Book Review: Slip of a Fish

“I couldn’t think, couldn’t straighten my thoughts, couldn’t be sure”

Slip of a Fish, by Amy Arnold, won the inaugural Northern Book Prize which was launched by And Other Stories in 2017. It is an unsettling tale told from the perspective of a young woman named Ash who likes to observe the lives of others, to listen to them as they speak, but does not welcome their company in her home. It draws on memories from Ash’s childhood and the difficulties she is experiencing now that she is married. This is not in any way a standard offering. Ash is a troubled and often opaque protagonist.

The tale opens on a first date when Ash is taken to see a film set in northern Finland by Abbott, the man who will become her husband. Ash is affected by the idea of days spent in darkness, how for several weeks in winter the sun sits below the horizon. She wishes to add the name of the Finnish town to her word collection. Ash thinks often of language, of homonyms, and how difficult it is to understand feelings or anticipate other’s actions and reactions.

We learn that, back then, Ash could speak. These days she struggles to articulate the many and varied thoughts silently swirling around, travelling in tangents through her mind.

Ash and Abbott have a daughter, seven year old Charlie. Ash takes her swimming in a local lake where swimming is forbidden. Abbott would prefer them to use the local pool, and often they do, but Ash likes to see the sky, relishing the space, the peace and privacy amongst the trees with the water washing over her. She watches the birds, especially those that migrate. She ponders on time, the importance granted it: by Abbott with his newly acquired watch; by the people on the perimeter of her family’s lives. She feels disturbed when these people encroach.

Ash has learned to breathe under water and tries to teach the skill to Charlie. Over the course of a long, hot summer Charlie starts to pull away from her mother. Abbott is concerned about his wife and offers practical solutions to what he perceives as her problems. Ash regards his actions with suspicion.

There are references to Ash’s papa whom she appeared to love despite how he treated her. There are references to Kate, a yoga instructor whose relationship with Ash had a powerful impact. Despite her inability to express her feelings, in words or deeds as most would expect, Ash tries to draw Charlie back to her by showing her love in the only way she knows how. The rip tides of her life manifest.

These dark undercurrents of the story run deep, articulated sparely and often portrayed in metaphor. Telling aspects are revealed in small comments made by others. Ash fixates on certain books, on words and their potential meanings, but struggles to translate what is spoken into anything attributable to her.

The repetition in the writing brings to the fore the salient strands which feed Ash’s preoccupations and concerns. The fragmented structure adds to the tension and volatility of the narrative. The toxic elements of Ash’s life prove challenging to read despite being mostly kept shadowed. This is a powerful evocation of maladjustment and psychosis, its causes and consequences.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Author Interview: Patty Yumi Cottrell

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, which is published by And Other Stories.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m a Korean adoptee. I used to write poetry. When I was in my late twenties, I wrote a couple of short stories so I could apply to graduate school, and since then, fiction has been my primary focus. I worked with Jesse Ball, a genius, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He changed my life. I’m so thankful for him. Something he taught me was to find joy in the process of making things, and to not worry about the rest.

2. Can you tell us about Sorry to Disrupt the Peace?

It’s a dark comedy about suicide. A woman investigates her brother’s death. It’s rather bleak, but I hope it’s not too depressing. It’s supposed to be funny.

3. What inspired the book?

The simple answer is I was troubled by something that happened in my life, so I decided to write a book about it. I had a question in my mind, and I hoped that by the end of the book, I’d have an answer. Some other inspirations: Bill Callahan, Aphex Twin, Curb Your Enthusiasm, vegetables, Murder, She Wrote, Robert Walser, Jane Bowles, Sheila Heti, and Thomas Bernhard.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

I think the content of the book dictates these matters. If you’re writing a sprawling family saga or a fantasy novel, you need to have a plan. My book is like a scrolling video game from the early 90’s; my narrator can only go in one direction, from the left side of the screen to the right. I didn’t need an outline. I wanted to surprise myself, so I had to trust my intuition. I didn’t know what any of the scenes would contain, or what would happen next.

