Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Book Launch - London

Dubravka Ugrešić in conversation with Marina Warner

London Review of Books Bookshop Thursday 4 October at 7PM

Dubravka Ugrešić was born in 1949 in what is now Croatia. Following the outbreak of war in 1991 her trenchant opposition to nationalism, both Serbian and Croatian, made her a controversial figure at home and abroad. In her latest book Nobody’s Home (Telegram) she takes the reader on a kaleidoscopic tour of Europe and America, finding that as the former Eastern bloc throws itself whole-heartedly into Western-style modernisation, the West itself is, ironically, beginning to take on some of the characteristics of the old Soviet state.

She is the author of The Ministry of Pain (2005) and Nobody's Home : The Ministry of Pain was nominated for both the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction and the International Man Booker Prize. You can find more information on more information on the LRB website:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Creative Writing Workshops - London, UK

Katherine May, hagsharlotsheroines member and author of Ghosts and their Uses - - is running a workshop for the National Gallery on 6th and 20th October, which looks like fun if anyone wants to come along:

The subject is 'retellings' - using paintings from the gallery's collections to retell stories - some famous, some personal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book review: The Loudest Sound and Nothing

Laura Wilkinson reviews The Loudest Sound and Nothing by Clare Wigfall, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, £12.99

There is something of the fairy tale around the publication of Clare Wigfall’s collection of short stories – you can read about it on her MySpace site - and so it is gratifying to report that indeed there is magic in her words. If not happy-ever-after endings.

‘Safe’ is a haunting, menacing tale set in present day Britain about the mysterious disappearances of newborn babies and a plague of malevolent rodents, seen from a new mother’s point of view. There are overtures of The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Wigfall cleverly ensures that we are never certain how much of it is the product of a disturbed, or chronically sleep deprived, mind.

In ‘The Party’s Just Getting Started’ Wigfall brings Adam, Eve and Adam’s first wife, Lilith, to modern day LA. ‘Night after Night’ transports us to shabby, post-war Bethnal Green where Joycie’s husband is arrested for a heinous crime. And in ‘The Ocularist’s Wife’ we are taken to a besieged nineteenth century Paris.

The sheer breadth of variety and style on display in The Loudest Sound and Nothing is enough to impress. On top of this striking diversity, you can add plaudits like beautifully crafted, an original voice, erudite and fresh. And this is a debut collection.

All seventeen tales are meritorious, and deliciously surprising. Wigfall packs a mean punch into the shortest of stories - there is no excess flab in her work and she proves beyond any doubt (if you were ever in need of any) that less is most definitely more.

If you like resolution in your tales you won’t find it here. These stories are laced with ambiguity, and their depth and power lies in the silences, the ‘nothings’, which Wigfall leaves to her reader's imagination.

Unforgettable, dark stories covering the prosaic and the extraordinary, often in the same breath. Wigfall is a talent to watch.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book review: Reading like a Writer

Sarah Tanburn reviews Reading like a Writer, by Francine Prose, published by Harper Perennial (£7.19 on Amazon)

Living on a boat every book you keep has to work its passage. Like any avid reader or writer, I always want to keep every book that might be useful one day, that captured my imagination or had something to teach me.

It is with great relief then, that I am giving away nearly all the how-to-manuals, the guides to structure, plot, characterisation, even dialogue. I plan to keep only two, just two, great books which contain so much wisdom on the challenge of the page.

The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 (Canongate, 2006, £10.49 on Amazon), collects sixteen of its extraordinary discussions with great writers. Worth it just for Rebecca West's acerbic judgements on her fellows, Billy Wilder's pragmatic assessment of a writer's place and Borges' sly humour, this is inimitable guidance by the greats on keeping on writing - one sentence, one word at a time. They don't all agree with each other of course, but that's part of the fun. One of my favourites is Hemmingway, grumpy but always seeking to say exactly what he means; he contradicts the writing group mantra to 'write what you know', when he likens the work of writing to an iceberg: “Anything you know you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show … [of 'The Old Man and the Sea'] I've seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out…”.

The other 'how-to' book that's staying on board is Francine Prose's wonderful meditation on learning from great writing. She is a journalist, novelist, teacher and avid reader. Her argument is that we read, if we read at all, too fast, without sufficient attention to language; she wants us to, “read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer ha[s] made. “
That remark alone has made me a more thoughtful writer, more aware of the specifics of punctuation and word choice.

She takes us with her through a series of essays on words, sentences, paragraphs, the fundamental building blocks. From these she talks of narration and character, dialogue, details and gesture. On each of these topics she gives a wealth of examples, and a clear-eyed course in taking your own writing and the writing of others more seriously than you had believed possible. There are so many examples, but one can spend valuable time pondering her comment that, “one mark of bad written dialogue is that it only doing one thing, at most, at a time.”

