It’s official, Book Clubs are back, even Mark Zuckerberg has said so. At the start of this year the Facebook creator joined the trend; started by the likes of Oprah and Richard and Judy, by announcing that his new year’s resolution is to read a book every 2 weeks for an entire year. His first book, an apt choice Moisés Naím’s ‘The End of Power’, sold out of Amazon within 24 hours with millions of people rushing to get his first choice of influential books.
Click the image to read the full article:
Although the ‘Zuckerberg / Facebook’ affiliation may make us squirm in our socially mediated seats there is no doubt that pulling millions of people towards reading cannot be a bad thing. No one can deny the increasing squeeze put on our daily lives via technology and it is refreshing to see a pull towards the enjoyment and importance that can be gained from reading books.
However if Zuckerberg’s capitalist minded picks are not what you had in mind then why not join our book group; THE BIG BATH READ:
Created by our artistic director for the 2015 Bath Literature Festival – VIV GROSKOP – to coincide with the run up to the festival, Viv has suggested that we all read the incredible book ‘SMALL WARS’ by SADIE JONES. The Book Club is a space to give reviews of reads and to peek at what others are reading.
Jones will be part of a number of events at the festival but most importantly she will be in conversation with Viv on the 8th March to talk about her book. Perhaps the Big Bath Read is able to give an element of interaction that other book groups do not offer. What a pleasure to read an author’s work and to then see her in the flesh voice her opinions about the book (and you never know, maybe you will be able to ask that burning question) If you sign up to the group linked above then you can also share your own top reads and see what other bookworms are enjoying.
Click on the image for a review by the Telegraph of the book:
If you haven’t already the please visit our website to see the full line up in this year’s Literature festival, or alternatively you can browse this year’s online brochure here:
The Independent article by Alice Jones gives an excellent account of the abundant and diverse intellectual feast that was organized and presented by the Festival staff and Viv Groskop, this year’s new Artistic Director. To supplement I thought I’d give you a few of my own “take-aways” that I am still mulling and savouring this week, after the Festival.
First, it almost feels like a subversive act to stage an event to celebrate the individual writers who sit in their rooms alone, wrestling with words to convey meaning to other individuals, who also sit alone in their rooms, reading and thinking. I think of Sarah Dunant, passionately searching through the art and diaries of renaissance Italy to uncover the lost lives of women, or Matthew Dennison, reading everything that has been written by and about Queen Victoria so he can brilliantly deconstruct her impact and intent.
The attention span and concentration required to make this transaction work between writer and reader feels under threat in this digital age, characterized by instant information all of the time, constant interactivity, and massive amounts of high speed data and information. I just think of that huge crowd of people wandering our streets and public transportation lost in their screens and earphones.
The debate on whether News is ruining our lives, between Alain de Botton and Carl Honoré vs. Jon Snow and Carla Buzasi, reflected this. The complaint about News was about the loss of context for News. In a 24 hour news environment the pressure is always on to get it out, not necessarily to get it right. And what is it serving? Without dedication to ideas of citizenship, democracy or other philosophical concepts, News becomes just another part of the vast entertainment/information endeavour that television, newspapers and on-line services are a part of. So there is no imperative for expensive investigative journalism or reporters who can analyse and write. All information is equal, it all fills space – celebrity gossip, local murders and accidents, weather reports, changes of government, war and disaster. The proposition carried – News is Ruining Our Lives.
The other complimentary theme that emerged is the growth of populism in many forms – citizen journalism, blogging, art. In 100 Works of Art that Will Define Our Age, art historian Kelly Grovier presented various iconic works – Tracy Emin’s MY Bed, Damien Hirsts’ For the Love of God, Banksy’s Flower Power and Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds – all of which were elevated to high art status by an eruption of consensual reaction in a vast number of individuals’ guts. Not unlike the reaction to stand-up comedy, of which there was an abundance. To understand what our individual spontaneous eruptions of laughter are connected to, it may or may not help to read Freud’s The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious.
