April ‘book to look forward to’: Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. Jeffery Boakye. Kindle edition £8.99 downloaded 18 April 2019.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for April 2019 said:

A writer and teacher examines more than 60 words, many hugely contentious, that are used to describe black men and women, with a particular focus on black masculinity’.

I had originally intended to read Naomi Wolf’s book on Sex and Censorship which I was keenly looking forward to – only the publishing date was changed to later so I had to pick another title from this months options.  It is fair to say this title both intrigued and intimidated me.  I have spent a lot of my academic and activist life considering oppression and diversity issues but I am mindful that whilst I identify as a working class, disabled, lesbian woman I am white and as such, privileged.  I have not given very much thought at all to masculinity except in relation to the impact of masculinity upon women and I can only be academically aware of the impact of race upon lived experience.  Would I find this book interesting to read or indeed, relevant (enough) to me personally?  I was acutely aware of and politically anxious about the nuance of my preference for Wolf’s book over Boakye’s.

With limited time and energy one much choose carefully where to focus and whilst books about masculinity are important I guess I have decided to commit my own time largely to books about and by women. This should not be understood as a single focus so much as more a positively gendered choice.  I am aware of the contradictions inherent in a narrowed focus.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I see little merit in reviewing books already thoroughly reviewed elsewhere.  The aim of the blog is to consider the merit or relevance of the Guardian Review Literary calendar.  David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, gives a compelling, politically powerful, and mediated by his own experiences as a black man, review in the Guardian (15 April 2019) . It is a thought provoking read of itself.

I loved this book – I want to give it to dozens of friends, students and strangers…

I loved this book.  I loved, admired and envied the cadence and rhythm of the writing style which was musical and easily accessible whilst discussing challenging concepts. I found it to be a radical and compelling book – the kind I want to hand to dozens of friends, students and strangers and tell them to read it.   It was funny. I learned so much from it – things I had never known or understood – and things I really should have known or thought about but can hopefully, not now ‘un-know’.  I (re) considered the nature of language, labels, binaries, cultural homogenization and appropriation, loaded terms and the impacts of these and who is hurt most.  Some of it was uncomfortable reading (language as a weapon) and some especially thought provoking in relation to terms (of endearment? of ‘outlaws’? of politics?) I now often hear used/appropriated across communities. 

However – and I am mindful that as a white woman I am on wobbly ground here – there was one section that just didn’t sit right with me and that in his discussion of the naming of Melanie Brown AKA Scary Spice.  Drawing on an article by Chaedria LaBouvier ‘We Owe “Scary Spice” an Apology’ in which LaBouvier discusses hair – specifically black girls hair, Boakye repeasts her questioning of why a black girl was given the name ‘Scary’ which LaBouvier says is inherently racist.  Boakye suggests that as a nickname ‘Scary Spice’ is about blackness being frightening to white sensibilities.  In a HuffPost live conversation Mel B explains the origin of the name and why she still uses it – because she likes it and has never been offended by it. She acknowledges it was given to her by (female) journalist who, like Mel came from Leeds.  Whilst LaBouvier suggests Mel B may keep the name because she has no choice, nothing I have ever read about Mel B suggests she is a woman without agency.  I have always ‘read’ her name to be a manifestation of her Leeds girl, badass, could wipe the floor with you if she wanted to, take no shit, self-confident attitude (and indeed, in the interview Mel B suggests it is exactly this).  As Yorkshire born I have known, been scared of and achingly wished I was more like/as ballsy as Leeds girls/women as I grew from girl to woman. I understand that there is an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue here and that this is a discussion of different hues with no ‘correct’ answer but it was the only part of the book that that made me feel something was missing and I was unpersuaded by the depth of the point being made.  The focus felt narrow and possibly even, dare I say it, not respectful enough in according Mel B (women’s) power to make her own informed choices.

This is a wonderful book – I have never read one quite like it.  I have read a lot of books about oppression and discrimination underpinned by (righteous) anger and the fury can be an infectious call to arms.  There are several hundred pages of book here which could be a call to arms but Boakye does not write with incendiary fury. He writes instead with the voice of a wise, funny and thoughtful teacher who must be heard.  His voice opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that. 

So far, the ‘books to look forward to’ list offered by the Guardian Review is proving to be (almost annoyingly) worthwhile – though, as I will discuss in a future post, somewhat unbalanced and skewed in relation to representation.

