Tag Archives: literature

Author Jill Dawson talks about her Favourite Book

I’m really pleased to share a guest post from Jill Dawson author of Lucky Bunny and The Great Lover in which she introduces her favourite book The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge.

My recent love is Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve come late to her but I am working my way through all of her novels. I think when I was younger I found them too dispiriting and opaque. Master Georgie struck me as particularly difficult to get into.  You have to live awhile to appreciate how funny she made things, and how unique as a writer she was in nailing pretension, emotion and sex in a prose style all her own. Famously hard-drinking and smoking, darkly humorous in her work Bainbridge relished the absurd, the inexplicable and the violent. These traits are in this last novel too, but another flavour dominates: melancholia.

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress tells the story of Rose, a young Londoner who sets out for the States during the tumultuous summer of 1968 to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold, with only a polka-dot dress and a one-way ticket in her suitcase. The two of them aim to join forces to travel across the country in search of Dr Wheeler – guru and life-saver as far as Rose is concerned; something much darker for Harold.

It’s a novel of a hopeless journey, against a backdrop of violent episodes and assassinations—first Martin Luther King, later Bobby Kennedy—and the shift in public mood from optimism to despair. The elusive Dr Wheeler moves on, and we suspect he might never be found, or that finding him isn’t really the point. “I’m only doing what’s best. We’re all looking for something,” Harold states, towards the end, after surprising us utterly with his closing act.

The journey of the novel echoes the final one that Bainbridge herself was on, since her health was failing and she was close to death while writing it. For an answer to the question “What’s the point?”, Dr Wheeler’s earlier advice to Rose is: “If you want a compass to guide you through life, you have to accustom yourself to looking upon the world as a penal colony. If you abide by this you’ll stop regarding disagreeable incidents, sufferings, worries and miseries as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, you’ll realise that everything is as it should be; each of us pays the penalty of existence in our own peculiar way.”

For Rose, the one moment of true love had been snatched from her by a mother, who saw it as “a dirty union between under-age fornicators . . . which was why it was necessary for the resulting infant to be given away. Mothers could always be depended on to know what was best.” One
might take this to be the author’s final comment on the matter, a cackling voice from the grave urging us to accept the unpalatable, to see that our dreams will fail, that whatever joy we experience will be stolen. Even in the last days of her life, Bainbridge was planning to get up and work, to fix the novel that had bewitched and eluded her for nearly 10 years.

So if life’s so pointless, how do we explain the author’s persistent and courageous endeavour to engage with it? Her novel offers joy and some kind of answer for the reader who takes pleasure in bloody good writing: the salty prose; the rationed cruelty towards characters; the wicked observation; the frugal way with adjectives, adverbs and sub-clauses; the deadpan tone; the punch. It might not be line for line as Bainbridge intended (as it was compiled by her sympathetic editor from the unfinished manuscript), but I urge you to read it.  Authentic, stinging and truthful, Bainbridge spoke as she found, in her own peculiar way.

I told Jill that I’d been meaning to read some Beryl Bainbridge and she recommended that I start with The Dressmaker, so I will be checking that out of the local library this week. I can’t recommend The Great Lover highly enough, but check out Jill’s other projects here.

Monkeys with Typewriters- Scarlett Thomas

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail  end of October and  37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.

If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.

Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.

Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.

I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.

If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.

I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.

If you read this book and fancy joining me in my appreciation of Ms Thomas, I recommend you also check out PopCo (it actually got me interested in maths) and The End of Mr Y.

Author Peter Salmon talks about his Favourite Book

Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story

I always wonder what books authors like to read, so I recently contacted some of the great authors who have featured on my blog in recent years to ask what their favourite book is and why they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to introduce the first guest post from Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story.  I’m adding it straight to my reading list.

The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow
‘On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass … With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul … The day was hot and overcast … and the traffic was wondering – I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going … This is a Tinline felt-tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79c made in USA by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing room … Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five …’

From the moment I started The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, I knew nothing would be the same. This is the most vicious, passionate, desperate, glorious and brilliant book I have ever read – The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off, and I’d owe Doctorow royalties if I earned any.

I won’t go into the plot – it’s loosely based on the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying in 50s USA –  but I do want to talk about it as a piece of writing. This was the book that first taught me that ANYTHING is possible in the novel – being a paid up member of the artsy wanky pomo clan before I read this, I was well versed in narrative techniques and saw them as some sort of intellectual game. Then this book came along and made me realise that when you embark on a novel the thing is to use every possible method to speak the narrative truth required. The Book of Daniel uses discontinuous narrative, time-shifts, POV shifts, not as a game, but because it’s a story that – literally cannot be told any other way.

