Shortlisted for the 2014 Folio Prize

I might as well say this upfront.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor at last week’s prize-giving ceremony.  I was utterly transfixed as I read this.  Could not wait to pick it up again when I had to put it down (which only happened twice).

I’ll say this as well.  I was rooting for Schroder to emerge as victor in the narrative – this despite what he does.  Not that it was ever likely, once he, a divorced man, takes his daughter on holiday …. without permission.  Kidnap in the eyes of the law but not according to Schroder’s increasingly desperate and agonising rationalisations.  

By the time he does this, you can see his point.  How he has backed himself into a corner by being too generous to his ex-wife during divorce and child care negotiations.  His attempts to regain lost ground doomed to failure … by a secret.  Something to do with the umlaut missing from his name and the Kennedys.

I shall say no more about plot so as not to spoil it for those who have yet to tread this reading path. However, be prepared to be put through an emotional mangle by as unreliable and as sympathetic a narrator as you will ever meet.  The format is that of a confessional, so we only get Schroder’s mentally distressed point-of-view.  We see his wife and his daughter and the assessment of their relationship and his motivations only through his eyes.  We can only judge him objectively through his actions and I was in no mood to judge him ….

…. until the backstory of his shabbiness towards his German-immigrant father unfolded.  This provided an emotional counterpoint to his all-consuming love for his daughter (and possibly an indication of why his wife was so dissatisfied).

I enjoyed the descriptions of the beautiful New England landscape (an area I hope one day to see for myself) which Schroder  and his daughter travel through on their trip; the beauty of the countryside in absolute juxtaposition to the ugliness of his family life.  What should have be an ideal and carefree escape increasing marred by realities and consequences which are not to be avoided.  A road to perdition, if you will.

3 weeks later,  I am still upset.  That is the sign of a brilliant read.  I have only one gripe. I skimmed pages 255-258 (Faber and Faber, hardback edition).  A case of overcooked mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.



Not a picture of my TBR … for once


You’d think I’d be satisfied with the 3 longlists announced in the last 10 days: The Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.  Not a bit of it.  I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction on April 1.  That’s the longlist pictured above – one which won’t be publicised in full but which we can have fun guessing at in the meantime.

I’m pretty sure that bottom left is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and top right is my current read, Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Lowland.  Two books below that Hannah Kent’s superb Burial Rites.  Can you spot any more?

imageIt was a weekend of wonders.  One very much worth the 6:15 am start last Saturday as I boarded the train in deepest, darkest Lanarkshire, trussed up in full winter regalia (coat, hat, scarves, gloves) to arrive in London 6 hours later, said regalia bundled up and stuffed into suitcase.  Just what was that yellow object in the sky?

A quick dash down Euston Road to the digs to dump all extraneous items (including coat, hat, scarves and gloves – hip, hip hooray!) and then an even quicker dash back up Euston Road and I arrived in the courtyard of the British Library.  I hadn’t even reached the door of the conference centre when I heard a voice  behind me “Well, you’re a long way from home”.  It was not the Cheshire Cat but a voice I only normally hear in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.   Lovely. Not even 5 minutes in and I was among friends, home from literary home.

Other friends from the square had saved a plush seat for me in the air-conditioned conference centre.  As I settled in, notepad and pen at the ready, the panel for the 2nd event arrived and the real business of the weekend could begin.

From the start, it was obvious that the Folio Society had planned this festival with all the care and attention that is channelled into the creation of their gorgeous books.  They wanted it to be different – a conversation about literature and the creative art that brings great literature to the page.  Each event had a) a panel of 4 comprising a judge and a shortlistee of the inaugural Folio Prize plus two members of the Folio Academy, one of whom acted as chair and b) a specific aspect of literature to discuss: place, genre, context, etc.  This differentiated the discussions, which were always erudite and sometimes surprisingly wide-ranging and witty!  It also prevented them from becoming marketing exercises for the latest publications of those on stage, nor was any precious time lost listening to 20 minutes of a book I can read for myself! There were readings elsewhere over the weekend but I chose not to attend any of them.  As a result, I enjoyed an in-depth look at the art of creating literature from some of the best in the business.

Rather than transcribe my notebook, I’ve decided to let my scribblings inform upcoming reviews of titles from the Folio Prize shortlist and some from the pens of the judges themselves! I had plenty of time to read on the trains to and from London.  For now though a miscellany of pleasurable memories.

folio Festival5) Mark Haddon explaining the differences and pleasures of writing plays and novels.  With plays you get realtime feedback from the audience.  With novels you get a chance to delve into the details.  Currently researching a space novel, inspired by someone who has bought a one-way ticket to Mars, he is currently wondering what you do with two years worth of human faeces.  “I don’t know”, quipped Michael Chabon.  “But you have your title right there!”

4) Sergio De La Pava discussing how there are always more options than those that make the final script.  “If you think that’s  bad, you should read the stuff that didn’t make the final cut!”

