Comics Criticism: A Reading List

Comics Criticism

Comics CriticismLiterature is a dialogue, albeit often an insular one. For comics to occupy a position as a mature literary form, they need to be a part of that dialogue.

I didn’t realize until this week that there’s a crisis in comics criticism. Evidently, I’m part of the problem since I rarely read any comics-specific websites, unless someone links to a review or I’m doing research. It’s partly a lack of interest in an insular dialogue, partly that Canada and Europe, where I’ve worked, always seem like an afterthought

American comics publications sometimes refer to a “North American comics scene,” which seems to be a term used exclusively by Americans, possibly patting themselves on the back for their international outlook because they talked about a Canadian just last week, and know that Drawn & Quarterly is located in Montreal. But I feel about as included under this term as I would when reading American children’s books, with their strange language like “neighbour” and “fifth grade.”

Possibly, the problem is that Canada is too small for publications only about comics; possibly it’s that I like reading about a variety of books, both with and without pictures in them; possibly it’s that comics, at present, need to be placed alongside poems about rural Manitoba and essays on Joseph Boyden to give an air of legitimacy to the general public and those who make decisions about publishing and arts funding in Canada.

Either way, comics criticism—and in turn comics—stands to reach a wider audience when it’s not singled out. To put comics on a comparable footing with other fiction and non-fiction, we need a mature critical debate around literary comics, one that deals with all the issues regular literary criticism has to confront.

Comics criticism and coverage, particularly that published in mainstream periodicals, suffers all the same issues as regular literary criticism, disproportionately favours the white, the male, the Western. Need a cover for your graphic novel issue? Why not another Seth or Chris Ware illustration!

It’s easy to overlook what we don’t see: problems, creators, entire forms of media.

The same blindness leads to issues like the Angoulême debacle this year. There are enough issues with diversity in comics publishing to rely on a dialogue solely between creators (which is not to say mainstream media doesn’t suffer the same problem).

Whether you’re new to reading comics or exhausted by commentary from critics who just finished skimming an Intro to Graphic Novels syllabus, here’s an annotated reading list of the critics and websites I’m reading for comics criticism.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Other publications are starting to do a good job of integrating comics into their books coverage, and a growing number of smaller websites are publishing lots of great comics artists. And if you find yourself inspired to start reviewing graphic novels yourself, start with artist Dylan Meconis on how not to write comics criticism.

Hazlitt is one of the best places on the internet for new comics and critical writing of any kind. They’ve been publishing some of the best Canadian and other comics creators online like Jillian Tamaki, Walter Scott and Michael DeForge, as well as work in less typical formats, like Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Swim Through Fire, which plays with the scrolling format of the screen in a really interesting way, or Sholem Krishtalka’s Berlin Diary (more on that later this month). Beyond the comics, Hazlitt publishes essays on writers you don’t realize you want to read yet and stuff that nobody else is even thinking about, like how video games are affecting literature.

Some sites report on gender bias, while others try to do something about it: Hire This Woman falls in in the latter category. ComicsAlliance’s column profiling female creators is an unsubtle effort to get them more work, showcasing a diverse range of women working in genres from literary comics to webcomics to mainstream titles like Adventure Time. It’s great because they don’t ask creators any stupid questions about gender. However, they haven’t published a new column since May and I’m hoping it’s not dead.

Mey Rude’s tastes run more towards superhero, action and cute webcomics than mine, but she does an amazing job every week on Drawn to Comics of investigating diversity in mainstream, literary, and webcomic titles, tracking who’s scripting queer, trans, and racially diverse characters, and how. The best thing about her column is that she considers everything on equal footing, whether it’s Batgirl, Meags Fitzgerald’s Long Red Hair (Conundrum), or Leah Haye’s Not Funny Ha-Ha (Fantagraphics) book about two women who have abortions; she’ll address the work by its merits, not whether it’s the first thing she’ll pick up at the store.