The Festival reflected the broad range of interests and skills of its new Artistic Director Viv Groskop, who is a writer, journalist and stand-up comic. Her awesome range was illustrated on Friday when she conducted an interview with Rowan Williams on Tolstoy at noon that was greeted with rapt, silent fascination by the audience, followed later in the afternoon by a presentation on her book I Laughed, I Cried, and in the evening she MC’d the Great Big Comedy Night with wit and gusto! Wow! I can hardly wait until next year.
This year, The Independent Bath Literature Festival premiered the Bliss Lectures, a new headline strand that featured writers and thinkers talking about the one thing in life they are most passionate about. The lectures each lasted exactly 18 minutes and were followed by conversation and a Q&A session. On the second weekend of the Festival we were joined by Joanna Trollope discussing her passion for Jane Austen and we now have the full text of that lecture available:
Joanna Trollope on Bliss is…. Jane Austen A lecture delivered at The Independent Bath Literature Festival,
9th March 2014
Jane Austen, as I’m sure most of you will know, was born in 1775 and died, at only 41, in 1817. Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, appeared in 1811 after some 16 years in the making, and Pride and Prejudice two years later. So, she was 36 when she became a published writer, with, sadly, only a few years to live. But the novel itself, the literary form in which she was writing, was not much older than she was, having begun its fledgling life in this country with Samuel Richardson only in the 1740’s, and becoming something that we might recognize as a novel with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, only 25 years before Jane Austen was born. That equates to you or me writing something today in a literary form that had only become established about 1990.
This newness of the novel as a genre is significant. If you think about Jane Austen, who might not have been quite the quiet daughter of an obscure Hampshire parsonage as she is sometimes mistakenly portrayed, but who still came from a small rural community and a family of careful if not straitened means, what becomes immediately remarkable is that she instinctively understood this new genre, and realized that the main strands of compelling fiction would be – now quite as much as then – the three pronged preoccupation with money, class, and romantic love. From War and Peace to Fifty Shades, the themes of money (power), class (culture) and love (sex) remain the concerns and the compulsion of the fiction that, in the best sense, can be called popular. It is the first manifestation of Jane Austen’s genius that from her small world – not as small as is sometimes supposed however – she understood that those great themes were, and always would be, the bedrock of this new genre that she would herself do so much to establish.
She also, it is absolutely plain from reading her surviving letters, had no doubt about her own gifts as a novelist. In fact, given the inevitable consequence of pregnancy and childbirth with all their accompanying real perils in the early nineteenth century, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she wasn’t thankful to rescind her acceptance of Harry Bigg Withers proposal and put all thoughts of marriage – virtually the only career open to an educated woman then – behind her with some relief. In fact, she speaks, in her letters, of those two first novels as “my darling child”, and despite a healthy and vigorous appetite for clothes and gossip and food and household management and family and parties and money, she knew she didn’t want to write, so much, as she simply had to. It was as instinctive to her, and as necessary, as breathing. And when you think of the obstacles in her way, the most notable one being her gender, her persistence and accomplishment are literally awesome.
She was, when she died – of Addison’s disease, it is thought, which was not identified till the mid-19th century and which is, in essence, a complete failure of the adrenal glands – on the very cusp of bestsellerdom. I think she would have relished it. I think she would have adored the financial independence – she was very conscious of money and the liberty it can bring – and equally the effect she had and has on such a wide and diverse readership. She would, I am sure, have been thrilled at her global popularity now, and the only element in Janeite adoration that she would have objected to, and doubtless made fun of, is any attempt to sanitise her novels, and make her image more sprigged muslin and safely quaint than it actually is.
