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Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Riga for the first time! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I have Latvian ancestry (my great-grandfather was born in Riga before emigrating to the US in the early 1900s.) I was invited by the Latvian Literature Platform to tour the city after they saw a video review I did of Nora Ikstena’s novel “Soviet Milk” in which I also demonstrated my family recipe for making Latvia bacon and onion rolls. So it was a thrilling opportunity to see the country for the first time as well as learn more about Latvian literature’s history and authors today. It was quite a moving experience being able to walk the streets of my ancestors, eat some authentic piragi rolls and I even got to meet a distant cousin of mine. I made a vlog about my experiences there which you can watch here.

While I was there I also read most of the stories from an anthology which was published last year called “The Book of Riga”. This includes short stories from a range of authors who write in a number of different styles, but each story centres around the city of Riga. One of the most beautiful parts of Riga is their relatively new National Library which sits right on the river. The story ‘Wonderful New Latvia’ by Ilze Jansone focuses on the character of Katrina who is a librarian in this library (and exhibits the typical introverted Latvian trait where she shies away from having much contact with actual readers.) The story describes how many Latvian citizens have emigrated to other countries over the years, but since the country achieved its independence there’s a refreshing level of new opportunities for people.

One of my favourite stories from the collection ‘The Shakes’ by Sven Kuzmins describes an office worker named Agnia who has a Swedish boss named Mr Jensen. It’s written in a somewhat absurd style as their normal office routine becomes disrupted when Mr Jensen notices a pattern of growing protesters in the city streets. It describes how public unrest is something which slowly builds until a country finds itself in the midst a full-scale revolution. This poignantly reflects Latvia’s history as a country which has been occupied by several different countries over the past few centuries, but who have finally achieved independence as a nation. And I enjoyed the way their unusual office relationship plays out where it rounds back into a normal routine.

Many Latvian writers exhibit a tendency towards being introverted and melancholic. This is neatly summed up in the Latvian Literature Program’s campaign #IAmIntrovert which proudly proclaims Latvia is a nation of introverts. Several of the stories in this anthology reflect that sentiment as well. This can be seen in the very first story ‘The Hare’s Declaration’ by Juris Zvirgzdins which describes a man in late middle age who has lost both his wife and his job and wants to commit suicide by leaping from the top of a Latvian monument. Another story ‘The Girl Who Cut My Hair’ by Kristine Zelve describes how “the only thing that two melancholics can accomplish together is to agree that it makes no sense for them to do anything.” These reflect a general mood amongst Latvian literature towards tragedy. On my visit to Riga I went to a presentation by a literature professor who described how some of the classic foundational texts of Latvia are devastatingly depressing tales. Rather than bringing me down, I find there’s something quite endearing about this tendency in a nation’s literature that mulls obsessively over life’s cruelties – especially since it’s a small country that has such a long history of being dominated and controlled by foreign powers.

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I’m really excited to explore and read more Latvian literature now that I’ve visited the country and know more about its history. There aren’t a huge number of books that have been translated from Latvian, but I’m eager to read the ones that have hope to see more appear in the future. It’ll be lovely to keep up this connection to a country where I have an ancestral connection. I even have distant relatives who still live in Riga and got to meet one named Karlis while I was there. Of course, this is the Latvian version of the name Karl (which is my middle name that I inherited from my grandfather.) One of the highlights of the trip was meeting him and knowing that our names came from a common ancestry. So it was touching how the American Karl got to meet the Latvian Karl.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Earlier this year I read the moving memoir “Mind on Fire” in which the author recounts his experiences with manic-depression, suicidal thoughts and the destructive impact his mental health issues have upon his personal relationships. An experience similar to this is dramatically rendered in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s new novel “Starling Days”. It’s the story of Mina and Oscar, a young married couple living in New York City who temporarily move to London so Oscar can help his father prepare some run-down properties for sale. But Mina struggles with feelings of sadness which threaten to overwhelm her and self-harm. Her issues with mental health are portrayed with equal weight against Oscar’s no less heartrending emotional negligence being born as an illegitimate child who seeks to forge a connection with his aging father. Amidst their struggles, Mina makes a strong romantic connection with Phoebe, a red-haired English blogger whose presence brightens the world for Mina when she begins to feel overwhelmed by a suffocating loneliness. It’s noteworthy how this novel realistically and sympathetically portrays the experiences of a bisexual character. But Buchanan portrays all her characters’ journeys and dilemmas with a great deal of sympathy that made me feel wholly connected to them.

This is only Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel but I can already see she has a touching methodology in her fiction for portraying the lives of distinct individuals who are powerfully connected. Her first novel “Harmless Like You” depicts the lives of a mother and child in different periods of time. In a similar way, “Starling Days” gives equal weight to two characters’ perspectives and how their personal struggles create severe challenges in their relationship. But the author has a magnanimous way of rendering the daily reality of their situations without making any judgements. She conveys in their dynamic how there’s no perfect way to go about helping someone dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that can be neatly fixed. It’s more like a balancing act between therapy, medication, attentive loved ones and an inner drive to continue. We see how Mina must consider these every day while also grappling with feeling like a burden because of her condition.

It feels as if Buchanan is slightly playing upon recent trends in literary fiction to invoke or retell Greco-Roman mythology through a modern perspective. In preparation for writing a tentative academic monograph Mina loosely researches stories of the few mythological women who survive in their tales since so many female mythological characters die through punishment, their own folly or cruel coincidence. Rather than creating her own fictional account of these women Buchanan references their stories amidst Mina’s own plight. It creates interesting points of comparison but also provides a poignant frame in which to see Mina’s journey as a literal struggle to survive amidst the beaconing hand of death. There’s also a playful sense that Mina is more able to understand the tragedy in these epic tales than the inscrutable complications found in modern life: “This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.”

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As moving as I find Buchanan’s writing, she has an occasional tendency to needlessly complicate some sentences in order to emphasize the physicality of her characters’ movements. So she’ll write “Her hands picked up her phone” when she could have instead just written “She picked up the phone.” Or “His legs carried him down the stairs and to the hall” instead of “He went downstairs.” This clunky phraseology can be distracting. But overall her writing has a pleasing fluidity to it in evoking all the undercurrents of emotion within her characters’ lives as they navigate the world and interact with one another. This is most powerfully rendered in the dialogue and communication between characters who gradually disconnect from one another until the reader can feel the sad gulf which exists between them.  

