“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Chat With Melinda Moustakis

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Earlier this month I fell in love with Melinda Moustakis’ award winning collection of short stories ‘Bear Down Bear North’ that was published in September. The stories focus the Alaskan homesteading, trapping and fishing traditions around the Kanai River-some of the harshest landscape in the world, and the unbreakable, tough, people that live there.
Often brutal in its description of Alaskan family life, the stories in the book cover three generations of survivors in sparse, lyrical prose that shall send a shiver down your spine and is perfect for a night snuggled by the fire.
I was really pleased when Melinda agreed to talk to me about the book, and her talent and enthusiasm shines through throughout. This is a writer worth watching, and I cannot wait for her next offering.

BE : What made you decide to focus your writing on Alaska and especially the people who feature in your stories lives?MM: I was born in Fairbanks and my grandparents homesteaded in Alaska and my parents grew up in Anchorage. Then we moved to California when I was very young and I grew up hearing all these fantastic stories about Alaska. They stayed with me. And we would go up to Alaska and visit family and go fishing. Then about seven years ago I started going up more regularly in the summers to go with fishing with my uncle, Sonny, who is an expert fisherman and the storyteller in my family. I fell in love with fishing and with fishing stories. All of these factors combined--the love of fishing, being on the river, the almost mythological family stories about Alaska--and converged in my work when I started to take writing classes and started to take writing more seriously. I found my voice as a writer when I focused on the landscape of Alaska and all these stories I had inherited. These stories and stories my uncle tells me and experiences I have while fishing are the often the spark that starts a piece of fiction--but by the end, the initial spark has been completely transformed into something else. It's as if I am given a kernel of truth, a diamond, and then it is my task to build the coal around it, to build the story that will make that diamond transform and sparkle like it's never sparkled before.

BE: So do you see your work as a re-telling of old stories, a celebration of the culture you've inherited, or an exploration of how a landscape affects a culture?MM: I don't know if I could ever presume to represent a culture. I would say "a re-telling and re-imagining of old stories, a celebration of the stories I've inherited and experienced, and an exploration of how landscape affects character and voice." In terms of representation, my goal was to be truthful about both the majesty and the darker undercurrents of the Alaskan wilderness and the people who live there. The true test of the book is how it will be received by my family and other Alaskan readers--and so far there has been an incredibly warm reception. I didn't want Bear Down, Bear North to be considered "another touristy book" about Alaska. I wanted every word, every story, to be saturated in Alaska, to be authentic. In many ways, a book can be an author's love letter sent out into the world. This book is a love letter about Alaska--and this love, this relationship, is full of paradoxes: complicated and sharp and dark and light-humoured and heart-lifting and heart-breaking and biting and tender. I would use the same terms to describe the relationships between the characters in the book as well.

BE: I agree, I read it as a 'love letter to Alaska' as well, even though the character's lives aren't always romantic, but very realistic. Your characters go through an awful lot over the course of the stories, was any of it difficult to write?MM: I did not want to romanticize the Alaskan wilderness or these characters and so I had to address brutality and violence. There were many parts of the book that were difficult to write because children were in danger. The story "Bite" was especially difficult for me to write for this reason. Also, while writing this book, these characters furnished my imagination, became beloved, and so placing them in harm's way or knowing they would harm each other was devastating. I remember, while writing "Some Other Animal," that imagining losing one's mother became overwhelming, the loss unfathomable. I have to be moved while writing a story for it to be any good and I think that is the only way I can know the reader might be moved as well.
There are also certain story structures that were especially challenging for me. For example, "Point MacKenzie," which includes the perspectives of five children, was maddening to write in terms of structure and emotional content. That story took intense concentration and a lot of time, but I knew the story had to include all five voices.

BE: Your stories are so wells structured-you obviously spend a lot of time on that aspect of your writing, which as a reader you forget because your work is so lyrical! I loved the sparseness of some of your prose, if that makes sense. I particularly enjoyed the five aspects in “Point MacKenzie”, as the voices of the children informed the story more. How do you go about building up the bricks of the story, do you start with the structure, or do you have phrases that you know you want to use already stashed away?MM: I thought, briefly, that I was going to be a poet when I was taking creative classes in college. But all my poems included narrative and then fiction took over. You might call my writing failed poetry or lyrical fiction. I enjoy writing toward a structure because my brain feels so scattered at times--structure allows me to unravel the tangled ball of odds and ends and find the overall narrative arc. But I'm glad you said that as a reader you forgot about the structure which means the story pulled you in. This is my goal. I want readers to come away from a story feeling a swell of emotion because they have connected with the characters, not "That was an interesting structure." I usually don't start with a structure in mind. I have to have a character's voice in my head, a point of view, or an image to write to when I start a story--as if I have to find the structure and rhythm of the line before I discover the structure of the scene and then the structure of the entire story. Sometimes I have a line of dialogue or an image stashed away, sometimes a moment, sometimes a strange map or running list of all of these things.

