Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Drinking his first coffee, he peers out of the window. Its overcast and freezing cold: the pane is scrolled with his gelid breath."

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold is one of a number of titles published this year by Hogarth Press as part of the Shakespeare 400 commemorations which has seen writers including Ann Tyler, Jeanette Winterton and Howard Jacobson reinterpreting the Bard's work. In this case Margaret Atwood takes on the challenge of adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest; and what a bloody good job she does too.

The Tempest, as you know of course, is a brilliant play combining romance and retribution with mysticism and magic against the backdrop of a tiny and remote island. Atwood cleverly brings the source material right up to date with a post-modern twist which sees the story, and the play within a story, set in a high security prison facility. 

The novel concerns Felix, the former Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival (and modern day Prospero) who having been banished to a small town takes a teaching job at a prison. Felix has a vision; to stage the version of The Tempest he's always dreamed of and now, as part of the 'Freedom through Literacy' programme he's teaching he will stage the production with a cast of inmates. "Did Shakespeare always know what he was doing, or was he sleepwalking part of the time? In the flow? In a trance?" asks Felix, but will his new production heal his emotional wounds?

The story follows Felix's challenge of casting and staging the play before the final, and dramatic, performance itself in front of a personally selected audience. 

Margaret Atwood really delivers in this adaptation because she is bold enough to adapt not just the play itself but the 'mythology' surrounding this most unusual of Shakespeare's works which means accepting all the previous adaptations and performances which have gone before. More will be aware of The Tempest and characters such as Caliban than have actually seen or read the play and I think this is exactly what Atwood is adapting. 

The result is a novel which effectively adapts the characters and the plot but does so in such a way that modern day audiences can read both a new story and/or a reinterpretation of the original play depending on what they individually bring to the book. 

The Tempest when originally staged made use of the very latest special theatrical effects available just as Felix's production makes use of video effects and contemporary music and I for one can't wait for the RSC's new production this Winter which is sure to push the boundaries even further.

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood, published by Vintage, 294 pages

Friday, 14 October 2016

"Fiction, she said when she'd stopped laughing, is impossible but enables us to reach what is relatively truth"

Public Library and Other Stories is a collection of short stories around the theme of reading and borrowing books. In-between each stories are brief essays and interviews in which Ali Smith digs deep into to crisis threatening so many public libraries to reveal the human and social impact.

For fans of fiction, like us, this is a wonderful read at a really crucial time. I'm still hurt by the closure of my childhood library which came off the back of brutal cuts by Lancashire County Council but there is more to come. 

Anyway, as soon as I finished Ali Smith's book I felt compelled to dust down my own personal manifesto for the future of the library, as previously published on this blog...

How do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community?

We're now at a point when our libraries need a radical repositioning in the minds of the public. Events organised to celebrate National Libraries Day demonstrate that there ARE pockets of innovation and creativity at some independently minded libraries across the country but how can the success of one annual awareness day drive real change?

Libraries must leverage their role at the heart of the community to fill a huge gap being created by the decline of the traditional high street and cost saving in public services.

So, to that end here is the Word's Shortlist guide to the future for the neighbourhood library.....

1. Extended opening hours, at least on selected days, would open up library services to workers who struggle to leave their desks on tightly squeezed lunch breaks. Opening on Sundays would provide an alternative destination for families and couples during their leisure time. Demand will differ by location but libraries must be open when people want to use them.

2. Our local libraries should offer a programme of regular book clubs, gallery events, music recitals, film screenings and talks that bring like-minded people together. Events need not be managed by library staff but by collaboration with independant bookshops, special interest groups and a network of enthusiastic volunteers.

3. Pubs and cafes have long understood the benefit of providing groups and social clubs with a warm and friendly meeting place. Many libraries have unique and flexible spaces that could be put to similar benefit if they thought of themselves as 'destinations'.

4. Every town has a growing community of home workers and freelancers. Libraries should offer a place for them to meet, share and collaborate in a comfortable and connected environment. Who knows what future partnerships could be forged amongst the book-shelves. Free wifi is a start but communal hot desks would be even better.

5. Our local libraries should be our knowledge hubs offering advice through courses, briefings, oh and yes books. Working closely with local schools and colleges could lead to reciprocal benefits. Some supermarkets even offer after school classes for kids - this should be owned by the neighbourhood library. 

6. Bookstores have long understood the benefits of extending customer dwell time with cafes but libraries have been slower on the uptake. A new generation of librarian baristas wouldn't go amiss. Libraries could become the perfect testing ground for start up coffee brewers and artisan bakers.

7. With good quality newsagents on the decline in the high street Libraries have an opportunity to introduce a well stocked news stand covering specialist and professional print titles not stocked by WH Smith.

8. New start ups, Doddle and the like, are finding a growing market for parcel collection services at train stations. Libraries should work with a commercial partner in this area to help distribute all those Amazon orders (and maybe convert a few to book borrowing at the same time)

9: Many libraries offer much loved read and play sessions for pre-schoolers. This needs to continue but libraries also need to engage young adults. With YA publishing on a high libraries need to work harder at the stage when they currently lose their cool.

10: Finally, libraries need to embrace social media to communicate services and events and to attract new members. Book publishers create huge demand for new titles by developing digital content and working with online bloggers. Libraries are behind the curve.

So how do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community; number of books borrowed, footfall through the door, demand for top titles, membership numbers? If each town had a happiness rating there can be no doubt that a well stocked and curated library, with friendly, knowledgable and approachable staff, that's open when people want to visit would take any town to the top of the league table.

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, published by Penguin, 240 pages

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Autumn edit.....

The best books I've read and reviewed this Autumn (so far).....

"Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it"

"There are not many options for the evening that follows an afternoon of drinking. Only two in fact; remorse, or more drinking then remorse"

"I'm not that Chinese, he says, and its true. He's never felt more American. He's finally reached the limit of his Chineseness, the outermost frontier..."

Sunday, 2 October 2016

"Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it"

Regular readers of this blog (he says with casual optimism) will know that I've been extra enthused of late about the books landing on my bed side table. First there was Ian McEwan's fantastically unique Nutshell followed by Peter Ho Davies epic The Fortunes. This week I'm literally jumping up and down about All That Man Is by David Szalay.

I came across this novel when browsing the Man Booker Longlist but only got around to actually reading it once it had made the shortlist. I've been reading a far bit of fiction from women writers recently, Deborah Levy and Hang Kang come to mind, so the idea of a novel from a male writer about what is it be a man called out to me.

The novel is essentially a series of short stories about men at different stages of life. The narrative is chronological and covers an entire lifetime from men in their early twenties to other men in their eighties yet the whole story takes place within a matter of weeks. The stories themselves are slightly connected, through location and theme, yet stand alone in many ways.

David Szalay uses his personal experiences living in France and Hungary etc to provide a truly authentic voice voice throughout. The earlier parts are strongest (this possibly says more about the reader  - in this case coming up to 40) as the later parts lack some of the emotional detail that really resonated with me. My favourite chapter concerns inter-railing in Europe which captured a blend of youthful optimism but boredom that I remember well.

All That Man Is is a novel about men, written for men. I've read and reviewed similar books recently, Some Rain Must Fall and Your Father Sends His Love come to mind, but for me All That Man Is has the edge - this is a must read and I've got high hopes come the Man Booker Award ceremony itself.  

I read this novel on Kindle, in part, in Canterbury, Kent.

All That Man Is by David Szalay, published by Vintage, 450 pages