Date to note: April 22nd Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th  – the release of The Sisters Brothers, starring John C Riley and Joaquin Phoenix, based on Patrick deWitt’s Booker shortlisted novel.  And Pet Sematary, the second version of Stephen King’s horror tale. 

21st – Bicentenary of the start of Keats’s “great year”, including most of his Odes.

22nd – Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby.

23rd – 300th anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often called the first novel in English

Most readers have heard of the Booker Prize and, it is said to lead readers to books in numbers significant enough for it to still be important to publishers and writers.  However, a deliciously wry Guardian article by Rachel Cooke in 2018 cited an off the record bookseller who suggested that the shortlist was not the draw it once was and had stopped being a good indicator of readers choices.  The article suggests the prize has ‘lost its lustre’ and notes the withdrawal of sponsors from book prizes in recent years.  It is clear that the breadth, remit and aims of this prize  – and perhaps others – may be in something of a flux at the moment.  Nevertheless, the Booker Prize has a significant and important history of promoting and fostering literature and encouraging reading of high-quality fiction.

Has the Booker ‘lost its lustre’ or is it still important in promoting and fostering high quality literature?

My relationship with the Booker has been up and down.  I have actively worked at improving the quality of my (fiction) reading choices over the years (I have trash fiction taste if left to my own devices) via selecting from noted book prize shortlists, including the Booker.  Last year I adored the winner – Anna Burns Milkman – funny and astutely observed but read another which I thought was absolutely awful – could not even imagine why it had been published, let alone nominated or shortlisted.  2017 was a better year. Of the shortlisted six, I read one I loved – Ali Smith’s Autumn, and three others I thought were OK – the latter three did not strike me as magnificent, but I did finish them.  I had a similar experience in 2016.  Every year I have the hope for blow-my-socks-off reading only to feel somewhat let down.  I ponder on why this is.  Although an unashamed fan of crime fiction, I read a lot and broadly.   I am a committed reader and active in trying to expand my reading horizons and tastes and yet I never understand the selections or judge based outcomes.  I must be missing something. I only wish I knew what it was.

On the upside, In this 50th year I note the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has won the special ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ for the best work of fiction in the last five decades of the prize. I loved this book.  Well done to Mr Ondaatje – a worthy winner.

Note: PH Newby won for his novel Something to Answer For.  The book kept me reading to the end though it was a confusing and challenging read at times.  I am not sure whether Newby is a good recommendation for the prize or vice versa.

March ‘book to look forward to’: Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Caroline Criado Perez

(Chatto).  Kindle edition downloaded 7 March 2019, £9.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for March said:

‘The activist and journalist on the discriminatory consequences of men being treated as the default and women as atypical, in a book that casts new light on homes, workplaces and public buildings’.

Feminism and I unexpectedly tripped over each other in the early 1980’s and without getting into major biography, feminism changed every single element of my existence with enormous and enduring impact. Through the 80’s and 90’s I read every feminist book I could get hold of hitting strident radical outrage and non-violent direct action along the way. For the past 20 or so years, having bought the many and varied t-shirts (some of which have now become cleaning cloths – oh the irony) my interest in such books waned. I read the books I needed to read for my professional life dutifully, to ensure my power-points stayed relevant and current but I had mellowed beyond outrage and indeed, slogan t-shirts. I chose this book from the March ‘books to look forward to’ list because of the others in the non-fiction group it looked a) the least dull and b) my semi-un-conscious bias kicked in.

Everything about this book is quite simply wonderful.

This assertion might be dismissed with a roll of an eye and a weary ‘of course you would say that’ but in fact, the opposite would be true.  I am a well-read feminist and I have read some turkey’s, which frankly did the women’s movement(s) no favors, but this is very certainly not one of them.  I have read enough to know the difference and I loved this book! 

The book considers the absence of women in the data that defines and shapes the algorithms, policies, designs and laws in the world, our understanding of them across time. It considers our lives, opportunities and dangers inherent in it – and by ‘ours’ she means all humans. The ones most disadvantaged by the absence of women in data are of course women who have equipment which doesn’t fit or cannot be safely used because it is not made for their bodies, who cannot use public transport because the standard use which informs timetable planning is that of the male commuter and does not take account of carer responsibility and so very many other examples across the home, the workplace and in general public life. The book makes clear, however, that all of society are disadvantaged by the uni-focused narrative of male defined data sets.