BE: Within the various storied there are clear links, stories told by different members of the same family or at different times in a person's life for example. One thing I really enjoyed was discovering different aspects throughout the different stories, for example in "The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show", it is mentioned that when her husband proposed he made her go to the AA, this immediately made me remember in the earlier story "Miners and Trappers" where Gracie finds her brother Jack in the cabin her wanting to swig back the vodka. Do you have entire families’ histories in your head? I suppose what I'm asking is, is there room for a prose novel about the family?MM: The book could have been called a "novel-in-stories" because the stories are all linked together and cover three generations of one homesteading family. I do have entire family histories in my brain. At the beginning, I didn't know that I was writing a book about one entire family. But I kept returning to the characters and their lives and I will continue to return to them for future projects. So there is room for a novel, I believe, perhaps even a number of them.
BE: Good! I have to admit I completely fell in love with Gracie and Jack!
MM: Gracie and Jack were the first characters to take a hold of me—“The Weight of You” was really the start of this whole project

BE: One of my favourite things about the book was how accessible it was. I live in a city in England, and have never been fishing in my life and yet immediately became swept up in the Alaskan landscape and even the (very intricate) descriptions of fishing and the technical terms used didn't put me off the writing- what's the reception been like in Alaska amongst the people who it describes?
MM: The reception from my family and other Alaskans has been fantastic. I actually go up to Alaska in October for Alaska book week and will see more how it is received. But Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch did articles on me and the book when I was in Alaska fishing this summer and both reporters read the book and loved it and told me they were thrilled to read a book about Alaska that felt authentic. Alaskans are the true reader test for the book and it meant a lot to me that my family enjoyed the book and that press in Alaska had really connected with the stories.

Bear Down Bear North is out now

Happy Reading!

BookElf xxx

Monday, 26 September 2011

Autumnal Book Swop

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From the TSL website!!

After a relatively quiet summer, I'm realy pleased to announce a special book swap shall be taking place in new Leeds venue Cafe 164 on 1 October between 11-3

Cafe 164 is a new arts cafe, selling all kinds of sweet treats and teas. The Book Swap shall be very informal, with loads of opportunities to meet people who are into what you're into, and rent merrily about tomes you love, live, or loathe.

The Travelling Suitcase Library shall of course be rocking up with as widest selection of books as can be fit into a suitcase, but please bring your tomes.

Cakes and hot drinks shall be available from Cafe, but anyone wanting a beer that early in the day is welcome to BYOB.

Looking forward to seeing lots of book lovers there!

Morley Lit Fest

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This October sees the return of one of the year's highlights for Leeds' book lovers; Morley Lit Fest. Now in its sixth year, this year's lineup is absolutely massive, with talks from Ian Rankin and the writers of some of the Doctor Who novels and audio books. There are also talks from experts and academics, including Lucinda Hawksley and Juliet Barker, as well as creative writing and jewellery making workshops.

I'll be going to see Emma Henderson (whose book Grace William's Says it Loud was picked out of the tankard for book club this month, that we shall be discussing on the 16 October at Arcadia Bar from about 5ish, and after which I shall never be putting a book in the tankard again I promise!) on Monday 10th in the evening, and also Tracy Borman, writer of Elizabeth's Women, and Matilda Queen of the Conqueror, which I am currently reading. Anyone who fancies joining me, please do.

I am also very pleased to have been asked to be part of the Culture Vulture's evening on Saturday 15th celebrating Mills and Boon, a publishing house I have guiltily indulged in for several years. The night shall include cabaret performance and readings, and well as a design-you-own cover prize and music. Plus me wittering on about books and how great they are, as usual.

You can buy tickets for these and many other events here. I look forward to seeing you all there!

Happy Reading!

BookElf xxx

(ps for the more discerning reader, yes I have just figured out how to insert hyperlinks I have therefore gone a bit hyperlink happy. What's that you say? Been blogging for nearly two years and only just figured this out? Oh go away.)

Saturday, 24 September 2011


I made this: BookElf at 9:37 am 1 comments Links to this post
As you know, Cold Comfort Farm is one of my favourite novels, and I have always wanted to be able to emulate it's heroine Flora Poste.

It's author, Stella Gibbons, also wrote twenty five other novels, as well as collections of short stories and poetry. Sadly, these were all overshadowed by her masterpiece, and remained out of print for year, until Vintage decided to re-release them this summer. Westwood, published in 1946, is the one that has got the most press, being reviewed most enthusiastically in The Observer . Released with an introduction by Lynne Truss, I resisted it's charms until last week, when I promptly forgot about that and spent the last of my pennies on a new book (Bad Jess, second time this summer, no points for you).

The story of Margaret Steggles, a teacher who moves with her warring, unhappy parents to Highgate during the Second World War and promptly falls in love with a local writer and his set, this book explores what it is to be plain in a world that favours the pretty; intelligent and interested in the world of the (often irritating) intelligentsia.

