Review: Writing Well by Mark Tredinnick

I first read Writing Well by Mark Tredinnick a few years back.  It has held pride of place on my writing book shelf because it is one of the most helpful and beautifully written books on writing I’ve read so far.

Writing Well is a guide to expressive creative writing and effective professional prose. The author, a poet, writer, editor and teacher, explains the techniques required for stylish and readable writing. Everyone who wants to improve their writing can benefit from this book, which describes how to: identify topics that inspire you to write, get into the habit of writing regularly, develop ideas, construct effective arguments, choose words for maximum effect, use grammar correctly, structure sentences and paragraphs appropriately, write with integrity. The book is enriched by examples from great modern writers, and includes a variety of exercises and suggestions for writing activities. Mark Tredinnick practises what he preaches, making his book highly enjoyable as well as technically instructive.”  (GoodReads)

In the prologue of The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker writes:

“It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.”

Writing Well fits this description and is, indeed, a paragon of its own advice.  I really enjoyed reading it.  Tredinnick provides useful advice and fantastic exercises to get you flexing your writing muscles.  He includes example passages from well known works to illustrate his points and this, too, was wonderful to read in addition to being illustrative.

My favourite chapters were Sentencing, which gave an in depth look at the structure of different types of sentences and when to make use of them; and Poetics, which was about the art of creative writing.

It was a useful and inspiring read.  This book isn’t just for fiction writers, but anyone looking to improve their writing whether you’re focusing on fiction, poetry, or report writing for work.  It’s a book you may well read more than once – I’ve just finished it for a second time.  If, like me, you enjoy reading books about writing improvement this one has got to be on your list.

lilolia review rating 5 stars excellent

2016 Etisalat Prize Shortlist

The 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature Shortlist is out and brings us 3 novels from the African continent.  This year two Nigerians and one South African are vying for the prize.

The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

the-seed-thief-by-jacqui-lange“Sometimes the thing you find is not the one you were looking for. When botanist Maddy Bellani is asked to travel to Brazil to collect rare seeds from a plant that could cure cancer, she reluctantly agrees. Securing the seeds would be a coup for the seed bank in Cape Town where she works, but Brazil is the country of her birth and home to her estranged father.  Her mission is challenging, despite the help of alluring local plantexpert Zé. The plant specimen is elusive, its seeds guarded by a sect wary of outsiders. Maddy must also find her way in a world influenced by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies and the selfish motives of others.  Entrancing and richly imagined, The Seed Thief is a modern love story with an ancient history, a tale that moves from flora of Table Mountain to the heart of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism.” (GoodReads)

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

and-after-many-days-by-jowhor-ile“During the rainy season of 1995, in the bustling town of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, one family’s life is disrupted by the sudden disappearance of seventeen-year-old Paul Utu, beloved brother and son. As they grapple with the sudden loss of their darling boy, they embark on a painful and moving journey of immense power which changes their lives forever and shatters the fragile ecosystem of their once ordered family. Ajie, the youngest sibling, is burdened with the guilt of having seen Paul last and convinced that his vanished brother was betrayed long ago. But his search for the truth uncovers hidden family secrets and reawakens old, long forgotten ghosts as rumours of police brutality, oil shortages, and frenzied student protests serve as a backdrop to his pursuit.  In a tale that moves seamlessly back and forth through time, Ajie relives a trip to the family’s ancestral village where, together, he and his family listen to the myths of how their people settled there, while the villagers argue over the mysterious Company, who found oil on their land and will do anything to guarantee support. As the story builds towards its stunning conclusion, it becomes clear that only once past and present come to a crossroads will Ajie and his family finally find the answers they have been searching for.  And After Many Days introduces Ile’s spellbinding ability to tightly weave together personal and political loss until, inevitably, the two threads become nearly indistinguishable. It is a masterful story of childhood, of the delicate, complex balance between the powerful and the powerless, and a searing portrait of a community as the old order gives way to the new.”  (GoodReads)

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya

Mr and Mrs Doctor by Julie Iromuanya“Ifi and Job, a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage, begin their lives together in Nebraska with a single, outrageous lie: that Job is a doctor, not a college dropout. Unwittingly, Ifi becomes his co-conspirator—that is until his first wife, Cheryl, whom he married for a green card years ago, reenters the picture and upsets Job’s tenuous balancing act.” (GoodReads)

2016 NBCC Award Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle has announced the finalists for the 2016 awards.  They have awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award to Margaret Atwood.  The NBCC awards will be presented on the 16th March in New York.  I’m going to share the finalists for the Fiction category here but follow the above link to see the finalists in the other categories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

moonglow-by-michael-chabon

“In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon travelled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis for the novel Moonglow, the latest feat of legerdemain in the ongoing magic act that is the art of Michael Chabon.  Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession, made to his grandson, of a man the narrator refers to only as “my grandfather.” It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies. A gripping, poignant, tragicomic, scrupulously researched and wholly imaginary transcript of a life that spanned the dark heart of the twentieth century, Moonglow is also a tour de force of speculative history in which Chabon attempts to reconstruct the mysterious origins and fate of Chabon Scientific, Co., an authentic mail-order novelty company whose ads for scale models of human skeletons, combustion engines and space rockets were once a fixture in the back pages of Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Boy’s Life. Along the way Chabon devises and reveals, in bits and pieces whose hallucinatory intensity is matched only by their comic vigour and the radiant moonglow of his prose, a secret history of his own imagination.  From the Jewish slums of pre-war South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of New York’s Wallkill Prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring, his most moving, his most Chabonesque.” (GoodReads)