Her mother, after all, was a Georgian. The inhabitants of Georgian England were famously robust and unsentimental, clever, practical and unsqueamish. Jane and her brothers and sister were sent out to village wet nurses as babies until they could feed themselves and put on their own shoes, presumably at about three, at which point they were permitted to come home. For a gently born young man, when grown up, the only acceptable professions were the navy – very much the senior service – the army at rather more of a pinch, or the church. And those professions had their cruelties – think of the flogging at Meryton lightly alluded to by Kitty Bennet – and their unquestioned humiliations: Jane Austen hardly accords respect to any of her clergymen figures, does she? Mr Collins, Mr Eliot – they are Aunt Sallies, if they are anything. And those who don’t possess Mr Knightley’s dignified Whiggish landowning preoccupations have literally nothing to do, and Jane Austen didn’t, in her own times, need to point out why. The extravagant and restless idleness of characters like Mr Bingley was funded, in Jane Austen’s day, by the great commodity of the age, which was sugar. And with sugar came the horrors of slavery, only mentioned overtly twice, in Emma (Mrs Elton) and Mansfield Park, but it shadows so much of the extraordinary leisure in the novels, yet does not need to be emphasized because as the source of so much of the new wealth at that time, it was a commonplace. In the same way, there was no need to point out that Pemberley had no doubt been built from the profits of the coalmines of Derbyshire, and the modern imagination shrinks from visualising the working conditions of eighteenth century miners.
And money – enough of it, rather than oodles of it – was not just a lovely thing to have, it was rather, a grim necessity in 1811. If you fell from prosperity, you didn’t fall to poverty, you fell to utter destitution, to rags, starvation and the gutter. This terror of indigence sharpens the elbows of many of Jane Austen’s characters, especially the women for whom marriage represented something far more grimly pragmatic than hearts and flowers – think of Charlotte Lucas’s approach to marrying Mr Collins. We have not even reached, historically, the great period of Victorian philanthropy, with its accompanying propensity for hypocrisy. We are in an age, instead, of increasing political liberalism and admiration for the rational, but also a sinewy and clear eyed confrontation of life’s inevitable inequalities. Jane Austen likes courtesy and decency, but cannot bear the sentimental, so we should not do her the disservice of failing to recognize the toughness in her novels as well as the truth.
And with the toughness, comes a very great deal of teasing. The many filmed versions of the Austen canon over the last half century have captured, often very beautifully, the youth, and the clothes, and the pre-Industrial landscape, and the romance, and the dignity of the language, but although some versions – and I would especially cite here Emma Thompsons screenplay for Sense and Sensibility – have wit, the camera is hard pushed to it to convey the authorial teasing. When I came to the truly joyous task of re-imagining Sense and Sensibility for 2013, I was forcibly struck by two things. One was the complete timelessness of the characters and situations, which I shall come onto in a moment, and the other was the mockery. It rapidly became plain to me, on about my second close reading of the novel, that with the sole exception of Elinor Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, who are, in the least stuffy sense, the noblest characters in the book, Jane Austen makes fun of every other person with equal subtlety and relentlessness . Even Marianne isn’t – however gently – spared. After Willoughby dumps her so mercilessly in public, Jane Austen describes her, with a hint of irony, as sleeping “much better than she had expected”. And although the Dashwoods and Sir John Middleton are socially secure, much merriment is to be had at the recognizably crude social aspirations of the Steele girls, or the miserly fretting of those, like John Dashwood, who have more money than they know what to do with. And this mockery has the extraordinary effect of enhancing the seriousness of the emotions in the book, almost as if the validity of true feeling, as evinced by Elinor, transcends the more tawdry characters whose only gift is for expediency. These people exist, Jane Austen seems to be saying, but their falsity precludes them from mattering, to the extent that truly authentic people do.
In her lifetime, Jane Austen travelled about now and then in southern England. She was at home in Hampshire a good deal, but she was also in London, often staying with her brother Henry; in Kent, and in Bath, with family; on holiday with her sister Cassandra in Devon, and visiting friends and relations here and there, mostly for those prolonged stays of several weeks so common to a period when communications and roads were primitive by modern standards, and a woman couldn’t travel alone. These jaunts provided her with an absolute wealth of human specimens, and she used her sharp eyed observations to great creative effect, not caricaturing humanity like Dickens was to do, but merely rejoicing in absurdity as much as she did in human truth. So the characters in her novels, being based upon reality have a quite remarkable timelessness to them, and I found, when I embarked upon translating the people of 1811 to 2013, that I hardly needed to change a thing, beyond giving them jeans and Facebook instead of bonnets and quill pens.
