June was a phenomenally bookish month – yes, even more so than May – so I’ll start this round-up with the books that I read.
Yes, I finally read To the Lighthouse. After years of it sitting on my bookcase. After A starting it and giving in after 20 pages. I popped my Woolf cherry and got a big red tick into the bargain (thanks, Andy):What was it like? Well, I could barely put my response into words, but felt I had to try to work out what I thought. Now I think of all the clamour, the noise and the fickle affections of the first part of the book, in which everything seems to be happening, but nothing really is; and I think about the third part of the book, in which nothing seems to be happening, but something really momentous occurs. And I think of the second part, when the house and its fleeting occupants age and wither, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the passage of time that I have ever read.
So, that extraordinarily perplexing and stirring experience was a result of attending READ Y’SELF FITTER, which I wrote about in last month’s round-up. It is the brainchild of Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously that was my second conquest of June. A more timely and pertinent read, after the devastation of A Man in Love I can’t imagine. After the Knausgaard I felt broken apart, electrified and hateful: I thought I’d never be able to read in the same way again. But TYoRD made me whole again. It described – so thoughtfully, so humourously, so truthfully – why it is that reading can have such a strong effect – because the greatest artistry of literature is the pinnacle of humanity, it’s the best we can ever be, and for the vast majority of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to perfection. That description makes it sound unbearably worthy, so let me reassure you – it’s achingly worthy, but so fucking bearable that I wish I could live in it.
Notable because it heralded the re-birth of bookclub (yes, the one that I’d travel all the way from Nottingham for because no bugger in Notts would meet to talk book) is The Testament of Mary. Notable too are the vastly different interpretations of so slim a volume. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice – her obstinacy and her skepticism. I thought it was strongest when it seemed to question the veracity of events that were taking place, and least interesting when it could only be read as an alternative/insider view of the persecution of Christ.
I found a train ticket bookmarking my place in In a Free State dated February 2013. So that’s proof that this one didn’t strike me as a page turner. It’s another notch on my booker bedpost, but aside from that, I don’t have much to say about it – yes, it’s probably my failing. Or it could just be too fresh.
Ooh, this one makes me all tingly just thinking of it. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld – my Flight Club book – is winner of no less than three awards in the last couple of weeks. It pitches Jake Whyte’s current shepherding on a remote island – where some unknown menace is brutalising her flock – with her shady past, a continent and a climate away. It’s a story laced with mistrust, misdemeanour and mistakes; it’s provocative and unsettling; it’s also the only book on the Summer Reads list that didn’t need to be argued for (I hope it’s okay to say that). The evocation of two distinct places, the strength of the central character with the deftly drawn portraits of many men who briefly play their part, the subtle undermining narrative and the sophisticated structure that serves to distance these two separate phases of life are all undeniable hallmarks of quality.
Borough Press launched a great campaign on twitter to get people tweeting about books (actually, I say it was a great campaign, but I’m not sure what it was in aid of, so…). It was glorious. I noticed that lots of people tweeted first thing, over breakfast, and I still haven’t shaken the habit of opening up my timeline with my coffee to see what books are being talked about. I blogged about my June-long daliance with #bookadayuk for posterity. Doubleday UK took over for July, and you should join in, but I spent too much time tweeting in June, so have to now catch up with life, the universe, everything.
JERWOOD FICTION UNCOVERED
The lovely Sam Ruddock took me along to Jerwood Fiction Uncovered, where eight books were announced as winners of a prize for outstanding fiction – check them out – a great selection. Delightfully, it introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before, and was further accolade for a few of my favourite publishers – Salt and Granta Books. It’s a prize that cares about what comes after winning – getting involved with writers and their publishers to promote the titles in bookshops, at events and on their very own radio station. As an added bonus, the writers each had tin-type portraits created – gorgeous! Just like Sam’s fetching blue jacket.
You think Bookseller Crow is just the best bookshop ever, and then it goes and puts on an event like this, and you think you’ll burst because you’re having such fun, in company, about books. The stuff of wildest dreams. To open Crystal Palace Overground Festival, Jonathan invited three writers to read from their new books. Jonathan Gibbs read from Randall, an alternative take on the YBAs with the immortal sentiment ‘art you don’t have to see to get’. It contains more shit than Manzoni’s tins, and is so close to my art school education it’s excruciating (and hilarious). Will Wiles read from the The Way Inn a story that takes the conference industry as its leaping off point, before it postulates conference surrogacy (which, come to think of it, is a damn good idea if conferences can’t be abolished entirely) and then, I’m assured, goes very, very weird. It’s incredibly well observed, and had my toes curling in recognition. Then there was a fabulous interlude by Barbara Brownskirt, poet in residence at the 197 bus stop, and I haven’t shaken the thought of faberge eggs between my legs since. Finally, J. B. Morrison read from The Extraordinary Life of Frank Derrick, aged 81, a touching portrait of an aged man, reliant on the weekly visits of his carer, and what blossoms in the gaps between personal and professional relationships. And, there was beer. Marvellous!
THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK | YOUR FIRST NOVEL
I went along to Stoke Newington Literary Festival, but hearing about it late and having other plans, I only got to The Future of the Book event. I should really stop going to these things, because I do get annoyed listening to, but not joining in with, a debate. But there were some great people on the panel – writers Nick Harkaway and Polly Courtney, found of Made in Me Eric Huang, editor of The Bookseller Phil Jones and publisher Stephanie Seegmuller of Pushkin Press. Eric made a distinction between ‘lean forward’ activities (gaming) and ‘lean back’ activities (reading) – which served to highlight to number of books I’ve read in recent years that made me lean forward.
I also attended ‘Your First Novel’ – an event in the lead up to the announcement of the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction – mainly to see Emma Healey whose debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, published the following day after causing a huge stir at London Book Fair. Kate Mosse chaired the panel, composed of Sarah Waters, Charlotte Mendelson and Felicity Blunt alongside Emma. It was a frank and funny conversation about getting started, keeping going, the editing process, submitting to agents, book titles, and then when it opened out to the floor, plastic surgery and lesbian Kurt Vonnegut. Major props to Emma for taking on such a big stage with such a stellar panel, and for charming everyone in the room.
I had planned to spend my crowd-cash this month on something other than theatre, but China Plate were desperately trying to reach their target for Blood will have blood, an adaptation of their popular production of Macbeth for 9-13 year olds. Their magic idea has the porter, played by the wonderful Richard Kidd, as sole performer, backed up by a digital cast.
Coming up in July – a literary salon with Mrs Trefusis and Andy Miller, an evening at Bookseller Crow with Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist and then open to offers!