Sometimes a dialogue requires listening instead of reading. Inkstuds is an essential comics podcast. Robin McConnell has interviewed nearly everyone in comics in North America and much of Europe over the past decade, from artists who’ve made a couple of zines to bestselling authors, including creators he interviewed both when they’d made a couple of zines and after they’d become bestselling authors.


shadow manifestoJeet Heer
 is the first name that comes to mind for Canadian comics critics, writing essays that meld cultural criticism and comics criticism in every sort of periodical since before Canadian newspapers even thought of running some variant of the “comics: not just for kids any more” headline every few months. He’s now a senior editor at the New Republic—an excellent demonstration of how people who read comics also have intelligent views on politics, race and other issues not considered “kid stuff.”The LA Review of Books’ graphic reviews of graphic novels are one cool thing that’s happening in book reviewing. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to their review section). Every artist does something different with their review, from drawing themselves to redrawing the book’s artwork. Their regular written reviews and essays on graphic novels are also worthwhile reads.

I can’t get enough of comics artist and critic Annie Mok’s writing since her comic-essays started appearing in Rookie Magazine last year. Her writing does everything great literary criticism should, interweaving themes and topics from Tove Jansson to Guy Maddin to racism in comics (this one, for example), and she even has a comic about James Joyce.

Not strictly a critic to read online, Bart Beaty is the top scholar in the country for research on international comics; I found his work through his book Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (UofT Press). He’s not only interested in Europe–his last book was on Archie comics, and you can read an excerpt from it in The Walrus and follow his ongoing research into North American comics at the University of Calgary.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and journalist, and her blog is a collection of postings of old work in comics journalism, posts about her own work and feminism. She also discusses work and working methods on her blog and in a weekly newsletter, and though it’s informed by her work in comics, most of it is applicable to people working in any creative field.

Laura Kenins is a writer, editor, and comic artist currently based in Halifax, NS. Her comics and writing have appeared in kuš! comics, Truthout, The Coast, Quill and Quire, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. Find Laura’s work online or follow her on tumblr. 

Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail

Rap Culture

“A Lotta Prada”
Rap Puts the “High” in Highbrow Culture

Rap CultureHow do you “share a brainwave” or find yourself upon the “same wavelength” with someone else? Well, to start, you could be so syncopated in your thoughts and behaviours that you begin to echo each other’s preconceptions of reality. Or, more likely, you’ve been so bombarded with the same image that you can’t help but adopt it into your worldview. E Martin Nolan recently wrote a post about Drake’s function as a “walking advertisement” for Toronto. I was startled to find that both his responses to current trends in mainstream rap and hip hop and my own zoned in on an overwhelmingly dominant motif: branding.

If I was to describe the “point of view” of music right now, the common thread shared by the artists’ approach to their craft, it’s that popular musicians predominantly focus on representations of status. For mega stars such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, money is no object. It has transgressed its traditional function as an aspirational motive—rolls of bills as a symbol of ascending from the streets—into a ubiquitous wellspring. Compare, for example, Jay-Z’s early chart-toppers and the origin stories he traces through narratives of crime and prejudice—with, of course, a necessary dose of the party life and the staking out of rap game territory. Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, however, is the output of a grandmaster. A person so untouchable in the celebrity sphere that his “billion” is more than a dollar figure; it’s an indicator that wealth—alongside talent, luck, and business savvy—is what has redefined the power that celebrities hold over people’s attention.