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Sitting at my desk quietly. I also like reading, and I think that’s an important part of being a writer. People should read more than they write.

6. And your least favourite?

I don’t have a least favourite part about being a writer. I think there are some troubling aspects of being a writer, but they all relate to being a human: money-related issues, existential dread, the nauseating horrors of the world, obsession, problems with family members, addiction, etc.

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I like Instagram. But overall, I think social media is a form of hell. I recommend staying away from it for a month and seeing what that’s like.

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I’m thankful for reviews, but I don’t seek them out. If someone sends one to me, I’ll read it.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I watch the NBA and participate in fantasy basketball. Wasting time doing nothing is another form of treating myself. Taking naps. Walking without a destination. Allowing myself to change my mind.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue. It’s a complicated and challenging novel about tennis, colonization, and art. I also loved Tao Lin’s novel Taipei. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable book, but also really moving.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I’d like to have dinner with the ghost of Muriel Spark. If she’s not available, I’d have dinner with my girlfriend and some friends and I’d invite J.M Coetzee, because I’ve heard he doesn’t smile.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I wish interviewers would ask me to tell them everything I know about polar bears.

 

Thank you Patty for providing such interesting answers to my questions. I look forward to reading your response when a future interviewer asks you about Polar Bears.

You may follow Patty on Twitter: @pmcottrell 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is published by And Other Stories who previously provided me with a guest post about their publishing house when they were shortlisted for The Republic of Consciousness Prize last year – you may read the post here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell, published by And Other Stories

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell, which is published by And Other Stories.

 

“Why wouldn’t anyone admit that a life is not a life but a deathward existence?”

Helen, in Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.

“Just as Altensam was alien to him, so he must have seemed a foreign element to his family, they had in the end worn each other up on chronic mutual recriminations, primordial recriminations, Roithamer wrote, that is, he, Roithamer , on the one side and Roithamer’s family on the other, were wearing each other out in the most inhuman way, a way least worthy of human beings, in this process of sheer mutual exhaustion. His natural bent for studying ie for studying everything, however, had enabled him quite early in life, by studying Altensam, to see through Altensam and thereby to see through himself and to achieve insight and to take action and thanks to these constant ongoing lifelong studies he’d always had to do as he ended up doing, all his life, though he’d rather call it his existence, or better still, his deathwards existence, everything he’d ever done had been based on nothing but this habit of studying which he’d never been able to shake off, where other people get ahead easily and often quite rapidly, he’d never gotten ahead easily or rapidly, obsessed as he was with the habit of always studying, all of him, his organism, his mind, and everything he did, determined by his habit of studying.”

Roithamer in Correction, Thomas Bernhard tr. Sophie Wilkins.

And Other Stories is one of the UK’s wonderful small independent publishers: they aim to ‘publish writing that is mind-blowing, often ‘challenging’ (Maureen Freely) and ‘shamelessly literary’ (Stuart Evers) – opening a space for exploration and discovery’.

As a subscriber, this novel is the 5th book from them I have read this year and the description given in apposite. All of the books were ones I am proud to have helped get published but some were a challenge to read (e.g. Black Wave): these aren’t novels that are meant to sit in the reader’s comfort zone.

Sorry to Disrupt The Peace certainly fits the challenging mould but this is one of my favourite books of 2017.

Our first-person narrator Helen was born in Korea but adopted at a young age by a white American couple in Milwaukee, who also adopted another Korean boy.

“I’m sorry to disrupt the peace was my stock apology: I used it all the time at my workplace, it was a good apology because it could mean so many different things to people. It could mean, I’m sorry, I made a mistake. It could mean, I’m sorry, I’ll ruin you.”

The novel opens with the 32 year-old Helen in New York, barely scraping together a living, where she receives the news that her adoptive brother (as she consistently refers to him) has committed suicide.

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, single, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror, I saw something upright and plain. Or perhaps hunched over and plain, it depended. Long, long ago I made peace with my plainness. I made peace with piano lessons that went nowhere because I had no natural talent or aptitude for music. I made peace with the coarse black hair that grows out of my head and hangs down stiffly to my shoulders. One day I even made peace with my uterus.”