The book has potential to be a preachy call to arms but it is not – Perez manages to make this eminently readable book engaging, humorous and informative.  She takes us to the heart of how we understand our world and in doing so highlights false assumptions and the absence of other perspectives.  At one point she asks (a little tongue in cheek) whether women are even human at all!  Her question comes from analysis of data about the evolution of humankind being predicated on understanding of the centrality of ‘man the hunter’.  What were women doing when humankind was being built, (allegedly), by hunters?  Do we even fit into this narrative and if so, in what ways do we influence that prevailing story?  She gives another example of a warrior skeleton being steadfastly identified and labeled as a male by museum curators, despite indisputable DNA bone analysis showing she was a female, simply on the grounds that she was found with weapons and high ranking afterlife kit.  They apparently were unable to comprehend the notion of a high-ranking warrior woman and so refused to believe it.  In doing so, the educative purpose of the museum is shamefully compromised and yet again, women are denied the opportunity to know our history.  Perez, sadly gives example after example after example.

This book is exhausting reading. It is hard not to have one’s feminist fury re-ignited by it.

Fury – rightful as it may be – is not the most useful outcome of this work. It is a very well considered, well researched, evidence based discussion. I hope it can contribute now to a broader discussion which always, always, always considers ways in which data is defined only by a male view with female perspectives being either silenced or ‘othered’. If we want to understand and learn and plan in the most healthy and positive ways for humanity and our planet we need the best data and this means inclusive data that from which male bias is eradicated. I am taking a wild guess about which gender(s) are the most likely to take this opportunity on board…

Note all images copywrite Chatto

  • Personal anecdote: I once worked in a secure mental health environment.  The women complained they wanted paper towels back because the newly installed, air-blow hand driers had been fitted by a six foot three maintenance man. When the women tried to use the too-high driers, it caused water from their hands to run down their arms and make their sleeves soggy.  I have noticed ever since how stupid-high most air blowers are in women’s toilets.

Date to note March: The London Book Fair, 12-14 March. Olympia, London. UK

Dates to note this month were limited to two items. Firstly the 1st of the Month release of Chaos Walking, based on Patrick Ness’s Guardian award winner The Knife of Letting Go and secondly, the London Book Fair.

Unlike some of the other dates to note in the Literary Calendar I had at least heard of the London Book Fair, or as booky people in the know seem to refer to it as, ‘LBF’. It would seem that every man and his dog in the publishing world – according to the LBF (how easily we slip into it) – 25,000 publishing folk were expected to attend the event 12-14th March 2019. The LBF website notes it as a ‘global market place for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels’. By content, they mean every aspect of possible content from academic to children’s to publishing rights, to digital and print and so on.

The London Book Fair had never especially caught my eye before today and it was playful of the Literary Calendar to add it as a date to note.

Certainly and obviously (once one ponders) it is an ‘of course’ date of enormous importance for everyone in the book industry. I imagine some members of the Guardian Book team chomping at the bit to be there, wearing their Guardian ID like bright golden sheriff stars, feted as celebrities by the publishing houses and authors keen to become pals. I have to say I envy them! If I had a Guardian press pass, I might even sashay a little at LBF.

Sian Cain (@siancain) of the Guardian was hot off the press in an article published on the the 13th March (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/apr/13/london-book-fair-roundup-jrr-tolkein-naomi-alderman). The article is a list of books we can look forward to in 2020. It is an intriguing list and will no doubt feature to some extent in the Guardian Literary Review ‘calendar of books to look forward to in 2020’. Both Sian and Alison Flood also note increased interest of publishing houses in true crime and feminist fiction so we might expect to see this interest reflected in publishing lists next year.

LBF19 Day 1 highlights

Olympia heaving with agents, exhibitions a spectacular list of seminars and presentations and of course, enough books, of every shape size and description to bankrupt the majority of bibliophiles.  A seductive and delicious event for sure!

There is little to say more to say about this event not already covered in helpfully thorough detail by the LBF website https://www.londonbookfair.co.uk/About/

Tickets cost £45.00 or priority access £100 (each VAT inclusive). I cannot find information about what ‘extra’ the priority ticket gave attendees.

It would be great if disability access information had more prominence on the LBF website

On the LBF Facebook page, one attendee with disabilities wrote of his extreme frustration and his experiences of inaccessibility at the 2018 event. The information about accessibility and carer passes is buried a little on the website – I had to search for it. It would be useful if this information had more prominence in the future.

February’s ‘book to look forward to’

Late in the day. Tessa Hadley (Cape).  Downloaded on kindle 29th January £9.99

“A sudden bereavement reconfigures the lives and loves of two long-married couples’.