Despite marital troubles and a fist-swinging sister-in-law, Jay-Z has built a universe around himself. He is the Hip Hop King, Def Jam is his castle, and everything he touches, glances upon, or puts his mind to (e.g. Rihanna) turns to platinum. He and Beyoncé are arguably the most powerful couple in the world, and their value as iconic people of colour cannot be underestimated. No matter how much I may take issue with the dwindling quality of rap music in general, I cannot level my discontent at the subject matter upon which rappers are making their millions. The boastful image of the successful black man cannot be waved aside just because the swag beats that accompany it have become derivative and boring. Jay-Z’s “Oceans,” for example, has a really catchy hook and Jay spits his customarily simple rhymes (now copied by most other rappers) but the references to Hermès, Mercedes, Basquiat, and other relics of the 1%, represent a narrative of a transformation. The yacht that Jay-Z finds himself on now is the ultimate inverse of his ancestry’s trajectory. Frank Ocean evokes the painful passage across the Atlantic from Africa to America and Jay-Z basks in the sweet sense of triumph as his champagne dribbles into the ocean and the water that “tells [his] story”. It would be foolish to pine for a time when rappers were still spitting about the streets and focusing on social issues such as poverty, crime, and racism because then I’d be negating the value of economic success to a culture whose creative output (at least in rap) has used money as a driving factor in overcoming adversity. But why doesn’t rap sound as good as it did twenty years ago? All of these rappers are richer now, but what else is different?
Kanye rap
Kanye West

To start, Kanye West exists. For better or worse, Kanye West changed rap forever. He didn’t do it, however, in the same way that Wu Tang Klan, Outkast, Tupac, Biggie, or Lil Kim did. He used his creative powers to both imagine new avenues for rap (think “Black Skinhead”) and a new way of looking at rappers. He is not the most handsome man, or the smartest, but GQ’s August issue used Kanye as their cover star and as the man to copy if you want to “grab attention”. When West’s “Bound 2” was released, it was lampooned, celebrated, hated, and most importantly, replayed endlessly. Here, West takes images associated with white culture—mountain ranges evocative of the north, motorcycles, and plaid—and spins them as the backdrop to his erotic odyssey across America’s consciousness. While West has had moments of overwhelming clarity and creativity in combatting racism in the industry, he also appears to have fallen prey to the seductive nature of fame. The Guardian reported a month ago that Kanye West believes that celebrities are a minority that ought to be protected and its rights defended, and that the struggle for privacy is not unlike the issues at the core of the civil rights movement. Black or white, anyone living outside of the 1% can see that West’s argument stinks of privilege and that he has lost sight of the positive impact his fame can have on socio-cultural dynamics.

While Jay-Z and Kanye West are only two examples of the turn to excessive luxury in popular music, younger artists are continuously absorbing the cult of status into their own oeuvres. For any Torontonian with a love of rap, the lyrics of Drake’s “Started From The Bottom,” are hyperbolic and a little emphatic to be taken seriously. Drake grew up in Forest Hill, but here he feels the need to prove his own struggles as a mythic prerequisite for becoming a rap superstar. At this point, “leaving the streets” has been so warped as to mean: “I was poorer then, but look at me now” without the traces of political protest that made ’80s and ’90s rap so powerful, provocative, and dangerous.
rap
A$AP Rocky

A$AP RockyA$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” epitomizes the highbrow transformation of rap today. The successful rap star feels as at home with his “Aunt Jemima” as he does in the front row of Paris Fashion Week. His ideal woman “got a lotta Prada, that Dolce & Gabbana” and their closets are legacies for their children as much as their albums (if not more). In “Ghetto Symphony” A$AP declares that, “I decide to spit like Andre” and A$AP Ferg replies with promises to “kill like Big Boi” yet neither of them can claim to rap like either Outkast demi-god. Their lyrics are too slow, their beats too simple and repetitive, to ever see themselves classified in the echelons of the greats. Yet, their material wealth has skyrocketed them to a level of respectability, and the general populous perceives them as rap’s new royalty.

Rap’s downturn is not unilateral. There are underground artists still embracing the experimental approach to music and Eminem is still kicking around. His song “Rap God” is an ingenious response to the rap’s elite who wouldn’t be able to hold their own in the battles that defined the masters of the 20th century. But as high fashion and rap continue to collide, rap’s language continues to change. Instead of impressive verses rife with word play and polemic critiques of society, rappers use placeholders. Need a rhyme? Throw in “Tom Ford,” “Dolce and Gabbana,” hell, why not “Rick Owens” to be really avant-garde? Fashion houses have so seamlessly branded themselves that the roll-off-the-tongue quality of their monikers has been absorbed by rap as a crucial ingredient in both music and persona.