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

larose-by-louise-erdrich

“North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbour’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.  The youngest child of his friend and neighbour, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.  LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a co conspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.  But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.”  (GoodReads)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

imagine-me-gone-by-adam-haslett

“When Margaret’s fiancé, John, is hospitalized for depression in 1960s London, she faces a choice: carry on with their plans despite what she now knows of his condition, or back away from the suffering it may bring her. She decides to marry him. Imagine Me Gone is the unforgettable story of what unfolds from this act of love and faith. At the heart of it is their eldest son, Michael, a brilliant, anxious music fanatic who makes sense of the world through parody. Over the span of decades, his younger siblings–the savvy and responsible Celia and the ambitious and tightly controlled Alec–struggle along with their mother to care for Michael’s increasingly troubled and precarious existence.” (GoodReads)

Continue reading 2016 NBCC Award Finalists

2016 Man Booker Prize Winner

This year’s Man Booker prize went to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.  Beatty’s novel also won the NBCC fiction prize earlier this year and he is the first American author to win the Man Booker prize since US authors became eligible in 2014.the sellout by paul beatty

The 2016 Chair of judges, Amanda Foreman, commented that: ‘The Sellout is a novel for our times. A tirelessly inventive modern satire, its humour disguises a radical seriousness. Paul Beatty slays sacred cows with abandon and takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl.’  You can read more about the author, novel, and prize here.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.  Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.  Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court. (GoodReads)

If you missed it you can have a look at the 2016 Man Booker shortlist for further reading inspiration.

2016 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The 2016 Man Booker Prize Shortlist is out!  We have already seen one of the shortlisted books win the 2015 NBCC Fiction Prize earlier this year and the only previously Man Booker shortlisted author on the list this year is Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).  The shortlist looks packed with interesting reads.

Chair of Judges, Amanda Foreman, said of this year’s shortlist:

“The Man Booker Prize subjects novels to a level of scrutiny that few books can survive. In re-reading our incredibly diverse and challenging longlist, it was both agonizing and exhilarating to be confronted by the sheer power of the writing. As a group we were excited by the willingness of so many authors to take risks with language and form. The final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture – in its ability to champion the unconventional, to explore the unfamiliar, and to tackle difficult subjects.”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

the sellout paul beatty

“Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.  Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.  Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.” (GoodReads)

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milk-by-deborah-levy

Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.  But Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Sofia’s mother’s illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia’s role as detective—tracking her mother’s symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain—deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.  Hot Milk is a profound exploration of the sting of sexuality, of unspoken female rage, of myth and modernity, the lure of hypochondria and big pharma, and, above all, the value of experimenting with life; of being curious, bewildered, and vitally alive to the world. (GoodReads)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnet

A brutal triple murder in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869 leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that Macrae is guilty, but the police and courts must uncover what drove him to murder the local village constable.
And who were the other two victims? Ultimately, Macrae’s fate hinges on one key question: is he insane?
  (GoodReads)

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen-by-ottessa-moshfegh

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.  Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas, young Eileen’s story is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator. Creepy, mesmerizing, and sublimely funny, in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and early Vladimir Nabokov, this powerful debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.
  (GoodReads)

All That Man Is by David Szalay

all-that-man-is-by-david-szalay

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving–in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel–to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.  Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power. Szalay is a writer of supreme gifts–a master of a new kind of realism that vibrates with detail, intelligence, relevance, and devastating pathos.  (GoodReads)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine-thien

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.  With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.
” 
(GoodReads)

2016 Baileys Women’s Prize Winner

The winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s prize for fiction is Lisa McInerney for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies.

Margaret Mountford, Chair of Judges, commented: “After a passionate discussion around a very strong shortlist, we chose Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling. A fresh new voice and a wonderful winner.”  You can read the official announcement here.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

“One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family. Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city. In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of other perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight . . .Biting, moving and darkly funny, The Glorious Heresies explores salvation, shame and the legacy of Ireland’s twentieth-century attitudes to sex and family.” (GoodReads)

If you’re interested you can have a look at the 2016 Baileys Women’s prize shortlist for some reading inspiration.

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2016 PEN Faulkner Award Winner

The 2016 PEN/Faulkner award winner is James Hannaham for his novel Delicious Foods.

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

“Delicious Foods is at once a sweeping American tale of race and exploitation, a darkly comedic thriller, and an intimate portrayal of a troubled mother and her damaged son. The narrative follows the lives of Darlene, a woman left ruined after the traumatic death of her husband; Eddie, her young son; and Scotty, crack cocaine personified, who threatens to destroy them both. After Darlene’s husband, a black civil activist, is murdered in a sleepy town in Louisiana, it is not long before Darlene’s grief drives her to drugs. Once she embarks on this dangerous path, crack addiction soon becomes sole motivating force of Darlene’s life, driving her into de facto enslavement at a farm called Delicious Foods. Hannaham is unafraid of the complex and the horrible, and yet his novel shines in its intimate details. Praising the novel in the New York Times, Ted Genoways writes, “The novel’s finest moments are…in the singular way that Hannaham can make the commonplace spring to life with nothing more than astute observation and precise language.””

You can read the PEN/Faulkner award winner announcement.  You can also have a look at the rest of the 2016 finalists.

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2016 Pulitzer Prize Winners

In my part of the world the Pulitzer Prizes were announced at 9pm last night but no matter the time zone people all over were ready and waiting to hear the news of the 100th anniversary Pulitzer Prize winners.

