Saturday, 26 June 2010

World Cup Story

Ahead of the big game tomorrow here is a world cup themed short story by Musa Okwanga.

Come on England!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Reviews of some 'domestic' fiction

During the past two weeks I've been reading some 'domestic' fiction in preparation for writing the theoretical part of my MA. Here are some of the books I've read and what I thought of them on goodreads:

Have the Men Had Enough? Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A wonderfully angry look at what happens in a family when an elderly relative has dementia and needs extensive care and support. Hilarious, furious and gut-wrenching at times, this book is Margaret Forster at her best.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A beautifully observed, quiet novel about recovering after the loss of a child. Forster references Carol Shields's 'Unless' during the course of the novel and there are some similarities between the two books. This novel is not as compelling as 'Private Papers' or 'Have the men had enough?' but definitely worth a read. 
A very negative review in the Guardian can be found here
Positive responses are cataloged in the Daily Mail here.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another beautifully observed novel which examines the lives of several women associated with a breast cancer clinic at a hospital in a northern town of England. Forster's characterization is meticulous and each of the women is sympathetically presented despite the fact that Mrs Hibbert and Ida in particular are not especially likeable. Some excellent writing but lacking the pull of 'Have the men had enough?'
A review of this novel can be found in The Independent here.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another good collection of short stories from Helen Simpson. Sumptuous prose and fresh imagery as one would expect. The climate change references seem a little contrived at times, although in places they were thought-provoking and positively chilling. 
My favourite of Simpson's collections remain 'Dear George' and 'Hey yeh right get a life.'
Here is a Guardian review of Simpson's new collection.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A good, solid short story collection with moments of brilliance - her take on childbirth in 'Labour' is inspired and hilarious.
I read Simpson's later work before I read this collection - her later work is superb. It's been interesting to observe the progress of her writing.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Domestic fiction

It didn’t occur to me that I might be required to either excuse or apologise for my 'domestic' writing until I read Toby Litt’s and Ali Smith’s criticism of domestic writing in the introduction to 13, a collection of poetry, extracts from novels and short stories, published by Picador. Litt and Smith write: 'On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking – as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell' (Litt and Smith, in Laville, 2005). The author Kirsty Gunn responded angrily insisting that defining domestic as dull ‘is a complete misnomer. This is where a large portion of our [women’s] lives are spent; there is no reason why the world should be loaded with such pejorative meaning’ (Laville, 2005).
In a subsequent interview Smith maintained: 'You know that made me so mad, it was such an out of context story. We had, Toby Litt and I, seven foot of unsolicited manuscripts and we were the only editors who read all seven foot. The things we were writing in the introduction were only about that seven foot. These are entries from people who aren't writers, who want to be writers. That's the context. I was disturbed and depressed for about two weeks, but then I stopped worrying about it.'
Domestic narratives came in for a further bashing in 2007 when Muriel Gray an Orange prize judge complained about women’s writing in a piece entitled ‘Women authors must drop domestic themes’'It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making stuff up' (Gray, 2007).
This didactic way of addressing female writers is reminiscent of the paternalistic voice that Virginia Woolf mocks in A Room of One’s Own: 'That persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges, to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable – ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex.’ That puts the matter in a nutshell' (Woolf, 2000, p.75).
Gray’s relegation of motherhood to a ‘small-scale domestic theme’ is ludicrous: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit and Carol Shields’s Booker nominated Unless all revolve around mother/daughter relationships without being ‘small-scale’ productions. Gray insists that women must ‘work hard’ to ‘escape from their own gender and circumstances’ (Gray in Feay, 2007). Must male writers also work hard to escape from their gender and circumstances? I suspect not.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Football Academy

jacket image for Football Academy: Striking Out by Tom PalmerA big thumbs up to Tom Palmer's series Football Academy

Two months ago my 8 year old, Jo was a 'reluctant reader' (a wholly inadequate description of the tearful, stumbling, tortuous, monotonicity of his reading). 

Then his teacher introduced him to the Football Academy series. The books are actually slightly above his reading capabilities, however the 'real' characters and the exciting depictions of Jo's favourite thing in the world - football - have seen him asking to read extra pages and sneaking the books into bed at night to find out what happens next. 

In this series for 8-12 year olds Palmer doesn't shy away from 'difficult' issues: Yunis's Dad wants him to concentrate on school work, not football, Jake is worried that he is too small to be a professional and is bullied by Ryan, the team captain who has a nightmarish, pushy mother. 

After matches the manager's score sheet is reproduced. The boys are marked out of ten, a genius stroke that encourages discussion about how well each of the characters played and why the manager might have awarded them a particular score.

All I can say is hurrah for Tom Palmer (and of course that I knew I was right - everyone can love reading, it's just a matter of finding the right book).