“Living in New York City for five years, I had discovered the easiest way to distinguish oneself was to have a conscience or a sense of morality, since most people in Manhattan were extraordinary thieves of various standing, some of them multi-billionaires. Over time, I became a genius at being ethical, I discovered that it was my true calling. I made little to no money as a part-time after-school supervisor of troubled young people, with the side work of ordering paper products for the toilets. After my first week, the troubled people gave me a nickname.”

“Hey, Sister Reliability, what’s up? Bum me a cigarette. Suck my dick. They never stopped smoking or saying disgusting things to me, those troubled young people living and dying in Manhattan, sewer of the earth! I was living and dying right next to them all the while attempting to maintain an ethical stance as their supervisor, although some days I will admit it was difficult to tell who was supervising whom.”

Helen is in reality subject to a disciplinary investigations at work – perhaps related to her purloining of the toilet supplies or her sourcing of marijuana as her personal therapeutic device her ‘troubled young people’ (another constant refrain), amongst other failings. An email to her supervisor excusing her absence is entitled “A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (NOT THE BOOK)”, a nicely Knausgaardian nod, and she signs off

“Sister Reliability”

(“even though he refused to call me Sister Reliability, the troubled young people certainly did”).

Highly dysfunctional she is nevertheless wonderfully self-obsessed and delusional (“I always related any given situation to myself, another of my great talents”) and decides that she will go home to help her estranged parents:

“I shouted things to the passersby on the crummy sidewalks below. I can be a very helpful person! I screamed. A woman pushing a double-wide stroller looked up at me with concern. At your service, bitches! I shouted. I saluted the pigeons and the rats. I said to no one, What you are doing, Helen, is not only very ethical, it is what is required.

[…]

I would envelop them in warmth of my charity and my supportive beam of light. I am a helpfulness virtuoso and it is time to take my talents to my childhood home.”

Her ‘adoptive parents’ (again she always refers to them that way) are none too please to see her – regarding her, realistically, as more likely to be a burden than a help: she puts flowers sent for the funeral into a bucket, which proves to be filled with diluted bleach and eats the cake intended for the reception afterwards. But she nevertheless embarks on her own investigation into the causes of her brother’s death, an investigation which, unsurprisingly given her personality, is as much about discovering the causes of her own unhappiness as her brother’s.

There is a lot of autobiographical overlap with Cottrell’s own life (see The Guardian for the detail) and the novel is clearly grounded in her own experience and emotion, but still fictional.

“The autobiographical details that overlap with the book—they’re very emotional, I was writing from a place of emotion. But I wasn’t hoping to create confusion between me and Helen. If people want to read the details of my life into the events in Helen’s, that choice has nothing to do with me. That’s the reader’s response, which is private and subjective. I’m aware I need to hold space for all different types of responses, and I’m hopeful I can do that.”

Source: Paris Review interview.

Given this invitation to make one’s own subjective response, to me the novel was most resonant as a novel in response to the greatest novelist of the last 50 years, Thomas Bernhard, and in particular his masterful Correction – albeit with a very different if ultimately equally tragic brother-sister relationship. In Cottrell’s own words:

“Interior books are the books I prefer to spend my time with. I would venture that Thomas Bernhard is the master of interior prose. I remember sitting with Jesse Ball, who is a genius, at The School of the Art Institute in 2010 and he had Correction on the table. That moment of reading Correction and then going on to The Loser, Extinction, Concrete, Woodcutters, Frost, Gargoyles, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, all of those books changed things for me. In the opening 20 pages or so in The Loser, the narrator is standing in a doorway or in the process of entering an inn. There’s no description of his physical movement, it’s simply stated, which was exciting to me.