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

What a year for Viet Thanh Nguyen who we just saw shortlisted for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award and now a Pulitzer win.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen“A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.  It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.” (GoodReads)

 

The Pulitzer Prize for Non Fiction:  Black Flags by Joby Warrick

black flags by joby warrick“Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick reveals how the strain of militant Islam now raising its banner across Iraq and Syria spread from a remote Jordanian prison with the unwitting aid of American military intervention.  When he succeeded his father in 1999, King Abdullah of Jordan released a batch of political prisoners in the hopes of smoothing his transition to power. Little did he know that among those released was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man who would go on to become a terrorist mastermind too dangerous even for al-Qaeda and give rise to an Islamist movement bent on dominating the Middle East.  Zarqawi began by directing hotel bombings and assassinations in Jordan from a base in northern Iraq, but it was the American invasion of that country in 2003 that catapulted him to the head of a vast insurgency. By identifying him as the link between Saddam and bin Laden, the CIA inadvertently created a monster. Like-minded radicals saw him as a hero resisting the infidel occupiers and rallied to his cause. Their wave of brutal beheadings and suicide bombings continued for years until Jordanian intelligence provided the Americans with the crucial intelligence needed to eliminate Zarqawi in a 2006 airstrike.  But his movement endured, first called al-Qaeda in Iraq, then renamed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, seeking refuge in unstable, ungoverned pockets on the Iraq-Syria border. And as the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, ISIS seized its chance to pursue Zarqawi’s dream of a sweeping, ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate.  Drawing on unique access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Joby Warrick weaves together heart-pounding, moment-by-moment operational details with overarching historical perspectives to reveal the long trajectory of today’s most dangerous Islamic extremist threat.”  (GoodReads)

 

 

 

 

2016 PEN Faulkner Finalists

The 2016 PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction finalists include five authors who I personally haven’t heard of before so this is a nice opportunity to discover some new reading.  Here are the 2016 finalists:

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

“Darlene, a young widow and mother devastated by the death of her husband, turns to drugs to erase the trauma. In this fog of grief, she is lured with the promise of a great job to a mysterious farm run by a shady company, with disastrous consequences for both her and her eleven-year-old son, Eddie–left behind in a panic-stricken search for her.  Delicious Foods tells the gripping story of three unforgettable characters: a mother, her son, and the drug that threatens to destroy them. In Darlene’s haunted struggle to reunite with Eddie, and in the efforts of both to triumph over those who would enslave them, Hannaham’s daring and shape-shifting prose not only infuses their desperate circumstances with grace and humor, but also wrestles with timeless questions of love and freedom.” (GoodReads)

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya

“Ifi and Job, a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage, begin their lives together in Nebraska with a single, outrageous lie: that Job is a doctor, not a college dropout. Unwittingly, Ifi becomes his co-conspirator—that is until his first wife, Cheryl, whom he married for a green card years ago, reenters the picture and upsets Job’s tenuous balancing act.  Julie Iromuanya has short stories and novel excerpts appearing or forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Passages North, the Cream City Review, and the Tampa Review, among other journals. She is a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is her first novel.”  (GoodReads)

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.  It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.” (GoodReads)

Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent

“Beginning in the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s work, appeared in some of our most prestigious literary publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, and Harper’s. Marked by its quiet power and emotional nuance, her fiction garnered widespread praise.  Now, at long last, Tallent returns with a new collection of diverse, thematically linked, and deeply powerful stories that confirm her enduring gift for capturing relationships at their moment of transformation: marriages breaking apart, people haunted by memories of old love and reaching haltingly toward new futures. Mendocino Fire explore moments of fracture and fragmentation; it limns the wilderness of our inner psyche and brilliantly evokes the electric tension of deep emotion. In these pages, Tallent explores expectations met and thwarted, and our never-ending quest to avoid being alone.  With this breathtaking collection, Elizabeth Tallent cements her rightful place in the literary pantheon beside her contemporaries Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Louise Erdrich. Visceral and surprising, profound yet elemental, Mendocino Fire is a welcome visit with a wise and familiar friend.”  (GoodReads)

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea

“From one of America’s preeminent literary voices comes a new story collection that proves once again why the writing of Luis Alberto Urrea has been called “wickedly good” (Kansas City Star), “cinematic and charged” (Cleveland Plain Dealer), and “studded with delights” (Chicago Tribune). Examining the borders between one nation and another, between one person and another, Urrea reveals his mastery of the short form. This collection includes the Edgar-award winning “Amapola” and his now-classic “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” which had the honor of being chosen for NPR’s “Selected Shorts” not once but twice. Suffused with wanderlust, compassion, and no small amount of rock and roll, THE WATER MUSEUM is a collection that confirms Luis Alberto Urrea as an American master.” (GoodReads)

Have you read any of these authors or these books?  I’d love to hear what you recommend (or not).

 

Writer Spotlight: Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami was born in Japan in 1949.   He grew up an only child in the coastal city of Kobe to parents who both taught Japanese literature.  Despite this, Murakami was greatly interested in western literature and counts Raymond Chandler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Franz Kafka as some of his literature influences.Haruki Murakami by Mark Mussari

Murakami didn’t plan on being a writer.  He owned a jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat but at age 29 he sat at his kitchen table and began writing his first novel which would be a great success and the beginning of a prolific literary career.

“I started writing at the kitchen table after midnight. It took ten months to finish that first book; I sent it to a publisher and I got some kind of prize, so it was like a dream—I was surprised to find it happening. But after a moment, I thought, Yes, it’s happened and I’m a writer; why not? It’s that simple.”

Murakami’s style is different from most writers.  He says in his The Art of Fiction No. 182 interview that when he sat down to write that first novel he didn’t know how to go about it.  Since he hadn’t read much Japanese literature he borrowed “the style, structure, everything” from the books he had read, western books, which resulted in his unique style.  This is great advice for all writers who feel they don’t know what they’re doing.  Borrow from the masters.  Murakami describes his style to be most closely the style of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which is one of my favourite books.

