Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Review of Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal is a Russian Doll of a novel. Let me explain. The story is based around a student-teacher sex scandal at a local girls school, but instead of these two characters being the protagonists of the novel, it is told by those around them, some of whom neither the student nor teacher have ever even met.

The characters of the novel are all performers – a saxophone teacher and her host of students, a drama student and his father who is really a one dimensional psychoanalyst, disturbed and disturbing. Each of them is affected by the scandal in one way or another, some directly but most, indirectly. The relationship is the nucleus around which all the other episodes of the story are wrapped layer upon layer, one play inside another, like a Russian Doll.

The reader is placed in the position of an audience member watching a play, or rather several interwoven plays at various stages of rehearsal, but a rehearsal for what? This line of thought could take us on a philosophical path, but as the novel offers no grand over arching conclusion, perhaps we shouldn’t continue, other than to say Eleanor Catton engages with the idea of performance, and how we are often cast to perform a role we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves, with humour and confident creativity.

All this talk of characters may have mislead you. This novel isn’t a character based book. Mostly the characters are little more than shadows that pass across the page; characters in a play script you are reading rather than watching, without much flesh or personality. This isn’t a criticism of the book. The novel doesn’t suffer in any way due to the reserved character studies. In fact, I think this aspect makes the book because it allows the ideas of identity and relationships to shine, and the words to dominate, which, in the words of Emily Perkins, ‘makes language seem new’:
The overhead lights have dimmed and she is lit only by a pale flicking blue, a frosty sparkle like the on–off glow of a TV screen. The saxophone teacher is thrust into shadow so half her face is iron grey and the other half is pale and glinting.
(read a longer excerpt)

Eleanor Catton is an exciting new writer and I'm already looking forward to her next book.

Posted by Hannah

Friday, 19 June 2009

Bookarmy's First Author Interview

On Wednesday, I conducted bookarmy’s first face to face author interview with Kate Pullinger. We met in a cafe in Shepherd’s Bush, London. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive, this being my first BA interview, but thank goodness, Kate was absolutely lovely. We talked about her new book, The Mistress of Nothing, and her work with digital storytelling, but I’m afraid that is all I’m going to tell you. I’ll be adding the interview to the site soon, so if you want to know what Kate actually said, keep checking Kate’s author page.
We will also giving away 5 signed copies of The Mistress of Nothing throughout July, so look out for how you can enter.

Posted by Hannah

Monday, 15 June 2009

Litro Live, 11th June '09

Last week I went to Litro Live, an event run by the excellent Litro magazine and hosted by the Betjeman Arms in St. Pancras International Station. Books, booze, music and, well, trains; what more could I have asked for?

Unfortunately I arrived a couple of hours late owing to the tube strike (curse those workers; it’s almost as if they don’t care about my social engagements at all). However, I was in time to catch readings from Geoff Dyer, Jake Arnott and Gemma Weekes. Gemma is also a singer and performed briefly after she’d finished reading. Her music was perfectly designed to accompany wine, and it was very lovely and relaxing indeed – probably my favourite part of the evening.

Copies of works by all the authors were on sale but - as my book-hoarding tendencies have recently been reaching levels that may be indicative of some kind of serious personality disorder - I decided to be strong for once and resist the urge to buy. I did, however, take a photo of Jake Arnott’s novel, which seems like the next best thing to actually owning it. It instantly caught my eye because, as you can see, it’s very pretty and bright and I’m a magpie when comes to very pretty and bright books; I DO judge them by their covers, I’m afraid.

I also had my first experience of witnessing the DJing talents of Jamie Byng, otherwise known as the man behind the immensely successful revival of Canongate’s fortunes. This happened quite unexpectedly and was actually somewhat surreal. I was the tiniest bit tipsy and for a moment wondered if my eyes were deceiving me. However, hallucinations of prominent literary figures in incongruous circumstances have never previously been amongst the symptoms of my intoxication so I had my doubts. I headed home not long afterwards to do the Google homework I really should have done beforehand, and discovered that spotting Jamie behind the decks is not as rare an occurrence as one might imagine and that he apparently does this sort of thing quite a lot. Who knew? Not me, obviously.

