An Unwelcome Prize?

Last week’s Saturday Telegraph  had and article by Tristram Fane Saunders with the title, ‘Does Anybody Want To Be the Poet Laureate?’

In my early years at university, I used to write reams of ‘classic’, romantic poetry in iambic pentameter, and I would have been enchanted with the thought of being Poet Laureate of anywhere – even Atlantic City – if it had been offered to me.  But, had I read Mr Saunders’ article at the time, I might have had second thoughts.   As far as I can tell, Mr Saunders is a poet, a comic, writer,  translator, commentator for the Telegraph, and all around culture vulture.

Tristram Fane Saunders

He says, “Who would want to be poet laureate? John Skelton, Henry VIII’s tutor and self-proclaimed “Lauryate”, had to put up with rivals “rudely revilyng me in the kynges noble hall”, and royal poets have faced mud-slinging ever since – especially from other poets.

“Dryden, the first modern laureate, called his successor, Shadwell, “a foul mass of corrupted matter”. George III’s poet Pye was guilty of churning out verse “doggedly and dully” according to Southey, who found he suffered from the same problem on inheriting the post.

“In 1999, the appointment of Andrew Motion was denounced as “a shameful failure of integrity and imagination” by Carol Ann Duffy. She had nothing against Motion, but felt the job should have gone to a woman. (Of course, a decade later, for the first time in history, it did.)

“As Duffy’s 10-year tenure comes to an end this year, it’s time for the country to choose its new bardic mascot. But who makes that choice? Until now it has been shrouded in obfuscation, but this time the Government has laid the whole process bare. A “steering group” of 15 named experts has been assembled from the heads of various literary festivals, libraries and poetry organisations around the UK. The group has drawn up a shortlist of four or five poets, culled from a longer list after a bit of back-and-forth with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“It is now up to the DCMS to make the final selection – or selections, if the first choice turns the post down, as Philip Larkin did in 1984. As a formality, the decision is passed on to the Prime Minister, who then submits it to the Queen for approval. In practice, however, the buck stops with the head of the DCMS, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright.

“I don’t envy the steering group’s job. After all, how can you choose a laureate, when it’s still not altogether clear what a laureate is?

“In theory, being laureate entails no more work than being an OBE. The title is defined online by the royal household as “an honour awarded by HM to a poet whose work is of national significance”. Wordsworth only took the role after being assured by the Prime Minister that “you shall have nothing required of you”. The public may expect topical poems on state occasions, but the Queen doesn’t. Quit writing and move to Majorca, and you’ll still be eligible for your annual salary.

“That salary, as it happens, is £6,000, paid for by DCMS, and a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) gifted by a vineyard in Spain. The booze was originally a gift received by Ben Jonson, unofficial laureate to James I and Charles I, then revived as part of Dryden’s honorarium. Duffy, Motion and Hughes all received their butt – measured into 720 bottles – from the same producers in Jerez.

“For the past 10 years Duffy has not been sitting on her butt, but giving it away at launches and selling it for charitable causes.

“The lack of hubbub around this year’s appointment is a far cry from the heady days of 1999, when the race was beset by one scandal after another. Rumours that Tony Blair wanted to “modernise” the position and reinvent it as a “People’s Laureate” (though denied by Downing Street) prompted an aghast letter from Hughes’s widow, leaked to the Telegraph, which accused Blair of jeopardising “the sanctity” of the post.

“Then a shortlist of five names was leaked, of which two had already ruled themselves out in verse: Seamus Heaney (“My passport’s green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen”) and Tony Harrison, who published a long poem attacking Blair, the monarchy and “toadies like Di-deifying Motion”.

“Derek Walcott, also on the list, was seen as a long shot by reporters at the time, due to doubts over whether he would be willing to move to the UK, and the lingering bad publicity of a 1996 sexual harassment allegation (though the claim was dropped). Of the five, that left only Motion and Duffy. Then came another leak: a Government “source” told the press Blair had quashed Duffy’s chances. The PM, it was claimed, was reportedly “worried about having a homosexual as poet laureate because of how it might play in Middle England”.

(In) “Bloomsbury, one bookseller is running an under-the-table sweepstake. I’m told three names have attracted significant bets from the literati there: Dalit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Lemn Sissay.  I’d add two more to that list: Jackie Kay, already Scotland’s laureate, and Simon Armitage, who’s been tipped as a laureate-in-waiting for at least 20 years.