Or consider her ode to sentences: “beauty in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face …if you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.”

I was once told in a writing class that the paragraph was the smallest unit of writing that should be considered during revision. I'd always struggled with this, as someone who agonises over each comma and conjunction, so I found Prose's comment most satisfying.

Prose bases her approach on reading good writing. She repeatedly uses examples from Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hemmingway, Woolf. She is not condescending or arrogant about it; she does not assume we are all post-graduate literature students. Indeed, she explicitly hopes we aren't. But she argues that there is always something to learn as a writer from reading the greats.

“The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in the direction in which you might wish to go.”

Thus she cites party scenes from Tolstoy and Joyce to show how to handle such multi-character dialogue. Woolf's opening sentence in her essay 'On Being Ill' is deconstructed with love and attention to point the way lucidity, wit and grace. She makes the excellent point that being influenced by writers such as this is no bad thing. I would not complain if I was writing like Salinger or Hemmingway, Woolf or Rebecca West.

There is great charity and humility in Prose's approach. She devotes a chapter to reading Chekhov's short stories, describing how each time she thought she had given her class a clear piece of advice, she would find a story that contradicted her. Her last chapter 'Reading for Courage' takes us into broader territory, talking about the value of art (a book being the only piece of art you can take on the bus, she reminds us). She cites Babel, shot by Stalin for writing, and reminds that “Art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination.”

This is quite a challenge, to feel that our own efforts to write, our own lives as readers require us to engage with such matters. Again, I found it moving and inspiring, to be reminded why some books are better than others, what tools will help bolster my own judgement, and how that can feed my own writing and editing.

The book closes with a reading list. It's a little daunting, as I find I've only read half of them and feel motivated to re-read the old friends, closely, one word at a time. I'm pleased to say that quite a few of those that I have read have survived to be kept on the boat, such as Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice. As for the rest, well there's all the space created by giving away the other writing manuals. That'll do nicely.

Book review: Elizabeth and Leicester

Marian Jane Williams reviews Elizabeth and Leicester by Sarah Gristwood, published by Bantam Press, £20

History, for some, is a dry dusty subject to be tolerated at school and immediately forgotten when freed from the grips of education. But history as told by Sarah Gristwood is a most enjoyable and intriguing lesson.

I would guess that many people are familiar with the life and times of Elizabeth I; if not from study at school then certainly from the many film and TV productions which seem to abound, and her story and place in history is assured. But the story of Leicester and his place is less well known. Gristwood’s portrait of these two leading characters of the day is an enthralling account of their shared experiences, their love and respect for one another, and the power they wielded in a time of political intrigue and religious unrest.

Elizabeth and Leicester grew up in the turbulent court of Henry VIII with its attendant gossip, scandal and intrigue. Both were imprisoned in the Tower by Elizabeth’s sister Mary and both shared the new Protestant religion. When Elizabeth became Queen her obvious infatuation with the tall, attractive Robert Dudley (as he was then) led to a deepening of their relationship and this scandalised many, at home and abroad, because Dudley was a married man. When, two years later, his wife died in somewhat suspicious circumstances, rumours were rife but it was assumed by most, if not all, that they would marry. Instead they formed a life long working partnership and a mutual affection and dependency which, like most relationships, had its own ups and downs.

Of all the many manoeuvre s and incidents of Elizabeth’s long reign perhaps the two most abiding ones were her love for Leicester and her long imprisonment and eventual beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. But the most intriguing one of all is her relationship to Leicester and the eternal question which was first mooted while they were alive and which has fascinated people ever since. Did they or didn’t they consummate their love? And was she really a Virgin Queen? Here was a passionate and vain woman who was in the unusual position of holding all the instruments of power in their relationship. Of this alone we can be certain.

Gristwoods’ history deals with these questions and others in extraordinary and vivid detail and gives thought-provoking insight into their lives and their desires.
This is a history book that is in turn entertaining and compelling, and brings long dead, wonderful characters to glorious life once again.

Literature News

Agatha Christie Week 9th-16th September 2007

Harper Collins have re-launched the whole Christie series with funky new-look covers - in stores and on amazon now.

The Goddess Guide
The Goddess Guide was THE style bible success of last year. Winning fans such as India Knight and securing a regular 'cool hunter' slot on Richard and Judy for the summer, Gisele has offered advice on everything from finding your own fashion way (and helping you get it right) to discovering all the hidden hip gems of the British Isles and beyond. The gold and black paperback edition of this handbag essential is as luxurious and stylish as the original but with added essential content for 2008.
1st October 2007 £10 Paperback