And the winner is…

And the winner is…

There’s always a big flurry of activity when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced. This year, The Promise by Damon Galgut won the coveted award for the best novel written in English and published in the UK.

Winning the Booker is a big deal. The winner receives £50,000 and authors who are shortlisted win £2,500. This doesn’t sound like very much, but being shortlisted usually results in a dramatic increase in book sales, so it can transform an author’s career overnight.

But apart from the generous prize money, it made me wonder why the Booker is so important and how it all started.

It turns out that the Booker Prize has a very murky past involving exploitation, slavery and reparation.

Here’s a potted history:

In 1815 Josias Booker arrived in British Guiana, and his younger brother George joined him soon after. George found work as a shipping agent for the export of timber and Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people.

With the abolition of slavery, which took effect in 1834, the Booker brothers received compensation from the state for 52 emancipated slaves. The Slave Ownership Database at University College London records the total sum as £2,884, equivalent to £378,000 in 2020.

In 1835, George and Richard Booker (another brother) founded a trading and shipping company and established the Booker Line, which focused on shipping goods. Richard Booker died four years later in 1838, leaving Josias and George to increase the business after the purchase of sugar plantations across the colony. At one point, the Bookers controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and owned five Booker Line ships. It was common to refer to the country as Booker’s Guiana, rather than British Guiana. After emancipation, the sugar plantations relied on indentured labourers shipped in from Calcutta. This continued for over three quarters of a century, with workers being treated as slaves and living in poor conditions.

In 1952, Jock Campbell took over the chairmanship of the company and his Fabian social politics transformed it into a benevolent force, providing major benefits for sugar workers. Jock Campbell helped to set up Booker’s Author Division, which sponsored the original Booker Prize until 2002.

The modern day Booker has no connection to the family and is currently sponsored by a charitable foundation.

Not only does the prize have a colourful past, the choice of winner is often very controversial. There is often widespread debate about whether the ‘right’ book has won as well as whether the judging panel was diverse enough.

This year’s panel was chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff and included writer and editor Horatio Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; Professor Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also a poet. A mixed bunch indeed, but the winner was apparently a unanimous choice.

Will I read The Promise? Probably not. It looks too highbrow for me, but I might get around to reading Great Circle, which is very long, but getting great reviews. One of my favourite books this year was Klara and the Sun, which was on the long list, but sadly didn’t make it to the short list.

Do you plan to read any of the books on this year’s list? Let me know in the comments.

A cosy read

A cosy read

One of the great things about being retired is that you can go down a rabbit hole without feeling guilty. This morning I was trying to remember the name of a Scottish novel we read in my book group years ago, so I started tootling around the web looking for “books set on Scottish Islands” and came up with a list of top favourite Scottish crime novels featuring a book called Death of a Liar by M.C. Beaton.

I was delighted to read that Death of a Liar is the 30th book in a series featuring the Scottish police officer Hamish Macbeth. I used to love the TV show which starred a very youthful Robert Carlyle. You can watch some grainy episodes here if you’d like a trip down memory lane. The TV show (featuring a cute little white Scotty dog) aired between 1995-97 in the highly coveted Sunday night drama time-slot, back in the days when we didn’t have control over what was on our tellies and had to watch whatever was on.

I was a big fan of the TV series, primarily because I have a soft spot for Scottish accents, but I’ve not read the books, although that might change. It surprised me to find that M.C. Beaton was the pen-name of a writer called Marion Chesney Gibbons. She wrote under four different pen-names and was also the author of the Agatha Raisin series. These books are known as ‘cosy mysteries’ because they feature low levels of blood and gore and have neat and tidy endings. Perfect comfort reads. Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie books are other examples of the genre, as is The Thursday Murder Club by television presenter Richard Osman.

Marion Chesney started her career in the publishing industry in the 1960s and wrote her first novel after reading some poorly written romance novels and thinking she could do better. I love it when people write for that reason! She soon switched to crime novels and published 160 books during her career.

According to this article in the Guardian, her attitude to the television series was ambivalent, and at a crime-writing festival in Reading in 2010 Chesney Gibbons told a shocked but amused audience in no uncertain terms that Carlyle had been miscast because he was a Lowland Scot whereas Macbeth was a Highlander.

Chesney Gibbons continued to write well into her 80s and published her last Agatha Raisin book only a few months before her death, aged 83, in December 2019. She sold 21 million books during her lifetime and attributed her impressive output to the “curse of the Scottish work ethic”.

I still haven’t been able to recall the name of the books I was originally looking for, so that might be a task for another day. Or maybe someone in my book group will remember?