“As for the laureateship, whoever gets it must have a thick skin. Take a leaf from Betjeman’s book. “Your appointment has been stigmatised as arbitrary and irrelevant,” Martin Amis once told the then poet laureate in a radio interview. “Do you, Sir John, feel yourself to be arbitrary and irrelevant?” Betjeman didn’t hesitate: “Yes, thank God.””

Review: I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories

I found this book in a the English section of a book store in Capo d’Orlando, Sicily, and since I’d never read his work – of course, I’ve seen The Great Gatsby – I bought it, a collection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s unpublished short stories.  Perhaps the best feature of this book is that it is edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, and who provides a fascinating picture of the writer and his life through her notes and comments.

Anne Margaret Daniel

Her website says this about the editor: “Anne Margaret Daniel teaches at the New School University in New York City and at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Her articles and essays on literature and music have appeared for the past twenty years in books, critical editions, magazines, and journals from The New York Times to Hot Press to The Times Literary Supplement. Anne Margaret has degrees in American history and English literature from Harvard (A.B.), Georgetown (M.A.), and Princeton (Ph.D). She also has a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. As a graduate student at Princeton in 1996, she gave the keynote lecture at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Conference held at his alma mater, and has published extensively on his writing, and on American Modernism, since.

There are eighteen short stories in this book, all previously unpublished.  Fitzgerald finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, the Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night,  and, posthumously The Last Tycoon.  But he was a prolific short story-writer, with four collections of stories and 164 short stories published in magazines; he also worked as a screen-writer in Hollywood.  While his writing was popular during his lifetime, and he did achieve periods of financial success, he did not achieve critical acclaim until after his death in 1944.  (He was born in 1896.)  Much of his  writing was representative of the ‘Lost Generation’ of the 1920’s: jazz, flappers and speak-easys.  His short stories often appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine to which my parents subscribed.  He was an alcoholic from the time he graduated from Princeton; his heavy drinking lead to health problems in the 30’s and his death in ’44.

F Scott Fitzgerald

Most of the stories in this collection date from the 30’s, during the Depression, when Fitzgerald was trying to move his genre away from love stories about pretty, rich girls, parties and high living to the grittier aspects of real life.  During this period, his agent and publishing editors frequently demanded changes to soften the content, or rejected it entirely.  Also, during the period, he had spells of working in Hollywood, which, while financially attractive, was frustrating in that he viewed the literary output requirements as very ordinary and it took time away from his chosen pursuits.

His writing is imaginative and direct, without elaboration, and often involves a young, pretty, somewhat naive and love-struck girl and one or more older men with obvious character defects.  There is no sex, but it is sometimes implied.  The plot doesn’t end as one might expect, but rarely badly.

The first story in the book is The I.O.U. written in 1920 for Harper’s Bazaar which didn’t publish, nor did The Saturday Evening Post.  Fitzgerald was working on his second novel The Beautiful and Damned at the time, and the story was ‘lost in the shuffle’.  Yale’s Beinecke Library purchased the manuscript in 2012 for $194,500 (14 printed pages).  The story is a light-hearted satire of the publishing industry, featuring a stressed-out publisher, a mad-as-a-hatter psychic doctor/author, a war hero and a pretty girl.  The improbable antics are certainly entertaining, and the story ends with the public unmasking of the fraudulent author via an IOU for $3.80.

Gracie at Sea is a screen play scenario written for George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were a famous cinema comic duo at the time (1934).  It is based on the proposition that wealthy father will not allow his pretty, younger daughter to marry until her older, very awkward sister is married.  Gracie is the awkward sister and George Burns in the incompetent PR man hired to make Gracie look marriageable.  Everything goes wrong as one slap-stick scene follows another.  This may have worked in the hands of an able director, but as a screen play scenario written as a serious short story it falls completely flat, and Paramount didn’t buy it.

Travel Together written a year or two after Gracie at Sea concerns a Hollywood writer who is living the life of a hobo in order to gain experience for a screen play he is writing.  He meets a pretty, young hobo girl, with whom he travels to the west coast.  The girl is looking for a woman to whom her rich, senile father gave a large diamond just before he died; she views the diamond as her rightful inheritance.  It is a lovely, imaginative story.

There are plenty of other good stories in this collection; some of them ahead of their time in dealing with taboos like un-married pregnancy, illicit funding of college sports, suicide and criminal activities.  Fitzgerald wanted to tell it like it is, not like his audience might have wanted it to be.  This made his efforts to change genres more difficult, and his finances more strained, while his ventures into Hollywood were frustrating, and his own health and that of his wife were deteriorating.