Twenty three, plain and bookish, Margaret is described as having 'minor beauties not enough in themselves to make a woman attractive'. Obsessed with poetry, music, drama, and art, she dreams of a life of elegance such as she has never seen in her suburban home, with her socially hesitant, downtrodden mother and her philandering journalist father. Her best friend, Hilda, with 'the face of a nymph but the soul of a typist' (one of my favourite lines in the book) is a wonderful mix of Lydia Bennet and Prue from The Land Girls; living her life for fun and Sunday night parties with 'her boys', and never a thought to the Higher Arts: she describes the Mona Lisa as 'that fat pan'.

When Margaret returns a lost ration book she finds on Hamstead Heath, she enters the world of it's owner, the awful Hebe Niland, daughter of the even more awful Gerard Challis; writer, and possibly one of the greatest written misogynists I've ever encountered. Challis hates all women apart from the ones he creates in his plays, fake beautiful things that live in emotional bubbles and destroy the lives of everyone around them through their loveliness. Real women, according to Gerard are 'noisy sweaty things', 'shrews' that are 'always plotting', annoyingly having children and expecting his input with them, and disturbing his great unparalleled genius. Gerard requires nothing more from his young lovers than spiritual substance, for them to worship at his feet and look at him longingly whilst he does the same to them, then goes to home to his sensible upper-class brick of a wife and writes a play about them.

Of course Margaret falls in love with Gerard, and in fact his entire family and home, the 'Westwood' of the title. Despite being treated appallingly by them (they foist their small children onto her to look after for the day without warning, they give her cruel nicknames and mock her for clearly being in love with Gerard) she keeps on coming back for more, seeing Westwood as the home of all finery and beauty.

Margaret is a complex character that I at once had great empathy with, but also dispised for her weakness. She learns throughout the course of the book very little about herself, she knows not to not fall for false gods, but does not recognise the character flaws in herself that have allowed her to do so in the first place. This is a novel about accepting one's fate rather that changing it.

Margaret acquaints herself with the Challis' refugee housekeeper, the pouting, difficult Zita, who accuses Margaret when no contact is made for two weeks of being cross with her, thus making Margaret feel guilty and put more effort into a friendship founded on possessive selfishness than having anything in common. Although Margaret despairs of the friendship, and finds Zita tiring and irksome, she continues with it because Zita means access to the Chalisses, and Gerard. This using of someone, no matter how difficult and selfish a person, jarred with me. But by having Margaret as so flawed a character I was able to empathise with her more-unlike the saintly Anne Elliot who is aware of her flaws and is a good friend to many and who therefore I want to be, rather than believe I am like.

As Margaret's relationship with Westwood becomes more intense, she also has to cope with issues in her professional life-doubting her vocation in teaching (she eventually decides that she has to teach because 'if I can't teach them not to worship false gods, I can at least teach them how to add up their change quickly in shops and the geography of the British Isles, and I will', possibly my second favourite line in the book- almost on a parr with Sarah Burton's 'I was meant to be a spinster and by God I'm going to spin'. In fact, Margaret could be a Young Sarah, and if you enjoyed South Riding I would definitely recommend giving Westwood a go).

Margaret also forms a friendship, initially as a deflection of her mother's almost comical rudeness at a party, with a young single father Dick Fletcher, whose daughter Linda has learning difficulties and disabilities. This leads me to one of my main problems with the book. It was written in 1946, a different world I know, with different standards and thought patterns relating to how we think of others. But that never excuses for me racism, or ablism. Having Linda described as 'looking like a Japanese' massively jarred, and made me very very angry with the book, spoiling an otherwise perfect narrative structure. This is why I'm four, rather than five-starring it, as I do with all books that discriminate, or excuse discrimination, but are in all other ways a masterpiece. I wouldn't do it for The Woman's Room, I wouldn't do it for Gone With The Wind and I won't do it for this.

Dick and Linda live in a house also called Westwood, and Margaret for a time helps Dick out when his normal babysitter is injured in the Blitz. Margaret begins to fancy herself in love with Dick, a good, kind, unpretentious man, and for a time it seems as if redemption is on hand. But no, once again the main message of the novel shines through and Dick, after kissing Margaret passionately, becomes engaged to the pretty housekeeper.

By this point you're almost groaning for Margaret-why can't she just do an Anne and become more attractive over the course of 200 pages? But this isn't Persuasion, this is real life, and one by one her potential suitors callously leave her for women with pretty faces who wear bright soft clothes, rather than 'plain women making the best of themselves' like Margaret.

This point is even more cruelly emphasised by the subplot involving Hilda. Coming home on a packed tube, she meets Gerard Challis, who falls in love with her beauty and supposedly classical-goddess like nature, even though she gives him no hints of this and hilariously brushes off all references to mythology with a 'here we go again...'. Gerard, because of his unwillingness to see women as people, ignores her true, good, character completely and instead writes a play based on the one he has created in his head for her. This plan to win Hilda's (or Daphne as he prefers to call her; there is something more Humbert that Humbert Humbert about Gerard) affections hideously back fires when he describes the play to her as if a friend of his has written it and she quips 'why on Earth would he want to write that?'. Thankfully, this affair-that-never-was comes to a dramatic end when Gerard's true character is discovered by all concerned (apart from his wife, who knew all along) and Hilda declares him 'nothing more than a dirty old man'.

