The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.  What a talented lot of writers are out there.   It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London.   The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.

The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:

“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”

Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.

I have a  natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes.  But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake.   I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read.  Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.

Prizes can be a double edged sword.  Yes its great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for?  But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing.  But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc.  So I go round in circles.

Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged?  It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize.  Yes this is true according to Wiki.  Unbelievable but true!  We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.

Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women.    But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win)  there was reason to hope that things were changing.  I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.

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Still I digress, back to the shortlist.  Téa Obreht’s book  The Tiger’s Wife  is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.

If this book was  a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us.  As a story, it is quite hard to sum up.  It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition.   In short it is rather wonderful.

“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”

The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend.  There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative.  There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December.  Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it.  In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”

Someone from The Guardian describes  the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description.   The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.

The question is whether it works overall.  I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane.  Will it win?  Who knows.  Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition.  I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.

Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

 

Someone Should Write a History of Snow While we Still Know What it Looks Like

I have made a start on my reading of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

So first out of the blocks is a book published by Granta Publications Jenny Offill’s Weather.

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This is not a lengthy book, coming in at around 200 pages. Offill plays with technique, but not in a mad way that makes you never want to go to Newburyport or see another duck as long as you live.   Nevertheless there is a certain experimentalism in the presentation of the prose in separated paragraphs throughout.

I love this – that you can breathe in between. Sometimes there is a separate thought or action in the new paragraph  and sometimes there is not. But there is nothing disjointed or irritating about the work which I felt flowed very well.   If this is stream of consciousness  then it is the sort that I can happily live with!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It immediately put me in mind of the work of poet and sometime genius Ocean Vuong who has popped up with an endorsement on the cover. ‘This is so good,’ states Vuong, ‘we are not ready nor worthy.’

I’m not sure if I feel unworthy or unready for Offill’s work but I sort of see where the comment is coming from. This book is indeed very good and I feel I want to read it again.

So the blurb on the fly leaf posits this work as being about a lady called Lizzie Benson working as a librarian – without a traditional degree (shock, horror). She has supported for years her Mother and recovering addict brother. Lizzie takes on a project to answer mail for a podcast host/philosopher and lecturer called Sylvia who gets too much mail and who throughout the book seems to withdraw further and further into silence.

And although the book does do these things, the blurb fails to mention entirely that Lizzie is primary carer for her son Eli and that she is happily married to Ben, that she acquires a sister in law and a niece along the way. So in common with most women she spends her days juggling multiple responsibilities alongside her paid work. Her brother Henry requires a huge amount of support – particularly when he is rather unsuitably left in charge of a newborn baby – time and effort which Lizzie, in saintly fashion, never begrudges.

But the narrative of events takes second place against a background of 21st century hysteria and incipient climate crisis:

“Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life altering temperatures by 2047.”

Someone should write a history of snow while we still know what it looks like.

Weather must have been written pre-Corvid but it is an ideal and timely read for this crisis. Offill’s writing defies both categorisation and bland description. I recommend reading it to find out what it does. It certainly deserves its place on the short-list. Will it win?  It is so very different in scope and tone from some of the others on the list  – at least the ones that I have so far read – and yet the role of a novel is to describe to people the times they are living through so that they recognise themselves in the story, or the times their ancestors lived through, or the times we might live through in the future.  And all the shortlisted books do this.

I feel Weather crumbles a bit at the end but that is no doubt deliberate because society will crumble a bit at the end

I do hope to have a punt at the winner before an announcement is made, but it is too early to say if I will choose Weather.

This Fight Belongs to Us All

As we all go quietly crazy during this crisis it is worth remembering that for some the  constant routine, walking the same route day in, day out, knowing exactly what comes next,  is a positive, necessary even, for stability and mental health.  But things are not going to be the same for anyone.  Regardless of the virus, the future has a big question mark over it.

Writers of the future will have their work cut out to represent what it was like to be alive in the year 2020. We have a crisis within a crisis.  Corona within climate crisis. Do present day writers and poets have their heads stuck firmly in the climate crisis sand? Maybe some.

But one young man is already ahead of the game.   Dara McAnulty, a teenager living in Northern Ireland with his family has written Diary of a Young Naturalist published by the excellent Little Toller Books   –  an independent family run press in Dorset which publishes books on the natural world.

I am grateful to have found this press on a list of indie publishers on Susan Osborne’s blog A Life in BooksThank you Susan.

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Firstly, Dara’s book as physical item.  At £16 the book is not cheap.  But it is such a joy to hold a well produced hard cover copy with an attractively designed dust jacket after years of struggling with e-reader annotation systems most of which are clunky and dire.

This copy is a joy to hold;  the pleasing heft of good quality paper .   It reminds me of a time when there were book collectors, and that books were collected as much for appearance as content.