The novel poignantly considers the complications involved in relationships steered by dependencies that are emotional, financial and/or sexual. It’s not necessarily bad that such dependency exists because it necessitates a level of openness and vulnerability that’s needed in a strong relationship, but it can create a hierarchy and possessiveness which can impact upon people’s sense of self-worth. Fully accepting yourself while also truly loving someone else is difficult. “Starling Days” powerfully shows the nuance of such connections and it gives the story a rare clear-sighted honesty.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I was raised to be a nature lover. I grew up in the rural state of Maine in a house next to a horse pasture and my father’s extensive garden. Years before I read about Thoreau’s time on Mount Katahdin, I hiked to the top of it during a thunderstorm. I spent many weekends in my youth camping and canoeing on lakes. I may not have always enjoyed the mosquitoes, bitter cold of a Klondike derby or back-aching hours spent weeding the garden or chopping wood. But now that I live in a city every now and then I get a romantic feeling for staying in a cabin in the woods or at least spending an afternoon walking in a park. For some reason this year I’ve felt a particular yearning to read about the natural world and environment.

So it seems fortuitous that I happened upon The Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize for Nature Writing whose shortlist was announced at the beginning of this month. It includes seven books on a range of subjects including personal journeys and politically-charged messages about climate change. The prize believes that the stories in these books are so important and urgent that they’ve sent a full set of the shortlist to the UK’s Environmental Secretary, Michael Gove, hoping that it will inform and inspire the government to take more deliberate steps towards taking climate action. Many people find it difficult to take action to improve and safeguard the environment until it becomes personal so I’m looking forward to exploring how these authors were inspired to interact with and learn from the natural world.

Looking through the books, the ones I’m most drawn to reading first are “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane and “Thinking On My Feet” by Kate Humble. I saw popular author Macfarlane in discussion about his new book a few months ago at the Southbank Centre where he described his impressive journeys to some deep places in the earth to experience layers of time and connect to literature about journeys into the Underworld. In recent years, I’ve developed a desire to go on walks much more so I’m intrigued to read about Humble’s account of her walking year. She explores the manifold physical and psychological benefits of going on long walks through nature as well as describing people she encounters who have found different sorts of inspiration or solace from in their rambling.  

I’m also quite keen to try reading “The Easternmost House” by Juliet Blaxland who spent a year living in a house on the Suffolk coast, an area that’s experiencing rapid erosion. She witnessed first-hand the cliffside coming closer and closer to the house in a relatively short span of time. I’m also intrigued to read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree as I remember seeing her being interviewed on a news show about how she and her husband allowed their intensely farmed land to go wild and the surprisingly quick renewal of the ecosystem. If I get time I’ll also try to read Julia Blackburn’s “Time Song”  about her search for truths about sunken land that once connected Britain to the European mainland and Mark Cocker’s “Our Place”  which exposes the devastating affects we have had on the wild world. I began reading Luke Turner’s memoir “Out of the Woods” earlier this year, but there was something about his style of writing I didn’t get on with so I put it aside – despite its exceedingly beautiful cover.

Most of the book prizes I follow are focused on fiction so I’m glad this prize has given me a springboard to discover and read a variety of non-fiction books about the natural world. It’ll be interesting to see which book is declared the winner on the 15th of August. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and your thoughts about them. Or let me know if you have any favourite nature writers!

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I've wanted to read more of Nelson's books since I first encountered her breakout 'The Argonauts' a few years ago. Her approach to contemplating certain ideas and their personal impact is so striking and thought-provoking. I picked up this book (first published ten years ago) because she gave a fascinating talk at the Southbank Centre in London. 'Bluets' considers her powerful attraction to the colour blue, its manifestations in ordinary objects and art as well as its symbolism in paintings, songs and writing. She originally intended its subject to remain within these boundaries and join in a literary tradition which considers colour. But when writing it she also included references to the break down of a love affair and her close friendship with a woman who has become a quadriplegic. Her musings weave through the analytical and personal to present a striking way of thinking about our perceptions, emotions and language. 

I've also always felt the appeal of the colour blue. It has a warmth to it but also induces a melancholy feeling. People have always remarked on how strikingly blue my eyes are. Once I was in a group where we were asked to organize ourselves in a line from people whose eyes are deepest brown to those whose eyes are the brightest blue. The group decided my eyes are the bluest and for some reason this felt like a great compliment to me. Nelson considers “Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).” It's a romantic idea but a ridiculous one. This is part of the reason I appreciate Nelson's point of view though. She takes her research and political views seriously but at the same time she playfully toys with the theoretical and enjoys the teasing pleasure that can be had with language.

I appreciate that Nelson describes how her collection of blue objects feels meaningful to her even though she can't recall their origins or significance. All that's left is their beauty. I think we have a similar relationship to cherished memories of events and people in our lives. There's a feeling that resonates when we recall them even if we can't recreate all the details of the past. She describes how “blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.” Quite often she describes experiencing the colour blue like a sensation that is beyond words – as are the feelings it generates. Therefore, she sets herself the impossible task of trying to describe something which can't be summed up, but what she provides instead are approximations and discussions around the meaning of the colour blue.

Nelson also engages in serious dialogue with writers, philosophers and artists from the past who have written about colour. Sometimes she looks to their texts for knowledge or support for her own theories. Other times she repudiates the folly of their reasoning. For instance, she takes issue with the way William Gass asserts we can't see what we really desire in reality and that it's better to look in fiction for it because there the desire can be perfectly encapsulated in words and our imaginations. Nelson asserts: “I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the alter. Your loss.” There is both pleasure and pain to be found when engaging in reality with all its attendant imperfections. It'd be a mistake to close oneself off to its jagged contours.

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In a way I'm surprised I found this book to be as emotional as it is intellectually stimulating. Normally I get frustrated when authors withhold details that convey the core impulse driving them to write about a particular subject. Nelson refers to the breakdown of her relationship only glancingly and yet I felt the weight of its enormous loss all the same. She describes the debilitating feeling of being alone: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one's solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” She also asks “what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?” Perhaps it's not so mad to be in love with a thing that's so beautiful specifically because it's incapable of loving you back. If it can't reciprocate feelings it's also incapable of rejecting you.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMaggie Nelson
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Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.

Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.

What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.

Osman or “Oz” introduces Ralf to the music of Turkish folk singer Müzeyyen Senar. Here she sings "Kime Kin Ettin de"

There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.

I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBen Fergusson
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The year is zipping by fast and there are plenty of books I’ve still been meaning to read, but here are some favourites that I’ve read so far. I seem to be reading more memoirs recently or, at least, books that are heavily inspired by autobiographical experience. Several of these books fall into that category while being a hybrid of different kinds of books. But, of course, there are some novels I’ve loved and a poetry collection as well. It felt especially poignant to me how some of these books felt like they were in conversation with each other because they touched on similar subjects or events. Maybe that’s just me seeing connections since I read them close together. Whatever the case, these books had a big impact on me and I highly recommend all them! You can also watch a video of me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUjR0M_yrOE

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I read this wonderful book at the very beginning of the year. Of course, this isn't a memoir per say – although it does include personal details about how much libraries meant to the author when growing up. It's more a piece of journalistic nonfiction where Orlean considers the case of a horrific fire in the Los Angeles Central library in 1986. She covers the history of this library and the very curious man who was strongly suspected of starting the fire. But it's also an ode to libraries in general and contains so many fascinating facts about libraries and librarians.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is a novel but draws heavily on Li's own life because her son sadly committed suicide and this book is an imagined conversation between a mother and son – after the son took his own life. That sounds incredibly depressing and it is an intense experience. But the way their conversation plays out is very touching because when the mother thoughts become too lofty the son brings her back to reality. So it's alternately playful and profound how she considers life, language, motivation and grief.

Kill the Black One First by Michael Fuller

This is a straightforward but very moving memoir. It has a very startling title – and it's meant to be because this was something which was shouted from an angry mob as Fuller stood in a line of police officers during the Brixton riots in 1981. This was an infamous confrontation in London between the police force and members of a predominantly black neighbourhood. At the time, Fuller was one of the few black policemen in London and he found himself caught in the middle of this skirmish when someone in the crowd shouted “kill the black one first” and he knew it was aimed at him. So this memoir is about Fuller's life as a black man who was dedicated to his police work – he became Britain's very first black chief constable – and the work he did to try to bridge the gap between England's racially divided society. It's such a moving and inspiring story. And it's so heartening to know there are honestly good people out there like Michael Fuller.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

This is a novel set in South Africa in two parts which are bridged together. The first part concerns a woman named Susan who is forcibly put into a British concentration camp during the Second Boer Wars in 1901 after the British army burned her farm. And yes, this is something the British really did in South Africa; they ran multiple concentration camps during this war. The second half of the novel concerns a teenage boy named Willem who is taken by his parents to a sinister training camp to toughen him up and make him more masculine. Willem just wants to be left alone with his books but his parents are determined to make a man out of him. And this camp is also based on actual training camps which are meant to toughen boys. So both stories poignantly consider institutions and camps which are intended to keep people safe but really destroy their identity and their lives. It's so artfully and beautifully done.

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

These autobiographical essays follow the trajectory of Gleeson's life from a girl in Ireland where she suffers from multiple medical difficulties and her journey to becoming a great feminist, journalist, wife, mother and writer. The way she writes about illness in this book is so poignant and she draws upon many references from art and literature to reflect about her condition and life in general. It's a stunning book. It just floored me.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This autobiographically-inspired novel was first published in English last year but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It's an incredible look at the past several decades in France through one woman's eyes but is narrated in this unique collective voice which captures the mood and sensibility of a whole community. It's ingenious and inventive and moving and brilliant. It's essentially a woman looking through a photo album but it also contains a whole society. It's amazing.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

This is a historical novel which is so clever and gripping. It's the story of a woman in the mid-1800s in London who works in a laborious job making dolls, but she aspires to be an artist. So she agrees to become an artist's model as long as she's also given lessons. It's also about a sinister man who becomes infatuated with her. And it's also about the artist's pet wombat (which is my favourite animal.) But this novel is truly excellent in what it says about art, obsession and history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This is touted as the year's most mind-expanding love story and it really is that. It begins as a normal modern day love story where Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York City. But Kate has very vivid dreams where she slips back into a past life embodying the real historical figure of Emilia Lanier who was an Elizabethan poet believed to have been the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. She finds that in these dreams she's able to alter history. It's honestly so wild, but also makes you think about destiny and ambition and the meaning of reality. It is unlike anything I've read before.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

This is a novel I just read recently and concerns a group of drag house mothers who sit in silent protest in front of New York's city hall. For years children they've taken into their drag houses have gone missing and after the repeated indifference and harassment from the authorities they feel they are past words. It's also the story of Teddy, a child of these drag houses who now works in city hall so is very much caught between two worlds. Niven invokes the feeling and spirit of drag balls in this beautiful book, but he also presents the voices of different groups who are locked in opposition to one another. It's poignant, funny and fierce.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This is a startlingly powerful book of poetry. Jay spent a lot of time in an archive researching and thinking about the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre. This was a fire that occurred in the early morning amidst a teenage girl's birthday party killing 13 young people and injuring 27 others. Many believed this was a racist attack. The authorities' investigation into the fire was handled horribly and the case was never resolved. It led to protests and an outcry from the black communities in London and was one of the incidents which led up to the Brixton riots (as discussed in Michael Fuller’s memoir). This is a complex subject but Jay so artfully considers the weight of history in these poems, how we memorialize those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known. Some of these poems are also very personal reflecting on gender, national and racial identity. I don't often read a lot of poetry but these are poems that made me sit up and listen closely and I love this book.

A book I haven’t listed is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James which is another book I loved very much and I made a whole video gushing about it. But I read this at the end of last year rather than this year.

Let me know if you've read any of these books or want to read them now. What are some of your favourite reads from 2019 so far? Give me some good tips!

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Woolf is an author I return to periodically because I know there’s always more to discover in her intricately layered writing. Rereading “Orlando” last year was such a joy and since “The Waves” is my favourite novel I’ll reread sections of it frequently. But I also recently received this stunning new manuscript version of “Mrs Dalloway” that’s been published by SP Books and it’s been absolutely fascinating reading through it. This is the first time Woolf’s hand-written manuscript of this novel has been reproduced and it’s incredible seeing her scrawls on the page, notes in the margins and lines she’s crossed out. It gives a captivating insight into her process of composing this pivotal novel.