Although this was the first Litro event I have been to I hope that it won’t be the last, and if you happen to be a London-dweller I would strongly recommend checking out their website for details of their monthly live shows.

Posted by Eilidh

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Better late then never, I guess, but here are some of our photos from Hay Festival.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Beginning of the end for textbooks?

Just in case you missed it, earlier this week Arnold Schwarzenegger announced plans to scrap all textbooks in Californian schools and replace them with the digital information. This is in an effort to curb the growth of a budget deficit already $24.3bn in the red. Hmmm, I’m not sure…

See what you think, read Schwarzenegger's speech here.

Posted by Hannah

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Congratulations, Marilynne Robinson!

Yesterday evening, Marilynne Robinson was announced the winner of the Orange Prize for her novel Home. Robinson is no stranger to the world of literary accolades, already having a Pulitzer as well as a PEN/Hemingway award under her belt. This latest win raises her grand total of prestigious awards to three - one for every novel she has written. Not too shabby.

As I blogged yesterday, I was lucky enough to hear her (along with fellow shortlisters Ellen Feldman, Samantha Harvey, Kamila Shamsie, Samantha Hunt and Deirde Madden) read from their nominated books at the Southbank Centre a couple of days ago. If, however, you didn't happen to have the time, the money or, erm, the inclination to attend - fret not! You can now experience the exquisite joy of a Marilynne Robinson reading courtesy of this charmingly shaky video we dug up on YouTube, just for you. Enjoy!

P.S. If you think you know a thing or two about the Orange Prize and its past winners, you can test yourself in Bookarmy's Orange Prize quiz here.

Posted by Eilidh

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Orange Prize Readings '09

Since it was founded in 1996 by Kate Mosse, The Orange Prize for Fiction has been the subject of much controversy owing to its exclusion of male writers. However you feel about this attempted affirmative action (I’m not too sure that I feel all that positively about it myself), there’s no denying that the prize-giving is one of the most significant events in the British literary calendar. With the winner set to be announced today in a lavish awards ceremony, the past couple of months have seen those on the shortlist take part in string of events to get the public familiar with their names, faces, and, most importantly, their work.

I spent yesterday evening at a night of readings and discussion with the six shortlisted authors, none of whom I have read before. The weather was unbelievably stunning – the perfect day to sit around listening to the buskers outside the venue, London’s Southbank Centre. Inside, however, the ambience was slightly less agreeable. I had expected that the audience would consist mostly of arty publishing types, but to my surprise the room was jam-packed with a very diverse range of people spanning all ages. The sweltering heat generated by the crowd combined with the coloured lighting (orange, of course) made me feel a little bit like I was toasting under a grill. I can only imagine it must have been even worse for those on stage. However, the host, Radio 4’s Fi Glover, remained cool and composed throughout. She began by introducing the six authors, describing their work as “the type of books you want to press into the hands of strangers”.

First up to the podium was the bookies’ favourite to win, Ellen Feldmen, author of the fact-based novel Scottsboro. Her prim black suit, matching prim black bob and calm American voice contrasted sharply with the highly disturbing subject matter of her reading: a false accusation of rape made by two white girls against nine black teenagers in the American South during the depression era. Feldman went on to explain that she had remained so true to the facts of the original case that there is only one character in the book that she created herself; and even this one figure, a reporter named Alice, was born out of merging two women really involved in the trial. This, as far as I’m concerned, makes Feldman’s vivid imagining of the situation, as seen through the eyes of one of the supposed victims, all the more impressive and all the more courageous. To take the bare factual bones of a high-profile case and climb inside the minds of those involved is not something to be undertaken by a timid writer and from the section Feldman read it’s obvious that she has the poise required not only to pull it off, but to pull it off with a true flourish.