Divided like the year into sections on Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter the book is a diary about a young boy’s love of, understanding of and connections to the natural world.   Despite being only 15 years of age, McAnulty writes with a passionate lyricism,  a wisdom – and yes, vision –  about birds, plants, animals and trees.   And oh boy, can this young man write.

I’m lying on the ground looking up at the branches of an oak tree.  Dappled light is shining through the canopy, the leaves whisper ancient incantations.  This tree, in its living stage, rooted in sights and sounds that I’ll never know, has witnessed extinctions and wars, loves and losses.  I wish we could translate the language of trees – hear their voices, know their stories.”

Sadly some of Dara’s school friends do not understand or share his passion and it is clear that he suffers cruelly from bullying at school and from a sense of belonging nowhere except the forests, nature reserves and gardens that he craves.   The fear of school – its rigid lack of understanding of an individual child’s needs, its focus on conformity  – is a constant although sometimes unspoken presence in the early stages of the story.  Anyone who knows the  feeling of being an outsider, can take comfort from this writing as well as from the victories it describes.  And in Summer, he finds a friend…

In fact the very existence of this book is an indictment of educational systems.    Dara tells us that his parents  were once told by a teacher:  ‘Your son will never be able to complete a comprehension, never mind string a paragraph together.’

Yet, as Dara says, here we are.

And where we are – or desperately need to be – is recognising, encouraging and educating the naturalists of the future rather than disparaging them.  Because we need them badly.    Thank goodness young people are taking the lead – the school strikes for climate for example in which Dara has taken part.   These young people are the ones that will have to solve the problems that self-serving older generations have left behind.  Our legacy of destruction.

Yes this is a fantastic book and yes I heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely concerned about the disappearance of our natural world.   But mostly it is a call to action.    Dara doesn’t want anyone to tell him how great he is, or what a role model he is. He just wants us to educate our children and grandchildren to join in his conservation efforts.

The RSPB website reminds us:

 Nature is still in crisis, with more than 40 million birds having vanished from UK skies in just 50 years and one in ten of our wildlife are critically endangered.

Nature has powerful allies in the new, young generations who refuse to accept expedience and compromise, who do not rely on vague hopes that it will probably be OK or someone else will sort it.   This fight belongs to us all.

 

Lockdown Summer? With no books!

Well the weather is sunny here in  London but all else seems much awry. Are we facing a whole summer in lockdown? With closed bookshops?   I very much hope not. 

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The good news is that I have discovered that my local bookshop is still doing deliveries – it took me weeks to have the commonsense to check their website to find out.  I am so over buying things from certain online giants who shall remain nameless that I’m only reading real books from now on!

Here is a look at some of my planned summer reads. These books are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 #ReadingWomenChallenge which includes both suggested reads and books from the 2020 prize shortlist. It’s an exciting list.

From the 2020 prize shortlist, I will not be reading the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light because I haven’t yet read the second book.

Some of their suggested books I have already read:

  • Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I read some years ago and is shattering and iconic and I don’t think I could add anything to the reams that have already been written about it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which I adored and preferred to her more recent books Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered, the latter reviewed here.
  • I have already reviewed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo here.
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So here are my TBR’s from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2020.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ((Fourth Estate) 2006

This book is so famous I can’t believe I haven’t got to it yet. I am now rectifying that mistake. The story is set in Nigeria in the 1960s against the backdrop of approaching civil war. I am only a couple of chapters in but I already love the compelling character of the house boy, Ugwu, Odenigbo the man he calls Master, and the elegant soon to be arriving Olanna. There is a palpable atmosphere about the early chapters and I look forward to learning much about Africa through the story.

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Wiedenfield & Nicholson) 2011

The sound of this storyline is intriguing. There is an intergenerational mystery which is always a winner with me. When a tiger escapes from the local zoo – what happened to the boy who refused to be terrified of the escaped tiger? His grandaughter would very much like to know. Her investigations will, apparently,  lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book …

This is also partly a war time story set during the conflict in the Balkans.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees…”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Mantle) 2019

Natalie Haynes gives voice to all the women – not just the famous Helen – whose lives were affected by the fall of Troy. No longer are women the minor characters in the stories of men.

The blurb reads:

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greems and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash….

If and when I can get copies, I will add other shortlisted titles including:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farell 

Weather by Jenny Offill

 Dominicana by Angie Cruz.

and hope to announce my own winner before the Judges decide in the Autumn. 