The book made me laugh out loud several times, but weep desperately at the end. It really has come as a bit of a wake up call that there is absolutely no point frittering away your life on a romantic, unrealistic ideal. Unrequited love may get you through the day, but in the end you are wasting your time on something that is hurting you. As Margaret comes to realise, 'flowers and solitude and Nature never fail one, they ask nothing and are eternally comforting'. I might have that done as a sampler above my bed and repeat it several times a day.

The novel's main message is one of realism over romantic fantasy; eyes don't meet across a crowed room: you are never going to walk down a staircase and have your hero look up at you in wonder: men want pretty women: Captain Wentworth isn't coming back. And maybe, just maybe, some women, like me, need to realise that.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Canongate Book 3 - It's a long and winding road...that brings me home

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Deciding to tackle the great unknown next; I choose to read Su Tong's Binu and the Great wall of China as my third Canongate Challenge.
While long fascinated by China, I know very little about the country, it's culture or its mythology. I studied a very specific time period for my history leaving certificate (A Level equivalent) and have read Wild Swans and a biography of Mao. Other than that...well I grew up watching Monkey... Fun...but hardly a definitive look at this rich and diverse land.
With the two previous books I've read in the Canongate Myth series; I've been familiar with the original stories so have read the book first; then refreshed on the myths. This time round; I thought it best to do a little research before getting stuck in.  

Background to the myth - one of China's four great myths

In ancient times (or about 260BC); a childless couple known as the Meng's lived next door to the Jiang's, who were also without any offspring. They were friendly towards one another for many years. 
One day, Old Man Meng planted a gourd vine along the fence that divided their respective properties. In time, the vine grew, hanging over into the Jiang garden, producing a large gourd. 
The couples decided to split the gourd in half and share the fruit. 
When they broke it open - to their delight - they found a beautiful little girl inside. Their jubilation gave way to anger as both families decided that they would adopt the child and raise her as their own. 
Eventually, neighbours were drafted in to broker a peace between the two. After much negotiation; it was decided that both families would raise the child, who was named Meng Jiang Nu. 

Meng Jiang grew up into a stunning young woman. She fell in love and became engaged to Fan Xiliang. Tragedy struck when - on the day of their wedding - soldiers arrived and conscripted Xiliang to build the Great Wall. Labouring on the Wall was known to be brutal with a high mortality rate due to starvation and deprivation. 

After waiting a year with no word from her husband, Meng Jiang decided to to go to the Wall and check on him. She travelled a vast distance and arrived, only to be told that Xiliang had died. To her disgust; his bones were entombed along with many other unfortunates in the Wall - he hadn't even been allowed a decent burial. Meng Jiang began to wail and threw herself against the wall, hitting it with her fist. A huge chunk of the Wall cracked open - revealing many skeletons. Unsure of how to continue, Meng Jiang bit her finger, drawing blood. She went to each skeleton in turn, touching them with the bloody tip - praying to the gods for a sign. One of the skeletons absorbed her blood and she knew that she had finally found her beloved. Throwing herself onto the bones; she clung to them; sobbing as though her heart would break all over again. 

The angry Emperor of Qin Dynasty rode to the Wall to survey the damage. He was furious up to the moment that he caught sight of Meng. Enchanted by her beauty; he promptly demanded that she marry him. Realising her precarious position - then (as now) it wasn't wise to show disgust at the actions of powerful men - Meng Jiang agreed on three conditions. Firstly, Xiliang was to be given a grand funeral. Secondly, the Emperor and his court had to go into mourning for his memory. Finally, she wanted to be taken to the sea. 

Though the Emperor was reluctant to be seen mourning the loss of a labourer; he agreed. As soon as Meng Joang was taken to the sea, she turned on the Emperor and berated him for his selfish actions. She then threw herself into the sea - in some versions transforming into a silver fish. The Emperor was determined to possess her - even in death - and send his men to find the body. The waves rode up against them. The Dragon King of the Sea and his daughter were so impressed by Meng Jiang's fidelity that they protected her. 

A thousand years after her death; the temple of the Lady Meng Jiang was established at the eastern beginning of the Great Wall where it is maintained even now.  



Not sure what to think to be honest. I've actually looked up a few reviews online to see what the consensus has determined (which I've never done before and shall never do again!) and have ended up more confused than before! 

Don't be fooled by the fairytale title on the cover. Su Tong does not present the myth as I've described it above. Rather this is a tale of a lowly and often despised woman, turned into an outcast by her love for her husband. For a short story, I felt emotionally wreaked by the end of it. Though there are whimsical elements - the frog, the weeping from any part of the body bar the eyes and the dream sequences - it also packs quite an effective political punch, highlighting the distance between the King building the Wall and those forced to labour on it.

In the Peach Village where Binu is raised; women are not allowed to shed tears for any reason, leading to some imaginative and inventive alternatives. Binu was in the process of being taught to cry with her hair but her mother passed away, leading to her perpetually weeping. She marries a lowly orphan with whom she is very happy. He is taken away one morning to work on the wall. Binu is horrified that he doesn't have any winter wear and swop's all of her worldly possessions for a coat that she decides to bring to him herself. 