All writers have different ways of getting the work done and the novel on the page.  Some plan every step of the way but Murakami is an example to the contrary.

“When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. I just wait.”

With the exception of Norwegian Wood, which Murakami says was written as a strategic move to appeal to readers preferring a more realistic novel, all his novels are unplanned.  This is pretty amazing once you’ve read one of his novels but he does go on to say that his writing process involves many drafts in which he rewrites sections once the story has revealed itself to him so he can better it.

“In the first draft I didn’t know it was Gotanda. Closer to the end—two-thirds in or so—I knew. When I wrote the second draft I rewrote the Gotanda scenes, knowing it was him.”

This, he says, is the main purpose of revision: “The first draft is messy; I have to revise and revise”.  And he goes through four or five revisions spending about six months writing the first draft and then seven or eight months rewriting.  It is comforting to know that even with his tremendous talent he also has to work hard to produce that wonderful final product.  And work hard he does.  He described the very strict routine he maintains when writing a novel:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

Interestingly, Murakami talked about how your location or writing in a foreign country can have a profound effect on the type of book you write:

“During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That “strangeness” was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel. Come to think of it, if I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book.”

If only Murakami would write a book about writing because he has an incredible perspective that I think is very helpful.  His way of describing how he goes about creating his protagonists is a beautiful example of this and what I found to be an insightful lesson in how we can approach perspective in our writing.

“Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us—the other one—was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA, we are the same, but our environment has been different. So our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?”

I highly recommend reading his Art of Fiction interview as he is overflowing with gems like this one.  Murakami, like most writers, is an avid reader.  And like most readers he loves it for the same reason we all do: “That’s the power of the novel—you can go anywhere”.

His novels are a huge hit in Japan and with his work being translated into 50 languages he is a massive international success.  What I find equally admirable is that Murakami’s love for literature extends to the translation of some of the West’s greatest novels into Japanese often for the first time.

If you are interested in reading Murakami, I really enjoyed Book Oblivion’s post on the best way to read Murakami and am following this sequence myself.

2016 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist

The 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist has been revealed.  There are two books that were up for other lit prizes last year; Anne Enright’s The Green Road was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was an NBA finalist and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, among other prizes.  I’m particularly interested in reading The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie which looks like it’ll be an interesting read.

Margaret Mountford, Chair of judges said: “After a long and often passionate debate we are proud to present our 2016 shortlist.  Our choices reflect a really diverse mix of brilliant writing from new and established authors around the world and we hope that everyone will find much to enjoy in them.”

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby, “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at,” has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. Ruby quickly winds her way into the ripe center of the city–the darkened piano bars and hidden alleyways of the Village–all the while hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, thirty-year-old Ruby Bell finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood. With the terrifying realization that she might not be strong enough to fight her way back out again, Ruby struggles to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.  Full of life, exquisitely written, and suffused with the pastoral beauty of the rural South, Ruby is a transcendent novel of passion and courage. This wondrous page-turner rushes through the red dust and gossip of Main Street, to the pit fire where men swill bootleg outside Bloom’s Juke, to Celia Jennings’s kitchen where a cake is being made, yolk by yolk, that Ephram will use to try to begin again with Ruby. Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man’s dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love.” (Goodreads)

The Green Road by Anne Enright

“Spanning thirty years and three continents, The Green Road tells the story of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigan family, and her four children.  Ardeevin, County Clare, Ireland. 1980. When her oldest brother Dan announces he will enter the priesthood, young Hanna watches her mother howl in agony and retreat to her room. In the years that follow, the Madigan children leave one by one: Dan for the frenzy of New York under the shadow of AIDS; Constance for a hospital in Limerick, where petty antics follow simple tragedy; Emmet for the backlands of Mali, where he learns the fragility of love and order; and Hanna for modern-day Dublin and the trials of her own motherhood. When Christmas Day reunites the children under one roof, each confronts the terrible weight of family ties and the journey that brought them home. The Green Road is a major work of fiction about the battles we wage for family, faith, and love.” (Goodreads)

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

“One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family. Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city. In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of other perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight . . .Biting, moving and darkly funny, The Glorious Heresies explores salvation, shame and the legacy of Ireland’s twentieth-century attitudes to sex and family.” (GoodReads)

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

“A riotously funny and deeply insightful adventure through love, family, capitalism, the medical industry and wedding-planning – from an electrically entertaining new voice.  Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.  Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence.  What could possibly go wrong?” (GoodReads)

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

“Annie McDee, alone after the disintegration of her long-term relationship and trapped in a dead-end job, is searching for a present for her unsuitable lover in a neglected second-hand shop. Within the jumble of junk and tack, a grimy painting catches her eye. Leaving the store with the picture after spending her meagre savings, she prepares an elaborate dinner for two, only to be stood up, the gift gathering dust on her mantelpiece.  But every painting has a story – and if it could speak, what would it tell us?  For Annie has stumbled across ‘The Improbability of Love’, a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau, one of the most influential French painters of the eighteenth century. Soon Annie is drawn unwillingly into the art world, and finds herself pursued by a host of interested parties that would do anything to possess her picture. For an exiled Russian oligarch, an avaricious Sheika, a desperate auctioneer, an unscrupulous dealer and several others, the painting symbolises their greatest hopes and fears. In her search for the painting’s true identity, Annie will uncover the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so, she will learn more about herself, opening up to the possibility of falling in love again.” (GoodReads)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever. (GoodReads)

Have you read any of these? Let us know what you thought.  Any bets as to who will take home the prize?

