Strange Horizons Book Club and a moment of reflection

OmbriaThe Strange Horizons book club on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow is now live; go and take a look. We had a really good discussion, which looks set to continue in the comments; I hope the SH book club goes on to be a regular and reliable source of interesting discussion about books.

This experience (amongst other things) has set me thinking about reading and what I want to get from it. I’m not the only blogger who’s been doing that sort of thing recently – see this post by Simon Savidge, for instance. Now, I’m happy enough to be a prolific – and relatively fast – reader; but Simon’s points about reading mechanically, in a way that does a disservice to a book and yourself resonated with me. This is not necessarily an issue of quantity: for me, it’s a matter of what I want reading to be.

The truth is, in the last few years I’ve read too many books which have essentially done little more than pass the time along, which is not what I want. The most powerful books I read change my world, get under my skin, inspire thoughts that I have to write down and share – that’s what I want.

Of course there will be ups and downs. The odd makeweight book is inevitable, especially when you like to take chances in your reading. Equally, I’m not saying that every good book has to scale the highest of heights to be worthwhile. But there have been too many times when I’ve knowingly kept on reading something just for the sake of it; or when I’ve read with more of an eye for having something to post on the blog than for why I’m reading. It shouldn’t be that way.

So here’s a resolution to be more selective in what I read and keep reading.There may be fewer posts on the blog, but maybe not; I expect I will read fewer books, but shouldn’t feel short-changed for that. After all, reading is not a competitive sport, not even if it’s just competing against yourself. Rather, it’s a journey of discovery, and the point of this blog was to share that discovery – so that’s what I aim to keep in mind.

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.


Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

We Love This Book reviews: Janina Matthewson and Stefanie de Velasco

Another pair of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray (2014)

MatthewsonOne day, people start to lose things. Reclusive old Mrs Featherby’s front wall disappears without warning. Robert loses his job in the most literal sense, as he discovers that his office building is no longer where it used to be. The keys are gone from Marcus’s piano, and he has no idea what else to play. These and other characters are faced with a strange new world, and not all of them will be able to adjust.
Of Things Gone Astray may be Janina Matthewson’s first novel, but it marks her out as a writer to follow. There’s a wonderful, dream-like quality to Matthewson’s prose which binds together the most outlandish events and the emotional realities that they come to represent. The character Delia loses her sense of direction: at first, it seems she just can’t find her way around; but then we see that she abandoned her studies, and now has nowhere to go. Young Jake receives no good wishes from his father on his birthday – but the rift between the two goes much deeper than that.
So you can see the strange happenings in Of Things Gone Astray as reflecting the emotional states of its characters. But what rounds Matthewson’s novel out is that it can’t be reduced to a series of metaphors. Reality, fantasy and imagery intermingle to create a beautiful whole.
Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (2013)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2014)
De VelascoStefanie de Velasco’s first novel is a tale of two girls caught between adolescence and adulthood.
Nini and Jameelah are two 14-year-olds living in Berlin. Their lives are not plain sailing – Jameelah doesn’t know whether her family will shortly be deported back to Iraq, and Nini’s mother spends much of her time withdrawn into herself on the sofa – but the freedom of summer beckons. Drink of the season is tiger milk, the girls’ own concoction of chocolate milk, fruit juice and brandy. This cocktail represents Nini’s and Jameelah’s ambivalence towards the adult world: they want some of its attractions – in particular, to lose their virginity – but they also want to stay teenagers. Then tension between these opposing desires is central to the novel.
Tiger Milk never stands still: there’s always a new development, and Nini as first-person narrator will merrily skip over events if she wants, without waiting for the reader to catch up. Tim Mohr’s translation from the original German also captures this restless energy, the busy speech and constant action. De Velasco captures the sense of adolescence as a time of change and discovery: when you’re exploring the limits of yourself and the world around you, and seeing others move in both expected and unexpected directions. There’s also the sense of change that you didn’t see coming, as one period of life turns abruptly into the next, however much that summer seemed endless.

Elsewhere: Shiny New Books issue 3 and the Strange Horizons book club

News about some external stuff today. There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books out, where you’ll find a couple of pieces by me. One is a celebration of the short story, with a few recommended story collections. The other is a review of Mark Watson’s new novel Hotel Alpha, which chronicles forty years in the life of a hotel and its people, and comes with a hundred bonus short stories online – one of which is also up at SNB.

Then there’s something new over at Strange Horizons: a monthly round-table book club. Each month, a panel of participants will discuss a particular title, with the opportunity for others to contribute in the comments. I’m involved in two of the initial instalments: later this month, I’ll be taking part in the discussion on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow; then I’ll be moderating the December panel on Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The other discussions coming up concern Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (November) and Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire (January). I’m really excited by the book club, which is planned to be a regular feature; I hope you’ll take a look and perhaps join in.

Awards round-up

A few bits of news and comment on awards that I like to follow:

On Tuesday, this year’s BBC National Short Story Award went to Lionel Shriver for her story ‘Kilifi Creek‘. The runner up was Zadie Smith for ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets‘; the other shortlisted authors were Tessa Hadley, Francesca Rhydderch, and Rose Tremain. I hadn’t caught any of the stories prior to the announcement; but I’ve since read the Comma Press anthology, and I have to say that Smith’s story is easily my favourite of the five. Shriver’s winning piece is not really to my taste:  it’s written in a (to me) fussy literary prose for which I’m increasingly losing patience. I think my tastes in reading are shifting once more.

So to the Goldsmiths Prize, for “fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form” – something that interests me increasingly, as my interest in straightforward realism wanes. The Prize got off to an excellent start last year, going to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I was really looking forward to seeing what would be selected this year, and now we have a shortlist:

  • Rachel Cusk, Outline (Faber & Faber)
  • Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist (CB Editions)
  • Howard Jacobson, J (Jonathan Cape)
  • Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Unbound)
  • Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know (Picador)
  • Ali Smith, How to be both (Hamish Hamilton)

First impressions… Half of the titles overlap with the Booker longlist, which surprises me – I was expecting (and, to be honest, hoping for) more divergence. The Kingsnorth (which is the only book of these that I’ve read) absolutely deserves to be here, and would be a worthy winner. From what I’ve heard about them, I can see the inclusion of the Smith, but am less persuaded about the Jacobson. Of the remaining three, I’m most interested in the Eaves, which I understand is written as a collage of fragments in different voices; the Cusk and Rahman, I’m undecided about. Overall, I have a nagging sense that this list is treading water a bit; it doesn’t feel as bold as I would hope. Still, there’s potential for another good result here.

Finally, a  call for volunteers: following on from shadowing the IFFP and Desmond Elliott Prize earlier in the year, I’ve been asked if I’d like to shadow the JQ-Wingate Prrze (“the only UK award to recognise writing by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explore themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly”). Would anyone like to take part? The timeframe would be from November (shortlist) to February (winner); six books, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, Anglophone or translated. Let me know if you’re interested!

Open Thread: recommended essay collections

I’ve been thinking about trying some essay collections, so I asked on Twitter what people would recommend. I got so many good responses that I wanted to share then, so I’ve put them together on Storify here. There are also a few tweets that I wasn’t able to add to the main story:

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions – and, if you have any favourite essay collections, please feel free to recommend them in the comments.