Note: Reviewed by Andrew Motion in the Guardian Review issue no 58, 23 February 2019.

With no real grounds for thinking so, I was looking forward to reading this book.  One of the things I most enjoy in books of any genre is when attention is given to the relationships between characters and the impact upon those relationships when something unexpected and significant happens.  A book where the focus is on long term knowing and the complexity of group dynamics seemed to me to have the potential for a delicious, cosy-up-with-a-cuppa type enjoyable way to spend time. 

The book is indeed about the complexity of relationships, which are left somewhat anchorless by the death of a central figure in the group; Individual relationships fray and the group dynamic shifts uncomfortably.  The stability and reliability of the group become jangled and rifts and crevices in the relationships open.

Hadley tells the story through the characters thoughts and in their interactions with each other and this is where I found the book difficult.

There are a lot of characters who Hadley knows well and they are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’, but I found it a challenge to work out who was who. 

I read a Kindle edition so I cannot give a page number but at 17% in I noted seven different characters mentioned on a single page.  At that early part of the book, I had not yet been able to gain a picture or a voice for  – or warmth for – any of the indistinguishable personalities.  Unfortunately, I never did.  The books seemed to me to be a middle class based narrative, and perhaps this explains why I felt on the outside of the story, unable to gain a foothold into the unfamiliar environment in which the experiences took place.  I found I could not care less for any of them.  Reading this story was somewhat underwhelming.

Despite this, it is still written beautifully with language used delicately and with subtlety.  The themes of the book – loss, change and how these impact on the very essence of us are important but perhaps a little neglected in the busyness of all the ‘stuff’ going on around the themes and through the voices of the characters. 

Date to note: February

Perhaps February is a literary dry month. Options offered in this month’s dates to note were thin.

8th. Bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin in 1819.

Release of James Baldwin adaptation of If Beale Could talk by Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins.

20th.  20th Anniversary of death of Blasted playwright, Sarah Kane age 28

John McKie in a 2016 BBC review of ‘Cleansed’ offers the view that Sarah Kane is one of the UK’s most acclaimed theatre writer with work is a standard part of the drama A level syllabus.

I had not heard of either Blasted or Sarah Kane and chose this to date to explore further because I was intrigued by how young she was when she died.

I was captivated firstly by images of Sarah Kane.  I am often irritated when authors focus on the physical attraction (or otherwise) of their subjects.  I am also of a generation of feminist who well remembers the perils of being accused of objectifying women, so it is an odd place for me to start this piece.  I saw  beautiful black and white images by Jane Brown held by the National Portrait Gallery (on-line).  She looked like many women I have known – lairy, funny, self-aware, tough yet vulnerable. Like a woman I might have stood alongside waving a banner.  From of her images alone, I wanted to like her and her work.  The more I read, the more there was to like.  She was interested in sexuality and violence, was described as ‘notorious’, happily accepted her plays were radically divisive and near impossible to stage – and – according to one reviewer, wrote ‘disgusting feast(s) of filth’.

How had I never heard of this amazing rebel woman?

I read the Blasted script online (I have not added a link because I am unsure whether the full copy on-line meets copyright rules – but yes, I did read it).  The script was said by Kane to be a response to the Bosnia war. I did not like it.  Not at all.  Like many of the journalist who went to the first press show, it read to me as a not very skilled writer, lazily keen to shock and I found it both dull and tedious.  What a disappointment! 

I read that Sarah Kane committed suicide by hanging with shoelaces after being hospitalised by an earlier overdose.  In that context Blasted made more sense to me (I had not yet looked at 4:48 Psychosis).  In my professional life, I have read material written by people with severe mental health conditions and the Blasted script seemed to me to be not dissimilar to those writings which screamed of inner pain and torment. 

As sad as any death of a troubled person is, and unpersuaded by the Blasted script, I was still unsure why the anniversary of her death was a literary ‘one to note’ for February.  Was I missing something?

It would seem that the original reviewers of Blasted missed something too.  Charles Spencer of the Telegraph  (5th April 2001) acknowledges that from initially thinking the play was ‘rubbish… designed to shock’, he later came to realise that Kane had ‘genuine artistic vision and great dramatic talent’. It is clear that he was not the only critic to dramatically and quite quickly amend his opinion.  But what changed their minds?  A cynic might ponder upon the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes and journalistic egos or the modern concept of FOMO – fear of missing out.  Kane herself was not terribly interested in the ‘middle-aged, white, middle-class men’ who were unable to understand her work, possibly, as she laughingly proposed in her interview with Dan Rebellato, because they empathised rather too uncomfortably with the lead character in Blasted – Ian, the bigoted and subsequently horribly abused journalist.  