Sorrow and bliss

Sorrow and bliss

Last week I finally read Meg Mason’s book, Sorrow and Bliss. My middle sister recommended it to me ages ago, but I only just got around to reading it because I had to wait ages for it become available at the library. The library has 12 copies of this book, which tells you how popular it is.

I read it in two days and cried at the end.

I’m not sure how to describe it because it’s both funny and sad. It’s about getting things wrong and keeping going. Martha, (the main character) is both awful and endearing. Sometimes you want to shake her and say, don’t do that, but then you realise that often she can’t help herself.

Even though I loved it, I’m not sure it will appeal to everyone, so I thought I’d share an interview with the author so you can decide if it is something you want to read.

Finding the perfect interview with Meg Mason turned out to be more time-consuming than I imagined. Because the book has been so popular (they’re making it into a movie), she’s been a guest on just about every book podcast imaginable. I ended up listening to about five versions of the same interview and it was interesting to hear how differently she came across in each one. When the hosts were very chatty and casual, she was a lot funnier and more honest. In the more formal interviews, she sounded a lot more nervous and stayed “on script” the whole time.

I finally chose this interview with the author Kate Mildenhall because she sounds really comfortable. I suspect they know one another well because they are roughly the same age and probably hang out at the same literary festivals. In the interview, she reveals she dislikes her first book (a memoir) and when she sees it in a bookshop; she wants to scribble in the book and change some words.

This really resonated with me. When I worked as a film editor, I often had scenes where things just weren’t working, but I couldn’t fix them because I didn’t have the shots I needed, or I didn’t have enough time to make the scene work. I’m sure it’s the same for anyone trying to do something creative. Sometimes you know you should have started again, or spent more time, but for whatever reason, you didn’t or couldn’t. There was a deadline, or the kids needed to be fed, or you had to be somewhere. We often have a desire to make things look and sound perfect, but there isn’t always time to do that.

But it’s hard to give up the idea that we should do things well.

Every time I get down on the floor to do my exercises, I look at the little gaps where the paint stops and the skirting board starts. I did a pretty ordinary job when I painted that room, but I was recovering from a back injury when I did it, so it’s foolish to think that I could do anything other than a “good enough” job. Occasionally, I contemplate getting out the tin of half-strength chintz grey and finishing it properly, but then my knee hurts and I decide to leave it for another day. I’ve got other things to do. Maybe not very well, but to the best of my ability.

Sunshine on my shoulders

Sunshine on my shoulders

My friend and her husband mind their two grandchildren one day a week and enjoy it immensely, even though they find it exhausting. The baby has a sleep around lunchtime, and they have been told to put him in a room that’s heated to precisely 22°C. He’s zipped up in his sleeping bag (blankets are forbidden), and needs to be woken at a particular time, definitely not later than 3pm. There’s a long list of instructions and they follow them to the letter.

When my children were babies, I argued endlessly with my mother-in-law about how my children should sleep. She always wanted to put them on their tummies, but I thought I knew better. The SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) advice at the time was that babies should sleep on their backs, and I insisted that this was how I wanted it to be. I’m sure she probably still put them on their tummies when I wasn’t around, but fortunately they survived!

My mother once told me she enjoyed having her last baby the most. When she had her first baby, she worried constantly about doing the wrong thing, but by the time she had my baby brother (her fifth child), she had learnt to trust her own instincts and ignore the advice of experts. The nurses at the Baby Health Centre were terrifying and there were many rules to follow.

In the 1950s, the number one rule for a healthy baby was fresh air. “An abundance of pure, cool, outside air flowing fresh and free day and night” was how they described it in the baby manual. In the 1930s they took this edict to ridiculous lengths with the invention of baby cages. In London, they literally hung babies outside buildings to ensure that they had enough fresh air. In his book, The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr Luther Emmett maintained that babies needed to be aired to ‘renew and purify the blood’.

A baby suspended in a cage several floors up to ensure adequate sun and fresh air

Even though baby cages went out of vogue, the idea that babies needed both sun and fresh air persisted, and in the 1940s and 50s, mothers were told to put their babies outside in the sun so that they could soak up some of the sunshine. Not only was sunshine an antidote to nappy rash, it also helped prevent rickets. Scientists were aware of the relationship between sunshine and Vitamin D deficiency, but I suspect that most ordinary people just thought that the warm rays of the sun had some special life-giving properties.

And maybe they do.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, Klara and the Sun , the sun is characterised as benevolent and he also has mysterious healing powers. Klara, an empathetic and wise robot, asks the sun to intervene and provide his “special nourishment” to Josie, her human, when she is unwell. It wasn’t until this week, when I was sitting out in the sunshine, that I realised that the AFs (artificial friends) in the book are solar powered. For them, and perhaps for me, the sun is indeed magical.

