Monday, October 28, 2013

Serious Literature

Philip Davis's book, Reading and the Reader, has been published in paperback by OUP and sets out to reassert the importance of literature in the digital age.   It is the first volume in a series on 'The Literary Agenda'.

I have worked hard to bring you the best of literature out there and you will be glad to know that, according to PD Smith in the Guardian, 'serious literature reaches those neural pathways that other texts cannot;  it awakens a sense of ontological reality, a heightened state of being in the world and "opens out the inside place in human beings"'.  Can one ask for more?


Monday, October 21, 2013

Children's Books

I have to admit that I don't normally spend much time reading reviews of children's books but I know there are many of you out there who probably do at times stand baffled before the shelves in bookshops wondering what on earth to buy for nieces, nephews, grandchildren - and, indeed, one's own brood.   Last Saturday in the Review section of the Irish Times, Robert Dunbar, Ireland's leading children's books reviewer, published a very helpful list of his favourites from 25 years that is well worth saving and, judging from my years of book selling, is spot on.   Read it here 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Booker 2013

As of fifteen minutes ago, Eleanor Catton has walked off with the Booker Prize.   Her novel is Victorian in form, set in 19th century New Zealand, a murder mystery with astrological decor - a quick read at 832 pages!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Testimony of Mary and John Waters

An extraordinary article by John Waters appeared in The Irish Times yesterday [Friday 11 October] on Colm Toibin's novella, The Testimony of Mary, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.   In it Waters says he believes it vitally important for Ireland and Irish culture that the book wins because then 'we may be unable to continue ignoring, as we have done, what the book demands we address'.

In his book, Toibin paints the Virgin Mary as an old woman, unhappy and angry, and at odds with two evangelists who want her to confirm their account of the life and death of her son.   Waters claims that Toibin in no sense crosses the line into fantasy but writes of facts.   If he does, then he has a unique communication with the Almighty as there are no known 'facts' about Mary's life after the death of Jesus.

I have no argument with Toibin who writes beautifully as always but rather with Waters' assertion that it presents a challenge to believers.  It is difficult to see why any work of fiction should do so, much less cause them to jettison their beliefs.   Waters writing is opaque and even confusing.   He claims the book 'throws down a gauntlet to the very method of our reasoning, and drops into a cultural moment when a sense of the strangeness of everyday reality has become lost to the extent that anything beyond the banal nowadays seems implausible'?   Waters considers that we have, so to speak, hunkered down in a bunker we have built to 'inhabit and behold the world from'.   If by that he means that we have become unquestioning of our faith and reluctant to face the bigger existential questions out there, he is gravely mistaken for I firmly believe, through my own experience, that issues of faith and morals are very much alive and being debated widely.  For example, figures published recently show that the biggest turnouts at referenda were on moral issues.

Toibin has said, according to Waters, that his interest was not in what people nowadays believe but in the mind and heart of Mary at that moment.   I find myself less challenged and more saddened by his version.

Read it for yourself at

Monday, October 7, 2013

Goldsmiths Prize and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

For some reason, this Prize almost passed me by which is alarming as it sets out to award a prize for exactly the kind of book I am constantly praising, one concerned with formal inventiveness, one 'that breaks the mould and opens up new possibilities for the novel form', in the words of its founders [read more].   

Even better, one of the judges is Gabriel Josipovici whose book Whatever Happened to Modernism? was a clarion call on the quality of today's literary writing.   He laments that 'existing prizes in effect reward the kinds of novels that can only be talked about in terms of their content.  The notion that to talk of form in fiction is to despise content is deeply ingrained in English literary culture - in fact the opposite is the case'.

A shortlist of six books is going forward, the winner to be announced on 13 November.   And what is really exciting is that one of the six is A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, an Irish born author now living in England and a true inheritor of Joyce.   Anne Enright has already called her a genius, an opinion with which I concur.   In form and language, it is unique written as it is in half-formed sentences but with each word chosen to implode in the text with astonishing power that drives the narrative.   Though we are living in the mind of a young woman, this is not a stream of consciousness but a frightening look at the travails of childhood, schooldays and beyond to the age of 20.   She grows up in a household where the father has left, her elder brother has survived a childhood brain tumour which has left him damaged and her mother becomes a charismatic christian.   While religion or, rather the outward forms of a public piosity play a part in the book, it does not dominate.   She deals with the cruelty and mindless viciousness that can happen in school.   She discovers sex and pain and the power sex gives.   McBride deals particularly elegantly with the love the narrator has for her disabled brother coupled with the frustration and hate of his handicap.  All her characters are nameless.

This is a truly exciting and extraordinary piece of literature in both form, language and content.   The jacket of the novel carries a quotation from the text which gives a taste of her writing:  'I think your face the very best.   When we were we were we were young.   When you were little and I was girl.   Once upon a time'.

I doubt I shall read a better book anytime soon.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, published in pb by Galley Beggar.