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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Red Book: not quite pink

For the longest time I had a thing for what I call “pink books”.  You know, books withe mostly female characters where the principal protaganists hate each other at the start, yet inevitably fall in love at the end.  Hardly highbrow, but I don’t care.  And why “pink books”?  Well, find the section where they are housed in your local bookstore or library and you will see shelves of almost wall to wall pink.

As I headed into my late twenties, and now early thirties, these books lost something of their fascination for me.  I just found them too trite and frequently poorly written.  I wanted something a little more fluid, a little more challenging, a little more real, a little more grown up.  I tried to find something like that and maybe went too far the other way, reading novels about wars and genocide and mental illness, where love was complicated and infrequent.  Not happy, easy, books.  I missed the lightness of the pink books, but didn’t return to them.

“The Red Book” bridges this divide perfectly.

red book

It revolves around likable, if flawed female protagonists and to, a certain extent, their complex love lives.  But it is so much more than a pink book.

It tackles modern issues

Both the banking crisis and the decline of the conventional newspaper play central roles in this novel.

“It’s hard to imagine a world without sentences, thoughts, poetry, and prose, and yet every day I see it happening: the shortening of our attention spans, the editors who ask for two hundred words max, the daily fix of small nothings.  A YouTube clip of two monkeys humping; Aunt Mildred’s status update; baseless rumors; lies that become truth simply for having been typed into somebody’s blog.  What can one learn in two hundred words or 140 characters or 35 seconds about anything.  Nothing, it strikes me, that’s worth knowing.”

They are not passed over, or simply used as narrative tools, to twist the plot or locate the period, as they may be in other novels.  They are discussed head on.  And their complexities are raised, for challenging us to feel sympathy for the human impact of the banking crisis on the rich.

It deals with complexity head on

None of the protagonists is perfect.  But they are likable and incredibly human.  They began their adult life in a world of opportunity (they were Harvard friends in the 80s) but did very different things with this opportunity, with different degrees of success and indeed, happiness.

“‘Jesus Christ, Mia’, said Addison, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me! What, so he can get into Harvard?  For all the good it’s done both of us, you’d think you’d be a little more dubious about the Ivy League arms race.  It means nothing, Mia.  Nothing.  Some of the most successful people I know never even went to college!'”

There are no tidy endings

I can’t really tell you about this without ruining the novel but suffice to say it doesn’t all wrap up tidily, with everyone on a “high” like your average pink book.  On the other hand, in some way, it is more inspiring because of its realism and humanity.  When you read a pink book as an adult, you kind of know it’s nothing like your life.  The Red Book feels a lot more plausible.  This may contribute to a feeling that I had throughout, that this would make a brilliant play.  I hope some brilliant playwright feels the same way!

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Not the most illustrious of starts

So, as many of you know, I rely on my kindle.  Books that aren’t available to me in this format may, for all I care, just about not exist.  And I have actually panicked in the past about what would happen if I lost it, or broke it or it simply stopped working.  But I thought to myself “nah, that’ll never happen”….

Then, last week, I commit to my next, massive, reading adventure.  Then on Friday, bam (actually “bam” may be too nice a word for it) I fell dramatically, and okay a little comedically.

Orange Person Seeing Stars And Lying On Their Back After Slipping In Front Of A Caution Sign Clipart Illustration Image

Now, in the fluster after the fall – and as the giant bruise on my elbow grew – I failed to check on my bag (which had cushioned the fall, somewhat).  Only the next morning did I discover that in the process I had broken my kindle!  Disaster!

Clearly, I had ordered a new one before I was out of my pyjamas.  But still…. £70 down and a lost three days of reading…. not an illustrious start.

Mostly a numbers game

Now, having thought about it, this project has certain clear advantages over the original book prize blog of last year.

Firstly, I would normally read many of these books anyway – I know I tend to like them.  In fact, whereas for the Booker Long List I had a fairly even split of “Greens” (would have read anyway) “Yellows” (may have read anyway) and “Reds” (would never read) this time over half the novels are green and a further six are yellow.

The Greens:

Flight Behaviour Barbara Kingsolver
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn
Honour Elif Shafak
Ignorance Michele Roberts
Life after Life Kate Atkinson
May we be Forgiven A M Homes
N-W Zadie Smith
The Forests Emily Perkins
The Light Between Oceans M. L. Stedman
The People of Forever are not Afraid Shani Boianjui
The Red Book Deborah Copaken Kogan

The Yellows:

A Trick I Learned from Dead Men Kitty Aldridge
How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti
Lamb Bonnie Nadzam
Mateship with Birds Carrie Tiffany
The Innocents Francesca Segal
Where’d you go, Bernadette Maria Semple

The Reds:

Alif the Unseen G. Willow Wilson
The Marlowe Papers Ros Barber

 

Secondly, these books are much more accessible than the Man Booker novels and hence I should read them at a far greater pace;

Thirdly, I am now a more seasoned reader / blogger, so should have my skills down a little more; and

Finally, most of these books are accessible (or at least in print) which was a bit of a challenge at the start of the Long List.

But – and this is a big but – as you may remember, there were 12 books on the Man Booker Long List, and I had 83 days to read them all.

books

There are 20 books on the Women’s Prize Long List and I have 84 days (or 12 weeks) to read them.  Now, even if we exclude the one I have already read (Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies) it still means I have to up my pace considerably.  But hey, I like this kind of challenge, and am keen to get going.

As some of you may remember from last time, I like to start with a “Yellow” – not something I necessarily would have read anyway, but not something that depresses me too much to continue!  This time is no different.

Today I shall be beginning, “How Should a Person Be?” by Sheila Heti:  http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/title/how-should-a-person-be

A book about feminism.  Gah.  Wish me luck.

Blogging the Women’s Prize for Fiction

So I have realised something important.  I always thought I loved rules.  But I don’t really.  I like understanding what is happening, which is slightly different, I think.  I am not bothered by a rule being broken as long as I understand.

And I hope you feel the same, because, as you can tell, I have pretty much sucked at following my 2013 rule.    Now I can give three perfectly understandable reasons for this:

1) Sometimes people suggest really hard, challenging books.  And I get bogged down.  One of these is fine and kind of interesting, but a few in a row is pretty off-putting (what I call the quality issue)

2) Reading for me is such a whim-based activity.  Sometimes I just need to read a certain type of book, and if none of that type is on my list, well, that’s a bit rough (what I call the range issue)

3) When both the above happen, I just kind of stop reading full stop, which for me is pretty depressing (hmm, no name for this one)

And when I fail I know two things… Firstly, I have a tendency to stop trying.  But secondly, I am very good at apologising.  So…. sorry.

But, what I do thoroughly enjoy is fixing problems.  So, I have done a rethink and gone back to my Blogging the Long List roots.  The whole premise of the blog is that those who select for book award lists are experts and seek to address issues of quality and range.  They should be better at this than me, or anyone else I know.  Now, although at times the Booker Long List challenged this assumption, I remain something of a believer.

Helpfully, the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly Orange) longlist has been announced in a timely fashion – just as I was wondering what to do next – so I shall be blogging that instead.

women's prize

Now, historically I have really enjoyed most of the books on this list, so hopefully this should be a fun one.  Despite, in general, avoiding “women’s” things I am pretty female in my taste in authors and topics and the books on this list tend to be at an easy, accessible, reader-friendly (though somewhat un-challenging) level.

My thoughts on the selection to follow shortly….