3) A.S Byatt.  On form, on fire.   Wrote down more quotes of hers than anyone else.   “I have no wish to teach creative writing. I don’t want to read the unfinished creative writing of others and I certainly don’t wish anyone to read mine!”   “I hate show not tell.  Those are scenes in which everybody talks but no-one does any thinking”.

Lizzy Reads the Boat2) Sarah Hall on the craft of the short story.  The importance of entry/exit strategies in a short story and how a single sentence can derail it. Of course, given the outcome and Monday night’s announcement, it might be easy to have seen this as some coded message.  But I don’t think so, the judges didn’t decide the winner until Monday afternoon.  However, it became clear that there were some strong supporters of the short story in the judging panel: Nam Le, whose collection, The Boat, won nearly every Australian literary prize a few year’s ago; Michael Chabon, an accomplished essayist; Sarah Hall, whose story, Mrs Fox won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award.  For those who suggested that this was a compromise decision, let me just say, I don’t think so!

1). The award-ceremony itself in the magnificent setting of the St. Pancreas Renaissance Hotel.  I’d been marvelling at this architectural wonder (which is right next door to the British Library) all weekend and I continued to marvel as I went inside to the ceremony.   The food was good, the wine was excellent and the company (@kimbofo and @utterbiblio) magnificent.

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All that remains is for George Saunders to enjoy his success and for me to wait impatiently for the Folio Society edition of Tenth of December.

I need expend no words explaining why this book was the first of my 2014 acquisitions to be picked up after successfully completing the TBR Triple Dog Dare.  I probably needn’t explain how the book ended in my TBR either but I will explain just how irresistible the title was.  Schotten (Scots) – Freude (joy) – What on earth is a book about the joy of the Scots doing with a German title?  Except it doesn’t mean that at all.  It means the joy of Ben Schott, a non-German speaker, who together with Dr Oscar Brandtlow, obviously had a whale of a time inventing German compounds nouns to explain the human condition.

This explains the unusual/unique shape of the book.  German compound nouns can be grow to inordinate lengths.  Here are a couple of examples:

Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss : The enjoyment afforded by the smell of a new car. (See footnote)

Überraschungspartyüberraschungsheuchlerei : Feigning surprise at a surprise party.

Not all the words are that long.  Here are some examples at the other end of the spectrum.

Fußfaust : Instinctively curling up your toes in mortification at someone else’s embarrassment

Betttrug : The fleeting sense of disorientation on waking in a strange bed.

German speakers will obviously delight in this volume, but you don’t need to be a German speaker to enjoy it.  For example, a German speaker would instinctively pick up the word play on the German words Bett (bed) and Betrug(fraud). However, the construction of and meaning of each German word is clearly explained thus:

Puns and idioms are explained on the adjacent page together with a miscellany of general information about the condition in question.  The resulting layout and design is an absolute pleasure and the sum total is sometime hilarious, but always clever and entertaining.


Miscellanies are Ben Schott’s speciality.  His obvious delight in compiling this book was matched by my obvious delight in reading it. But can I summarise my experience in one word?  I’ll think about that while you watch this recent discussion between Ben Schott, the quinessential (non-)German cultural icon @Neinquarterly and German translator Tim Mohr at the Deutsches Haus in New York.  A treat, if ever I watched one.

And finally, my one word summary: Fünfsterneleseerlebnis Five_Stars.GIF


Footnote: Not simply “new car smell” as translated in the book.


Dear Dakota

I know that you and others are continuing the challenge for another month, but I knew that taking on a third month would be one month too many this year. I made a good call, as it has turned out.  March is going to be super busy with a trip to London next weekend for the Folio Festival and reading prep for Glasgow’s Aye Write festival which this year has the best programme it has ever had.  

I’ve read some really good books over the past two months, deviating only once from my TBR to read The Rosie Project prior to a surprise author event at Motherwell Library. I’m calling that a legitimate exception.  Final tally 13 books read in their entirety, 1 audio book completed, 1 book abandoned and 4 others started.  Here’s a picture of all the lovely books that are no  longer pining for attention in my TBR mountain range.  Don’t they look lovely?


There’s not a bad book among them but are there any that I feel like shouting from the rooftops about?  Indeed there are: J David Simons, An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful; Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Amity Gaige’s Schroder (review forthcoming). 

Thank you, Dakota (and James) for shepherding us to our unread books.  Right now though, it’s time to turn my attention to the lovely new books that have found their way to my stacks.  I put them in a box out of sight and temptation’s way until this afternoon when I counted them.  69.  All I can say in my defence is that I had a lot of vouchers to spend at the beginning of the year and publishers have been very generous.

I’d best get cracking although even with the best intentions, and maybe a speed reading course, I expect some of these new books may need to wait until next year’s TBR dare. I do hope you’ll get us all to play again.