This is a sad, wise, and funny book. It made me think a lot about friendship and about the mysterious healing powers of the sun.

You can read a great review here.

Shut that door

Shut that door

I’ve just finished reading Monogamy by Sue Miller. I’ve read a few of her books so I knew I was in for a great read, but to be honest it took me a few chapters to get into it. I think this is because I’ve been reading some very undemanding books (aka trashy) and this one needed a bit more concentration. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes find it hard to start new books.

Monogamy is about marriage, fidelity, and grief. It’s about what happens when you lose someone you love, but then find out that they aren’t necessarily the person you thought they were. It’s beautifully written, but I found some of it confronting. Not only did it make me think about my own relationships and how they have affected my life, I also found some of the explicit descriptions of their physical relationship disconcerting. Not because they had any weird sexual proclivities, more because I’m just squeamish about sex scenes in books and movies. I can watch murder scenes (albeit with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers), but sex scenes sometimes make me squirm in my seat.

In the world of romance writing, books with explicit sex scenes are known as “open door” books. You follow the main characters into the bedroom and get to read a graphic description of what follows. Books that leave you at the door are described as “closed door” books, for obvious reasons. The door is shut firmly in your face and you have to use your imagination. I don’t think these labels apply to literary fiction, but romance readers are very picky about their books and there are lots of rules.

Personally, I would rather move on with the story of “what happened next” rather than linger in the bedroom for too long. There are exceptions, of course. In Emily Maguire’s book Love Objects, there is a very graphic bedroom scene near the beginning of the book which is integral to the story. The book wouldn’t make sense without knowing what happened in the bedroom.

I was talking to a friend about this recently and she agreed she finds long descriptions of sex to be irksome. Not because we are prudish, but because they simply don’t add to the narrative. Also, they aren’t necessarily very romantic in the truest sense. If you think about what constitutes a ‘romantic evening’, then that depends on where you are in life and what makes you feel happy and loved. It could easily be very romantic to see your partner doing the washing up! No roses or champagne required in that scenario. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for romance when it’s handled sensitively. We both agreed that the most wildly romantic movie in the world is The English Patient. Check out this clip and see if you disagree. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how the sex scenes are handled, but in the film they are beautiful. Also, Ralph Fiennes is unbelievably handsome, so that helps!

In “Monogamy”, I suspect that the sex scenes were included because they were illustrative of their relationship. They showed that her husband, (despite his unfaithfulness) had been a generous and caring lover. But if they make the book into a movie, I hope they leave some things to our imagination.

Dear reader

Dear reader

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. It’s for middle-grade readers (8-12-year-olds), who are ready for novel length books, but not quite ready for young adult fiction, which often has quite strong themes around sexuality, loss, and the difficulties associated with transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Dear Sweet Pea has all those themes, but they are softened. Body consciousness is dealt with gently, and relationships are all about friendship, rather than romance. It’s an enjoyable read with the main character inadvertently falling into the role of Agony Aunt when she gets involved with an eccentric neighbour who writes an advice column for the local newspaper.

It reminded me very much of a book for grown-ups called Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce, which has a similar storyline. Set in war-time England, Emmy (an aspiring war correspondent) takes a low-paid job at a rundown newspaper and begins to secretly answer the letters to Mrs Bird, the resident (and rather fearsome) advice columnist.

Advice columns have always been popular in newspapers and magazines. In the nineteenth century they offered advice on domestic concerns, as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable!! They were a good way for women to ask questions about love and about sexual matters in a time when these things were not discussed openly, and doctors were mostly male.

Women have always wanted to know what’s normal and often don’t have anyone they can ask. Some topics are just plain embarrassing and hard to discuss with even your closest friends.

A good place to find the answers to embarrassing questions used to be Dolly Doctor, a column in Dolly magazine, published in Australia from 1970 to 2016. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, back issues of Dolly have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be found here.

Another well-known Australian agony aunt was Kate Samperi who wrote a column in the Women’s Day magazine from 1970 to 1993. She gave advice about life, love and happiness in her ‘Dear Kate’ column.

America’s most famous agony aunt was probably Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, also known as Dorothy Dix. She was born in 1861 and was the highest paid and most widely read female journalist in the world at the time of her death in 1951. Her advice on marriage was syndicated in newspapers around the world and her name lives on to this day in Australian politics, where a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ refers to the practice of asking a government Minister a planned question during Parliamentary Question Time. This provides an opportunity for a Member of Parliament to either show off or waste time on a matter of little importance.

