbling, which was not beloved by the critics. I also loved Franzen's The Corrections. So I waited with anticipation for the much hyped arrival of Freedom. I enjoyed it. It was more 'good' than …


DH Lawrence visitor centre closure threat

The modest DH Lawrence visitor centre in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, is under threat after the local council say it will have to close. The centre is not just concerned with the writer's work, but also the mining industry which influenced it, making this centre a vital resource of working-class heritage. Leading writers, including Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis as well as Ken Russel and David Puttnam have all joined the campaign. The Guardian reported the story yesterday.

iPhone for literature

It took me a while to get a smart phone. I had a blackberry whilst in a former PR position that came with the job, but I held off getting one for personal use. Then my brother, who 'is in' mobile telephony, said 'get a bberry'. So I did. And I loved how easy it was to have all my emails in one place etc. And then, this month it came to the end of its contract and my brother mentioned the BlackBerry Torch and I thought, ooohhhh, Torch! But then he added 'or you could get the iPhone 4'. My immediate response was 'no'. Why? I have no idea - maybe it's because I didn't want something that most other phone users seemed to have. And I didn't want to join in the general enthusiasm for it. I've only ever owned one mac and that was the old green retro ones. But then I discovered that the apps that could be had with the iPhone were in a different league to those of the BlackBerry, so I relented. And I'm glad I did - I took delivery of the new …

Armitage and Jacobson

Poet Simon Armitage has won the Keats-Shelley poetry prize for his single poem 'The Present', which was inspired by his search for icicles in 2008/09. Second prize went to Gill Learner for "The Power of Ice", with third prize going to Pat Winslow for "The Theatre at the End of the Pier". And, bizarrely, it emerges that Howard Jacobson's publisher, Bloomsbury, did not even submit his work, The Finkler Question, which went onto win the Booker. It's a good job that the judges can call in some works they feel should be on their list then.

Eva Hoffman - mixing genres

As part of the life writing seminar series at Kingston University, this evening writer, academic and former literary editor Eva Hoffman gave a talk on 'mixing genres' and also gave a reading from her novel, Illuminations.

Eva Hoffman began by referring to her critically acclaimed memoir, 'Lost in Translation' (1989), which came about when she wanted to write something on the transliteral - an intersection of the subjective and the objective, which would also reflect herself as a Polish Jewish immigrant into America. At first she toyed with the idea of writing an essay, using herself as a case study, but it then became the memoir. Finding the right form, she says, can be a tricky business. She spoke of fiction versus non-fiction and gave the oft-quoted 'the writer has a contract with the reader', when referring to non-fiction, i.e. it has to be true and not invented. Yet she then also acknowledged that all fiction is, if only in part, autobiographical. I asked h…

Howard Jacobson 2010 Booker

Howard Jacobson has won this year's Man Booker Prize for fiction. It is the first time he was shortlisted for the £50,000 prize, despite being longlisted in previous years, most recently for Kalooki Nights. He beat Emma Donoghue for Room, narrated by a five-year old boy who is confined to a room along with his mother. The story is based on the Josef Fritzl case. He also beat favourite Tom McCarthy, for 'C'. I haven't been at all tempted by this year's shortlist, although I enjoyed Kalooki Nights and so would plump for The Finkler Question, and in fact, recommended it to a friend based on the synopsis, only a few weeks ago, which he immediately downloaded onto his i-Pad. With the Chilean miners emerging jubilantly from their captivity underground, where they have been trapped since August 5th, it's only a matter of time before someone writes that story/film.


Last night my friend, Laura, and I went to the press night of Hamlet at the National Theatre. It was Rory Kinnear's turn to take on the line-heavy task. Predecessors were John Simms and Jude Law. This morning's national newspapers have sung its praises, with five stars from The Times, four from The Guardian The Daily Telegraph and The Independent. (Shame The Mirror and The Sun didn't have anyone to send!) It was a brilliant and confident performance from Rory Kinnear, from Patrick Malahide as Claudius, David Calder as Polonius and James Laurenson as the ghost of Hamlet's father/player king and Alex Lanipekun as Laertes. I felt that Giles Terera as Horatio didn't have enough opportunity to reveal himself. But as loathe as I am to say it, Ruth Negga as Ophelia and Clare Higgins as Gertrude just didn't do it for me. With Negga it may just have been that she wasn't what I had expected - she was described as 'feisty' in one review, which I didn't see…

Slang, innit

Here's a copy of a piece I wrote for The Guardian's CiF, responding to Emma Thompson's attack on slang:

That epitome of Hampstead luvviness, Emma Thompson, has apparently started a campaign against the use of "sloppy slang" and "street talk". It follows a visit to her old school, Camden High for Girls. What's to be expected from a Cambridge graduate? It is still an institution of received pronunciation. She is not alone in this call to arms against slang. Fellow north Londoner Tom Conti agrees, as does Kathy Lette, that writer of such timeless classics as Puberty Blues, which is about "top chicks" and "surfie spunks", and Alter Ego, about a "knight in shining Armani". Lette attempts to show off her punnilingus by calling slang a "vowel cancer" and urging teens to study "tongue fu".

This kind of talk has got me well vexed. Listen up, yeah, there's nowt wrong with slang, so you need to stop mither…

Seamus Heaney

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has won the 10k Forward prize for his most recent collection, Human Chain. Julia Copus won best single poem and Hilary Menos won the best first collection prize.
Heaney's Human Chain is his first collection since suffering a stroke in 2006.

'One of the poems in his 12th collection, Chanson d'Aventure, is set during an ambulance journey on the way to hospital in which, he said, he was crying for his father', the Guardian reported.
Heaney beat Robin Robertson's 'The Wrecking Light' to the prize. Yet this is the first time - in a career spanning five decades, that Heaney has won Britain's richest poetry prize.
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Nobel and Hughes

Ted Hughes' 'The Birthday Letters' (1998) detail his relationship with first wife, fellow poet Sylvia Path, who killed herself. Yet now, in his documents that were donated to the British Library, drafts of a poem 'Last Letter' chart what happened during the three days that lead up to Plath's death. The poem will appear in this week's New Statesman.

Whilst waiting for news of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, bookies have apparently got the following as contenders:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Petals of Blood and much more), Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men etc), Haruki Murakami (Wind up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore etc).
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National Poetry Day - Franzen - Robin Robertson

This Thursday is National Poetry Day. There are going to be events at Southbank House, details should be here. Both Daljit Nagra and Simon Armitage will be there, well worth a visit.

I am still reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom - it's good, it's very good, but it's not great, as many critics insist. There has also been a recall of the book in the UK due to a few typos, but I haven't noticed and so am not taking mine back only for it to be pulped!

I also bought a copy of Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light. It's beautiful. One of the poems that captivated me was 'At Roane Head', which was also published in the London Review Books, and so can be read here.