I admire Thomas Bernhard and the writers he has inspired, W. G. Sebald and Javier Marías for example. The rhythm of Bernhard’s sentences is something I want to study for the rest of my life. His narrators are repellent and misogynistic, and yet, there’s very little artifice or decoration, and in that way, they seem really pure. I dislike artificial books, books that have nice manners, books that are designed to show off the writer’s ease with developing characters, settings, et cetera. Those books work well as doorstoppers, I think, or you can use them to press flowers or whatever. I have a list of voice-driven novels that I turn to when I forget how to write. Some of the books on that list: Nobody is Ever Missing, By Night in Chile, Fra Keeler, The Face of Another, The Rings of Saturn. My favorite interior novels are written from a feeling of desperation and urgency.”

Source: LA Review of Books

Helen’s one brief moment of success, as a performance artist, was ended by accusations of plagiarism, but she justifies her approach to herself:

“A side-by-side comparison of my work to the world of Connell and Darger showed certain similar technical flourishes and extensions, and although it was easy to see am unabashed and perhaps uncritical admiration, my found texts and assemblages were not exact copies, my intention had been to participate in the conversation, not to reproduce what had already been produced.”

Her writing in this first-person account has a similar approach, drawing heavily on the patterns of other authors, notably Thomas Bernhard but also Kafka and Lispector, sometimes appropriating their turns-of-phrase directly as in the quote that opens the review (Cottrell provides the references at the back that Helen omits).

And her prose is full of wonderful black comedy:

“I pictured the funeral, that great spectacle of mourning. I saw strangers standing around taking part in a superficial grief performance ostensibly to both celebrate and mourn a dead person they never bothered to know when he was alive.”

Or, as she travels from the airport to her childhood home, in the evening gloom, her fond recall of her childhood home is typically bleak:

“I saw in my head the nunnery where all the nuns died and the priests took over, the pharmacy that houses a child pornography ring, the bird sanctuary where a governmental agency collects the geese to feed to wolves.”

One striking theme is Helen and her brother’s situation. As I write the review today the English newspapers headlines relate in typically scandalised tones the story of a English girl fostered by a devout Muslim family (“Christian girl, 5, is forced into foster care with Burka-wearing Muslim carers who ‘took away her crucifix and stopped her eating bacon”, Daily Mail) – but I suspect the same papers would praise Helen’s adoptive parents for making her integrate:

“When [my adoptive father] played Mozart or Schubert the house filled up with white male European culture. We were expected to worship it, which we did for a while, but once I went to college, I stopped. There is a world and history of non white culture, I wrote to them once in a furious letter. And you kept us in the dark our entire childhood! The two white people raised their Asian children to think Asian art was decorative: Oriental jugs and vases! Jade elephants! Enamel chopsticks!”

The final straw for her is her first communion (“stupid white bitches getting married to God!”) although she has no interest in finding her real mother, unlike her adoptive brother. Indeed when her ‘investigation’ is abruptly resolved by finding a suicide note of sorts left by her brother explaining everything, a note her parents were aware of had she but asked them rather than pursue her own course, his search for his own roots proves to have played a key role.

Ultimately a blackly comic, emotionally moving and highly literary novel – strongly recommended.

PF

 

You may read my review of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: Worlds From The Word’s End

Worlds From The Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh, is a collection of eighteen short stories that play with the meanings of words and the ideas they can convey. Some of the tales employ routine storytelling techniques, others are more opaque.

The collection opens with Two, which keeps the reader guessing what the Two may be. As with many of the stories, it references the passing of time in a not quite linear way. The setting is everyday but is inhabited strangely, reasons for this left to conjecture.

Bookselves considers how those who own books regard their possessions, how they accumulate and are used, how this changes over time. There are some gorgeous, rich phrases – books ‘fat with potential’, books left in bookshops because ‘they do not accuse you urgently enough’, books bought that now ‘ lie primed to spring, ever solicitous of your attention.’

The titular tale looks at a world that has run out of words which were too often misunderstood. It describes a relationship breakdown, where speech has failed as a means of communication:

“In the republic of words, I love you induced anxiety. How was your day? would elicit merely a sigh. I think people just got tired, tired of explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words.”

