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Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 2: McCormack and Manyika

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2016 will be announced this Wednesday, so hera is my second round-up of the shortlist (the first is here). Unfortunately, I ran out of time to review Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which leaves two others: first-time Goldsmiths appearances for small publishers Tramp Press and Cassava Republic.

solarbonesMike McCormack, Solar Bones (2016)

If you look Solar Bones up, be warned that the blurb contains a piece of information which is not stated explicitly within the novel until the end (though it can be deduced). It’s not really set up to be a twist as such, and I think that knowing it would change your experience of reading the book rather than spoil it per se… but I don’t need to reveal it here, so I won’t.

Anyway: we join engineer Marcus Conway as he returns to his County Mayo home, the sound of the Angelus bell from the village church ringing in his ears. Over the course of the novel, Marcus ruminates on his life and the world; as so often on this shortlist, it’s all in the telling:

this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of

hearth, home and parish, towards

the wider world beyond

way beyond

since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together…

This is Marcus Conway’s voice: no capital letters or full stops –therefore no strict separation of ideas – and ‘paragraphs’ linked by those chains of sentence-fragments in an unceasing flow. Whether he’s discussing his memories, the economy, or the bones of reality itself, all is part of the same whole for Marcus. As an engineer, he is able to see the workings and connections – and McCormack brings this to life within the form of his novel.

likeamule

Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016)

A few years ago, I read Roelof Bakker’s anthology Still, a book of short stories inspired by his photographs of a vacated building.  It included ‘Morayo’, a story about an old woman going into a nursing home, and what her books meant to her as a person. In a Q&A at the time, Manyika said she was working on a book-length version of the story. I always wondered what that was going to be like; and now here it is, on the Goldmsiths shortlist.

Manyika’s novel is not a direct expansion of the story, but the main character and themes are broadly the same. Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor, from Nigeria and now living in San Francisco. She still lives life to the full, enjoys her vintage Porsche, her books, and generally being around the neighbourhood… until she slips one day, and breaks her hip. Then she has to go into a nursing home to recover, and her old life is torn from her.

One of the central themes of Like a Mule for me is the idea that the person someone is on the inside may not necessarily be the person that others see. Morayo is such an exuberant character to us – a joy to spend time with on the page – but, as far as many of the staff in the home are concerned, she’s just another patient. There’s one scene where Morayo daydreams of a glamorous function from her old life married to an ambassador – a dream which is broken when the home staff rush to her aid because she’s left her walker behind.

In Goldsmiths Prize terms, I’d say that Like a Mule distorts the novel form primarily with its use of voice. Besides Morayo, there are chapters written from the viewpoint of several of the other characters she meets: a homeless woman, a shopkeeper, a cook in the nursing home. True, there’s nothing intrinsically unusual about that; but it’s done here in a way that feels disjointed, underlining the distance between individuals. Reading the novel allows us to bridge that distance to an extent, as we can fit the pieces together; and maybe that helps bring a sense of hope, too.

Joining the Classics Club

Another year, another new reading project; but this one is for the long term. The Classics Club is a blogging initiative that works like this: make a list of at least fifty classic books (in this case, ‘classic’ means at least 25 years old; the rest is up to the selector); set yourself a deadline of up to five years; read and blog about those books in that timeframe. I first caught on to the idea when JacquiWine announced last month that she would be joining in. It sounded fun, but I was a bit reticent about taking the plunge myself: not that I couldn’t make that big a list, or read that many books in five years; it was just the idea of ‘pinning down’ my reading to that extent.

But then I started thinking about all the books I might choose; and I realised that, if I selected books in the right way, I wouldn’t be able to resist. There would be no point in (say) filling a list with all the 19th century novels I didn’t read at school, because that simply isn’t the direction I want to read in. So my list leans more heavily towards the twentieth century.

