Banned Books Week 25 September – 1 October

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Banned Books Week is here again, and this year’s theme is “celebrating diversity”. This is an American coalition, launched in 1982 to create awareness of the freedom to read and the problem of censorship. This isn’t about (for the most part) censorship at a national level, which even historically has happened very rarely. It’s more about local censorship: town libraries, school reading lists, even bookshops.

Frequently banned books are often really good books, important books that offer different perspectives on the world, that challenge readers to think outside of their own experience. Common reasons given for calls to ban books include homosexuality, religion, politics, sex and suitability for age group. However, an unspoken factor behind the stated reason is the avoidance of diversity.

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All I see is oppression and hate and suffering

alone-in-berlinAlone in Berlin
by Hans Fallada
translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Our next holiday will be in Berlin so a colleague recommended I read this novel to get to know the city a little. It’s fiction, but it’s also pretty close to being a first-hand account of life for ordinary Berliners in the city under Nazi rule. Hans Fallada was a successful author before the Nazis came to power and during their rule he tried to tread the fine line between avoiding trouble and collusion with politics and people he didn’t agree with. Those experiences, plus a real-life case of anti-Nazi propaganda, form the basis of this book.

The story opens in 1940. Postwoman Eva Kluge is bringing a telegram to older couple Otto and Anna Quangel with news of the death of their son, fighting at the front. Their upstairs neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, lives in fear of the Nazi thugs on the 1st floor, the Persicke family, since her husband was arrested. But perhaps she should be more afraid of Emil Borkhausen in the basement, who figures he can get away with robbing an old Jewish woman, and might even be rewarded for it by the Party.

“But even though her eyes are now very close to his, she keeps them shut tight, she won’t look at him. Her face is a sickly yellow, her usual healthy colour is gone. The flesh over the bones seems to have melted away – it’s like looking at a skull. Only her cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake.”

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The Booker Prize and me

the_man_booker_prize_2015_logoIn honour of this week’s Booker Prize shortlist announcement, I thought I would take a look at the past winners and which of them I have read. (I should add that I have not read any of this year’s shortlist, or even longlist, but based on previous works I’m rooting for Deborah Levy.)

I’ve done a quick count of various prizewinners before, back in 2012. At that point, proportionally I had read more Women’s Prize for Fiction winners, with the Booker Prize coming second. I was curious whether that activity had, perhaps even subconsciously, encouraged me to read more prizewinners.

It turns out, of the 54 winners to date (including the international prize), I’ve read 16 and now have three in my TBR. That’s really not much higher than in 2012.

Scanning the winners on the prize website has actually made me want to read more of them though. Where should I start?

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I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all

letters-from-menabillyLetters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

I bought this book while we were on holiday in Fowey back in July. It’s described on the cover as written by Daphne du Maurier, edited by Oriel Malet, but Malet’s contribution is far more than editing du Maurier’s letters.

Malet was in some ways du Maurier’s opposite: a fellow writer, she was critically lauded but never sold well; where du Maurier was such a homebody she even resisted trips to London to do research, Malet moved to Paris to live out the dream of being a true artist. They first met at a publishing party in the early 1950s, when du Maurier was in her 40s and Malet in her 20s. Du Maurier took the younger author under her wing, inviting her to stay at Menabilly when she became unwell and needed to get out of London.

The book opens with a glossary of Daphne du Maurier “codewords” and the letters are indeed riddled with them, from “Tell-Him” for a long boring story, to “Silly Values” for anything selfish, superficial or materialistic, and most notably “Peg” for a person in real life who inspires a fictional character. Malet provides a fairly lengthy introduction to their friendship, including a detailed description of her first visit to Menabilly, but that isn’t her only interjection.

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Darkness held a vague terror for these people

things-fall-apartThings Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe

I first read this Nigerian classic for my A-level English. It was probably the first book I had read by an African author. Back then I didn’t have much to compare it to but I’m grateful to Linda, my English teacher, for introducing me to it.