The rest of the village women who have also lost the men in their lives are threatened by her devotion and treat her horribly. The wise women she visits for advice promise her that she will never return from her journey alive and that no one will make plans for her burial. She heads out without any support and only a reincarnated blind mother in the form of a frog to keep her company. Almost immediately her coat is stolen and she is violently attacked. A little later she is kidnapped, then almost put to death as a sacrifice; then accused of immorality; is nearly raped before finally being found guilty of assisting an assassin.

Though she manages to escape; she reaches the wall only to discover that her husband is dead. At this point; she is barely able to move and is unable to communicate effectively with other people. She climbs atop the wall and her constant tears damage the wall. An overseer runs down to the worker below - warning them that the wall is crumbling and the dead rising.

And so her journey, and the story, ends. Though this is a poignant point to finish at - I rather wished that Binu could have had her revenge on the tyrant who's ambition destroyed so many families.

Although the characters that she meets en route are vibrant and often mystical; I did not find - as many others seem to - that this tale is one of a triumphant honest and enduring human spirit over-coming all evil and woe to achieve her goal. While she does reach the wall, I cannot claim that this is ultimately an uplifting or optimistic tale. While Binu demonstrates fidelity and honour; the true nobility of those who refuse to give up and other inspiring sort of noises; she is repeatedly left disillusioned, at one point to the brink of suicide, at the cruelty demonstrated quite casually by the human race.

I found this to be a heartbreaking tale; the sort that should be absolutely avoided like the plague if you're in a blue mood. There is no hope, no sense of determination that can make up for the pervasive evil that the world and it's inhabitants demonstrate time and again. Though this is a translation; the writing is poetic and beautiful. My only complaint is that the dialogue seems somewhat stilted and abrupt.

I think that I would read more of Su Tong...but I'll leave it a while. Too too sad.  

Ongoing Challenges - Table of Contents
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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Chris Nickson Podcast Interview

I made this: Avid Reader at 3:20 pm 0 comments
* * *PODCAST* * * 

Well, I say interview - it's more of a conversation!


- We keep some of the vital details secret, but there are plenty of spoilers here for the uninitiated.


We discuss his Richard Nottingham Series (The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers); his work as a music journalist and his writing process!

Follow @ChrisNickson2 here on twitter!

Read his short story Home - a Leeds Book Club exclusive!

Mobile Podcast Interview
Chris Nickson

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Chris Nickson

Richard Nottingham - Book 1 - The Broken Token Review
Richard Nottingham - Book 2 - Cold Cruel Winter Review

Christmas Short Story - Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw

Richard Nottingham - Exclusive - Short Story - Home
Richard Nottingham - Exclusive - December

Chris Nickson - Interview

Follow Chris on Twitter - @ChrisNickson2
Best Book of 2001 - Library Journal Award

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Chris Nickson Table of Contents
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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book Club 7 - Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I made this: Avid Reader at 11:47 pm 0 comments
Date: 18th August 2011
Time: 5pm - 7pm

Discussed: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Agreed On: The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

While it was a fun and awesome book club - as always - unfortunately not many people had managed to finish the book. In fact, only two of us had managed to hit the finish line, though everyone had at least started it!
Some failed to finish because they were stuck in other books at the time, others because they had become hooked on a new series and literally couldn't put them down and still more due to various life commitments or having left it a bit late to start.

Now, if we were truly a dedicated and obsessive book club; I should have left there and then in a huff - reciting the rules of book club fight club stylee; cussing and fuming about life, the universe and everything.  But - thankfully - we aren't arses.
Instead, we discussed the bits that we could. I (and one other) offered sage and wise thoughts on our reading of the book and then the chat became - as it so often does, a general natter about...well...life the universe and everything (which mostly means Leeds and Doctor Who for me)

All of us had been intrigued about life in Iran - the book club members and how they lived their lives. We found them to be compelling and very unfamiliar - so different from our lives. The time jumps were fascinating to some; deeply irritating to others, We so much wanted to find our what happened to each of them that the literary meandering became a little distracting, rather than being the point of the book. Sometimes, the time leaps seemed totally arbitrary - if there was a point or a logic - it passed that majority of us by.

On the other hand, repetitive phraseology - such as the title 'Read Lolita in Tehran' started to drive us barmy. It's a clever title - it brings with it powerful imagery - but over-use has the potential to render it utterly meaningless. One person compared it to reading someones thesis. 

The tone of the book also irked some. The opinions expressed are very definite - as though only one viewpoint could possibly be valid. Without having always read the books being broken down; there is a particular sort of arrogance that was a bit annoying at times.  

Of the books that their book club covered that we had read - Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice - we were fascinated by what that book club pulled out. How the differing context of their everyday life seemed to highlight particular aspects that we hadn't necessarily considered. Even those points that we had noticed were seen in different ways. Again, the counter point of that was if we hadn't read those books, aside from feeling like 'illiterate idiots' (NOT MY PHRASING), we felt pulled away from the emotional core of the story.