Of course, rappers are not the only people guilty of putting money ahead of quality. In a nutshell, that tendency has cheapened Hollywood, killed cable TV, and reduced visual art to a niche hobby. Is the glamorization of wealth taking over literature, too? For now, a writer’s prowess is more likely to win formal accolades than an Adidas line or Cara Delevingne’s friendship. For most, literary fame is not quite as enviable as celebrity life and many famous authors are still regarded as flukes, albeit talented ones. Most people will have noticed that with the rise of Amazon (the Net Porter of reading), business tends to come before quality. Bestseller lists are as much indicators of pop culture and social media trends as Billboard charts. As bookstore sales dwindle, so too does literature’s buffer from excessive consumerism. In an age where patronage has turned into endorsements, it’s unclear whether rap’s sartorial obsession is just a fad or an indicator of music’s corrupted function in culture.

“There Was a Void of Good, Long Form Sports Writing:” Questions for Mike Spry of The Barnstormer

mike spry barnstormer

mike spry barnstormerTHE BARNSTORMER is a literary sports journal that was founded in May of 2012 by Andrew Forbes, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Ian Orti, and Mike Spry. It aims to celebrate the intersection of sports and humanity with good writing. It means to be an open, accommodating, inclusive forum for considered, thoughtful, funny and strange writing about sports, written by sports fans, for both sports fans and fans of  good writing.

EMN: How much sports literature has the Barnstormer received? Has the pace increased?

Spry: Originally, when we began the Barn, we decided to include sports poetry and fiction (in addition to essays, columns, and op-eds) just by happenstance, in that we didn’t see any point in discouraging contributions, but didn’t actively seek it out or expect it to be submitted. It found us from time to time, but not too often. For some reason, it has increased a lot the past few months, though I can’t think of any reason for that other than, again, happenstance. We’re happy about it, though, and are pleased that the journal has become a place for literary sports writing, no matter the genre.

EMN: How would you describe the writers who submit sports lit to you? Are there any trends you detect as far as the kind of writers who take on sports as a topic?

Spry: Overweight middle class white Christian males, 18-40, who wear team jerseys and dine exclusively on ballpark nachos.

No. It’s interesting, because many of the people who we’ve published have not been people we may have expected, or readers may expect, in that they’re not sports fans in the traditional sense, but they have shared these marvelous stories and narratives of sport from their lives and imaginations.

EMN: You’ve mentioned before how grateful and surprised you are at how much material the Barnstormer has received, but what’s been most surprising, content-wise, about the sports poetry the Barnstormer’s received?

Spry: I think what has been most surprising is the overall quality of the work we’ve been fortunate enough to publish, not just in terms of the sports poetry but overall. We have been blessed with generous, talented, and supportive contributors.

EMN: To you, what are some of the challenges that come with writing sports poems? How does the successful sports poem avoid those? Are they really any different than any other poem?

Spry: The biggest challenge is making the “sports” aspect of the poems feel genuine and natural, so as to not feel falsely inserted into the text. I think a successful sports poem is one that isn’t about sport at all. Though not published by us, Dave McGimpsey’s “What Was that Poem?” is the perfect example of how to employ sports but not be explicitly about sports.
Spry: Haha. Ya. Parker’s poem came out of nowhere. He had had it for a while, and kept meaning to send it to us, and eventually did and we published it and within an hour it had made its way to Yahoo, NBC, SI.com, and a load of other places. I actually had to spend the next day or two emailing sites that had reprinted it to properly attribute it to the Barn. I think Parker was surprised, too, in that he’s not a poet. Goes to show that poetry is at its best and most accessible when it isn’t over-thought.

metta world peaceEMN: Jeff Parker’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion,” a hilarious poem culled from Metta World Peace quotes, was a viral success. Tell us a bit about that poem, how it managed to spread so wide. Were you surprised by that?