In fact, transposing the people became a wonderful game with almost no ingenuity required on my part. Willoughby became a spoiled and handsome trustafarian with an Aston Martin instead of a horse; the Steele sisters were straight out of The Only Way is Essex, especially Nancy; Charlotte Palmer was a Sloaney party goose, Mrs Dashwood a dreamy, infantilized Seventies hippy, Margaret a scowling thirteen year old with an iPod, Edward a sweet, family-bullied depressive, and Marianne an effortless example of the modern propensity for emotional fulfilment, as a right. Their reactions and actions were as true now as they were then, the only difference being the formality of their language – Jane Austen’s people speak in complete sentences, with dependent clauses – and the equal formality of codes of conduct. But beyond that, in the essence of their feelings and their hopes and fears, they want and dread exactly the same elements of human connection that preoccupy us today. And, again just like today, money or the lack of it, dictate many of the decisions the characters make, from Mrs Dashwood’s impulsive acceptance of Sir John Middleton’s cottage to Willoughby’s contemptible choice and Lucy Steele’s shameless gold digging. This novel – a sell out in its first edition, which Jane Austen had to pay to have published – is, as it was then, a tale for our times. And if over two hundred years and not a dent in its relevance isn’t the mark of genius, then I don’t, actually, know what is.
Sense & Sensibility is published by HarperCollins.
In the Salon at the Guildhall on Saturday afternoon as the sun shines for the first time this year, the long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014, under the auspices of Booktrust, is under discussion.
Facts first: the prize was launched in 1990. It had a five-year hiatus from 1995 to 2000, when it was revived by Arts Council England. The prize money is £10,000, to be divided equally between author and translator. Today’s books under discussion number fifteen. By 8 April, they will have been whittled down to a shortlist of 5, from which the winner will be announced.
This year, a record 126 books from 30 source languages from Arabic to Icelandic, Hebrew to Japanese were put forward for the prize, reflecting, says TheIndependent’s Literary Editor, and chair of the judges Boyd Tonkin, “a considerable new energy in the field of translation”. Elsewhere the age-old lament of the demise of the book may sound, but thanks to a mushrooming of small, start up publishing houses (Pushkin and MacLehose are but two), translated fiction is enjoying a small but nonetheless significant upsurge.
The Q and A is a lively one. Tonkin poses the questions. To answer, here is the “ubiquitous” Natalie Haynes, journalist, sometime comedienne, classicist, author, extraordinarily well-read (she has come to the IFFP fresh from judging the 2013 Man Booker) and adept at shuffling the volumes at her elbow to present each relevant title as the conversation passes over it, much to the amusement of the audience.
Here too is Nadifa Mohamed, award-winning novelist, one of Granta’s nominated best British writers in 2013, maybe not quite as feisty as Haines, but no less thoughtful. Their fellow judges, Alev Adil and Shaun Whiteside, are not in attendance today.
“The rewards and the challenges of reading so many books were?” wonders Tonkin. “A total cultural shift” offers Haines, adding that, “Japanese fiction has blown me away!” She believes the reward is the reading of something that you might not normally be drawn to. That, Tonkin concurs, “is the great joy of this prize.”
For Mohamed, the process was an “immersive” one, a headfirst drop into fiction after spending much time working on her own novel at cost to reading the work of others.
Both have thoughts on how to read translated works. You are conscious of the translation. You register the occasional misplaced word, the uncomfortable idiom. But there is a school of thought, Tonkin suggests, that says that a translation should register the cultural difference. The worlds these books reveal, the lives on show, are alien to many readers. Is not the role of the translator then to retain some sense of that dislocation?
The worlds glimpsed in the long-listed novels range from post-war Germany to present-day war-torn Iraq, from the sake bars of Tokyo to the frozen landscapes of Iceland. Here are visions of society “distilled” into book form, versions of “the news behind the news”, the internal experience articulated. Is this the purpose of the prize, Tonkin muses: “to put back in what news reportage strips out?”