Happy book snacking.


I have challenged myself to read 7 big books (i.e more than 450 pages) before the blog turns 8 in February 2015.

Big Book #1

My library book group decided to get in on the act by assigning John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  We broke it into two discussions, which turned into an interesting exercise. Surprisingly only two of our twelve had read it before and at our first discussion, they were the book’s only defenders.  I tried very hard to sit on the fence but failed miserably.  At that point in time I recall feeling that Owen Meany, the dwarf with the big voice, was a poor man’s Oscar Matzerath (from Grass’s The Tin Drum).  I felt alienated from him because of the disgraceful way he treated his parents at the nativity play.  Also it was obvious that he was being set up for a sacrifice and I felt that the point and the symbols and motifs were being overplayed.   I’ve got it, I cried to myself multiple times. Now Irving, just get on with it!

This was one of those books that when I put it down, I didn’t want to pick up again.  Nor would I have done so, if not for book group.  But here’s the thing. I breezed through the second half which for all the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the first half contained a number of surprises and what I suspect are unforgettable scenes.  Diamond hand-saw, anyone?  And the nature of Owen’s sacrifice – didn’t see that coming at all.

I came to appreciate Irving’s skill and the point of those incessant motifs.  The humour came through.  I began to smile, often in retrospect, but also to weep for poor John, his life blighted by the loss of his friend, seeking his consolation in the novels of Thomas Hardy and their sense of tragic fatalism.   Yes, the second half pulls it all together quite magnificently and I was really intrigued by the serendipitous parallels with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.   I won’t rule out a reread sometime in the future,  even if I’m in no rush to read more Irving.


Big Book #2

I’m looking forward to attending the Folio Festival in London in a week’s time, where Sergio De La Pava will be talking about Folio Prize Shortlisted  A Naked Singularity (864 pages); my reading experience of which could not be more different from Irving’s novel.  I began reading on Sunday and quickly raced through 170 highly-entertaining pages replete with snappy dialogue describing the sometimes surreal logic within the New York judicial system.  2 reading sessions later and I’m bogged down on page 222 in some debate about drug-trafficking.  There have already been a couple of other debates which I thought to gloss over and I realise this is the pattern of things to come.  In fact, the narrator points this out in the very first digression of the book. From page 11:

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle readers, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative stream.

It took until page 222 to contemplate skimming but that’s only a quarter of the way through the book.  I’ve  decided that’s far too soon and the book’s not worth completing on that basis.  Perhaps the author can convince me otherwise on 9th March.  (To be continued …. maybe …)

i’m already wondering whether I ought to change the terms of my challenge to attempt to read 7 big books …..

Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2006)

I hadn’t intended for Antal Szerb’s debut novel to be my final read during Pushkin Press Fortnight – it was meant to be his second, Journey by Moonlight.  However, Gaskella had such fun with this, I decided to bump it up the TBR.  

Let me say from the off, I didn’t have quite as much fun as Gaskella. I found the darker undercurrents not only perturbing, but at odds with its farcical tone and its Carry On sexism.  As a result I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach the book – as a comedy or as a philosophical work about the darker side of man’s desires and spirituality. 

Janos Bátky, a Hungarian scholar who specialises in occult Rosacrucian texts, is invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to study the rare manuscripts, that are in his possession. Without further ado, Bátky finds himself making the acquaintance of some very dodgy characters – George Maloney, who attaches himself in, of all places, the reading room of the British Museum, and a certain Mrs St. Claire, who gives him a ring to pass onto the Earl.  Turns out Bátky has placed himself at the centre of a plot to kill the Earl and under more than a soupçon of suspicion …..

When he gets to Wales, events take a sinister and gothic turn.  The Earl evades another attempt on his life but refuses to go to the police.   A mysterious torch-brandishing horseman gallops around at night, and the crypt beneath Pendragon castle reveals an empty tomb.  Folklore, or the Pendragon legend, has it that this is Asaph Pendragon, the original Rosacrux, who rises from his sleep to defend his legacy in times of great danger.  And then an assassin falls from a balcony, his neck broken before he ever hits the ground …

At which point, Bátky finds himself sent back to London to retrieve a manuscript for the Earl.  The assassins seek to recruit him by fair means and femme fatale. The cat and mouse chase – the mouse being the Earl – continues for so long that I felt nothing of any consequence was to come of it.  Then suddenly a child is abducted, the implication being a child sacrifice is needed.  What for? I was never quite sure because devilry was involved and it was time to skim.

Thus I lost the plot – no, sorry, the thread, and chose to remain lost as the novel came to a dark and violent denouement, completely at odds with the light-hearted and witty romp that forms its core. It’s generally accepted that this novel is a satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with murder mystery.  But – to quote from the blurb - beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions, or as Janos Bátky explains: 

There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken …. We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning.  One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.

A more curious mix, I never did encounter.



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