“You like women who are quiet? In the end it was not so difficult to let you go: you were only interested in the sound of your own voice. Pretty soon we had nothing left to say”

There are many interesting ideas to ponder throughout the book, although at times these rise above the storytelling, diverting attention from plot development. The insights are sharp and precise but translating relevance often less clear. Travelling Light, about the degeneration of a bulky shipment as it traverses Europe, could be a metaphor for many things.

I particularly enjoyed Femme Maison. Weaving the skeins of a familiar situation – going into a room for a reason only to be distracted, unable to recollect why there –  the story explores the changing value ascribed to accumulated possessions, including self.

Two Secretaries is an amusing depiction of unacknowledged rivalry in the workplace.

Enzo Ponzo challenges normalcy, telling an engaging story from an odd premise.

The Suitcase Dog I also found odd, one of the more opaque tales.

The premise and propogation in many of the stories can be strange in places yet each contains phrases that pierce the heart of the ideas they convey. They are perceptive, emotive. Several are also disturbing.

Simple Hans depicted sex acts more graphically than I care for.

Hauptbahnhof, about a person living in a railway station waiting for a person they someday expect to meet there, could be read as devotion yet is clearly obsession.

A collection that impresses for its use of language more than entertainment or ease of understanding. This is a book I have already returned to, gaining new insights with each revisit. It is a clever if not entirely straightforward read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell, tells the story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the sibling. It is told from the point of view of Helen, born in Korea and adopted when a baby by Paul and Mary Moran of Milwaukee, USA. Helen was raised in her adoptive parents’ large if frugal home alongside her younger brother, also born in Korea and adopted when a baby. Their upbringing was not a happy one for multiple reasons, poignantly portrayed.

Helen now lives in New York City, in a shared studio apartment, where she is phoned by an uncle to be told of her adoptive brother’s demise. She describes herself thus:

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror I saw something upright and plain.”

Helen decides that she will fly to Milwaukee, despite not having contacted her parents in several years, to provide comfort and discover why her brother took his life. Arriving at their childhood home without warning she resents that the welcome given is less than effusive. She is irritated by the presence of a grief councillor as this was the role she had assigned herself.

In the days leading up to her brother’s funeral, Helen questions those who had spent time with him in the years since she left. He had remained in Milwaukee and still lived with their parents. Helen’s interrogations prove upsetting. Even her attempts at being helpful are not well received.

It is clear from early in the story that something about Helen is out of kilter. She prides herself on her ethical practices and reliability, that she has transformed herself into someone she regards as virtuous. She aims to offer succour yet seems incapable of empathy.

The narrative voice has a disturbing undercurrent. Helen’s scattered thoughts, inappropriate sharing, her ragged memories and attempts at fitting in, can erupt into antisocial behaviour. She believes her needs are often ignored in favour of others. She has cultivated a strategy for survival that proves brittle under stress.

There are moments of humour, particularly around Helen’s work as an after-school supervisor of troubled young people. That she can support herself in this way perplexes those who knew her from Milwaukee. She feels satisfaction that she managed to get, and stay, away.

The restless prose travels inexorably towards a climax that is deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered. Helen’s isolation pulses with dark energy.

A powerful evocation of a family damaged despite well meaning intentions. A tragedy of the living as well as the dead.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Guest post by independent publisher, And Other Stories

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As part of my feature on the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited those publishers whose books made it through to the shortlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Nicky from And Other Stories to tell us a little about this excellent publishing house. I review their contender for the prize, Martin John by Anakana Schofield, here.

And Other Stories was founded by our publisher Stefan Tobler in 2010, as a result of his frustration with the conservative tendencies in the publishing industry, and a desire to do publishing in a different way – a way that was committed to extraordinary writing, rather than guaranteed commercial success.

As a translator, he was tired of constantly hearing that publishers loved the books he was showing them, but wouldn’t be publishing them because they were too risky. Other writers and translators were also concerned, and they got together to brainstorm ideas. And Other Stories was born out of these discussions. Our business model is not-for- profit and based on subscriptions (And Other Stories was the first modern independent publisher to bring back this eighteenth-century idea). And Other Stories also opened up the commissioning process through a series of reading groups where translators and readers of a particular language would come together to discuss books that And Other Stories might like to publish.