I remembered this as the story of the arrival of the white man in Africa, and the effect of Western religion and imposed rule, but that’s really only the end of the book and not the main thrust at all. This is primarily the tragedy of Okonkwo, a great and celebrated hunter and wrestler, whose obsessive need to not fail like his father sows the seeds of his destruction.

Okonkwo’s father was lazy and died in debt. So Okonkwo makes a point of opposing everything his father enjoyed, such as music and arts, and becoming great at the things his father did not do well: farming, fighting, war. He has three wives and several children and is an elder in his village, Umuofia. Everything is on track to him earning all the great titles of his tribe. But his determination to succeed is his own downfall.

“When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists.”

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Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo

The truly excellent podcast Books on the Nightstand sadly came to an end on 7 July this year, but hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness kindly left us with one last Summer Book Bingo.

Yes, I know it’s 5 September, which seems like an odd time to announce a summer reading challenge. The thing is, the official challenge runs from 30 May through 5 September, but I had a busy summer so I decided my own personal book bingo would run from 5 September until the end of the year. (Ann and Michael encouraged their listeners to make rules that suit them!)

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The Downs Concert

Back in May, Tim and I queued for two hours for tickets to see Massive Attack’s first concert in Bristol for 13 years. Yesterday, the big day finally dawned and it was wet and windy but excitement won out over cold and we headed up to the Downs.

Kate Tempest

The concert had expanded from a handful of special guests into a small festival, with three stages packed with acts. The one I was most excited about, after Massive Attack themselves of course, was Kate Tempest. After seeing her on TV and in YouTube videos, I had the brief pleasure of experiencing her live last year and have been itching ever since to see more of her. Yesterday, I got my wish.

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A wild and unstoppable song of triumph

zennor in darknessZennor in Darkness
by Helen Dunmore

I picked this off the TBR because while on holiday in Cornwall I’d spotted a signpost to Zennor and remembered I had this book. Plus I like Helen Dunmore’s writing. This was actually her debut novel, which also intrigued me.

Zennor is a small village near St Ives. It’s 1917 and the Great War is at its height. Clare Coyne has always felt like an outsider in her home town, having been raised by her outsider father after her mother’s death. She has cousins, aunts and uncles just a few streets away, and counts some of her best friends among them, but she is still very much separate from them.

“Better not think about it. It’s like a bruise, and the day is magnificent. You could sing aloud, glorying in it. You could understand that the Magnificat was once a wild and unstoppable song of triumph, not a delicate lacework of church voices. Little complicated fields glitter…On her right the sea shines like shield.”

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August reading round-up

The summer turned out quite nice in the end here in Bristol. But perhaps I’m biased because August ends with mine and Tim’s anniversary. This year we celebrated 14 years. That’s two-fifths of my life!

My reading has been fairly eclectic this month. I took more than two weeks to read a perfectly ordinary short novel so then I turned to easy reads like superhero comics. I think I’m back on track now, but I did only manage one book towards Women in Translation Month in the end, which isn’t as good as I’d hoped.

I did treat myself to a little book shopping. Because new books! Here are my purchases:

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Sunday Salon: Women in translation

The Sunday SalonAugust is Women in Translation Month, and I know it’s almost the end of the month already but you see, the thing is, I had plans. I was going to pick out half a dozen books from my TBR by women translated into English, starting with Elena Ferrante and rinse the hell out of this reading promotion that seems so perfectly suited to me.

The thing is, my reading has been rather capricious of late. I could blame it on a busy period at work, or a mini-flare-up of my lupus, or the wrong choices of books. But every time I looked at those translations on my TBR shelves – Elena Ferrante, Isabel Allende, Marie Sizun, Linda Stift – something in me resisted. Something in me said that they would be hard work and that I wanted an easy read. Which is silly on two counts. One: a translation is not necessarily any harder a read than a book written originally in English and I’ve read enough works in translation to know that well enough. Two: I don’t tend to get as much satisfaction from easy reads as I do from books that challenge me at least a little.

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