Sarah Kane in conversation with Dan Rebellato

Subsequent review from both critics and learned people of the theatre referred to her ‘incredible instinct’ and, I was particularly interested in Katie Mitchell, Director of another of Kane’s work ‘Cleansed’ who refers to it as an astonishing piece of work and a ‘strong feminist piece of writing’. Consciously drawing on a feminist perspective, I considered her work further trying to understand the alleged originality. While not a scholar of theatre, I was able to understand that her work challenged the (then) norms of theatrical delivery and the new form powerfully presented her passion. Kane’s works when read have the difficult musicality of jazz. Experts in the form of theatre suggest her words on the page are made meaningfully complete in the actual performance of them. Theatre scholars also suggest her works are hugely complex but so lacking in stage direction they demand the most of actors. The scripts compel them to deliver exquisite and perfectly nuanced performance which properly manifests Kane’s meaning. The skill of her ideas is in forcing the presentation to reflect her powerful message accurately.

I watched as much material as I could find on YouTube which covered theatre performance snapshots of Blasted, Crave, and 4:48 Psychosis and reviews predominantly. I also watched ‘Skin’, her short and only film.

Skin by Sarah Kane

I listened to her charming and funny interview with Dan Reballato, and I listened to his later (excellent) audio documentary which can be found on his webpage http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/sarah-kane-documentary and also on the BBC Sounds app https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00hlbp2

I was particularly taken with her response to an audience question in which she said she did not make things up but described real things she saw around her.

The violence that made people gasp/faint/walk out is based on the truth of violence in war.  I went back to Blasted and read it differently.  At the second reading, I understood what she meant when she said that Blasted was not a violent play but a play about violence.  I also felt overwhelmingly sad.  In discussion with Dan Rebellato she explains 4:48 Psychosis – her last play.  It has been suggested the play is effectively a suicide note – though her brother strongly suggests that to view her work as such is diminutive and lacking. 

Nevertheless, her work is so full of pain and hurt it is difficult not to see trauma, torment, loneliness and autobiography. 

It is difficult not to feel sorrow for a talent lost too soon.  I am hoping I have the opportunity to see her plays performed.

Is the anniversary of Sarah Kane’s death a literary date to note?  Yes – it seems fair to say so – but the Guardian Literary Calendar list of dates to note speaks only to those who already know. What is the purpose or value of such a list for the rest of us? Is the intention of the Guardian Literary Calendar list to document or educate?  I think this is a valid question, loaded with responsibilities, which I will ponder further in subsequent blog posts.


Category: Non-fiction

Luke Turner: Out of the Woods. Weidenfield and Nicholson. 288 Pages.

Kindle edition downloaded 24th January 2019.  Kindle edition price £8.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for January said “A powerful memoir, centred on Epping Forest, about sexual abuse, a religious upbringing and life as a bisexual man”.

From the Guardian’s monthly list, this is my first to review.  I chose this book in particular because it took me out of my reading comfort zone (more of that later) but had an element of the familiar in that the writer identifies as queer. 

It was an unthreatening choice though not one I ordinarily would be drawn to in a bookshop.

In a professional capacity, I have reviewed books at the request of both publishers and authors.  For those reviews, I focused on the usefulness of the book in helping to improve my profession or its utility in enabling students to understand how to become new and better professionals. 

The Guardian carried an erudite and scholarly review by Sukhdev Sandhu published 17 January 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/17/out-of-the-woods-luke-turner-review

Sandhu both gives a snapshot of the book and critiques it, so there is little merit in me offering the same. I decided instead to focus on the utility of the book to me, as a reader. Did I enjoy it?  Was the time spent on it a good use of time?  Would I recommend it to others?

To the best of my memory, I have never read a memoir.  I could not imagine why one would. 

In the context of this book, I do not know the author or his work that his name would be a draw (I have subsequently read more about him), nor am I particularly interested in Epping Forest.  I have little active interest in religion.  As a lesbian feminist activist and scholar I have read more books about sexuality than I ever planned to and so these have also somewhat lost their place on my interest spectrum.   It is safe to say this book did not call out to me, screaming to be read. 

It is something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Luke Turner’s book so very much. It is a deliciously rich and multi-layered text, beautifully crafted read.