Feldman was followed by Samantha Harvey, the only debut author nominated for the prize this year. She seemed, quite understandably, somewhat overwhelmed by her situation, and she endeared herself to me immediately by opening her reading with the words “this is quite terrifying, I admit”. I had been utterly in awe of those on stage since I arrived, unable to stop thinking about how daunting the task of displaying the contents of one’s imagination to the intense scrutiny of an auditorium full of people must be. It was strangely reassuring to see that one of the authors, at least, did not appear unnaturally fearless.

Harvey’s novel, The Wilderness, is about Alzheimer’s and the problematic nature of identity without memories. She read initially in a soft, faltering tone which, although most likely the product of nerves, aptly reflected the quiet sadness behind her novel. By the time she had finished her reading and sat down to answer Fi Glover’s questions, her confidence had clearly increased and she provided fluid, well-thought-out answers.

Next up was Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, a fictionalised account of the life of eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. Hunt's stage presence was such that to be bored by her would actually demand a conscious effort on the part of the spectator. She even sang parts of the text, and adopted different voices when reading dialogue from each character as one might do when reading to a child. The section Hunt read was about the relationship between her protagonist and his employer, Thomas Edison, and even in this brief reading her talent for characterisation shone through. The combination of a fascinating topic, of which I know very little, and the author’s lively performance brought the book alive, and I found myself adding it to my mental to-read list only a couple of minutes into the reading.

Deirdre Madden’s delivery of her text was less theatrical although the titular character of her book, Molly Fox’s Birthday, is an actress, and she read a passage describing Molly's starring role in a performance of The Duchess of Malfi. Madden admitted that the world of acting was something “alien” to her, having never even appeared in a school production, and it is a testament to her skill as a writer that she managed to conjure up so vividly and convincingly the atmosphere of a world so foreign to her own experience. She was very funny and more than a little bit cutting, dismissing Fi Glover’s statement that Molly had seemed to her to be older than she was described, with a sharp Northern Irish ‘I’m not sure why you thought that.’ This exchange raised a (slightly awkward) laugh from the audience.

Marilynne Robinson’s reading of a section from her book Home was characterised by rich, descriptive language which betrayed the deep melancholy at the root of this tale about the relationships between the members of a fractured family. Interestingly, Home was written as a companion to her critically-acclaimed novel Gilead, featuring a shared cast of characters and the same setting. She stressed, however, that it’s in no way a sequel, taking place as it does at the same point in time as the original novel rather than afterwards, and that she intended for each of the novels to be autonomous. The characters of Home, she added, “felt like characters who wanted a novel, so I thought I might as well give it to them.”

The last to read was Kamila Shamsie, whose nominated novel is Burnt Shadows, a book that accomplishes the rather tricky feat of spanning "sixty years and five countries". Although all the different books’ passages were wonderful, and so varied in tone and content as to be almost incomparable to one another, it was this one, along with Samantha Hunt’s, which most sticks in my mind. Some of Shamsie’s words are nigh-on impossible to shake, although one couldn’t be blamed for wanting to shake some of them; for example the description of the devastation wreaked on a church by the bombing of Nagasaki, leaving behind only melted rosaries and human fat stuck to the walls.

The event rounded off with a brief Q+A session with audience members, during which someone sitting a few rows behind me came up with the very silly yet, oddly, quite inspired idea of asking the authors to describe their respective writing processes using the metaphor of a garden. The responses were pretty impressive considering they were completely spontaneous, and the majority of the authors seemed to be in consensus that their gardens would feature a great deal of wilderness and not a great deal of control on the part of the gardener. However, judging by the evening’s readings, I can only say that this modesty seems greatly misplaced. I’m looking forward to finding out which of these deserving ladies will get their hands on the £30,000 prize, but no matter who manages to scoop top place, I have a horrible feeling my purse is going to be significantly lighter very soon as I lose the will to fight the urge to run out and buy all six of these very unique books.