I’ve been discovering some interesting ways that this first version of the book differs significantly from the final book as well. Firstly, it was originally titled “The Hours” in honour of the structure she created of following her characters throughout a single day. Certainly the original opening is more overtly ponderous about the process of time as well and so radically different from the succinct opening of the published version of “Mrs Dalloway” which is surely one of the most famous opening lines in history. Secondly, it was originally going to focus on the character of Peter Walsh (the man who proposed to Clarissa when they were younger but she rejected him.) Clarissa was going to be more of a peripheral character as in the fiction she appeared in previously including Woolf’s first novel “The Voyage Out” and some short stories. But at some point in the process Clarissa took centre stage and the novel became titled with her married name. It’s also thrilling to see a note she writes at the beginning of one section that says “a delicious idea came to me that I will write anything I want to write.” I can’t help wondering what mental process she went through to come to this liberating conclusion!

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It’s also quite touching seeing how laboriously Woolf crafted the novel. This should have already been obvious, but Woolf’s writing has such an assured intelligent quality to it that it’s easy to assume it simply flowed out of her purple-inked pen. This edition includes two introductions which provide some interesting context to the book’s creation. One is by Michael Cunningham who nicked Woolf’s original title for his own brilliant novel “The Hours”. The second is by Virginia Woolf-specialist Helen Wussow who lays out the manner in which Woolf wrote and the compelling history of the actual manuscripts after Woolf’s death. It was also interesting to learn how multiple final versions of “Mrs Dalloway” exist since she’d correct different proofs for different people – with alterations changing from manuscript to manuscript.

For a huge fan of Woolf’s writing like me, this book is such a treasure and one I’ll continue to enjoy reading through for many years to come. I also created a video showing off this beautiful book as well as giving my own little tribute to “Mrs Dalloway” by exploring her London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8sZGAHVVCw

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The question of how we should memorialize victims of injustice, those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known is a difficult one. Jay Bernard writes a powerful introduction to their book of poetry “Surge” explaining how they conducted research into the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre and claimed the lives of 13 young people. Many believed this was a racist attack and the reverberations of this unresolved case are still felt today - especially when there are eerily familiar new cases such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Bernard’s poems poignantly embody the spirit and voice of people involved in these incidents including family members in mourning, bystanders, protesters and even the victims themselves.

Some poems reflect more on Bernard’s own personal experience to discuss issues to do with gender, sexuality, national and racial identity because, as the author states, “Many questions emerged not only about memory and history, but about my place in Britain as a queer black person. This opened out into a final sense of coherence: I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” What forms over this book’s journey is a communion and convergence of voices who rightfully insist upon a presence in the nation’s collective memory. These poems are artfully infused with a political urgency, sensitively consider the weight of history and punch through the past into the present day.  

A series of poems take on a strong lyrical quality with repetition and rhythms reminiscent of the songs sung in Jamaican patois that emerged amidst the protests after the New Cross Fire. Other poems are more reflective using imagery which considers the border between past and present, memory and forgetting, life and death. The poem ‘Pace’ meaningfully explores a sense of connection to those who’ve come before us in the physical space we inhabit. Still other poems speak with startling directness in the voice of restless victims: “No-one will tell me    what happened to my body”. Interspersed between the poems there are sometimes photographic images of individuals or banners involved in the protests following the New Cross Fire. There are also occasional quotes taken from a variety of media such as text messages, news reports and relevant books of nonfiction. These add to the texture of the reading experience suffusing the poems with a living energy.

Several poems are achingly intimate and form kinds of narratives based in memory. One describes the bravery summoned to join a Pride parade and the confused sensation of melding into a community: “am I the steaming black street, am I the banner and the band, the crush, lilting ale, tipsy hug, charged flesh and open eye”. The poem ‘Ha-my-ca’ recounts a trip to Jamaica and the experience of skinny dipping where a new relationship with the body is formed: “I learned of self and other when my waist left the water”. While the poems with a more personal feel stand slightly to the side of the poems which converse with the research concerning the New Cross Fire, they add a sense of intimacy to how the author isn’t disconnected from this mission of bearing witness but is also a presence made solid.

Johnny Osbourne - 13 Dead

Sometimes I’ll read poetry collections where only a few individual poems make much of an impact, but nearly all the poems in “Surge” made me stop and meditate on them. It’s a richly complex and accomplished book that demands answers for those who’ve been marginalized and rendered voiceless throughout history: “It’s the only question we ask. Will anyone lessen the losing? Will anyone lessen the loss?... Losing and losing and loss. Never recouping the cost.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJay Bernard
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For some reason I’ve been drawn to reading a number of memoirs recently. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it’s because I’m especially drawn to real stories of lives so different from my own. Certainly (on the surface) Zeba Talkhani’s history is very distant from my own upbringing and path in life. She grew up as a Muslim girl of Indian descent in Saudi Arabia before moving to study in India, Germany and England. Yet I came to feel such a strong sense of kinship with her over the course of reading her powerful and inspiring memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country”. I connected strongly to her sensibility in a number of ways from a small detail like her love for the wonderful film ‘Violette’ or larger issues such as how physical distance from our homelands has allowed us a broader perspective on our upbringing and cultures. But, aside from the ways I personally connected to this book, I felt an overall admiration and respect for the development of her identity as a proud feminist, Muslim and intellectual.

Talkhani describes her childhood in Jeddah and the expectations placed upon her there as a girl. From an early age she was sensitive to the fact men and women were treated differently. She naturally questioned this and other aspects of the predominantly patriarchal society but “My questioning was considered a kind of lewdness.” However, she was unwilling to fully cede to the dictation of this social order and continued to query the many written and unwritten rules governing how women were meant to conduct themselves. Of course, it’d be a simplification to present Saudi Arabia only as a place where there is an issue with sexism. Crucially, Talkhani highlights the way in which this region is in some ways more progressive in its attitudes towards women. She identifies how “The problem wasn’t so much my culture, but the universal reverence we placed on men of faith, and the reputation of men in general.” What she identifies are the power structures that are in place which reinforce the patriarchy and how this manifests in different ways throughout the world regardless of the nation or predominant religion. That’s not to excuse the cases of egregious sexism she highlights in particular places, but to point out that they spring out of common issues to do with male dominated societies.  