Modern versions of Dorothy Dix include Dear Sugar, a column originally published anonymously by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Ask Polly, a column in The Cut magazine, where writer Heather Havrilesky gives no-nonsense advice about a range of issues including how to find new friends, when to break up with your boyfriend and whether you have to thank your aunt when she gives you terrible gifts. Be warned that there is often quite a lot of sweary language (prolific use of the *f* word) in both these columns, but I like their tough love approaches.

I guess there will always be a place for agony aunts in various guises, because despite all the changes in the last 100 years, people are still deeply insecure and in need of reassurance.

I hope you have someone you can talk to, but if not, you can always write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.

You’re never too old for a story book

You’re never too old for a story book

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately. I love the simplicity of the writing and the funny and quirky stories, but mostly I love the illustrations. I am in awe of the work that illustrators do to bring story books to life.

I’m currently enjoying reading Two Bad Teddies by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland, and it struck me that Niland is a very familiar name, but I couldn’t think why.

I thought they might be related to Carmel Niland, former Director-General of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Community Services, former President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and founding co-ordinator of the NSW Women’s Co-ordination Unit, but it turns out that Kilmeny and Deborah are (or were) the twin daughters of Ruth Park (author of Poor Man’s Orange) and D’Arcy Niland (author of The Shiralee, a very famous Australian book about a shearer and his four-year-old daughter). What a pedigree!

Sadly, Kilmeny passed away in 2009, shortly after Two Bad Teddies was published. She was a prolific illustrator and artist and published over thirty books. She also painted a portrait of her mother, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see it here.

Two Bad Teddies features Tilly and Gruff, a pair of naughty teddies who are jealous of a new soft toy named Bendy Bill. You can just see the displeasure on their faces as their new rival steals away the affections of Mollie-Sue.

Two teddy bears looking grumpy

Like most picture books, the story has a happy ending which I won’t spoil here. I like to read children’s books when I’m feeling down because they make me feel everything will be alright, even if things aren’t great at the moment. They’re a way to escape from reality that doesn’t involve over-eating or drinking too much wine.

So if your life is going a bit pear-shaped, I strongly recommend that you visit your local library or bookshop, and pick up some new books or some old favourites.

In the meantime, look after yourself!

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I love children’s books, so I was sad to see the passing of the children’s author Beverly Cleary (aged 104) on March 26, 2021. She was one of America’s most successful writers, selling over 91 million books during her lifetime. Her books have been translated into 12 languages and are loved by readers all over the world.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Cleary was the author of the Ramona books (amongst others), a series of eight humorous children’s novels that center on Ramona Quimby, her family and friends. Her first book, Beezus and Ramona, appeared in 1955 and the final book, Ramona’s World, was published in 1999.

Cleary described Ramona as a feisty girl with no desire to conform, even when pressured by those around her. In Ramona the Pest, when her sister Beezus (real name Beatrice) asks her to stop being a pest, she says…

“I’m not acting like a pest. I’m singing and skipping,” said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger and so they could be unfair.

Ramona went on with her singing and skipping.

From Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

Cleary (whose maiden name was Beverly Bunn), was born in Oregon, the daughter of a farmer and a school-teacher. She trained as a librarian, but didn’t start writing until she was in her thirties. She kept writing well into her eighties (there’s hope for me yet). Cleary said that children kept coming into the library asking for books about ‘children like them’ and there weren’t any, so she decided to write them herself. As a child she was a slow reader and was often sick and absent from school. This seems to be a common theme for a lot of writers. Long periods of time confined to bed must cultivate the imagination!

It’s not possible to calculate the effect that books have on people, but I think that children’s books in particular can really influence how we see ourselves in the world. It’s good to read about characters who look and feel the way you do, especially if you feel like you don’t really feel you fit in. I think this is the reason that I love Ramona. She’s both vulnerable and brave.

Here’s a lovely tribute from journalist Scaachi Koul, born some 20 years after the first Ramona book was published, talking about how the Ramona books affected her life.

Have you read any of her books? Do you have a favourite character?

Newsletters I love

Newsletters I love

Hello friends

Do you scan your inbox every morning for something interesting to read? I know I do!

I love getting emails from people I know in real life, but failing that, I enjoy reading newsletters from people I don’t know personally, but who send me stuff that’s interesting and entertaining.

I’ve been thinking about starting my own newsletter (it’s a work in progress) and this has led me to do quite a lot of research about what kind of email platforms are available, but also to think deeply about what sort of content I enjoy. The experts say that you should write the book you’d like to read, so I figure you should send out the newsletter that you’d like to receive. For me, this is usually a mixture of funny, interesting or inspiring things, with a few recipes thrown in for good measure.