The Ethics of Characters

There is an article in the February issue of The Florida Writer, by Chrissy Jackson that caught my eye.  Ms Jackson is a member of the Florida Writers Association.  She graduated with high honours from Eckerd College in 20165, earning a behavioural science degree with a focus on non-profit leadership.

Chrissy Jackson

In the article, Ms Jackson urges authors to consider the ethics of each character.  She says: “Each character must be different from the other in a striking way. Not only in physical characteristics, but also in their moral compass which determines how they interact with others, decisions they make, and actions they take.

“Certainly, when thinking about the protagonist, ethics come into play as you craft the character. But even the antagonist takes some thinking when there are ethical choices to be made. It is important to allow enough room on both sides for growth and situational changes to impact each of them.  Just as in real life where no one is all good or all bad, so it is with your characters. No one is ethical all the time nor consistently unethical. For example, if the antagonist is a sociopath, who is manipulative and never considers the rights of others, one who sees their self-serving
behaviours as permissible, there might still be an ethical core way down deep in their personality that comes out if the situation is just right. A trigger, perhaps, that brings up a long-ago memory of something positive.

“Readers look for a twist in character development, the something that changes as the story builds and the character arc emerges, but as an author, you need to build it realistically so that ethical choices seem appropriate for each personality you develop, yet there is that little something that is unexpected. Perhaps your antagonist is one who tortures people instead of just murdering them outright. Maybe it started in their youth with puppies, rabbits and other small animals. Yet maybe it never extended to kittens because in the horrible life that passed for the youth of your antagonist, there was a lost, abandoned kitten that hid under the house and rather than seeing it as easy prey, it represented for your character something that cared about them in a way no one else ever did. That might drive his ethical choices when confronted with a person intended to be his next victim, but who is found playing with a kitten, much like he did when he escaped the adults and crawled under his house. Ethical memories may interfere with the killer’s plans, causing him to rethink his actions for a minute, and that may be just long enough for the planned victim to move out of the situation.

“Ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong, confusing overall, because rightness or wrongness can be seen so clearly and so differently by different people. While a drug-addicted mother may put her children in harm’s way through choices she makes while under the influence of heroin—and actually lose custody of them—the ethics of her situation are not lost on her when she is not high. As an author creating a rounded character, you know there is more her story than her physical cravings. You need to also weave in the love she has for her newborn, and the unconditional love that is returned.  Even small children are faced with ethical dilemmas.  Should Susie take Mary’s cookie off the lunch tray when no one is looking?  Who will know she did it?  And do not forget the judgement of the public against the protagonist. If he/she does something that turns out to be the “right” choice, the ethical decision, but does it for the wrong reason initially, is it still right? Who knows the real reason underlying the call to action? Who will tell someone else? How will it be portrayed? Does it change the public opinion about the protagonist?”

I certainly agree with Ms Jackson’s central points: that characters develop and change over the course of a story (the character arc); and that it is important to plan for and support those changes as the writing progresses.

Has Television Killed the Novel?

The Daily Telegraph had an article by Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor on January 3 in which Neil Cross, creator of the TV police series Luther, claimed that television has killed the novel.  He says that the 20th century was blessed with novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, The Colour Purple and The Handmaiden’s Tale that changed the way we see the world, bu that there are no equivalents in the 21st century.

Neil Cross

Neil Cross was born in Bristol in 1969; he graduated from the university of Leeds with a degree in English and Theology.  His initial career was solely as a novelist, and his first novel, Mr In Between, was published in 1998 and later made into a film.   He has written seven titles for TV, the longest running of which is Luther; two screen plays and nine novels.  He lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The article says: “Cross, who has written several novels of his own and a well-received memoir, said, ‘I like books, but I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.  I just think that the narrative function of television is supplanting the novel.’  He went on: ‘I think the way that television is being watched is replacing the societal and cultural function of the novel.  We consume television like we used to read books.  Instead of a chapter before I turn off my light, it is now one more TV episode before I turn the light off.’

“Cross argued that episodic television is ‘fulfilling a similar function’ to novels of the Victorian era ‘in the way that people talk about and analyse the characters’.  Writers including Charles Dickens and Henry James released their work in instalments, with readers keenly awaiting the next update.