“You too have seen the sun a bird of fire” International Dylan Thomas Day

For all the great Welsh poet could sometimes be inaccessible – here he is being utterly … well, just utterly Dylan.
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You too have seen the sun a bird of fire
Stepping on clouds across the golden sky,
Have known man’s envy and his weak desire,
Have loved and lost.
You, who are old, have loved and lost as I
All that is beautiful but born to die,
Have traced your patterns in the hastening frost.
And you have walked upon the hills at night,
And bared your head beneath the living sky,
When it was noon have walked into the light,
Knowing such joy as I.
An extract from ‘Youth Calls to Age’

Dylan Thomas: The Poems. Edited and Intro. Daniel Jones (Everyman) 1991
Photo from the offical Dylan Thomas Website
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There is a live reading of Under Milk Wood on May 14th at 8.15pm GMT here.

When writerly technique stares at you with bloodshot eyes …

It’s not often I rant on this blog.  But there are a number of things I feel very strongly about: income inequality for instance,   surveillance,   online giants who put bookshops out of business – oh and punctuation!

I am not talking about ‘correct’ punctuation or the efficacy of semi-colons or full stops or commas or apostrophes.    But there are a few  books around at the moment that see no reason to use any, ever.  Either that or they bombard you with  legions and legions of commas and little else.     Lucy Ellman’s book Ducks, Newburyport is an example.  ( Galley Beggar Press. )

 

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The fact that this book contains 1020 pages broken down into a mere 8 sentences, the fact that according to the Guardian review you eventually stop noticing the fact that, the fact that may or may not be true, the fact that I never got to the point where I could find out whether that was a fact or not, the fact that the book won awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, the fact that it still drives me absolutely bonkers.

My patient and much admired reviewer above said:

“There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type…”

This I can understand.

Our poor brains derive meaning not just from one word to the next – but range back and forth across  paragraphs, pages or chapters, across clauses and sub-clauses because our poor brains need to take a break sometimes, or mine does.   Punctuation, like life,  is an opportunity to breathe. Punctuation is like the rests in a musical notation or rhthym.  Punctuation is the give-me-a-break friend of the sentence, our saviour from massive indigestible and exhausting tons of words piled unceasingly one after the other across 1020 pages.

Yes its true our minds produce things in bits:  ideas, dreams, scraps of proposed speech, memories, anger, to-do lists.  Our thoughts dart from one thing to another.  That was how stream of consciousness started and how Virginia Woolf used it.   But not many people can do what Virginia Woolf did.     And how interesting are the contents of my mind – or anyone else’s – if there are thousands of reams of stuff put down in no particular order?

Aye but here’s the rub.  Because of course in books there is an order so why pretend there is not?   For  all its technical in-your-face-ery Ducks, Newburyport is still a story  about a  woman in Ohio looking back across her life.  And oh boy can this lady look back.

Ducks’ author Lucy Ellman is  the daughter of James Joyce according to my much admired Guardian reviewer,  and therefore I do not get into a discussion about what should or should not constitute stream of consciousness because I really do not know.  I only know what I find manageably readable.  I only know when writerly technique rams itself into your face about an inch away and stays there staring at you with bloodshot eyes going “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah”  for 1000 pages  it’s time to close the book and your eyes in sheer exhaustion.

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From the same publisher comes Toby Litt’s Patience.  This is certainly not anything like 1000 pages long nor is it comprised of one sentence.  Here – oh joy, one may find such luxuries as full stops and paragraphs  although now I look again not very many commas.  Hardly any in fact. OK. None.

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I worry slightly that this stream of consciousness thing is catching.

Litt’s story concerns itself with a  young boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.  He lives in an orphanage run by nuns. The date is 1979.

There are many things to love about this book.   Not least the poignant way even well meaning human beings treat the disabled.    We have access to the narrator Elliott’s interior rebellion  which his disability renders impossible to action.  But when a new boy Jim comes to the ward, the rebellion is definitely on!

Elliott’s  age is not given.  He measures his life in Christmas Cards from his family at the beginning of the book which itself a bit of tear jerker and then later on he measures his life in days after Jim’s arrival.

Elliott has been unable to engage with any traditional education but has spent a large amount of time listening to the radio and taught himself, particularly about music.    He has very cogent and philosophical thoughts some of which are about the nature of god, guilt and Jesus.

“Creation must be forgiveness or else God is not God but Jehovah Jesus is not Jesus by the Thief and the Holy Spirit is not Holy but Hollow and is not a Spirit but a Sprite full of Spite and full of Holes and thus was I angry that afternoon at the Sisters and especially Sister Britta for making a guiltless boy pray to a guilty God or a God who did not exist making him pray for forgiveness for a sin that never existed except in the guilty head of a Sister.”

If you feel out of breath after reading the above quote, the whole book is like this but at least it feels to be like there is some internal logic to this idea.  Elliot cannot speak so the whole book is one long thought.    But Litt, unlike his stable mate Ellman, writes sentences that we know will end sometime although in opposition to Ducks, Patience takes out most of the commas, it is at least possible to tune in to a natural rhythm in these sentences.