It’s really moving the way Talkhani charts how she grows and learns as an individual. A crucial issue she struggled with in her adolescence and adult life is with hair loss. This caused many more issues for her as a young woman than it would for men – especially because of the emphasis her family and community placed upon marriage and finding a suitable husband. Her condition challenged her sense of self-worth when being judged by those around her but it’s heartening to read how she developed an inner-resolve and certainty of self: “Investing in my sense of self and divorcing it from the perceptions of others not only kept me afloat as a teenager but it protected me from making life-altering choices from a place of insecurity. I knew my value and I wasn’t going to waste my precious time enabling fragile, toxic masculinity.” This is such an inspiring message for anyone who is vulnerable to letting such judgements defeat them.

It’s interesting how throughout her life Talkhani has been part of a minority whether it was living with her Indian heritage in Saudi Arabia, as a Muslim in India and as both these things in Europe. While this naturally led her to feeling ostracised at times it also allowed her to achieve a unique perspective on the assumptions and ideologies which guided the different societies she lived in. It’s given her an insight into the way in which societies differently discriminate against people based upon their gender, faith, race or nationality. This occurs in both subtle and overt ways whether it’s meeting potential suitors or being part of a predominantly white book group, but are all related to how different groups can have parochial views about those who are different. What’s truly admirable is the way Talkhani doesn’t allow the judgement of others affect her personally because “Nothing was personal, it was just how the patriarchy worked.” She comes to this conclusion partly by drawing upon many different writers and philosophers from Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir to better inform and frame her understanding of the world. After a long challenging journey she understands that it’s only her opinion of herself that matters. She articulates this beautifully in the later parts of the book as well as sympathetically describing issues of insecurity she still wrestles with.

One of the most striking points of connection I felt with the author was when she conveys in her recollections how she’d repeatedly hide her vulnerability. At a few different points in her life she describes suppressing tears or closing down rather than expressing sadness or anger to those around her (even if people close to her recognize she’s in pain and are trying to comfort her.) It’s a pernicious sort of defence mechanism whereby feelings are internalized and it ironically blocks us off from the support of people who love us when we need them the most. Talkhani movingly describes how she learns to open up and express herself more. This adds to how this memoir demonstrates an admirable maturity. Her vital perspective contains so much wisdom and insight for anyone who has felt marginalized or been pressured to conform to the status quo.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZeba Talkhani
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I think the best novels say as much in their form as well as in their content. Niven Govinden’s new novel “This Brutal House” is about a silent protest staged by several mothers from different drag houses in front of NYC’s City Hall. For years these mothers housed many queer children who were forced to leave the homes of their biological families. But when these children have gone missing the police force haven’t taken their disappearances seriously and even used these losses as an opportunity to harass and interrogate the lifestyle embodied by these drag houses. Frustrated and tired of trying to form a dialogue these mothers sit in silent protest because “we are past words.” The author conveys the complexity of this political act in a number of ways. Govinden invokes their collective voice to capture the tenor and sweep of their emotions and experiences. But he also relates the story of Teddy, a child from these drag houses who now works in City Hall and is caught between these two very different social spheres. By switching between these points of view and relating large sections through dialogue Govinden allows us to wholly feel this complicated situation and hear everything that’s left unspoken in the midst of these drag mothers’ mute resistance.

There was a long period during which drag was seen as a fairly niche section of the queer community where the only far-reaching understanding of it came from the vital documentary ‘Paris is Burning’. But, in recent years, it’s become more popular with the advent of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and ‘Pose’ as well as some excellent fiction such as Joseph Cassara’s “The House of Impossible Beauties”. Govinden doesn’t seek to create a guide to understanding the form and rules of drag houses in this novel. Those who know nothing about drag will no doubt feel disorientated when they start reading it, but that shouldn’t deter book lovers who appreciate engaging and imaginative fiction. Instead of explaining the author immerses the reader in the attitudes and social dynamics of drag houses showing how they are in their essence and very existence a political phenomenon. These are the voices of children who often provide an alternative to the dominant narrative of the largely white, heterosexual and patriarchal society they’ve been born into. By inhabiting the art, fantasy and cut-throat competition of drag balls or immersing themselves in the capitalist dreams of high end stores they find “bubbles which envelop and shield you from real life.” In doing so they discover succour, kinship and vitality amidst a society that seeks to stultify or erase those who are queer and refuse to conform to its pervading values.

Govinden intelligently conveys the essence of this community by indulging in the rich pleasures, fierce attitudes and humour of the drag ball scene. Several pages are narrated from the perspective an MC calling out a multiplicity of drag categories – everything from “backstreet dancer realness” to “Miami Jewish matron” realness. Through this repetition with endless variations and a keen ear for the irreverent we feel how these individuals can simultaneously inhabit and play upon the full spectrum of identity: “The balls were heaven as we divined; a right we would give our last breath for.” In the exactitude of criteria there is an ironic freedom to be found from all categories of being and a liberation from all the boxes which society tries to put people into. I loved how Govinden’s framing of the scene conveyed both the celebratory joy and the heartrending sincerity of these balls and their expression of realness. This is tribute to the craft and excruciatingly hard work which goes into drag as an artform. I especially enjoyed when the author likened drag families preparing for a ball to soldiers preparing for war: “Weeks of preparation! Through that time life was somehow lived, yet this took over everything. Soldiers readying for battle clean their gun and polish boots. They run ten miles, expelling yet withholding the energy they will need. They’re drugged up to the eyeballs, fucking comfort women in conflict zones. No different to us: method and masculinity shared.”

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The novel conscientiously gives space to the collective voices of the drag mothers, their children and the police force. Between these groups there is the friction of misunderstanding or opposition. But spaced throughout the novel Teddy’s experiences and dilemmas give a personal weight to these fraught groups as he invokes his own understanding of the city. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this novel is how Govinden refuses to give a simplified and one-sided view of the drag scene - which in some recent popularised iterations has become more about catty indulgence rather than politics. The mothers in “This Brutal House” are queens worthy of reverence but they are not saints. Some of their children have become lost due to illness or violence, but others wilfully left out of rebellion or because they simply grew up and moved on. At one point the children say of the mothers “Their mania for taking our money? They were our bosses. Gang masters in drags.” Just like in many biological families the propensity for parents dominating and exploiting their children (and vice versa) is just as prevalent in drag families. But because there aren’t legalized social structures to give credence and support to drag families it can more often lead to isolation. This is aptly summarised in the haunting lines: “Drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family. Remember this.”