These are my favourite newsletters at the moment:

Mary Laura Philpott, author of I Miss You When I Blink sends out a newsletter every couple of weeks with different book recommendations plus a few other tidbits: a link to something interesting or funny, a great tune, and a little cartoon or art of some sort. It’s short and fun. You can subscribe here.

The food writer and podcaster Jenny Rosenstrach has a newsletter called Three Things, which I love because the recipes are so simple and appealing. We have a lot of limes on our tree at the moment and I have become slightly addicted to gimlets (a cocktail involving gin, limes and elderflower cordial). The recipe for this, plus a simple angel-food cake, is here.

If you are a writer, think about subscribing to Craft Talk, by Jami Attenberg, author of many books which I admire. Her newsletter is always honest and inspirational without being cloying. You can subscribe to a paid or a free version, (I have taken the free option because I’m a cheapskate), but note that she donates most of the proceeds from the paid version to charity, and if you are an educator, you can sign up for free.

I always enjoy browsing through this newsletter from Jo Goddard which contains a nice mix of culture, fashion and articles about relationships. I especially enjoyed this article featuring the apartment of illustrator Carly Martin because I love looking at pictures of where people live.

This is just a small sample of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to, but they are the ones that I always open and read. I’d be interested to know if you have any favourites and I’d especially like to know what it is about them you really find engaging? I’m still in the research phase, so please share what you like (and don’t like) about any newsletters you’ve signed up for.

Have a great week!

Marg

Literary fiction

Literary fiction

I’ve been watching a series called Love, Nina on the ABC. It’s based on a book by Nina Stibbe about her early days as a nanny working for a single mum (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) in a somewhat bohemian household in London.

Bonham-Carter plays Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, who Stibbe worked for as a young woman. Nick Hornby wrote the script, and it’s very amusing, especially the dialogue between the two boys and their mum. There’s also an odd neighbour (a Scottish poet) who comes to their house for dinner every night and constantly criticises Nina’s cooking.

In the series Nina moves from Leicester to London and discovers ‘literature’ because of her friendship with a young man who lives three doors up. Early in the series he sees her reading Shirley Conran’s Lace, a trashy novel popular in the 1970s, and gives her a copy of The Return of the Native (Thomas Hardy), but she finds it frustrating and impenetrable. There’s a delightful scene where she’s reading it to her nine-year-old charge and pretending that it’s Enid Blyton so that he can help her understand what it means, but he sees through her plan and demands that she reads him The Famous Five instead.

Eventually Nina realises Hardy is writing about the characters’ interior life and not just documenting their everyday activities. She marvels at the idea that everyone has an interior life, even Aunty Gladys, and that this is what literature is all about.

I’m not sure whether this is true, and to be honest I have read little Hardy since I was about 17, but I have noticed that when you go into a bookshop, there’s always a shelf labelled ‘literary fiction’, and one labelled ‘fiction’ or sometimes ‘general fiction’. Sometimes there’s another shelf called women’s fiction, but never a shelf called men’s fiction. Poor men, why don’t they get a shelf?

Writer and teacher Allison K Williams says that in simple terms, a literary book is just one that has sold less than 10,000 copies, but I think there’s more to it than that (and I think she’d agree). She is merely making the point that if you are planning to write literary fiction, then you’d better not expect to sell thousands of copies unless you win the Booker Prize or another big literary award. Commercial fiction is written with the market in mind, and the big publishing houses seem to think that most people want to read books that are just like other books. That’s why you see books marketed as the new Eleanor Oliphant, for example.

The dictionary defines ‘literature’ as written work that is considered superior or has lasting artistic merit, but I’m not sure who decides these things. Some books are more thoughtful and engaging than others, and these are the ones that I like to read, regardless of the label.

I’m keen to know what things mean, and perhaps be moved to think about wider themes such as the value of friendship, honesty, and love, but I think these ideas can be explored in a well plotted murder mystery or a romance novel. In order for a book to move me there needs to be something that resonates at a conscious, or perhaps unconscious level, but I’m not bothered if it’s also a page-turner. I like complex characters and long sprawling multi-generational books, but most of all, I like strong storytelling.

I like books that stay with me after I’ve finished reading them. Sometimes I even catch myself wondering how the characters in the book are going, as if they were actually friends or people I’ve met somewhere. I like flawed characters and dislike one-dimensional goody two shoes. People who are good all the time are just not realistic in my book. Who’s nice all the time in real life? Not me, that’s for sure.