Posted by Eilidh

Monday, 1 June 2009

Bookarmy at Hay Literary Festival

The summer season of literary festivals is now in full swing. As you may have read on Friday’s blog entry, I escaped Bookarmy Towers and spent the day wandering around a Welsh field in the stunning late May sunshine, at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. For those of you who haven’t heard of Hay Festival before, imagine a field full of big white tents, with a grass quad in the middle littered with people reading and lounging on deck chairs, sipping Pimms and eating strawberries against the backdrop of the beautiful Black Mountains. Idyllic.

The idea was for me to go to Hay and blog throughout the day directly from the field of white tents. However, this was hampered by a Blackberry melt-down, leaving me unable to tweet, blog or upload pictures to the site. Very annoying - next time, I’m taking an iphone. Thankfully, I was saved by the good people of Hay-on-Wye, who took pity on me as I went door to door begging for a computer and internet connection, so I was able to send back to Eilidh in the office some news and pictures –Sarah, if you are reading this, you were a saviour. Thank you very much for letting me use your computer!

If you love to read and have never been to Hay, you are missing out. As the town’s welcome sign says, Hay is a ‘town of books’, and they’re not exaggerating. Contained within this small, beautiful town, by the Wye river, together with its very own crumbling Arthurian castle, Hay boasts around 30 bookshops, some specialist, and each a unique treasure trove of wonderful books in which any bibliophile can lose themselves amongst the high shelves.

Hay Festival used to be in held in the centre of town, with venues in the castle and the local Primary school, but in recent years it has become so popular that it has moved location to a field about a kilometre out of town. This has allowed the event to grow and include music events in the evening. However, it does mean that when it rains wellies are essential; but I guess this is true of all festival-going in the UK.

The first event I booked myself into was Jacqueline Wilson. On entering the tent each of us was handed a raffle ticket. This ticket was to decide which members of the audience would be lucky enough to get their books signed. This was very necessary because two years ago at Hay, the demand for Wilson’s signature was such that she stayed in the festival bookshop for over 6 hours scribbling her name on fans’ books to avoid anyone being disappointed. What a star.

She was fantastic; engaging, in control and oozing stage presence, she told the audience about her journey to becoming one the most successful children’s writers. Did you know that she is the Jackie behind ‘Jackie magazine’? Or that, for the first 3 months of her working life, she lived in a linen cupboard in a women’s church hostel in Scotland? I did try and tweet all this from the event but I think it got lost in cyber space. (By the way, which is better, the google phone or the iphone? – all opinions gratefully received).

I gave my raffle ticket to a little girl sitting next to me whose pile of Wilson books sat so high on her lap she had difficulty seeing over the top. Sadly, my ticket wasn’t a winner and the little girl’s books remained unsigned.

I then went to a comedy current affairs event. Four comedians commenting on the top and more trivial news stories of the day, with some audience participation. I learnt a lot: Jesus showed himself in a jar of marmite, Remains of the Day is to be made into a musical, and the craze for adopting monkeys to combat ‘empty nest syndrome’ is sweeping America. Check out the stories – brilliant.

Hay is never just a place to see and hear some of the world’s greatest writers discuss, debate and illuminate their works, but as suggested by this year’s festival strap line - ‘Ideas May Blossom’ - Hay is not just a festival about books; it’s a playground for the imagination. With comedy, music, film screenings, debates about religion, science and climate change, Hay is more than a literary festival. Hay turns the private and solitary act of reading into a public, celebratory event where readers can discuss all aspects of all types of books, and connect with authors and one another; a bit like bookarmy really, but without the need for wellies and waterproofs.

Looking forward to next year already.

To listen and watch a selection of the Hay events, try clicking here and see what goodies you can find.
Posted by Hannah