The Sopranos, which began 20 years ago next week, was named by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written television series of all time.  The Wire and Breaking Bad, also US television dramas, were adored by critics and audiences alike.  Meanwhile the sales of literary fiction have been falling since the mid-Nineties.  The biggest sellers published this century have included The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, the later Harry Potter stories, the Fifty Shades of Grey books and The Twilight Saga.”

I think Mr Cross is neglectful when he says, ” I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.”  Just have a look at this list complied by the BBC:  http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150119-the-21st-centurys-12-best-novels.

I do agree, however, that “We consume television like we used to read books.”  But, I’m not sure it follows that television is killing the novel.  If we break ‘novel’ down into its genres, it is possible, in my view, that television is having an impact on the sales of thrillers,  But literary novels have their own problems: see: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction.

 

Review: The Choice

My wife read this book – an autobiography of an Auschwitz survivor – and recommended it so highly that I had to read it.  Dr Edith Eger, the author, was born Editke Elefant in Kosice, Slovakia (then part of Hungary) on 29 September 1927.  In early 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and forced Edith, her two sisters, Magda and Clara, her mother and father into the Kosice ghetto.  In May, 1944, when Edith was 16, she, her mother, father, and sister, Magda, were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were murdered; Clara, a violinist, is away from home at a concert, and survived the war with a false identity.

Edith Eger

Edith is made to dance by the infamous Dr Mengele.  Together, Edith and Magda endure the terror, famine, forced labour,and extreme hardship of Auschwitz; in late 1944, they are moved by train to Germany where they work as slave labourers in factories.  They are moved again to Austria.  Of the two thousand prisoners who were forced on a death march to Gunskirchen, the sisters are two of only one hundred who survive.  Edith was discovered in a pile of the dead, more dead than alive, by a US soldier in May 1945.  The sisters are nursed back to health and travel to Prague, where they are reunited with Clara.

They return to Kosice, and find their old house which has been occupied and looted.  Edith meets Bela Eger, a wealthy Jew, who has survived the war as an anti-Nazi, and they are married.  Many Hungarians feel threatened by the Communist take-over of Hungary and cast about for a safer refuge.  Clara emigrates to Australia, Magda chooses the US and Bela has made arrangements to start a business in Israel.  At the last moment Edith decides to take her baby daughter to America, and Bela goes, too, first to Brooklyn, then Baltimore and El Paso.  They face low wages, poor accommodation and discrimination.   Bela finds work as and accountant, and Edith gets her masters and doctorate degrees, becoming a clinical psychologist.   She has three children and now lives in La Jolla, California.

There are poignant descriptions of Edith’s journey to Hitler’s castle in the Bavarian mountains where she slept in Goebble’s bed, of her return to Auschwitz, and of her counselling sessions, particularly with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The title of the book, The Choice, is derived from Edith’s belief that we cannot change the external events in our lives; we can only choose how we respond to them.  She and Magda chose to survive against all odds.  She also highlights a piece of advice from her mother: “They can never take away what you put in your mind.”

Perhaps the most important passage in the book occurs on page 307: Edith is recalling that on entering Auschwitz, Dr Mengele asked her, “Is she your mother or sister?”  She replied, “Mother,” and learned later that this choice effectively condemned her mother to death, as all those over 40 or under 14 were executed.  She says, “Could I have saved my mother?  Maybe.  And I will live all the rest of my life with that possibility.  And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice.  That is my prerogative.  Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one that I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now.  The choice to accept myself as I am; human, imperfect.”

This is a timeless book, well-written, that speaks constructively about life, death, humanity and uncertainty.

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

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Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives
William Peace
Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co. (2018)
ISBN 9781948858892
Reviewed by Robert Leon Davis for Readers Views (1/19)
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by author William Peace is a novel set on the Continent of Africa, involving the personal lives of three East Africans. Each is exposed to various decisions and choices they make involving their lives, with either dire consequences or happy outcomes. The intertwining relationships between the friends is just plain awesome.
“Achieving Superpersonhood” is sort of written in the third person, which eloquently dictates the pace of the characters’ lives. There is also what I call a “footnote,” or another person speaking in the third person, which reminds one of God or Satan, (or good or bad), immediately questioning each person’s decisions. This “footnote” is the brilliancy of the author and the plot! I really don’t know how he imagined this stupendous plot or “footnote.” It’s a novel that can’t be explained but actually has to be read.
I’ve read hundreds of novels, but this is top on my list. It’s the crème de la crème of novels that I’ve read. I personally place this work in the vein of a Charles Dickens. Huh, you say? Yes, in my humble opinion. As I’ve stated and must repeat it again; the plot is beautifully set, with surprisingly contrasting differences between each character and a “can’t wait to read what’s next” feeling.
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by William Peace is an excellent, well-written novel, thought provoking on a serious level, and a beautiful flow from one incident to another. The characters also seem real, not imaginative. I thank the author for sharing this “work” not book, with me, and recommend it to the many readers who enjoy and love reading a good novel. Well done, sir. 5 stars plus!