EMN: Your poem “Atrophy and Labor Day Baseball”—which I close read here—supports my developing idea that the sports poem should not look at the sport directly, but must find some other way of addressing, or including, the sport. In this case, the sport provides the context of a strained, or failing, relationship. It is also an extended metaphor for that relationship.  How did this poem come about? I’m curious to know if it was ever slated to be a story, given its narrative base.

Spry: Wow, ya. I guess I hadn’t thought it through that much. But, like I said above about the success of pieces like McGimpsey’s, and as you note, poems are most successful when they aren’t so overt about their purpose or subject. Everything I write, in one way or another, is about strained relationships and flawed characters. This piece allowed me to explore both in a way I hadn’t explored them before, using baseball. And I’m not sure if I had used sports so actively in a poem before. Usually it had been just a passing mention of the Habs. But I liked the idea of this unhappy couple watching baseball like they always do, and baseball is as much part of the routine that defines them (a routine they hate) as sex, as hate, as love, as drink.

As for whether or not it was meant to be a story, I think it is a story, just not in prose. I like to tell stories in poetry. I like to be told stories in poetry. I don’t want to read a poem and think I’m doing math. I want to access poetry, not be lectured by it, or talked down to by it.

In fact, I want all writing tot tell a story. Poetry, prose, op-eds, essays, journalism, financial reports, CVs, cover letters, guidebooks, instructional manuals. Everything written should tell a story. To me, that’s what writing is. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

EMN: After the above question, I’m now wondering if the direct sports poem works as an ekphrastic poem. I can’t say, though, that I’ve found one that works as well as, say, William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with The Fall of Icarus,” or “The Painting” by John Balaban. Do you think a sports poem can do this? Do you know any good sports poems focused solely on the action of the sport itself?

Spry: I can’t think of an example, but I’m probably not the person to ask. Can a sports poem achieve this? Yes. Do I want to read one that does? Maybe.

[EMN: If any readers can think of one, I’d love for you to leave it in the comments.]

EMN: How about fiction and essays? Do you think I’m right in saying sports lend themselves to these forms more easily than to poems? Why or why not?

Spry: I think it’s harder to write poems about sports than essays or prose, but that’s because a lot of poetry tends to stray from narrative. But I think that’s a product of the industry, of poetry that aspires to be academic and elitist, and not a fault of the medium itself.

EMN: What Barnstormer essays or stories would you recommend the reader to start with? What do you dig about those?

Spry: I love pretty much everything on the site, but as a survey of what we do I’d recommend:

  • “Steubenville” by [Puritan contributor] David Brock. Just a compelling, beautifully written poem about a heartbreaking and impossible subject. Brock has been a big supporter of us, and I’m really looking forward to his collection Everyone is CO2 from by Wolsak & Wynn next year.
  • “We Need to Talk”. This was an extension of the Round Bus roundtable we do weekly, with Stacey May Fowles, Natalie Zina Walschots, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Andrew Forbes, and myself, moderated by Orti, about the culture of rape and misogyny in sports. This was an important dialogue, and indicative of the social responsibility that the Barn believes sport has.
  • “Exposition: Loving Something You Can’t See” by Marty Sartini Garner. “The Montreal Expos taste like cereal.” Enough said.
  • “Cheap Throat: Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player”. This was a daily posting from an anonymous locked-out hockey player we ran during the lockout. It was a viral sensation, with whole forums dedicated to trying to figure out the player’s identity. We’ve published it as an ebook. It’s like Five Easy Pieces meets SlapShot meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s funny shit.
  • Any edition of “The Round Bus”, a weekly roundtable we do with guests from all over the sports and literary realms.