This novel is saturated with a verve which made it compulsive and pleasurable reading for me, but I also savoured the author’s exactitude in his language and ear for dialogue which brought these disparate groups to life. Moreover I admire the ingenuity of its structure for conveying a social scene and section of society which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
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I first became aware of Valerie Solanas amidst my teenage obsession with Andy Warhol. During this period I loved reading books by and about Warhol as I was entranced by how this nerdy awkward kid of Polish descent from Pittsburgh grew to be the famed leader of an art movement. Solanas was one of the interlopers who frequented Andy’s factory and starred in one of his films, but in 1968 Solanas shot Warhol and almost killed him. Her story was brilliantly realised by Lili Taylor in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. Solanas was a radical feminist and anarchist who wrote a book called the “SCUM Manifesto” which encouraged women to overthrow society and eliminate the male sex. She was evidently very troubled and difficult, but an absolutely fascinating person. Sara Stridsberg reimagines Solanas’ story in her novel “The Faculty of Dreams” which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. We follow Solanas from childhood through to her sadly impoverished later years with frequent leaps backwards and forwards in time simulating the fragmented consciousness of this highly-intelligent and problematic heroine. In doing so Stridsberg captures Solanas’ frustrated brilliance as well as her obsessive mind, mental breakdown and how she was one of many radical outsiders who were scorned and swept under the rug of society.

Stridsberg doesn’t hide the fact she feels a deep sympathy for Solanas and sometimes intervenes in the text to say so in dialogues between a “Narrator” and Solanas. But this isn’t just a fan’s tale. The story she creates conveys Solanas’ deep complexity and hardship from early abuse/emotional neglect to her evident struggles with mental illness – but she also recounts opportunities Solanas didn’t fully take advantage of such as her university accolades and how Solanas’ resolutely combative nature alienated her even from people honestly trying to help her. The style of Stridsberg’s narrative conveys Solanas’ extremely strained mental state where internalized abuse and trauma start to sound like an echo chamber from which she can’t escape: “there was nothing left to cry about except America would keep on fucking me and all fathers want to fuck their daughters and most of them do and only a few don’t and it’s not clear why except the world will always be one long yearning to go back.” This effectively produces a sense of claustrophobia in the reader who becomes equally trapped in Solanas’ circular and exhausting thought process.

Of course, this makes some parts of the books difficult to read. While I appreciated Stridsberg’s stylistic choices such as presenting dialogue like a script and creating impressionistic lists it was often disorientating trying to locate where we were and it sometimes felt tiring reading Solanas repeating the same withering verbal onslaught against men (including gay men who she branded “faggots” and women who comply in a male-dominated society.) This was effective in conveying how Solanas was a tragic figure as you witness people becoming increasingly alienated from her and how she’d plead for money from someone while simultaneously attacking them. But I wished for a bit more clear-sighted detail about her downward spiral especially in the breakdown of her relationship with a woman named Cosmo that she strongly connected with at university. Nevertheless, there are some heartrending moments like when Solanas calls her mother Dorothy while she’s at university hoping for her approval but only getting her mother’s soporific mourning for Marilyn Monroe. There are also some fascinating periphery characters such as her early friendship with a gay prostitute called Silk Boy and strange bond with her psychologist Dr Cooper. Stridsberg shows how there were bands of outsiders across the country and these are the people’s whose stories are so seldom told.

Valerie Solanas

Valerie Solanas

It's curious how Stridsberg continues to be fascinated by and drawn to Solanas though she’s very aware that Solanas would most likely refute her. The author playfully alludes to this in the metafictional line: “no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying. You don’t have my permission to go through my material.” Yet this is exactly what Stridsberg does so if Solanas is the high priestess of SCUM this book is a kind of sacrilegious act. But Stridsberg clearly sees value in Solanas’ extreme point of view within the feminist movement. She gives Solanas lines which still feel compelling in thinking about sexual politics today: “Your gender isn’t a prison. It’s an opportunity. There are just different ways of telling. Write your own account.” This feels like a thought that will strongly resonate with members of a newer generation who refuse to define their gender. Equally, Solanas represents a voice from a diminished class of people whose only source of income is begging or prostitution. She states “A room of one’s own is a fiction that doesn’t work.” It feels like her point of view is an important repost to the privileged classes that typically dominate the narrative of history.

I greatly admired this book’s inventive style and faithful desire to give such a controversial historical figure a better ending than the one she actually got.

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Any author who describes her passionate engagement with Virginia Woolf’s writing will instantly grab my attention. So when I saw how Katharine Smyth’s memoir “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about her process of finding solace in reading Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” amidst the prolonged illness and death of her father I was drawn to it. My experience was further enhanced by reading this book along with fellow YouTubers Britta Bohler and Kendra Winchester. We left each other wonderfully long geeky messages about our reactions to the book and general thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s life and work. I think this is what makes this book something more than a traditional memoir – it’s a communion for anyone who has been deeply affected by Woolf’s writing. Smyth mimics the structure of “To the Lighthouse” to tell her own experiences before, during and after her father’s illness to mirror the three sections of Woolf’s novel. But she also interjects how her experiences and emotions are informed by her reading as well as meditating on the life of Woolf herself. In this way the author creatively approaches the experience of grief and mourning, the complexity of how we feel about our families and how our relationship with art and literature is often deeply personal.

Smyth powerfully captures that revelatory sensation we can sometimes get as readers where we feel so connected to the text of a book. After quoting a section from “To the Lighthouse” she describes how “I was drawn to that darkness and depth; it actually hurt to read a sentence like the one above; it was so apt, it was so beautiful; I longed for Woolf’s genius, yes, but I also longed for Mrs. Ramsay herself, for her as my mother, for her as my friend; I wanted to be her – that’s how painful I found the distance between us, the distance between me and that text. I might have swallowed the page.” This total immersion in a book is the kind of spellbinding experience which makes reading so important and unique. Smyth chronicles how certain sections of Woolf’s novel spoke to her at different times and how her feelings about the characters change over time. She shows how the experience of reading and rereading yields ever-shifting meanings as we navigate different challenges throughout our lives.