At first, perhaps because it was the type of book I am not drawn to, I found it a little self-consciously literary and wordy but this may be because I had decided to dislike its ‘self-indulgence’ before I read it.  It may be that it could have done with some further editing – I am unsure (though I did begin to play ‘pollard’ bingo early into my reading so very much did this word appear – so perhaps it did).

Despite my initial irritation with the book (which I own entirely as being nothing to do with the actual book and everything to do with my dismissal of memoir) I was quickly drawn into the craft of this story.  Turner artfully blends complex discussion about self, history, identity, sexuality and nature into one narrative of discovery. He uses words so thoughtfully the story flows river like, and gently.  This is an artistic, poetic use of words rather than being forensically exact in choices made. Whether one is emotionally reeling from stories of abuses of power against him, his connection to the forest or relationship changes, it is still experienced as opportunity rather than woeful/painful documentary. 

Out of the Woods was my bedtime reading book and reading it felt like a tender caress before sleep. 

Despite going into the realms of abuse, unfairness, confusion and breakdowns I was comforted by the refuge of nature that enabled Turner to find more solid ground, and assured me the reader that culturally we all became more evolved through the story Turner told/experienced/shared.

This was a bold and unusual book which I heartily recommend.  Luke Turner is a wonderful wordsmith and I am in awe.  Kudos to Weidenfeld and Nicolson for accepting it for publication. 

Thanks also to the Guardian Literary Review calendar for alerting me to the book as one to look forward to from the January publication list: you were right. 

TS Eliot Prize for poetry awarded

January dates of note (Review 5 January 2019)

  • 1 Centenary of birth of The Catcher in the Rye Author JD Salinger*.
  • 7 Winners of Costa category awards announced.
  • 11 Release of the biopic Collette, starring Kiera Knightley.
  • 12 50th Anniversary of the publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • 14 TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded.
  • 29 Costa prize-giving with book of the year revealed.
  • Germaine Greer turns 80.

In this post I will be pondering upon 14th January: The TS Eliot prize award for poetry

Image: TS Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

I mentioned in my first post that some of the dates are written as if self-explanatory – that anyone would understand why these, rather than other dates, are especially of note in the literary year ahead.  In a future post, I will reflect on the influence of the lens upon the collection offered.

For this post, and for future monthly choices of dates to consider specifically, I will be guided by one simple question:  Why is this a date to note?

I chose this date because I am relatively ignorant about the event.  What I know about the craft of poetry writing could be covered in a seven-line limerick. Beyond ‘knowing what I like’ in a poem (John Cooper Clarke, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, – popular but arguably unadventurously mainstream) I find many as difficult to interpret as another language.  Learning about the shortlist and the winner provides me with an opportunity to give more time to poetry than I usually allow. 

Helpfully, readings from the full shortlist are posted online:

Personally, I find hearing poetry is a more satisfactory, more sensual experience than reading it and so I spent a couple of hours being variously caressed, battered or bored. 

I do not have the technical knowledge to critique but I found Tracy K Smith’s reading from Wade in the Water (Penguin, 2018) to be distinctive, evocative and politically thought-provoking.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize was announced as Hannah Sullivan for her book Three Poems (Faber, 2018). Her work is precise with a near-forensic economy of chosen words.  Her reading readily evoked visceral imagery. Belying my lack of a framework to understand poetic form and discipline, I did not have as powerful a response to it as the prize awarding panel which found her work ‘exhilarating’. The Chair of the panel and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey is reported, in a Guardian article, to have said of Ms Sullivan that ‘a star is born’.   

A quick peruse of Wikipedia shows there are a great many well-respected poetry prize opportunities internationally and I assume this must be a good thing for poets and therefore poetry.  It must be a very challenging field in which to publish and become successful.  Prizes must help bring work into focus and audience and this can only be a very lovely thing.  The TS Eliot prize is unquestionably much coveted and indeed, valuable. 

I found an unexpected prize.  The TS Eliot Prize website made available for download readers notes for each nominated author.  Notes include brief bio’s of the author, example reviews of their work – some samples of which are also included – and, super-usefully, discussion ideas through which to dissect and debate the authors work. Suggestions for other writers of a similar vein are offered.  The reader notes allow poetry novices such as me a way to engage with and learn how to understand the poems submitted.  It is my intention to now actively use these so go back to the recordings and consider them with a more discerning ear. There was also an invitation to join the mailing list and I enthusiastically signed up.