And there we have it. Though we toyed briefly with describing the plot in more detail - well I did...I'm a bit evil...we settled on detailing a few of the highlights to torture the others. Which was fun. 

The Verdict
Next Month's Book
The Great Gatsby - By F Scott Fitzgerald 

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Arcadia LBC

21 - Nov - Hard Times - Charles Dickens
20 - Oct - The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster GUEST - @CultureLEEDS
19 - Sep - The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins GUEST - @CultureLEEDS
18 - Aug - The Princess Bride - William Goldman
17 - Jul - A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini GUEST
16 - Jun - Cry the Beloved Country - Alan Paton
15 - May - 1984 - George Orwell GUEST - @CultureLEEDS
14 - Apr - BloodChild and Other Stories - Octavia Butler
13 - Mar - The Year of the Hare - Arto Paasilinna
12 - Feb - Heat Wave - Richard Castle
11 - Jan - The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint - Brady Udall
10 - Nov - Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

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Book Club - Table of Contents

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Friday, 16 September 2011

There's nothing "condescending" about chick-lit

I made this: BookElf at 9:55 am 1 comments Links to this post
Guardian Link
Novelist Polly Courtney, who self-published two books before signing up to a three book deal with HarperCollins imprint Avon, has ditched her publisher, after the launch of the third book, because she believes that they have marketed her as 'chick-lit'. According to her, 'chick-lit' is perceived as being "about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams", as opposed to dealing with "social issues", as her books do.

I have a couple of issues with this. Firstly, although, yes, as a further reinforcement of a redundant and restrictive gender binary, marketing products specifically as 'women's' fiction is wrong, it is not 'condescending'. Men are not superior to women, and considering a book having been written specifically for a woman does not make it a lesser book. It is the attitude that because a book is written by a woman about issues that modern women are thought to be interested in it therefore must be a lesser book that eventually leads to less women writers being present on Booker shortlists. Presenting a book in a pink cover doesn't patronise women; writing off that book as somehow lesser because pink is not as good as spunk does.

Women have always written, and read; the first book written in the English language was written by a woman, as was the first autobiography. Because, historically being a woman is to be treated as to be stupid, not as good as, and not as worthy as being a man, by default anything that women enjoy en mass must be stupid, not as good as, and not worthy of attention as what men en mass are interested in. In 'Northhanger Abbey', Austen defends the populist novels that were read by many young women, who were shamed for this by the intellectual (male) elite. She demonstrates how women fail to own what they like, rather that stand up and say 'yes, I like reading sensationalist, witty, prose. What is wrong with that?'.

Polly Courtney's main issue is, without disparaging the term 'chick-lit', her books are about social issues, and that chick-lit books aren't. This is incorrect.

In the 90s, when the serious marketing of 'chick-lit' began, publishers catered, as they always do, to a demand. If a book with a picture of a lovely garden on the front is a best seller one year because of the quality of the writing in that book, you can guarantee that the year after there will be three best sellers that all have pictures of lovely gardens on the front, despite the quality or otherwise of that writing.

Early chick-lit wasn't all handbags and shoes, the first cover of 'Bridget Jones' Diary', widely thought to be the bastion of the genre, has a silhouette of a woman smoking. However, the promotion of materialism marketed specifically at women in the boom period led to publishers following this to it's obvious conclusion; matching the book jackets to the lifestyles ascribed as acceptable by the market as a whole. The Sex And The City generation, five years down the line still merging their store cards into one affordable monthly payment on meagre incomes and rising costs of living.

If you look at the label 'chick-lit' on goodreads, one of the most popular book reviewing social networking sites on the Internet, the description distances the genre from romantic fiction because of the emphasis on family and friends within the books as well as romance.

Best selling 'Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic' is bright pink and covered in bags, but the story is of a young, independent journalist dealing with a serious debt problem; an incredibly important social issue in 2000 that many many women were dealing with. Yes, she finds love at the end, but so does Elizabeth Bennet, heroine of the fifth favourite 'chick-lit' novel on the goodreads reader-voted list.

There is nothing wrong with reading a book about your own life. If you are single in your late twenties, and being told repeatedly by society as a whole that you are a pariah, you are going to want to meet someone with whom you can empathise. There is a reason, in a country where one in three children will have suffered neglect of abuse in their lifetimes, leading to one in three adults having suffered, that the miseryography genre is so popular, especially with emerging readers. I see this every day at work, young women (and it is women) who have been in care, or are returning to education as adults owing to failures of the system in their childhoods to pick up on reasons they might have had for not going to school love to read about people whose lives they can relate to. By the same token, women working in office jobs on seventeen grand a year, that haven't been taught to aspire to better, that are dealing with threats of violence or harassment on a daily basis, that have no money but good friends, and that would really like to meet someone who loves them just the way they are, need relatable heroines. And there is nothing demeaning about writing them one.

If you want to read a book about the stock market, read a book about the stock market. But don't go telling me that I'm not as good as you cos I'm reading a book about my life.


Again, obviously, this is my view point, not that of LeedsBookClub

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Chris Nickson Exclusive!!