Elliott befriends  Jim, a new boy on the ward.  Jim is not pliable.  He persists in defiance.   Taking up a position by a wooden gate between the ward and the lift, between the ward and the exit and freedom and the normal lived world that is inaccessible to these children.   But  to stand thus is very much Against the Rules.   Jim is not allowed to stand by the wooden gate and he knows this.  But he challenges the authority of the nuns by doing so.

I liked the wooden gate.  It was a brilliant metaphor for the shut away-ness of lives that are seen as other, as less.

 

From Glow Worms to the Avian Death Count in New York … and a Stork Arrested for Spying

… from climate change to mushrooms to drone warfare, Vesper Flights is the new book by Helen Macdonald ( of H is for Hawk fame).  It’s been a long wait since 2014.   In that earlier award winning book the author wrote an account of how in the midst of grieving for her father, she struggled to train a Goshawk – named Mabel.

As a naturalist, Macdonald’s  work ranges widely across different species and ecologies.  As a writer she always finds the perfect analogy between whatever is happening out there in the natural world and what is also happening to the rest of us.  Needless to say at a time of global crisis that we are going through now, our relationship to nature seems even more confused and tormented.

Macdonald’s work epitomises the new nature writing.  I believe very few people can combine the passion and lyricism of superb writing with deep scientific knowledge born a lifetime of study, the way she does.

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There are things we know about birds and there are still even more things we don’t. Although it lacks some of the focus on narrative of her earlier book, Vesper Flights ranges across the myriad topics on which the author is knowledgeable.   The way we view birds and animals, the way we talk about them, name them, label them, treat them, ignore them, and often kill them either intentionally or not,  comes back in the end Macdonald writes, to the culture we inhabit and how we view ourselves.

Birdwatching, hours and hours spent watching  with the naked eye or through field glasses has been a hobby, a habit, an obsession, a career of us humans for as long as there have been birds and eyes or  field glasses through which to view them.  For beings that don’t talk, they connect to us and we to them.  They connect us to each other and to our history.

Macdonald writes:

“… I remember a British officer called Peter Conder who spent the Second World War in prison camps in Germany.  He survived by watching birds.  Goldfinches. Wrynecks.  Migrating crows picking through the waste spread on the frozen fields.  Hours and days and years on end.  When he came home he  didn’t talk.  He stayed with his sister and stared out of the window at London starlings roosting in long lines on ledges of Portland stone.”

He observed that the birds always stood a certain distance apart but close enough to deliver a rebuke to his neighbour.  He christened it the principle of pecking distance.

And before that around the time of the First World War, a man called Henry Eliot Howard decided that birds held territories too.  That males sang to other males as warnings.  That brightly coloured plumage was warning.  The naturalist Peter Scott noted from the deck of a naval destroyer on which he was serving that somehow the mallards and teal in the reed beds of Slapton Sands were what he was fighting to protect. “That somehow they were England.”

And somehow the birds are still England, enervated, etiolated, disappearing, besieged by wrong headed ideologies.

It has happened before, Macondald writes.    As ideologies and systems collapse we “seek ourselves in the mirror of the countryside”  See nature as refuge.

But nature is more often  encountered on TV and video than in living reality these days,  or through nature reserves’ – living museums of flora and fauna which once covered the land.

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Many thousands of animals and birds – swans, sea turtles even bears and whales – are tagged and tracked every year, in our efforts to understand migration patterns and understand the dangers they face.

“The particulate beauty of unimagined hordes of lives that aren’t our own, tracked minute by minute across the sky and rising out of mystery.”

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We survey our remaining birds as we ourselves are under surveillance. But often the biggest danger that they face is us.  We congratulate ourselves on our ability to watch the progress of thousands of tagged birds on the internet (a cuckoo named David is reported as reaching home in Wales safely) yet are powerless to intervene to save any that meet difficulties.

That sense of powerlessness is playing out all across the globe as we face as invisible virus and our paranoia increases to the extent that a stork can be captured and arrested on suspicion of carrying an electronic spying device!   Technological dominance is reaching out  gory tentacles to encompass the design of and the intentional imitation of birds and insects in drone warfare.  Poignant avatars, as Macdonald describes these avian victims, for human fears and conflicts.

The birds are caught in the middle.  But now, humans are caught in the middle too of things which are completely beyond our understand and control. The twin dangers of Corvid 19 and climate change.

“Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure too all the things that come towards us over which we have no control.  Such storms have their place in literature, the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often standing for an inevitable catastrophe.   

And I can’t help but think this is the weather we are all now made of.  All of us waiting.  Waiting for news.  Waiting for Brexit to hit us.  Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration.  Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts before the storm of history.”

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Thank you to #NetGalley and #Grove Press (New York) for this review copy.  All views are my own.