If one is a poet or involved personally/professionally in the literary world, then I guess the TS Eliot prize is indeed noteworthy and perhaps obviously so.  I am sorry (and perhaps just a little bit embarrassed to admit) it had not crossed my own horizon before, but I am very sure it will become a date to note for me in the future. I am grateful it was included in the list. 

Postscript: *I note that the Review of 2 February 2019 carries a four-page article based on an interview with Matt Salinger, JD Salinger’s son and literary executor.  On 3rd February the Observer (sister paper) ran a ‘book of the day’ article by Tim Adams (@TimAdamsWrites)  about the publication of volume 8 of the letters of TS Eliot. I wonder if perhaps the Literary Review calendar is in fact plan which will be guiding future editions of the supplement?  Time will tell.

The plan and the pitch

Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.

Heinz Von Foerster 1992

On Saturday 5th January 2019 The Guardian Newspaper Review* carried an eight-page cover story feature. The piece was a 2019 month by month breakdown of ‘books to look forward to’ and important dates to note.  For example, in May 2019 The Book of Science and Antiquities by Thomas Keneally will be published by Sceptre, while August marks the bicentenary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.

Each month this blog will ponder/reflect/muse upon one of the allegedly noteworthy dates suggested by the article. At least one of the suggested ‘books to look forward to’ will be reviewed.

My selection will, to a large extent, be influenced by what calls out to me as a vegan, leftie, Guardian reading, disabled, lesbian feminist, academic and latterly hobby writer but I will at least make an effort to leave my comfort zone and select from the range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books. 

Why bother? 

Primarily (though not exclusively as I will come to later) it is because I have a complicated relationship to the Saturday Guardian Review supplement.  Once upon a time, as some of the best stories begin, I aspired to be the kind of person drawn to the broad range of books it included: the latest tome on Kantian philosophy or the History of Mathematics, or the multi-award nominated debut literary novel about fishing by a Spanish hermit whereabouts currently unknown.  Only… I was a crime girl, through and through.  A compulsive reader since childhood, I was hooked by the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and moved onto Agatha Christie before I reached my teens. My love of the thrilling murder mystery, in most of its forms, never since wavered. Over the years the Guardian Review sometimes led to crime authors new to me but, mostly the weekly supplement had content about all the books I might read if only I had the time. 

I felt more worthy just by reading the Review and that was a good enough short cut to intellectual exercise of my mind. 

And then crime fiction and I had a falling out.  I am an aspiring writer.  Since the slog of completing my un-thrilling doctoral thesis, I have had some small but yes-thrilling publishing success in journals, books, in newspapers and through guest blog posts.  I have performed my stories to lovely gracious audiences and, my work has even featured in an art installation.  Of course, the book I ache to write well is my crime story.


Crimefest 10 year celebration promotional t-shirt image

One of the best Christmas gifts I received in December 2017 was a full three-day event pass to Crimefest 2018.  Crimefest is a convention for crime readers and according to their website ‘die-hard fanatics’ of the genre. As one of their target audience, I had wanted to go to it for several years. Big name crime authors would be speaking at the event and they were, of course, something to look forward to but the panel itinerary was the biggest draw.  I want to be a better writer. I am enthusiastic to study my craft and keen to learn from those who write and publish.  I carefully marked each panel I would attend and despite my partner’s gentle reminders about the usefulness of the clutter free Kindle and the flimsiness of our bank account, knew I would come home with a great many new books.  In fact, buoyed by the remarkably un-starry, friendly and approachable Lee Child’s affirmation that he reads literally hundreds of books every year and assertion that only great readers become great writers I bought every single book from every author of every panel I attended. 

It was an impressively large stack covering cosy mystery, whodunit, locked room, police procedural, forensic crime and psychological thriller.  My bedside table looked like a branch of Waterstones. 

And this is where, in the best tradition of whodunits, things took an unexpected turn.  Many of the books I read were terrible.  Some sloppy stories, poorly told with little imagination or craft.  Many were boring or stretched credibility to its limit. Far too many of them involved harm to women either in the sense of them being the victims (over and over and over) or in the portrayal of women as weak, impressionable, to blame, complicit and deserving of their often laboured over gruesome fate.  Of course, I am aware of the discussion on Twitter and in other arenas (see for example discussion related to the Staunch Book Prize) in support of fiction that does not portray women thus but only in immersing myself so deeply in my preferred genre had I seen the Emperor’s new clothes.  The genre sells and publishers like to sell books, but it really doesn’t mean they are actually very good books.  I was glad to get to the final novel in my selection. Genred-out, I stopped working on my own crime novel and parked an idea for a sequel. 