And Doctorow tried. The first version of the book was written third person, calm, collected etc etc. Doctorow finished and realised he’d failed. So (and I’m exaggerating for effect, but not much) he threw the whole thing in the bin, and in sheer bloody frustration, wrote the opening paragraph above. And produced a howl of rage and pain that, in the end, can only be described by his own – Daniel’s own, summation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, halfway through the book…

‘But historians of America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive, Poe, who wore a hole through the parchment, and let the darkness pour though… It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America.’



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The Casual Vacancy- J.K.Rowling

I’ve just finished reading The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t in any hurry to read it because the marketing hype has really irritated me, but when my boyfriend bought me it I thought, might as well give it a go, and if it isn’t any good, well, at least everyone likes a sneery review and I can add mine to the masses who’ve churned them out.

But, BOOM! She’s done it again, and there will be no sneering here.

Following the death of local Councillor Barry Fairbrother, the parish of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Opposing factions scurry to have their candidate brought forward to fill the gap the saintly Barry left behind and put an end to the secret war that has been waged behind the lace curtains of Pagford for nearly sixty years. And as tensions reach a boiling point in the crucible of Pagford, pitting wife against husband, son against father, and almost everyone against poor Krystal Weedon; the residents are haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghost of Barry Fairbrother.

In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, this is not Harry Potter. Or, as JK Rowling might now put it, this is not Harry f—ing Potter. And yet, people will wonder how they compare, so it seems silly to ignore the subject.

Obviously, the Harry Potter books are very plot driven, usually involving some manner of quest, trials, good and evil. The Casual Vacancy is far more character driven, the impetus of the story coming from the raggle-taggle cast of at-best-flawed-at-worst-despicable characters that Rowling has so acerbically set down.

Rowling’s characterisation is brutal and brilliant. Instead of the stock characters that we came to know and love, or hate, in Harry Potter, we have a far more complex array of characters, many of which we’d recognise from our own lives; the yummy mummy yearning to be a teenager again, the weak man looking for a weaker woman to make him feel strong, the teenage cynic railing at the wold. I’m sure there are those who would argue that these are still, to an extent, stock characters. Perhaps, but the execution and Rowling’s mastery makes them feel real.

The pace of the novel may, in parts, be a little slower than some readers will appreciate. I did feel that it took a little while for me to get sucked into the quagmire of village life, but once I did I forgot that I was trying to critically read Rowling’s latest offering and got lost in the genuinely absorbing book that I was reading.

There is the odd wobble, some weird imagery and description, especially for me on p 133 when Rowling describes the sight of a tampon wrapper as being “like a rare comet”, and a teenage boy being overwhelmed by the idea that a teenage girl menstruating “this actual, physical evidence that a girl in his vicinity was having a period there and then”. This reminded me really strongly of a passage in The Virgin Suicides:

 “In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something, and then he told us he had counted twelve boxes of Tampax in the cupboard… Peter Sissen sped down the stairs, blushing, and after thanking Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, hurried off to tell us that Lux Lisbon was bleeding between the legs that very instant, while the fish flies made the sky filthy and the streetlamps came on.” The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t know whether this is now a common symbol of burgeoning male sexuality and I’ve missed the memo, or whether they were intended to show that, bless, teenage boys can be a bit gruesome, but the similarity struck me.

Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is overtly political. Jan Moir writing for The Daily Mail complained that it is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”  You can see why The Daily Mail might be antsy, lots of people in the UK use the expression “they read the Daily Mail” as short hand for “they are right-wing and bigoted” and Rowling uses the same oblique reference by placing The Daily Mail in the vicinity of some of her more unpleasant characters while attacking everything the Mail stands for. Personally, I didn’t find the political aspect distressing, but that might be because it was fairly sympathetic of my general politics. Besides, since when was it a bad thing for literature to double as a social commentary?

In short, I liked it. It’s certainly a blunt instrument in a political sense, but it is a strong effort which I think has attracted undue criticism as a result of Rowling’s prior success. Adult reviewers seem to be genuinely rattled by a book which reflects a real world in which there is no Dumbledore with a wand to make things better for the deserving, by a book which dares raise the question of who can be considered deserving.

Maybe the book could have been improved. Who am I to judge? But for me, the only thing that would have made it better would have been for Rowling to dedicate the novel to David Cameron and his Big Society instead of to her husband.