And what about the presentation of such books? Should the publisher play up the exoticism of where the book’s context, advertise its kookiness with a distracting jacket cover that may bear little relevance to the content, or market it as though it were a domestic tome and risk the eye of a potential reader skipping over easily to settle on something more diverting?
And what of the form of the titles? Doughnuts may sustain the body as the judges read they way through these myriad books, but what of the mind? At times, Mohamed admits to being overwhelmed by the “mountains of words” a novel presents: if you don’t enjoy the view, it can become dispiriting. A boon then that three of the contenders for the prize are collections of short stories, a more digestible and varied form of writing.
And what is missing? “What aren’t we reading?” Tonkin asks. South America is poorly served this year, but that may just be a blip. But where are the stories from Africa, written in Somali or Kikuyu or the novels from India and Pakistan, written in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil or Urdu rather than English?
On Monday afternoon a crowd waits for Lucy Adlington to appear and discus her book Great War Fashion in the Guildhall. A talk on World War I fashion could go many ways: the focus could range from the effects of rationing on fabric availability to the use of military fashions in civilian wares. Luckily for me, neither the talk nor Lucy disappoints.
Adlington’s personality is clear from the start of the session as she sashays down the main walkway wearing a white dress and brimmed hat from World War I. Throughout the talk she interacts with the audience, making puns as she explains her profession as a costume historian and how fashion was forced to change in order to meet the realities of the great war. Her quick manner acts as the perfect tool for whisking the audience through the war to end all wars.
Watching the fashions change from light flimsy dresses of the first summer of the war to the more solid and starched uniforms of the women who became workers allows the audience to reflect on how much changed, not only on the war fronts but at home. The workforce during the war was the first experience many women had earning a living and having regulation and identity maintained by their clothing. The tangible evidence of the clothing not only allows the audience to better understand the mind-sets of people in wartime but it also provides a premonition into the decade to come. Even in the war, Adlington’s displays show hemlines and hair are already shortening into the bobs and higher dresses the next decade is known for.
Throughout the talk, Lucy manages to keep the topic fun and light, distracting from the dangers of war and employment with comments on fashion choices. In a way, the talk itself seems to reflect the attitudes of many women during the Great War, who were able to confront the horrors of war head on and rally, to do what needed to be done and maintain their femininity through colour coordination and beauty products. Adlington and her talk on Great War Fashion reinforce the idea that while times may be rough, fashion is always enjoyable.
Bath Festivals was extremely honoured to play host to the announcement of the shortlist for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize last night. The Prize, now in its second year, runs in association with Waterstones and rewards the best non-fiction writing on Russia. The shortlist was selected by a panel chaired by Dr Rowan Williams, and revealed at a special event last night by fellow Prize judge Viv Groskop and Andrew Jack, journalist at the Financial Times and co-chairman of Pushkin House.
The 2014 shortlisted titles are:
– The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov (Head of Zeus)
– A Spy in the Archives: a Memoir of Cold War Russia by Sheila Fitzpatrick (I.B. Tauris)
– Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury)
– Red Fortress: the Secret Heart of Russia’s History by Catherine Merridale (Allen Lane)
– Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen (Transworld)
– Musorgsky and His Circle: a Russian Musical Adventure by Stephen Walsh (Faber & Faber)
Dr Rowan Williams said of the shortlist: “This is a list which vividly shows the breadth and depth of interest in Russian matters in the English-speaking world. These books deal both with ‘mainstream’ cultural and political history and also with utterly unexpected dimensions of the Russian heritage and some unforgettable individuals who have contributed to it. We’re delighted to have a shortlist for the 2014 Prize which offers such lively, diverse and expert perspectives on Russia, and it has been a great privilege to be involved in this work.”
The winner of the 2014 Prize will be announced on Wednesday 30th April at a ceremony at Pushkin House, the premier centre for Russian culture in London, and will be awarded £5,000. The Prize was established in 2012 to encourage public understanding and intelligent debate about the Russian-speaking world.