I set myself three rules: no authors I’d read before; no more than one title per author; and at least half of the books would be by women. I put the list together from books I already had; books in the local library; lists found online and elsewhere; names I’d heard recommended by trusted sources; specific recommendations from Twitter. Thanks to everyone who helped me compile this list, whether they know it or not:

  1. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  2. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  3. Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
  4. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  5. Go When You See the Green Man Walking by Christine Brooke-Rose
  6. The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy
  7. The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  9. The Square by Choi In-hun
  10. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  11. The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras
  12. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
  13. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
  14. Sphinx by Anne Garréta
  15. Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
  16. The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
  17. When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head
  18. Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain
  19. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
  20. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  21. Ice by Anna Kavan
  22. Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
  23. Tainaron by Leena Krohn
  24. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  25. Nada by Carmen Laforet
  26. Passing by Nella Larsen
  27. Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
  28. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  29. A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  30. The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland
  31. The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
  32. A Void by Georges Perec
  33. Berg by Ann Quin
  34. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
  35. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
  36. Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
  37. Transit by Anna Seghers
  38. Moses Ascending by Sam Selvon
  39. Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
  40. The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa
  41. The Palace by Claude Simon
  42. A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov
  43. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
  44. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  45. The Door by Magda Szabó
  46. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
  47. The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas
  48. Kaalam by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
  49. Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch
  50. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I’m going to give myself the full five years to work through these (so that’s 31 December 2020); but could still finish sooner. My  plan is to choose one at random to read each month, with the option of reading more if I wish. This month will be an exception, because I already know that I’m going to start with Mrs Dalloway (and that’s because of a different project, which I’ll go into when the time comes).

I’ve created a separate page on the blog here to keep track of my progress. My hope is that this list will become a seed which enables my reading to sprout off in many fruitful directions, and I look forward to sharing the results with you in the months and years ahead.

Moving on…

For Life-related reasons, there’s now going to be a (hopefully) short hiatus in blogging. A time like this naturally leads me to reflect on what I’m doing with this blog and why (as it happens, I’m not the only person to be thinking about these sorts of issues lately – see these posts by Jonathan McCalmont, Abigail Nussbaum, and Maureen Kincaid Speller). It’s not all that long since I decided to change my approach to reading, but it never occurred to me to change my approach to blogging. This time is different.

We all know that the world of book blogging has changed. The personal text-based blog is falling out of favour as a medium, not helped by technological changes such as the decline in RSS. Social media has become the key way for people to discover new book-related content; but its random nature means that the process often feels like starting from scratch with each new post. In these circumstances, certain types of content stand a better chance of being heard: focus on the latest buzz titles or something that’s already popular – or say something controversial – and you have a head start.

Now, sometimes the latest buzz title and I get along; but mostly I find myself as a reader moving in a different direction. I say this not to grumble, but rather to acknowledge the context I’m in. If the book blogging world is not the same as it was when I started, it’s worth asking: is what I’m doing the best thing I could be doing to achieve what I want?

Well, what I really want is to explore how and why I respond to particular books, and (as far as it’s possible) to have conversations about it. Despite everything, a written blog still feels like the best medium for the job. Tweets are too short; Facebook is too general; Tumblr always seems better for contextualising images; a YouTube channel feels to me more appropriate for ‘finished’ thoughts. There might be fewer conversations on blogs these days, but it’s still the right medium for me.

However… my responses to books on the blog have tended to be review-shaped, because that’s what I’ve always done. But perhaps they don’t need to be. Taking inspiration in particular from Time’s Flow Stemmed. I’m thinking of switching to more of a ‘reader’s notebook’ format, to reflect the nature of reading as an ongoing process. For example, instead of writing 950 words on The Wandering Pine, I might have done three or four blog posts, each focused on a single idea – one on the book’s depiction of childhood, one on the significance of the English and Swedish titles, and so on. A blog as a continuous series of thoughts, if you like.

I’ll still write longer reviews on the blog, where it feels appropriate; but I want to try something different and see how it goes (I have some other ideas for types of blog post, but am still thinking them through). There’s also a good chance that I’ll take the opportunity to move the blog elsewhere. Either way, I’d like to thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again in a week or so.

New for 2015: Welcome to David's Book World

My reading over the last few years has settled into a regular pattern. In a given year, I’ll read quite a lot of books that I end up thinking are OK; they pass the time long, but ultimately I don’t feel much attachment to them. I’ll read a fair number of books that I think are good (or better) and there’ll be just a precious few that change me and become favourites. That’s when I experience what Andy Miller (in The Year of Reading Dangerously) called “the dizzying force of books”; when reading becomes more – deeper – than a hobby for me.