And readers and critics were apparently ready for this new approach. Two of the books published by And Other Stories in 2011, our first year of operation, went on to be shortlisted for major prizes (the Man Booker Prize for Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and the Guardian First Book Award for Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole). Many of our books have gone on to get widespread recognition and to find thousands of readers. In 2016, Lisa Dillman’s translation of Yuri Herrera’s brilliant novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, which weaves together Latin American mythology, US-Mexican border politics and linguistic innovation, won the Best Translated Book Award, and has to date sold over 20,000 copies.

Indeed, both independent publishing and literature in translation have continued to flourish, and we are honoured to be counted alongside so many innovators and risk-takers in having a book shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. It has been a privilege to publish Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, a novel that is virtuosic in the way it makes form and content each work to enhance the other, and we were delighted when we heard it had been shortlisted for this prize.

 

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Click on the book cover above to check out what others are saying about Martin John. You may also wish to buy the book.

Book Review: Martin John

martinjohn

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, takes a challenging subject and presents it in an offbeat style, yet somehow creates a story that draws the reader in to the eponymous protagonist’s strange and disturbing life. It generates more questions than answers but this seems fitting. Martin John is inherently unlikeable. His actions are loathsome yet the author presents his plight in such a way as to engender a degree of sympathy however discomfiting this may feel.

Martin John is a sexual predator. His mother, despairing of his behaviour and determined to minimise the inevitable disgrace in his home town when a young victim threatens legal action, banishes him to London with a stream of invective and instructions designed to prevent him from repeating his misdemeanours. He is to get a job, keep busy, avoid triggering situations, and visit his aunt every week to reassure her that all is as it should be.

Martin John does his best but the temptation to give in to his urges proves hard to resist. He takes on a house when an acquaintance goes to prison, letting out the top room to illegals who are easy to move on. When his nemesis gets past the rules and defenses he has put in place to protect his solitary habits and routines, Martin John’s precarious existence begins to slowly disintegrate.

The background and details are peeled back with a tender precision that is at odds with what is being revealed. The often profane language employed is fitting. Martin John’s predilections are described in gross and graphic detail from the point of view of the perpetrator and are disturbing to consider.

The writing is impressive. There is much repetition but this works in portraying the mindset of a man trying to control the perversions to which he seems addicted. His brushes with authority demonstrate society’s inability to help those such as him, who are widely and vocally disdained.

Knowing a little of what Martin John was about I was surprised by how engaging the book turned out to be. It defied my expectations. An intriguing and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival

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Words and ideas come to life in two days of author events, discussions and creative workshops on the banks of the River Thames, hosted by the University of Greenwich in the historic buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday was a day of firsts. My first time travelling the DLR through London’s docklands, my first visit to beautiful Greenwich, and my first ever book festival. The setting was wondrous and the weather couldn’t have been better. The event itself had a friendly, buzzing vibe with students of the university ensuring all attendees knew where to find the sessions they wished to attend. The grass outside was filled with picnicing families and excited children meeting characters from their favourite books. I was able to observe many of the bookish folk whose twitter feeds I enjoy.

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I had booked myself into four of the many talks and workshops on offer. The first of these was a panel discussion with Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories Publishing, Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press and Jen Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, on the pros, cons, and growing importance of independent publishing in an increasingly commercial climate.

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They discussed the advantages of being both small and independent. These included low overheads (two of the three work out of their homes); no need to live in London, with the cost savings this provides; and the ability to publish only books they truly love and wish to read themselves. The disadvantages included the cost risk of big print runs when books sell well, particularly when they are included on literary prize shortlists (something they all desire but which presents logistical challenges), and the sheer volume of books that they need to find somewhere to store!

The demise of the net book agreement removed the level playing field for booksellers, something exacerbated by the rise of Amazon. There was agreement that the decision to set up a small press was made with a mixture of idealism and ignorance, but the consensus remained that it was worth doing. Any in the audience who have read books from these publishers would certainly agree with that.