Doing Whatever It Takes

There is an article by Sandra Wendel which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  Ms Wendel is an experienced book editor who specializes in helping authors write, polish, and publish their manuscripts; she gives the following example of “doing whatever it takes” as an editor.  Her website is https://www.sandrawendel.com/.

 

Sandra - headshot 082918.JPG

Sandra Wendel

“After working his way up through the ranks in narcotics and homicide, putting plenty of bad guys in prison, and retiring from exemplary work on the Omaha Police Department, detective Brian Bogdanoff sat down to write a story.”  (A true story of two bad guys who stole tons of marijuana from three Mexican drug minions, shot the three and burned their bodies along the roadside near Omaha.)

“Brian and I met in a book-writing class I was teaching at the community college. The manuscript he brought me read like a police report with words like “vehicles,” “perpetrators,” and “victims.” So I invited him to my home office, sat him down, and we began.

“He had written:

As I spoke with each of them separately, I could see nobody wanted to talk yet, so I made it very clear to Preston and Gaylan that I was a homicide detective, not a narcotics officer, and this case that brought me to them was just getting started.

As if he were on the hot seat in an interrogation room, I grilled him: “What did Gaylan look like?” “What was he doing?” “What exactly did he say?” “And then what did you say?” “Describe the room—how big, furniture, what?”


Here’s the revision of the same passage:


Gaylan was first. If someone was going to talk, I thought it would be Gaylan.

I walked into a fourth-floor interview room of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at downtown police headquarters. Gaylan was sitting at the same table where he’d been sitting for nine hours while we were searching his house, the recording studio, the lawn service, the remaining storage units, and his secondary houses.

His head was down, he looked up at me and said, “What’s up, man?”

He’s a big guy, twenty-four years old, and was tired from sitting in a ten-by-ten room all day. He wasn’t handcuffed, but there was a guard outside the door.

“You got big problems.” I opened the conversation. “I got a receipt and inventory of all the stuff we recovered today, and it doesn’t look good.” I handed him a list of the property seized.

“I’m a homicide cop, and that’s what this is all about, so you might be in your best position right now to tell me what you know,” I said. “If someone else wants to talk first, they’ll get all the good things that come with it.” And he chose not to talk.

I gave the same spiel to Preston. He had the same attitude. He wasn’t talking.

Roscoe and I then walked Gaylan to the jail elevator and rode it to the basement of the police station. We put our guns in the gun locker and walked him into jail. He was booked in for his marijuana charges and taken to his concrete ten-by-ten cell in solitary confinement, which on the street has earned the name Bedrock.

We did the same procedure for Preston.

“And the story came out, excruciating detail by detail, so readers could go inside the mind of this talented detective and follow his story from crime scene to courtroom, gasping when blood was found under the carpet of a home, unbeknownst even to the current residents. Readers followed the thread of a note found in the pocket of one of the burned bodies to the hotel where the cartel guys stayed.

“We described more key scenes with fresh detail and dialogue. And then we went to the crime scenes themselves where I took photos of the roadside burn site where religious artifacts had still been left presumably by grieving family five years later; to the yellow house where the gangbangers shot the Mexicans and loaded their bodies into a pickup that left a dripping blood trail down the street; to the neighborhood where the bangers lived that didn’t feel safe even at two in the afternoon with an armed police officer giving the guided tour.

“We gathered yet more detail, so I could add pertinent facts and observations. That’s what an editor does.”

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

The moral of this article is that it takes a different mentality to be a good homicide detective, than the mentality of a writer who can make the detective’s story come alive in the mind of the reader.