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Dr Who: Vincent and the Doctor

I’m not sure how to begin this blog entry. I’m not sure how to write the middle or how to conclude either, so it could be interesting.

I’ve never blogged about Dr Who before. However, I found the recent Van Gogh episode profoundly moving. I know – it was written by Richard Curtis; it consequently contained more cheese than the story of The Stinky Cheese Man, I ought to feel manipulated etc etc, but I don’t.

I agree with Dan Martin’s review in The Guardian: the episode would have been even better without the monster, however the krafayis entertained my children who remained startlingly unmoved by the subsequent scene in the gallery. As I watched Van Gogh's (Tony Curran) speechless appraisal of his paintngs on display to the public, tears were trailing down my face and dripping onto the floor. Alice fetched a tissue and rubbed my face with it. Sam said, ‘you’re not crying are you mum?’ Cue snorts and eye rolling from all three of the boys.

The Athlete track in the background: take all your chances while you can – you’ll never know when they’ll pass you by really finished me off. It made me want to say to the kids, 'I hope you’re listening – take all your chances while you can.' But nothing would have been more likely to discourage them from taking all their chances, so I remained silent as Alice sandpapered my face and the boys sniggered.

As Gerard McGarry writes: 'The fact that they didn't prevent Van Gogh's suicide was quite poignant. Bittersweet in that there aren't always happy endings, and difficult for Amy to hear because she'd literally seen the man alive a few minutes before. Despite their attempts to raise Van Gogh's mood, the effect was only temporary. It provided a great moral counterpoint to the "nobody dies today" cries we've heard in Doctor Who - you can't save everybody, but you can at least make a positive difference.'

I’m not all that keen on happy endings. Endings should, by nature, be sad because they conclude, finish what we greedily wish would go on. Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Cell’ makes this point better than I can:

                                        All it wants is more
amnesia. More life, and more abundantly. To take
more. To eat more. To replicate itself. To keep on
doing these things forever. Such desires
are not unknown. Look in the mirror.
(Atwood, Eating Fire, p.319)

Thumbs up to Dr Who for providing bow tie jokes and aliens while simultaneously depicting the beauty and sadness of life.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Stinky Cheese Man ~ Writing Club

There is not enough time to embark on a big writing project with the writing club this half term. There are school trips, a school production, sports day and taster days at local high schools to compete with. Consequently, we will be reimagining some traditional tales with the help of a fabulous book The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales.

Here's a link to my goodreads review:

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A subversive and hilarious take on fairy tales that had my six year old daughter laughing out loud.Crazy illustrations which are as warped as the tales themselves add more fun to the reading experience and the alternative story endings provoke discussion as well as giggles – a great children’s book.

View all my reviews >>

Hopefully we will produce some equally entertaining stories and publish them in the first edition of our writing magazine – fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Famous Five and Grasmere.

Perhaps it’s my childhood diet of ‘The Famous Five’ that has led to our family romps around the countryside in search of adventure. Half term saw us exploring Grasmere in the Lake District with some friends.

We had an enormous picnic by Easdale Tarn. Ridiculous amounts of food and fresh air – we were just like the Famous Five, minus the lashings of ginger beer as the children don’t like it. The scenery was fabuous.

On the way back the children found a pool at the base of a waterfall and stripped down to their underwear for a swim.

I sat on a rock feeling nostalgic, not for my childhood I realised – I don’t remember ever stripping off and swimming at the base of a waterfall – but for the parallel childhood that I inhabited in my imagination, a childhood in which there were daring adventures to be had.

People hiking on the path above the waterfall paused to wave and smile at the children. It was one of those afternoons that you want to fix in memory so that it can be revisited and enjoyed again and again.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Recent reads.

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

This was a beautifully written little book - a successful combination of research and imagination.

The nature of the novel is that it describes a one year 'slice' of time. Consequently the ending does not provide conclusions or solutions, but is more like the drawing of a pair of curtains on a scene that continues beyond the reader's sight - a frustrating way to end, but a lovely book all the same.

A Stain on the Silence by Andrew Taylor


Disappointing. The blurb is misleading at best. The author writes:

'The novel starts from three very simple premises: what if a childless man in his forties discovers that he has a daughter, the result of an affair 25 years earlier? What if the daughter is pregnant? And what if she’s on the run for murder?'

However, the daughter is not his daughter and she is not on the run for murder and while there are some intriguing twists in the novel, the characters were not compelling enough for me to really care about what happened to them.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Alnwick Castle

A love of all things Harry Potter saw us embark on a quest to see Hogwarts for ourselves this half term break.
We visited Alnwick Castle.
We were a bit disappointed to discover that only a couple of scenes from the film had been shot at Alnwick. However, the castle was beautiful. The library was by far the most fascinating room, but no photography was allowed inside the building.

A cheaper and more successful (from the children’s point of view) form of entertainment was available 20 minutes away at the beach.