For my second booked session, Inside the Mind of an Outsider, I was joined by my daughter who had been exploring the impressive grounds of the Old Naval College and visiting the Maritime Museum. She is a medical student with a particular interest in neurology so I had given her Alex Pheby’s Playthings to read. Alex was joined by Andrew Hankinson (author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Roaul Moat)), and Anakana Schofield (author of Martin John) to discuss art and the idea of madness. The event was skillfully chaired by Guardian writer Susanna Rustin.

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Each of the authors gave a reading from their book and talked of how they had created their story. They discussed what is meant by reality and truth, how culturally significant our understanding of these things are. They agreed that fiction enables greater verity as there is less demand for perceived accuaracy. Fiction is not a social science.

There was mention of risk in publishing books that may be regarded as difficult. They mused that Sales and Marketing people tend to like genres, that celebrity authors sell. I gained the impression that amongst this audience, literary quality and depth matters more than a name.

Time ran out with many in the audience still eager to join the discussion. My daughter was itching to talk to Alex but we were booked into another session so moved on.

This third event was such a joy any lingering disappointment at an opportunity missed was soon dispelled. Chris Cleave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) was interviewed by Hannah Beckerman and the rapport between them created an intimate and utterly engaging hour of thought provoking and inspirational discussion.

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Chris talked of how history is related, that it is as much a commentary on the time being lived now as on the past. He believes that we are currently at a perfect distance to rexamine the Second World War as it is still within living memory but not too close.

The research he undertook for his book took him to Malta where he visited military graves, each the final resting place of half a dozen men. The soldiers were too hungry and exhausted to dig individual graves for their many fallen. Such details would neither be known nor understood had he not been there to ask pertinent questions.

Chris mused on how the young people at the time (many who signed up were still in their teens) became principled enough to take a stand and united enough to act. He did not believe that soldiers merely carried out orders but that they acted to protect those they loved, comrades as well as family.

He talked of bravery, how it may be learned and then grow. He also spoke of the importance of forgiveness, how nobody will have a morally clean war, dubious choices will be made. He speculated that modern warfare never truly ends as there is no victory or coming to terms with defeat as in the Second World War. This makes moving on a greater challenge.

As well as the many strands of research, experience and musings Chris talked of the importance of humour, and of a jar of jam that became a talisman. We now understood why refreshments offered for this talk included delicious jam sandwiches.

Having sat through three hours straight of fascinating talks I now needed air and a drink. Declining the offered tickets for additional talks we retired to the river bank for a break.

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Refreshed we returned for our final session titled Reality Skewed: Inside characters who see things differently. Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug) and Adam Biles (whose book, Feeding Time, is to be published by Galley Beggar Press in August) talked to Sam Jordison about what their wayward characters can tell us about ourselves. Literature doesn’t always just allow us to see the world with new eyes; it allows us to access an entirely different conception of reality.

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As a Galley Buddy I will get a copy of Adam’s book hot off the press so it was interesting to hear more about it. Set in an old people’s home, with a protagonist who believes he is a prisoner of war, the reading Adam gave us left me intrigued. I have yet to read a Galley Beggar book that I have not enjoyed so am looking forward to receiving my black cover edition.

I have read Paul’s book (my review is here) but had not, perhaps, fully appreciated all of the deadpan humour it contains. He read out part of a speech he gave at Dulwich Bookshop on behalf of Francis, who has somehow become quite real, and had us in stitches. The apparently inebriated lady who subsequently asked him questions added to the slightly surreal quality of this highly entertaining event.

There was more to come at the festival but my daughter and I had to head home, her to halls for yet more exam revision, and me to make my way out to Wiltshire before the day ended and my promised pick up retired to bed. With the knowledge that my husband would huff at yet more book purchases I confined myself to buying just the one book that both my daughter and I were now eager to read. It was a fabulous day.

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The Greenwich Book Festival is part of the Royal Greenwich Festivals; a programme of events and activities delivered in venues, parks and open spaces across the Royal Borough.