2015 NBCC Fiction Award Winner

The 2015 NBCC fiction prize winner is Paul Beatty for his novel The Sellout.  On the BookCritics website Karen Long describes The Sellout:the sellout paul beatty

“Try reading the first paragraph of The Sellout aloud. Better still, in public. It begins “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” and it ends describing our narrator handcuffed and sitting on “a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

As the poet Kevin Young points out in The New York Times, this bit “takes the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man’(‘I am an invisible man. No, not some spook . . .’) and spoofs it beyond belief.” Indeed, the satire of Paul Beatty corkscrews its reader into one stunning contortion after another, until it feels as if every social construct is splayed and strangled, caught like a codfish in the reader’s own horrified throat.”

Read the rest of Long’s article.  With an opener like that you can’t help but be intrigued.  The blurb on GoodReads will further pique your interest I’m sure:

“A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality–the black Chinese restaurant.  Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens–on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles–the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.  Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident–the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins–he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.” (GoodReads)

See the full list of the 2015 NBCC Fiction Prize Finalists for more reading inspiration.

Writer Spotlight: Herta Müller

Herta Müller was born in 1953 in Romania.  More specifically, she was born in a German speaking village to Banat Swabian parents placing her within the German minority of Romania which would influence a great deal of her experience of life.

herta muller photo by ulla montan
photo by Ulla Montan

Müller is a novelist, poet, and essayist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages since the 90s.  To date, she has received more than 20 awards and in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Upon naming Müller the 2009 laureate she was described by the Swedish Academy as someone “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The 2009 Nobel Prize coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism and Müller’s publishing house’s head, Michael Krüger, said: “By giving the award to Herta Müller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, the committee has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten”.

Müller lived during the communist regime in Romania which not only impacted her and her family’s lives but her work.

“Müller is noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime which she has experienced herself. Many of her works are told from the viewpoint of the German minority in Romania and are also a depiction of the modern history of the Germans in the Banat, and Transylvania. Her much acclaimed 2009 novel The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel) portrays the deportation of Romania’s German minority to Stalinist Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania for use as German forced labor.” (Wikipedia)

With regard to personal influences, Müller has described herself as being heavily influenced by her German and Romanian Language and Literature studies which she completed at the West University of Timișoara.  Müller’s relationship with language and words goes deeper than being a writer.  She is multilingual and worked as a translator in the 70s and she has talked about the difference in cultural psychology that can be revealed through language and words.  Reading Müller’s interview for the Paris review, The Art of Fiction No. 225, you begin to get a sense of what it might have been like to live under such an intense dictatorship and suffer a lack of freedom of speech as a lover of language and words.

One particular paragraph struck me because it shows so simply how living under these conditions can change the way you see the world around you.

“MÜLLER
I still can’t stand the sight of them. Or gladioli. Whenever there was a funeral or a burial of some high-ranking socialist functionary, they always had the same flowers, because those were the flowers that lasted the longest. But I’ve always liked the flowers that wilt quickly, like pansies or lily of the valley or dahlias or phlox, and that don’t let themselves be put to ill use. It’s the same with people—the people who get put to ill use are the ones whose character lends itself to that. People who don’t have those traits to begin with can’t be misused that way. Just like if the carnations and gladioli wilted more quickly, then they wouldn’t wind up inside the wreaths for the party bosses who had just died. But the flowers in the little gardens, the ones that bloom for just a short time—those were the plants of the powerless.
You know you start to get a little kooky when you live so long in a dictatorship.

INTERVIEWER
Everything begins to have connotations.

MÜLLER
And you start dividing everything up into what’s on my side and what’s on the side of the state. Even the beach. I used to think to myself, How can the sun be such a traitor? Because Ceauşescu had these villas on the Black Sea, whole stretches of the coastline would be cordoned off when he was there. Or even when he wasn’t, nobody could go there, and I always thought, Why is the sun doing that for him, why is it offering him these beautiful sunsets, doesn’t it see who it’s dealing with, couldn’t it simply refuse and say, I’m not going to do this for him anymore?
But I think this is a common theme in books about oppression. In Jorge Semprún, for example. People in the worst situations wonder how their surroundings can simply look on like that, so indifferent to all the human suffering. And if the oppression is taking place outside under open skies—like a concentration camp—then the whole landscape can seem to be an accomplice.”

Müller’s experience with the communist regime and Ceaușescu’s dictatorship are intimate.  Her grandfather was a wealthy farmer and merchant who had his land and property confiscated by the communist regime.  Her father was a member of the Waffen SS which faught during WWII and was later condemned as a criminal organisation in the Nuremberg trials.  Her mother at age 17 was deported to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union (today Ukraine) from 1945-1950.  And Müller herself was dismissed from her job as a translator in 1979 for refusing to be an informant for the Securitate or the secret police which then continued to harass her.  The Nobel biographical notes write that “because Müller had publicly criticized the dictatorship in Romania, she was prohibited from publishing in her own country”.  All of which must have influenced her work in some way.  The Land of Green Plums (1993) is said to have been written after the death of two friends in which she suspected the involvement of the secret police and one of the characters is based on a good friend of hers from the Aktionsgruppe Banat (read the article).  Strictly true or not, what remains obvious is that Müller’s work is a retelling of some of the horrors endured under Ceaușescu’s regime.

I highly recommend reading Müller’s Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 225.  I once began reading The Hunger Angel but decided that I was not in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it and put it aside for a later date.  I imagine Müller to be no easy read for it’s content but given the underlying influences of her work it remains important to go there lest we forget the realities that some have lived in our lifetimes.

Writer Spotlight: Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is a well known Nobel Laureate born in Cairo, Egypt in 1911.  He has written 34 novels and over 350 short stories as well as plays and film scripts over a 70 year career.  He passed away in 2006.  It was his Cairo Trilogy; Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar street that earned him the honour of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 but his first full length novel was Khufu’s Wisdom published in 1939.  Mahfouz is the Arab world’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner.