“To the Lighthouse” is a fictional memorial to Woolf’s mother where she sought to capture something of her essence in the character of Mrs Ramsay. Smyth is doing the same with her father but, rather than just neatly draw parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, Smyth freely makes connections with other figures as well. For instance, she considers how Mr Ramsay strives for intellectual achievement and doesn’t achieve as much as he hoped for. Similarly her father encounters different personal and professional set-backs and disappointments. But Smyth freely admits that her quest to connect life and text doesn’t always work so neatly: “Such is the nature of Woolfian failure, which, despite my urge to conflate them, turns out to be a different breed from my father’s own.” In many ways her experiences and the events in Woolf’s novel are very different. But her process doesn’t feel forced; it’s more of a meandering journey through this significant time in her life while reflecting on how the universal meaning found in “To the Lighthouse” speaks to her experience.

One of the most moving and melancholy sections of the book is the last where she describes her experiences in the aftermath of her father’s death. Here she’s confronted with an absence in the same way the characters in “To the Lighthouse” live with a palpable loss in the final section. It’s an all-consuming sensation of grief and Smyth feels that Woolf’s novel wholly captures the reality of this experience. She poignantly describes the knowledge she gleaned from the book and how “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal. To grieve is likewise to be plagued by questions that can only gesture towards the clarity we seek and occasionally find – these are the shorthand by which we must stumble through an experience too vast and too disorientating to express in its totality.” Woolf’s writing frequently gestures at thoughts and feelings which can’t be contained in language and Smyth equally finds that her experience can’t be summarised. Rather, she points to the way time moves onward. Lives end, homes are transformed or destroyed and memories are lost.

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

I’ve always felt one of the most difficult dimensions of grief is how it can valorise those who have been lost over those who are still living. Death can highlight the cruel reality of how we value certain people in our lives over others. Some people in mourning might even wish that other family members had died rather than the person that’s been lost. This dark reality is described in “To the Lighthouse” where some of the Ramsay children resent Mr Ramsay’s presence when Mrs Ramsay’s absence is so painfully felt. It’s striking how Smyth admits how she valued the love of her father over her mother because “how uneventful it is to be loved by her, a person whose very existence was so dependable that I rarely, if ever, considered it.” So it’s moving how she finds one of the most revelatory experiences of losing her father is the appreciation and connection she makes with her mother “it wasn’t until well after his death that I finally took the time to ask for her memories, to listen to her own account of grief. She surprised me”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smyth’s style of writing at times mimics Woolf’s own – especially when describing certain places or the presence of light. But I don’t think this is intended as imitation. It’s more a gesture at how Woolf’s sensibility has permeated the way she actually senses and interprets the world around her. It signals the way Woolf’s writing has enveloped her life as a way of understanding daily existence in the wake of this significant loss. Moreover, this reinforces how the experience of reading this memoir is akin to enjoying a conversation with a fellow Woolf lover. But, for this reason, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read Woolf before. I don’t know how meaningful Smyth’s analysis and connection to Woolf’s text would be for anyone who hasn’t read “To the Lighthouse” – although, I’d be fascinated to hear what anyone who has read this memoir but never read Woolf thinks about “All the Lives We Ever Lived”. Regardless, I found this book very moving and it’s made me want to go back to reading Woolf – yet again!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKatharine Smyth
2 CommentsPost a comment
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George Orwell’s books were one of my first great loves. Like many students I was first introduced to his writing through “1984” and “Animal Farm” but soon after I also came to discover his other fiction including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as well as his nonfiction journalism in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” – not to mention his many incisive essays. The Orwell Foundation awards a number of prizes for work which comes closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art” and it’s exciting that this year they’ve launched the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. This award specifically aims to reward outstanding novels and collections of short stories that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative.

The shortlist has just been announced today and includes a number of familiar novels as well as some books I’m so glad to see celebrated. It’s notable how the novels listed range from books which consider the past, present and future. From Tshuma’s account of a massacre in Zimbabwe to Evans’ survey of modern life in contemporary London to Zumas’ frighteningly relevant projection of an America where abortion has been strictly outlawed these books consider how individuals are trapped in the politics of their time. Still others straddle a long space of history such as Brown’s account of working class life within a Middlesbrough housing estate to evoke a sense of place as much as character.

It’s amazing to see how Anna Burns’ “Milkman” was first published to relative obscurity but has since gone on to win the Man Booker Prize and be shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio Prize and Women’s Prize. It’s particularly apt Burns’ novel has been nominated for this award since its central message is about a young woman being helplessly trapped by the crushing political strife within her community. Also nominated for the Man Booker Prize last year was graphic novel “Sabrina” which hauntingly depicts an America emotionally hollowed out by the reverberating effects of gun violence. Taking a different track, Evans’ “Ordinary People” features larger political events in the background as two different black couples wrestle with the pressures of modern day life. I was drawn to reading “Red Clocks” because of its allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing, but found myself gripped by its story and its prescient depiction of an America which regimentally controls the bodies of women.

The remaining two novels “House of Stone” and “Ironopolis” are both books I’ve been aware of for a while and really want to read. So I’m glad this prize has prompted me to make these novels a priority and bump them up my TBR pile. Have you read any of the books on this list? Any favourites? Are there other recent novels that you also feel meaningfully engage with politics? The winner of this award will be announced on June 25th.

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I don't often read biographies but when I saw that Matthew Sturgis' recent book on Oscar Wilde has been shortlisted for this year's prestigious Wolfson History Prize I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn more about Wilde's life. Sturgis' extensive biography is deliciously comprehensive and draws upon a lot of recent research and untapped material about Wilde to give a really authoritative, well-rounded understanding of this infamous, irresistibly flamboyant and brilliant writer. I've previously read Wilde's most famous fiction as well as several of his plays (I even acted in a production of Lady Windermere's Fan) but I knew little about the trajectory of his life. I was only aware that he was a famous wit whose health and success went into sharp decline after he was tried and imprisoned for gross indecency with men. For instance, Rupert Everett's recent film 'The Happy Prince' is a really sympathetic depiction of the melancholy later years of Wilde's life. Sturgis documents in detail Wilde's family life and many social connections, his rise to fame and the gradual formation of his writing craft, the way his aesthetic principles connected to the expression of his sexuality and, of course, Wilde's tragic downfall from social darling to condemned sodomite. In doing so he has created a masterful portrait of Wilde capturing the rare flame of his brilliance and the gross injustice of his persecution. 