We had an absolute blast hosting our first Great Big Comedy Night in Komedia, in association with What the Frock! It was all in aid of celebrating Germaine Greer’s 75th birthday. Our intrepid photographer caught up with the comics in the dressing room, including our Artistic Director Viv Groskop, token bloke Mark Watson, Bethan Roberts, Ellie Taylor & Rachel Parris.
Gyles Brandreth lived up to his lively reputation in his event at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday. He and his daughter, Saethryd, entertained us with tales of family games from thier book The Lost Art of Having Fun.
Scott Pack, who hosted Around the World in 10 Books for us on Monday, has kindly allowed us to feature his blog post on the event on our website:
On Monday I hosted Around the World in 10 Books, an event celebrating world literature at the Independent Bath Literature Festival. A number of people who attended and a fair few who couldn’t make it have asked me to publish a list of the titles we talked about.
So that’s what I am doing.
I was joined on stage by Maureen Freely and Sam Baker. We each chose three books about which to enthuse, and at the end we also pitched three wild cards and asked the audience to vote for the one they wanted to make our tenth selection.
Our epic journey began in India with Maureen’s selection of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Technically not a translated book, Mistry is Canadian of Indian origin and wrote it in English, I allowed it in because, to be honest, I didn’t notice in time and Maureen is a translator herself so I thought I could let her off. She was also passionate about the book, a passion shared by many audience members who had read it and that was sort of what the event was all about.
We then headed northwards to Russia for Sam’s first choice of The Master & Margarita, the book she was reading when she met her husband. Or was it the other way round? It was a lovely story anyway.
And then I piped up to rave about The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki’s beautiful portrait of Japan just before WW2. It is a comedy, with touches of tragedy, that centres around the need to marry off the third Makioka sister so that the fourth one can finally settle down with her true love (traditon dictating that daughters must marry in order of age). I compared it to Pride and Prejudice and saw a few appreciative nods in the audience.
Maureen then took us to Colombia and a book and author that were new to me: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Set during the age of the big drug cartels it has picked up a bag of awards and was the one book on the list, that I hadn’t read before, that I most wanted to buy. And I would have done had it not sold out in the festival bookshop within minutes of the event finishing.
Crossing continents we reached South Africa and The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach, a book I have reviewed on this blog. I wanted to include an African novel but many of the classics of that continent were originally written in English. This is translated from the Afrikaans which made it an unusual choice, I think, but it was another that sold out in the shop.
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain was Sam’s selection. A magical fable about Mitterand’s hat and the effect it has on the people who wear it after he leaves in behind in a Paris cafe. It is published by Gallic Books who are friends of the Me and My Big Mouth blog and I was delighted to see it included.
My final main selection was one of the only books to have been translated from Faroese, The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú. A tale of an old man who gets drunk at an auction and buys far more whale meat than he can afford. He then spends the rest of the book trying to raise the money to pay off his debts. A dark comedy from a part of the world most of us know little about.
We know more about Denmark, especially given recent TV imports, but as Sam pointed out, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg was one of the first cultural exports from that country to be a big hit over here, and was her third choice.
And finally, at least for our initial choices, we ended up in Turkey with a book co-translated by Maureen. The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, an eccentric novel about a group of people tasked with ensuring that all Turkish clocks are set to Western time. This is the first English translation of the book, fifty years since it was first published in Turkey.
Not a bad selection, I hope you’ll agree. We then pitched a favourite book from a country not already selected. Sam went for Embers by Sandor Marai from Hungary. I went for Krabat, also known as The Satanic Mill, from Germany. Maureen’s choice was Castorp by Pawell Huelle from Poland.
The audience, clearly a heartless bunch, ignored my emotional story about Krabat and voted for Embers. I may never forgive them. Apart from that snub it was a great, if somewhat frantic, hour of enthusing about world fiction. I think a fine time was had by most, perhaps even all.
I am back in Bath on Saturday to host two Book Swap events. One for kids and one for grown ups. Do come along if you can.