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Chris Nickson - music journalist and author (The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers) and Leeds Book Club buddy has very kindly provided us with 'HOME' for our lovely readers. 

Originally published (with minor tweaks) in the now-out-of-print anthology 'Criminal Tendencies', it's a wonderful introduction into the world of Richard Nottingham and a short story in its own right. 

Indeed it's closely linked to the second in the series (Review coming soon!). 

Once you've read it, feel free to chat with @ChrisNickson2 on twitter!

Read Home here!!

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Chris Nickson

Richard Nottingham - Book 1 - The Broken Token Review
Richard Nottingham - Book 2 - Cold Cruel Winter Review

Christmas Short Story - Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw

Richard Nottingham - Exclusive - Short Story - Home
Richard Nottingham - Exclusive - December

Chris Nickson - Interview

Follow Chris on Twitter - @ChrisNickson2
Best Book of 2001 - Library Journal Award

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Chris Nickson Table of Contents
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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Canongate Book 2 - The Girls watch the Boys watch the Girls go by...

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While we at Leeds Book Club have always been delighted to fly the Rainbow Flag, I have to admit, I've always felt a tad out of the loop regarding the issues. 
Though I passionately believe in equality regardless of gender, orientation, age or racial origin, I'm rarely challenged or confronted over the mere act of being me. Over the years, a number of authors who have focused (not necessarily exclusively) on equality issues have been recommended to me.

My response usually follows this pattern  - I read the blurb; announce loudly that it looks fascinating; that I need to learn more about the particular focal point; that it's clearly an essential read; add said book to my mountain-like to-read pile; turn my back for a mere matter of months (or years) and find that it's slowly disappeared into the mire - never to see the light of day again. Acclaimed authors such as Colm Toibin, Sarah Waters, Louise Welsh, Alan Hollinghurst to name a few have all been consigned to this fate, despite my best intentions.

When I realised that Ali Smith had produced a book for the Canongate Myth Series, I was at once delighted and relieved. I've heard positive reviews from so many friends. I've enjoyed her book reviews in the Guardian, intending several times to pick up one of her books.
Finally, I would DEFINITELY read one.
Finally, I would feel a bit more informed.

Background to the Myth - Iphis
The myth of Iphis, as told by the Roman Ovid, is one of transformation and metamorphosis. It is also one of the few Greek tales about interactions between mere mortals and the gods that avoids violence or bloodshed. 

Isis and Iphis by Bauer engraving
Iphis was a daughter of a Cretan family. Immediately prior to her birth, her father had warned his wife that he would only raise a son - any daughter would have to be killed. The distraught woman - already somewhat attached to the child she carried - travelled to a temple and begged the gods for advice. She is told by Isis to raise the child regardless of its gender, vaguely assured that everything will work out well. Once Iphis is born, she is brought up as a boy - the secret kept between mother and daughter. (I'm sensing a rather absent father figure here!)

Iphis grows up and falls in love with one of her classmates. After negotiation; a marriage is arranged. Iphis becomes concerned before the ceremony and flees to the temple with her mother. She cries out to the gods, bemoaning her life as a fraud - terrified that she is certain to be discovered. Her mother adds her voice to the pleas. In a dramatic moment, the goddess Isis appears and before her mothers eyes, Iphis changes into a man - able to marry her love. 



 *****MILD SPOILERS***** 
Anthea and Imogen are very different sisters. They are back living in their home town - in the house they were raised in; inherited after their eccentric grandparents sailed off to Europe on a whim and were never seen again. 

Imogen works for the marketing department for Pure - a bottled water company in Inverness. Anthea attempts work experience there before discovering that she disagrees with everything Pure stands for and rather dramatically chucks it in. 
While Imogen is slowly losing herself to her work place, societal expectations and an eating disorder; Anthea discovers love with an eco-warrior - Robin. (Who happens to be female.) It is Robin who tells her lover Ovid's myth of Iphis.
This love story informs the action that takes place within the novella. The love story is not the point, rather it is the  catalyst necessary for the sisters growth. While Anthea embraces the warrior within herself; Imogen is forced to confront her worth and that of the corporation she works for and realise her true value.

It transpires that I had somewhat over thought my approach to this book. Although the author is a gay woman; this is not a 'gay' book. It's not a 'mainstream' one either. It is, in fact, an incredibly well written, engaging and lyrical novella. Despite it's brevity; the author manages to express social, political and gender issues with a subtle and light touch. It is a pleasure to read.   

At no point did I ever feel that there was an agenda within the book - rather Girl Meets Boy focuses on the unique and beautiful inter-relationships that can occur between people irrespective of gender or sexual orientation. Each chapter is told by one of the sisters. Anthea is a dreamer, with a solid voice - relating her thoughts in an upfront manner. Imogen voice is initially more obscure - her thoughts are often coded in brackets and repetitive phrases - particularly in relation to her sisters emerging (bi)sexuality. However; once she has had her moment of realisation; her voice - distinct and unique - emerges in a structurally beautiful and poignant way.