True story:  several years before I was old enough to own an adult ticket I had out-grown the children’s library with its tiny brown Bakelite chairs and troughs of picture books and was allowed by my Mum, who happened to be a library assistant, to sneak into the adult section.  With a firm warning that I needed to be quiet and unobtrusive, I was parked by the Dewy categorised 920s where I could not be seen.  I sat in my hiding place devouring the biographies of a broad range of interesting folk. I never properly thanked my Mum or her colleagues for failing to properly re-shelve my current read which I hid so it would still be there on my return.  Thanks Mum, I owe you – for such a lot but in this context, specifically for giving me the opportunity to read about, amongst others, Douglas Bader, Winston Churchill and Tallulah Bankhead at what is often called an impressionable age.  I am sure each of these influenced the adult I became and I am sure there is a story waiting just in the wings ready to be told, but perhaps that is for another time. 

The point is, at nine years old, my horizons were expanded by reading beyond the confines of Mallory Towers.

Finding myself years later in an unfamiliarly barren fiction landscape I knew it was time to force a broadened approach to my reading habits, only without my Mum deciding where I should go.

The Pitch

MC Escher Lithograph 1948

So this blog and its ambition is an exercise in self-development but it is more than that – it is a pitch to the editors of the Guardian.  If I had a more established writers profile the pitch would have been delivered to Guardian team members Sian Cain (@siancain) editor of Guardian Books and chief book writer Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice) with a suggestion of a monthly page in their well-regarded supplement. I imagine the audacity of such a pitch might have raised a smile – if they even bothered to read it. 

This blog – my review of the reviews in the Review – might, on the other hand, persuade the editors next year to allow me a monthly column in which I review their 2020 Literary Calendar.  I am sure there will be one because the Guardian Review is fond of its lists. The Escher-esque circularity of the idea tickles me.

However, and coming back to my complicated relationship with the Review, it has so far helped my literary learning only in the negative. Since July 2018 and while taking a leave of absence from my favoured genre of reading, I have exclusively read positively Guardian reviewed books.  There was no method to my choice and they tended to be largely but not exclusively novels, many of them featured in fastest selling/best in category/prize nominated/prize winning/genre-busting/huge this year lists so favoured of the Guardian.  The Guardian reviews sat cosily, matily, alongside reviews of many of the same books which featured in other newspapers. Those reviews sometimes then appeared in later editions of the books marketing materials (see ‘Droste effect’). 

The Journey

During this time I have come to wonder about what influences its choices because, to date, I haven’t read a single book that seemed to me to have earned the often ebullient commendations.  Not a single one.  It could, I suppose, be argued that my considerable investment in reviewed books was money well spent.

I have read well-written material and have learned about putting words together so that they are deliciously evocative to read but that does not necessarily equate to producing an interesting story

I have learned how to destroy a truly breath-taking story through a timid editor perhaps too afraid to tell a famous author to lose twenty thousand words. I have learned that utilising a particular literary technique those in the know will understand as incredibly clever does not lead to a book anyone – other than judging panels – will think is a good read.  I also learned that misogyny sells in genres other than crime and it still sucks.

Eight pages is a lot of copy.  Perhaps someone in the book or journalism business might interpret the lead story of the Saturday 5th January 2019 Guardian Review differently to that of a mere reader but as that mere reader, it speaks to me of gravitas, of something to take notice of and of something trustworthy but still, my recent experience raised nagging questions.

Why are these books, as opposed to the dozens lined up by publishers to print in the forthcoming year, ones to look forward to? Who says so and why?

Given they will also feature as a part of my journey (Guardian readers love a ‘journey’) I will be paying attention to the monthly ‘dates of note’ included in the Literary Calendar and using them as a guide to expand my breadth and depth of literary knowledge. Some of the dates added give the impression of being almost self-explanatory but are they?  Why, for example, should I note that 23rd June is the bicentenary of the publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book including “Rip Van Winkle”?  What should, in particular, I take from note of the 31st July centenary of Primo Levi’s birth?  I wonder too about how this element of the calendar came about.  Is there some very learned booky type person I should admire for their startlingly expansive knowledge of literary history or some junior intern told to Google for filler.  You see my point?

I intend to ask the editors (sending them a link to this blog) and if I get a response, I will discuss it here.

*The article can also be found on-line https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/06/2018-year-in-books