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

The following review has been posted on the Indie Reader website:

ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives

by William Peace

Verdict: With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

IR Rating   5.0  IR Rating

Three coming-of-age tales set against the dramatic backdrop of East Africa make up this compelling novel from William Peace. Each young person comes from a distinctly different background: Kamiri, a poor migrant from a tribal culture, Dorothy, an earnest college graduate, and Hassan, the youngest son of a wealthy Muslim family. Their lives intersect as they experience the real world and learn more about who they are and what they want to become.

Told by an observer narrator, each person’s story is in the present tense, so the reader will feel like an insider, experiencing stirring and sometimes sensational highs and lows. Peace paints a stunning picture of each character and what they endure, whether on the road with Kamiri as he makes his way from “Village” to “City”, or in the thick of a mining scandal with Dorothy, as she attempts to expose the truth and save poor diamond miners from an evil corporation. As for Hassan, his struggle with identity delivers him from university into the hands of an Islamic extremist group, whose violent practices repulse him. Readers will sense Kamiri’s sweet innocence, Dorothy’s sincerity, and Hassan’s confusion and self-doubt. Readers will root for these characters, none of which are unlikable, despite their flaws and naivete.

But perhaps what is most fascinating about this book’s narrative form is the interjections by the “One” and the “Other.” Both of these “characters” speak in the first person, commenting on Kamiri’s, Dorothy’s, and Hassan’s choices, as well as human nature in general. Readers can interpret these “characters” as God and the Devil, with the latter often dismissing the former, due to the deity’s disinterest in the seedier side of humanity. The One and the Other also occasionally drop in to influence the characters in various ways, some of which gets ignored, much to the Other’s disgust.

What could have been another loss of innocence story or journey of the spiritual self is a truly magnificent example of narrative form. As readers experience what happens to characters in between comments from the One and the Other, they will find themselves increasingly unable to wait to turn the page.

With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

~Kent Page McGroarty for IndieReader

Bookshops: A Retail Bright Spot

Margareta Pagano’s article in the December 12th issue of the Evening Standard contained welcome news, ending with this: “But the best news of all is that people are buying books again in physical book shops, rather than on line with Amazon.  It’s difficult to get accurate figures, but there is a definite shift back to bricks and mortar: Waterstones, which bought Foyles earlier this year, is making excellent profits and opening new stores again.  And, for the first time in years, there are more new opening of book shops this year than closures.”

ResPublica says about Ms Pagano. “(She) is a columnist and the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. She is one of the UK’s leading financial journalists and has worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, the Times and the Sunday Times. A founding editor of the Financial News, Margareta helped turn this specialist newspaper into one of the City’s premier online news services which is now part of Dow Jones. She also writes for the Spectator and the First Post and appears on TV as a financial commentator.”

Margareta Pagano

The article begins: ” . . . here’s as safe bet; you are going to buy or receive from someone in your family either Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, or The Ice Monster, by David Williams and Illustrated by Tony Ross. . . . To date, Obama’s Becoming is the fastest-selling, hardback, non-fiction title in the UK since Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography published five ears ago. . . . It is being gobbled up by women of all ages around the country to give to their female friends and relatives.  They also reckon that with two million copies of Obama’s book having been sold worldwide more or less at the full price, Penguin Random House may be close to raking back much of the enormous $65 million (£50 million) advance paid to the Obama couple for their books- the former president, whose biography is out next year, has a job on his hands to beat his wife’s record.

“Like in the jewellery business, December is the Holy Grail for the book trade with u to 40% of all fiction and non-fiction books sold in the Christmas month.

“The latest figures from Nielsen BookScan show that sales for the year up to December 1 are 1.3% up on the year before at £1.3 billion, although volume sales are down a smidgen.  This is still along way off its pre-crash heyday, when sales between 2006 and 2007 hit a record £1.9 billion.  But Tom Tivnan of The Bookseller says the industry is going through a renaissance and reckons that sales this year could be a\s high as £1.6 billion after Christmas is taken into account.

“What is driving this revival? Fewer retailers are discounting prices, digital has opened up new markets and book shops have woken up to the need to host live events with authors and other experiences to attract readers.  Growth is most marked in the childrens’ books market and in audiobooks.  Audiobook sales are up 20% year on year and have created a new market, notably among men aged between 25 and 45, a demographic that traditionally reads the least.  In an era when time is short and the mood troubled, readers are also pouncing on ‘smart thinking’ books and authors who stir debate. That’s quite a contrast to the Ladybird books and adult colouring books which did so well after the crash.”

On a personal note, I should mention that Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives has been named winner in the Novel category, Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards, 2018.

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.