In his younger years he is said to have read extensively and credits Hafiz Najib as being his first literary influence.  In the Art of Fiction Echoes of an Autobiography naguib mahfouzNo. 129, Charlotte Shabrawy writes that upon reading Johnson’s Son by Hafiz Najib Mahfouz says his life was changed.  Some of his other literary influences include Taha Husayn and Salama Musa.

Mahfouz attended what is today the Cairo University to study Philosophy.  He abandoned his postgraduate studies and went on to a career in the civil service.  What I find amazing is that Mahfouz never depended on his writing for a living despite being such a prolific and celebrated writer.  He says in Art of Fiction No. 129 that he was always a government employee and, on the contrary, spent on literature.  He only began making money from his writing when his stories began to be translated into English, French, and German.

Mahfouz lived through times of great change and revolution in Egypt.  As a 7 year old boy he witnessed the 1919 revolution against British occupation which also forms the backdrop for his Cairo trilogy.  He saw the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 of which Mahfouz is quoted as saying:  “I was happy with that revolution.  But unfortunately it did not bring about democracy.”  He also experienced World War II during which two of his works; Cairo Modern (1945) and Rhadopis of Nubia (1943) were censored.

Ironically, when he worked as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Arts his novel The Children of Gabelawi (1959) was censored.  In the interview with Shabrawy (The Art of Fiction no. 129) Mahfouz says:

“Even though I was at the time in charge of all artistic censorship, the head of literary censorship advised me not to publish the book in Egypt in order to prevent conflict  with Al-Azhar – the main seat of Islam in Cairo.  It was published in Beirut but not allowed in into Egypt.  This was in 1959, in Nasser’s time.  The book still can’t be bought here.  People smuggle it in.”

Shabrawy then asks Mahfouz if he intended the book to be provocative to which he responded:  “I wanted the book to show that science has a place in society, just as a new religion does, and that science does not necessarily conflict with religious values.”

Unfortunately, with the appearance of The Satanic Verses the controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel was brought back up and he started to receive death threats.  He was given police protection but in 1994 an Islamic extremist succeeded in attacking the then 82 year old writer by stabbing him in the neck outside his home in Cairo.  He survived but nerves that affected his right upper arm were permanently damaged leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day.

When it came to his writing habits he wrote from 4 until 7 pm everyday after work and then spent his time reading until 10pm.  Mahfouz describes how much of his work and themes came from the heart with little to no planning while other works, like the Cairo Trilogy, followed extensive research.  One thing Mahfouz is serious about is revision of his work.  Revise and rewrite.  To create art as a writer you must give of yourself, put yourself into your work.

“The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist.  He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and values.  That is art.”

Ultimately, how does Mahfouz describe himself?  “Someone who loves literature…Someone who loves his work more than money or fame…Because I love writing more than anything else.” 

 

 

Further reading:

The Art of Fiction no. 129, interview with Naguib Mahfouz

Biography: Naguib Mahfouz by Marcia Lynx Qualey

 

2015 NBCC Fiction Award Finalists

The 2015 NBCC Prize for Fiction Finalists have been released.  The Fates and the Furies by Lauren Groff makes another appearance on awards’ shortlists for 2015.  Here is the full list of this year’s contenders for the prize to be announced in March:

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

the sellout

“A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality–the black Chinese restaurant.  Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens–on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles–the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.  Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident–the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins–he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.” (GoodReads)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

fates and furies lauren groff

“Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.  At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.” (GoodReads)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

the story of my teeth

“I was born in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City, with four premature teeth and my body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz. But I’m grateful for that inauspicious start because ugliness, as my other uncle, Eurípides López Sánchez, was given to saying, is character forming.  Highway is a late-in-life world traveler, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the “notorious infamous” like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences. “ (GoodReads)

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and Techno

“This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.” (GoodReads)

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen

“A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s is pulled into a very strange crime, in a mordant, harrowing story of obsession and suspense, by one of the brightest new voices in fiction.  So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.  This is the story of how I disappeared.  The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.  Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas, young Eileen’s story is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator. Creepy, mesmerizing, and sublimely funny, in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and early Vladimir Nabokov, this powerful debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.” (GoodReads)

 

2015 Etisalat Literature Prize Shortlist

At the end of last year the Etisalat Prize for Literature released their 2015 longlist which Professor Ato Quayson describes:

“The range of submissions for the Etisalat Prize this represents the vitality of literary writing on the continent, and the longlist is a selective showcase of the best to be found. The subjects covered in the longlist are so fascinating and varied that it would take another novel just to describe them all. Magnificent!”

From the impressive longlist three novels have been shortlisted for the African Etisalat Prize for Literature.  Two are from South African authors and the third from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Tram 83

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Tram 83

“In an African city in secession, which could be Kinshasa or Lubumbashi, land tourists of all languages and nationalities. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealths of the country. They work during the day in mining concession and, as soon as night falls, they go out to get drunk, dance, eat and abandon themselves in Tram 83, the only night-club of the city, the den of all the outlaws: ex children-soldiers, prostitutes, blank students, unmarried mothers, sorcerers’ apprentices…  Lucien, a professional writer, fleeing the exactions and the censorship, finds refuge in the city thanks to Requiem, a youth friend. Requiem lives mainly on theft and on swindle while Lucien only thinks of writing and living honestly. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, retired or runaway men, profit-seeking tourists and federal agents of a non-existent State.  Tram 83 plunges the reader into the atmosphere of a gold rush as cynical as, sometimes, comic and colorfully exotic. It’s an observation of human relationships in a world that has become a global village. It could be described as an African-rap or rhapsody novel or puzzle-novel hammered by rhythms of jazz.” (GoodReads)

Penny Busetto (South Africa), The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

Penny Busetto (South Africa), The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

“Anna P lives on an island off the coast of Italy but can no longer remember how she got there. She came from South Africa but has almost no memory of the place or people there. The only person she has a kind of personal relationship with is a sex worker whom she pays by the hour. It is only when she begins to connect emotionally with a young boy that she finds some value in herself, some place which she will not allow to be abused, and her life gradually changes. This meticulously crafted, atmospheric debut novel asks a number of difficult questions about the nature of memory: who are we if we lose our memories? What does it mean to have no identity? And if we have no identity, can we still make ethical choices?” (GoodReads)

Rehana Rossouw (South Africa), What Will People Say?