In 2017 I went to an exhibit at the Tate Britain on the subject of 'Queer British Art' and within the gallery hung the large door from Wilde's prison cell. To be confronted with the ugly impenetrable barrier to the artist's freedom was quite moving and brought home the reality of his situation. One could think seeing such a brutal object that this was Wilde's inevitable fate. The challenge of biographies is to present the history of a life while showing that circumstance and coincidence determined what happened to this individual (rather than fate.) This biography begins with a scandalous and much publicised sex trial – but it was for Wilde's father and not Oscar himself. Wilde's father was a doctor accused of inappropriate behaviour with his client. He was exonerated of the charges (partly because of his very respected social position) even though he was certainly a philanderer who fathered a number of illegitimate children. This was sadly not the case with Oscar many years later whose sexual activity happened to be deemed socially unacceptable and so he met severe punishment. Sturgis draws this contrast in a meaningful way.

It's fascinating and surprising to read about Wilde's early life as a rambunctious sporty child in Ireland. I would have assumed that his mannered sense of being was inborn but it appears that (though it was certainly heartfelt) it was a way of presenting himself as one of the leaders of the aestheticism. This was a movement which focused on the aesthetic values rather than political or moral content of literature and art objects. The often flamboyant dress code and posturing which coincided with this was one which periodicals delighted in parodying. It was so interesting to learn how Wilde played into this by connecting himself to such depictions and self-consciously crafted a way of presenting himself in order to achieve fame. And what was especially curious was that Wilde obtained such a level of fame before he'd even published much. I was previously aware that he embarked on extensive lecture tours across America and the United Kingdom, but I assumed that he only did so after the fame of his plays. However, it was quite the reverse. He fervently attempted and failed to get plays produced while simultaneously filling theatres with patrons eager to hear his witticisms about an aesthetic's decorum and manner. This biography taught me what a struggle Wilde had achieving literary success even though he was clearly ferociously intelligent and funny; it just took time for him to learn how to harness this into an art form which would pay his considerable bills.

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Certainly not everyone agreed with Wilde's values and dandy persona. His opinions ran counter to the beliefs of the times so naturally earned him a lot of scorn – as did the petty vengeance which comes within small art circles. But no one could deny Wilde's entertaining style of delivery so it firmly fixed him in the public eye. It was interesting to learn in Sturgis' biography how Wilde attempted to embark in a number of professions before earning money from his own writing. For instance, he reviewed books but hilariously Wilde didn't believe it was necessary or even appropriate to read the entire book he was reviewing. No doubt this position stemmed more from his reluctance to spend so much time on these books.

It's difficult to imagine how Wilde could be extracted from his famous public persona which persists today in legend and the many photos taken of him in elaborate garb. For instance, actor Ezra Miller cites Wilde as one of his style icons. Perhaps Wilde wouldn't have developed his literary talents without this way of presenting himself (as well as indulging in his excessive lifestyle), but it meant that though he was a great genius his literary output was relatively low. The time he hit his stride having a number of very successful plays produced was also the time that he became most entangled with Lord Douglas (Bosie). Because Bosie's father so viciously harassed Wilde and Bosie to end their relationship the couple attempted to sue him for libel and lost. This also unfortunately meant that the testimonies from that trial led to Wilde's own persecution and incarceration. Sturgis' biography details how this end perhaps wasn't inevitable. Of course, the primary cause of his downfall was the prejudice of the time and this paired with Wilde's inflexibility about being who he was and living how he wanted led to his ruin. Wilde should be celebrated for pursing his desires and bravely standing in the face of such condemnation, but it sadly meant that his life was cut short and curtailed his literary output. Sturgis' impressive biography elucidates this struggle in a meaningful and memorable way.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Sturgis
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I get so excited whenever I start a novel that begins with a family tree. Something about the style of a family saga really appeals to me in the way it traces how individuals function both independently and as part of a family. “Celestial Bodies” mainly focuses on the stories of three sisters in modern day Oman, but it also presents a number of perspectives of different family members and people connected to that family. Like Sara Taylor's novel “The Shore” it also moves backwards and forwards in time showing how the decisions and circumstances of earlier generations impact the current generation. This creates a poignant picture of what this family inherits but also a larger picture of how the country of Oman has changed so rapidly in its values and social structures (especially in regards to slavery and women's rights) over the past century. But what engrossed me throughout this novel was the skilful way in which Jokha Alharthi entrenches the reader in each perspective to immerse you in their dilemmas and (often) hidden passions. 

It was fortuitous that I happened to be in the middle of reading “Celestial Bodies” when it was announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize. While I enjoyed the stories it was presenting it's the type of book where you can feel a bit disorientated until you understand its plethora of characters and the various timelines at play. For a while it felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. But the work in putting it together yields a lot of pleasure because it allowed me to see a much larger picture of this family's various trials and developments over a long period of time. It forced me to think about their personal history not in a linear way but in the resonance of events and how they impact different generations.

I especially appreciated how this novel depicts absences within a family like in this passage about the mother named Salima who grieves for her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.” Quite often families will have members who die at quite an early age and their loss can reverberate through many years. So while the story is mostly about the immediate concerns of these very different sisters we gradually come to understand that their older brothers' presence also remains in the minds and hearts of this family. And there's a touching injustice to how people can become preoccupied with these losses rather than focusing on fostering the development of those still living.

This is such a rich and complex novel whose many layers will probably become more evident with a rereading. Yet there is so much in the immediate concerns of its characters being presented from chapter to chapter showing all their many humorous idiosyncrasies and longings that I found this first reading entirely engrossing. I was particularly gripped by the story of the bookish middle sister Asma whose marriage takes her life in an unexpected new direction. While I could connect with a lot of the sisters and their husband's concerns it was really fascinating to read about lives and a culture so different from my own. It's made me much more interested in exploring literature from other countries and I'm so glad the Man Booker International Prize has prompted me to read more translated fiction this year.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJokha Alharthi