I’ve tended to assume that this pattern is just a reflection of how things are – but what if I’m wrong? My favourite books, and the strong reactions they inspire, are the key to how and why I read; but I have never organised my reading around this, and now I want to see what happens if I do. In 2015, I’m going to go looking for books that affect me most deeply, and really try to explore what makes me tick as a reader.

What kinds of books am I talking about? Well, that’s a tricky question. They’re books as disparate as The Luminaries, New Model Army, Legend of a Suicide, Redemption in Indigo, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, and Hawthorn & Child – all these books, and others, have left me with intense feelings that I was compelled to write about. But each response was unique, and it’s difficult for me to pin down a common thread. I might suggest that my favourite books often carry some sense of their own artifice – certainly I have learned in recent years that the power of fiction is not diminished for me if I’m kept reminded that it’s just words on a page (quite the opposite, sometimes). But I’m only really going to find out what books I like best by actively reading and thinking; this will do as a starting point, however.

What does this all mean in practical terms for my reading and blogging? Reading more selectively, for one thing; more of a balance of old and new, probably. I still want to take chances on new books (I’ve found plenty of gems that way, after all); but I’m going to be choosing books primarily on whether I think they’ll have that ‘something’, and dropping them more readily if it turns out that they don’t. I know this is vague: it’s going to run largely on instinct, and I’m still going to like some books better than others. The point is that I want to concentrate on books that ‘enrich’ me (in a broad sense) as a reader, and be attentive to all the different ways in which that can happen.

In terms of this blog, I’m not sure yet: my responses to books might get more personal; I might do fewer of the round-up posts; we’ll see. One big change, though, is the name of the blog. I chose ‘Follow the Thread’ six years ago; it was intended to denote following the thread of an argument, but also to echo Theseus following the thread through the Labyrinth, as a nod to the fantasy and science fiction that was my primary reading material at the time. All this is still fine – but my reading has developed in a different direction from the one I anticipated in 2009, and I want my blog to have a name that reflects the reader I am now.

So I’ve come up with ‘David’s Book World’, which is essentially what the blog is about – the books that make my world, and how I see them. It’s also a recognition that translated fiction, and other ‘world lit’, are (and remain) integral parts of what I read. And it even lets me keep the URL.

I never have had a succinct answer to the question ‘What sort of books do you like?’ Now I have a whole blog where I’ll try to find an answer.

New indexing

A short admin post today, to say that I’ve changed the way posts on the blog are indexed. I used to have two pages listing all my reviews, but they became unwieldy. So I’ve been working on a new way of categorising posts, which you can find in a drop-down menu to the right. In particular, you can browse for posts on individual authors, or books translated from particular languages. Hopefully that should make it easier to explore the archives.

Into 2014: reading the world in twos and threes

Over the years, I’ve found myself becoming interested in more and more different types of fiction – which I’m pleased about, because I can appreciate more; but it does make it more difficult to balance everything. This hasn’t bothered me too much up to now; but I’ve promised that I will read more works in translation, and I want to make that a decisive change in my reading. But there are other aspects of my reading habits that I want to maintain; to make sure it all happens, I’m going to impose a structure on my reading for the first time.

The first part of my plan is that at least two out of every three novels, novellas and story collections that I read in 2014 will either be in translation, or be Anglophone writing from outside an ‘Anglo-American’ default (that phrasing is deliberately woolly, so that I can have some flexibility of interpretation if I want).

The second part of my plan for 2014 is to alternate between male and female authors. My reason for doing this is that most UK-published books in translation are written by men (I’m sure I read somewhere that the gender split is 80/20), and I don’t want my reading to fall into the same pattern.

(Incidentally, I am not going to include non-fiction or anthologies in this structure; where I read those, it’ll be as a separate ‘track’ in my reading. Doing this may unbalance the whole, but shouldn’t do so by too much.)

So that’s how I’m going to read in 2014 (I’ll have a Reading Log page on here to keep track of it all). I think it should enable me to keep the balance I want while shifting my reading in a new direction. I’m looking forward to it, and to sharing what I discover on here.

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