Rehana Rossouw (South Africa), What Will People Say?

“Rehana Rossouw’s unique voice gives life and drama to this family saga.  Hanover Park. The heart of the Cape Flats. It is 1986. Michael Jackson and Brenda Fassie rule every hi-fi. Princess Di and George Michael hairstyles are all the rage. There are plans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1976 student uprising.  Neville and Magda Fourie live in Magnolia Court with their three children. They are trying to ‘raise them decent’ in a township festering with gang wars and barricaded with burning tyres.  Suzette, the eldest, is beautiful and determined to escape her family’s poverty. Nicky, the sensitive middle child, has ambitions to use her intellect as a way out. Anthony, the only son, attracted by power and wealth, is lured away from his family by a gangster.  In What Will People Say? a rich variety of township characters – the preachers, the teachers, the gangsters and the defeated – come to life in vivid language as they eke out their lives in the shadows of grey concrete blocks of flats.  Which members of the Fourie family will thrive, which ones will not survive?  Generously spiced with Cape Flats slang; lots of vivid and gritty description that give an authentic feel to the story; plenty of plot – the writer draws us in and makes us curious about what will happen next; and very human characters we come to care about.” (GoodReads)

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2015 Guardian 1st Book Award Shortlist & Winner

When the longlist for this year’s Guardian 1st Book Award was released earlier this year I included three novels from it on my TBR list in August.  I was pleased to see all three of them on the shortlist of six books.  Unfortunately I got my dates wrong this year and missed both the release of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! But since I think the shortlist will make for very interesting reading for many, I want to include it along with the winner of the award.  And so here is the winner followed by the rest of the shortlist for your perusal and possibly for some inspiration for holiday reading next month.

 

The Winner:

Physical by Andrew McMillan

physical andrew mcmillan

Excerpt from the Guardian article:

“Set in the wastes of a northern industrial town, a “town that has lost something … that sunk from its centre / like a man winded by a punch”, Protest of the Physical circles around many of the concerns that animate the rest of the collection – the sudden closeness of an encounter with “your hoodie / halfway up your body / and my cock half out in your hand”, the deep engagement with the work of the poet Thom Gunn, the stark realisation “the fear is to die untouched love lost” – arriving at the conclusion that “there is beauty in the ordinary / the row of shops on Shambles Street / the day chasing its own shadow”.

Physical explores the anxieties of modern man, reaching out from the experiences of gay men wrestling with their emotions and each others’ bodies to chart the gaps between appearance and reality in contemporary culture. Strongman describes bench-pressing a young nephew, lifting him towards the artex ceiling “because / what is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?”. The Fact We Almost Killed a Badger Is Incidental paints a relationship falling apart because “I still could not have sat through one more night of silence”. The Men Are Weeping in the Gym imagines men “swearing that the wetness / on their cheeks is perspiration / that the words they mutter as they lift / are meaningless”.”

(GoodReads)

 

The Shortlist:

Man v Nature by Diane Cook

man v nature diane cook

Excerpt from the Guardian shortlist article in which all the shortlisted authors talk a bit about the inspiration behind their books:

“Many of these stories take place in worlds that feel familiar, but the rules are somehow different. A strange man steals newborns from suburban houses, old friends get lost on a lake it’s impossible to get lost on, neighbours continue to snipe at each other long after the rest of the world has drowned. These stories came from a sense of play, from asking “What if?”, and from trying to get at something true about being human. I had a professor, David Plante, once say that metaphors are miracles because they transform one thing into something else entirely. Presto chango! and that man is a rat, this house is a prison, your heart is gold. I feel similarly wowed by the miraculous nature of fiction. The best fiction somehow manages to feel truer than real life.” (GoodReads)

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

the fishermen by chigozie obioma

Excerpt from Guardian shortlist article:

“I grew up with many siblings, and always knew that one day I would write a story about the experience. But, strangely, this novel is not about my experience, but was merely inspired by it. When they were children, two of my older brothers had the kind of sibling rivalry that ignited little fires of violence. But when I learned that, as men aged almost 30, they had become very close, I began to ponder on what can rip families apart, especially close-knit ones. At around the same time, I had been reading a book in which I had encountered a phrase that stuck out to me: “A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” So, I thought, can this be applied to just about any entity, such as a family? The idea of a family whose destruction must come from the outside but is effected from within took shape in my mind. But then the dilemma: what would come against the family from the outside? Would it be some form of crisis, war, poverty – what? Would any of these things also cause the destruction to be effected from within?” (GoodReads)

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

aug nothing is true

Excerpt from Guardian shortlist article:

“This book is basically one long excuse for going awol. I came to Moscow just after university – a reasonable point to go and explore the world –and ended up disappearing down the rabbit hole for nine years. When I came back to London, broken and bankrupt, I had to explain myself. Where had I been?