I read Girl Meets Boy in one sitting; shifting on my sofa only to prevent a limb from falling asleep. I didn't even think to refill my coffee - which, if you know me at all, is the strongest statement regarding to my enjoyment of the book that can be made. Ali Smith has a fresh and vibrant writing style. I look forward to reading more of her tales in the future.  

Ongoing Challenges - Table of Contents
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Cinderella - Roald Dahl

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The primary reason I grew up knowing that life wasn't going to end up the way the Disney films suggested. 
Especially with regards to the princes!!


I guess you think you know this story.
You don't. The real one's much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know,
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
just to keep the children happy.
Mind you, they got the first bit right,
The bit where, in the dead of night,
The Ugly Sisters, jewels and all,
Departed for the Palace Ball,
While darling little Cinderella
Was locked up in a slimy cellar,
Where rats who wanted things to eat,
Began to nibble at her feet.
 She bellowed 'Help!' and 'Let me out!
The Magic Fairy heard her shout.
Appearing in a blaze of light,
She said: 'My dear, are you all right?'
'All right?' cried Cindy .'Can't you see
'I feel as rotten as can be!'
She beat her fist against the wall,
And shouted, 'Get me to the Ball!
'There is a Disco at the Palace!
'The rest have gone and I am jealous!
'I want a dress! I want a coach!
'And earrings and a diamond brooch!
'And silver slippers, two of those!
'And lovely nylon panty hose!
'Done up like that I'll guarantee
'The handsome Prince will fall for me!'
The Fairy said, 'Hang on a tick.'
She gave her wand a mighty flick
And quickly, in no time at all,
Cindy was at the Palace Ball!

It made the Ugly Sisters wince
To see her dancing with the Prince.
She held him very tight and pressed
herself against his manly chest.
The Prince himself was turned to pulp,
All he could do was gasp and gulp.
Then midnight struck. She shouted,'Heck!
I've got to run to save my neck!'
The Prince cried, 'No! Alas! Alack!'
He grabbed her dress to hold her back.
As Cindy shouted, 'Let me go!'
The dress was ripped from head to toe.

She ran out in her underwear,
And lost one slipper on the stair.
The Prince was on it like a dart,
He pressed it to his pounding heart,
'The girl this slipper fits,' he cried,
'Tomorrow morn shall be my bride!
I'll visit every house in town
'Until I've tracked the maiden down!'
Then rather carelessly, I fear,
He placed it on a crate of beer.

At once, one of the Ugly Sisters,
(The one whose face was blotched with blisters)
Sneaked up and grabbed the dainty shoe,
And quickly flushed it down the loo.
Then in its place she calmly put
The slipper from her own left foot.
Ah ha, you see, the plot grows thicker,
And Cindy's luck starts looking sicker.

Next day, the Prince went charging down
To knock on all the doors in town.
In every house, the tension grew.
Who was the owner of the shoe?
The shoe was long and very wide.
(A normal foot got lost inside.)
Also it smelled a wee bit icky.
(The owner's feet were hot and sticky.)
Thousands of eager people came
To try it on, but all in vain.
Now came the Ugly Sisters' go.
One tried it on. The Prince screamed, 'No!'
But she screamed, 'Yes! It fits! Whoopee!
'So now you've got to marry me!'
The Prince went white from ear to ear.
He muttered, 'Let me out of here.'
'Oh no you don't! You made a vow!
'There's no way you can back out now!'
'Off with her head!'The Prince roared back.
They chopped it off with one big whack.
This pleased the Prince. He smiled and said,
'She's prettier without her head.'
Then up came Sister Number Two,
Who yelled, 'Now I will try the shoe!'
'Try this instead!' the Prince yelled back.
He swung his trusty sword and smack
Her head went crashing to the ground.
It bounced a bit and rolled around.
In the kitchen, peeling spuds,
Cinderella heard the thuds
Of bouncing heads upon the floor,
And poked her own head round the door.
'What's all the racket? 'Cindy cried.
'Mind your own bizz,' the Prince replied.
Poor Cindy's heart was torn to shreds.
My Prince! she thought. He chops off heads!
How could I marry anyone
Who does that sort of thing for fun?

The Prince cried, 'Who's this dirty slut?
'Off with her nut! Off with her nut!'
Just then, all in a blaze of light,
The Magic Fairy hove in sight,
Her Magic Wand went swoosh and swish!
'Cindy! 'she cried, 'come make a wish!
'Wish anything and have no doubt
'That I will make it come about!'
Cindy answered, 'Oh kind Fairy,
'This time I shall be more wary.
'No more Princes, no more money.
'I have had my taste of honey.
I'm wishing for a decent man.
'They're hard to find. D'you think you can?'
Within a minute, Cinderella
Was married to a lovely feller,
A simple jam maker by trade,
Who sold good home-made marmalade.
Their house was filled with smiles and laughter
And they were happy ever after.

Poems for Children
Roald Dahl Day 

Hello Old Friends
  • The Magician's Nephew - C.S. Lewis
  • Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf - Roald Dahl
  • You Are Old Father William - Lewis Carroll
  • On the Ning Nang Nong - Spike Milligan
  • The Vulture - Hilaire Belloc


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