I began to tell the stories of the things I’d seen, and as I did so I realised they form a pattern, the outlines of a new type of political model, of a new type of psychology, of a new idea of good and bad. And I realised that my time in Russia, where I had spent several years working on TV programmes, had actually been a nice angle on a country that has blended authoritarianism and reality show; a TV-ocracy where Putin is the Simon Cowell in chief.

When I sat down to write, my intention was to capture the sensation of being alive in Russia in the 21st century. The country can feel like a democracy in the morning, a monarchy by lunch, a dictatorship by afternoon and anarchy by bedtime: the expression of a mindset that says all life is performance, that, to quote my title, nothing is true and everything is possible. In order to capture this I tried to switch genres between linear thriller narratives and whimsy; political analysis and psychological profiles.” (GoodReads)

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

aug grief

Excerpt from Guardian shortlist article:

“I wanted to tell the story of two young children after the sudden loss of a parent, in a form that might evoke the chaotic and changeable emotional landscape of mourning. The book is a love letter to reading, to moving unfaithfully and restlessly between forms and enjoying the sharp, shocking or seductive transitions. It therefore contains elements of essay, poem, fable, joke, script, interview, mid-edit manuscript and so on, and I am the first to admit that as a rag-bag of my favourite things it’s a very indulgent first book indeed.” (GoodReads)

 

The Shore by Sara Taylor

aug shore

Excerpt from Guardian shortlist article:

“I first came to the Eastern Shore as a small child, on a family vacation to see the wild ponies that was partially inspired by the children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague (the titular Misty is a pony, of course). While on that visit I got a sense of the sweet, wholesome magic of the place that comes across so well in that book; what struck me when I came back to the Shore to live several years later was the darker undercurrent, the thick sticky mud of uncomfortable history that had a tendency to bubble up from under the fertile soil of the place. There were graveyards in the cornfields and ghost stories about every house and corner, rumours of murders and lovers’ quarrels turned deadly, the haze of drug use and poverty hanging over a landscape so rich and green it hurt your eyes to look at it.” (GoodReads)

 

Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I know of Elizabeth Gilbert from her Eat, Pray, Love success.  The cover of her latest book Big Magic completely drew me in and then the “Creative Living Beyond Fear” subtitle really spoke to me too.  big magic elizabeth gilbert

I consider myself a creative person (but really we all are) and I always have my hand in some kind of creative pursuit but since I am a self taught creative (my tertiary education is in the social sciences) there tends to be a bit of fear or anxiety surrounding my freedom to create without feeling like a complete fraud.  Just like when I began this blog years ago I felt I had no right to do so because I knew nothing about the world of blogging.  But it has turned out to be a wonderful creative outlet.

If you recognise yourself then this book is for you.  It is just as much for anyone working professionally in the creative arts as anyone enjoying working on creative arts in a non professional way.  I really enjoyed this book and it is chock full of great lines that you will no doubt see as affirmation style images on Pinterest.  It is inspiring and realistic.  More importantly it is a guide to just how we should be treating our creativity to enjoy it more fully as well as foster it.

This is not about being successful in the creative arts; this book is about creative living for the sheer love of it.  No doubt there will be those that dislike this book but I am not one of them.  I have a number of creative passions that I love working on and this book has given me the boost to keep on keeping on.  My biggest take away from this book is a personal one.  Your creativity (and ability) is no less legitimate than the next person’s regardless of education or any other external factor.  Your experience is unique so get stuck in.

I really enjoyed this book, it’s a quick read and if you’re intrigued by it go ahead and read it.  If you’ve read it what did you think?

 

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

2015 National Book Award Winners

The 2015 National Book Awards were announced last night.  It may or may not come as a surprise to you that the Fiction winner is Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson.  His 2013 novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize so when I saw his latest book on the shortlist I had a feeling he might take this prize.  The winner in the Nonfiction category is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

fortune smiles adam johnson

“Following his Pulitzer Prize for Fiction triumph for The Orphan Master’s Son Adam Johnson became recognized as an American literary giant.  These brand new stories from Johnson are typically comic and tender, absurd and totally universal. In post-Katrina Louisiana, a young man and his new girlfriend search for the mother of his son. In Palo Alto, a computer programmer whose wife has a rare disease finds solace in a digital copy of the recently assassinated President. In contemporary Berlin a former Stasi agent ponders his past.  And in the stunning title story, a woman with cancer rages against the idea of her family without her.  Hugely inventive and endlessly energetic, this is a heart wrenching, surprising collection of stories that show Johnson at the top of his form.” (GoodReads)

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between the world and me

““This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?  Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.” (GoodReads)

 

2016 Neustadt Laureate

Congratulations to Dubravka Ugrešić the 2016 Neustadt Laureate

UgresicDubravka_JudithJockel
Dubravka Ugrešić. Photo by Judith Jockel

 

You may or may not have heard of Ugrešić, here is an excerpt from the Neustadt blog article about her:

“Born in the former Yugoslavia and now residing in Amsterdam, Ugrešić is considered one of Europe’s most distinctive novelists and essayists. Marked by a combination of irony and compassion, her books have been translated into more than 20 languages, and she is the winner of several other major literary prizes, including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1998) and Jean Améry Essay Prize (2012). She was also a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, and her work Karaoke Culture (2011) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Allison Anderson, an American literary translator and writer residing in Switzerland, nominated Ugrešić and served as one of nine jurors on the 2016 Neustadt Prize panel. She commented that “Dubravka’s win is a double win for me because she is a non-[native] English speaker and a woman. I came across her work back in 1997 when I was on contract to teach English in Croatia and fell in love with her essays. As someone who voluntarily went into exile, she describes the shared experience of solitude with her stories of refugees. She covers injustice, corruption and everything that’s wrong in the world, but in a quiet way.””

You can read more about the Neustadt prize here.