EMN: Despite the fiction and poems, The Barnstormer is mainly devoted to the essay or dialogue form. It is filling a similar gap that Grantland aimed to fill. That site promised to deliver literary-quality sports writing but is instead only half-devoted to that mission (although they definitely publish some great sports essays). How exactly did the Barnstormer come about? Were you aiming for something different than Grantland? And has the mission changed at all?

Spry: The Barn came from, I believe, an online conversation between Bryan Jay Ibeas and Andrew Forbes, and then Forbes brought it up with me, and then Orti, about how there was a void of good, long form sports writing anywhere. Grantland wasn’t living up to what I believed it was supposed to be, and most sports “journalism” had become sycophantic nonsense and rumour-mongering by fanboys. So we threw the thing together, put it online, and it took on a life of its own.

I think the mission has changed slightly, in that we’re a little more open about what we talk about, especially on the Round Bus.

EMN: A year in, how would you assess the Barnstormer? Where do you go from here?

Spry: I think the first year has been successful beyond our expectations. I think Ian and I are more ambitious about year two. What that entails, I’m not sure. It’s a lot of work, and Orti and I have very busy lives. Our main goal is to create revenue streams in order to pay our contributors. That’s above and beyond any other ambition.

 

 

In Translation – Translated Fiction and The Man Booker International Prize

man booker prize

 I know I’m four days late to the game but I felt that a post about the Man Booker International prize couldn’t go amiss.


man booker prizeWhat is particularly remarkable about this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize is that it has been translated by Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old, who started teaching herself Korean in 2010, aged 21, in order to translate more works by Korean authors into English. I am so impressed at her dedication and passion for Korean literature.
As I’m sure you are aware – or possibly not? – the Man Booker International Prize is awarded to a work originally written in any language but available to read in English i.e. translated works. It’s a fantastic way of promoting works from other countries and getting people reading outside their own “culture”. And what is particularly special to see is that the prize money is split between translator and author. Translations of works of fiction are news works in their own right, since the translator cannot simply translate the words. There are certain words, phrases and ideas that simply do not exist in the target language (language being translated into). There are concepts and cultural ideas that would be unknown to an english speaking audience. The translator must, therefore, work hard to make the story accessible to its target audience, whilst being faithful to the author’s style and voice. It is no mean feat. I can say that as someone who has dabbled in literary translation myself. It’s challenging, wonderful and hair-tearingly difficult in equal measures!

On Translated Works…

But the news of the Man Booker International Prize has got me thinking about reading in translation in general. Having studied Spanish and Italian at university, I’ve read my fair share of books. And my fair share of translations (Shh! Sometimes I read them in English too!) However, in English speaking countries I think there is still both a lack of awareness of translated fiction – how many people are aware that the Shadow Of The Wind is originally a Spanish novel? And there is also a suspicion of translated fiction – the idea that it is somehow more highbrow and scary. Yet, in other countries reading works translated from English into their mother tongue is completely normal and accepted willingly.

What is it that we fear from translated works? As Liesl Schillinger wrote recently, Every act of reading is an act of translation. We impose our own worldview and life experiences upon every book we read. Therefore my reading experience will always be completely unique, reflecting my unique background and personality. Books should just be books, and not separated out into English fiction and translated fiction. In fact, in my original blog I had separated out English literature, Spanish literature and Italian literature but I had a rethink and that just seemed crazy to me. I read books because they interest me and because I’m keen to find out what happens. For me there’s no difference between reading a book in Italian and reading an Italian book in English – if the translation is good, of course!

Firstly, we should be kinder towards these often ignored translators, their work is difficult and often goes unrewarded. And secondly, dear reader, go out and widen your book choices. If you only ever read English classics, go buy an Inspector Montalbano (they’re fantastic! The details about the delicious food he eats is such a lovely touch of Sicilian life). Don’t shy away from translated fiction, it needs love too 🙂

What do you think? What books have you read in translation? If you haven’t read any, what’s stopping you?

Donald Trump Doesn’t Read Books

Donald Trump Does Not Read

According to New Republic, when asked about the last book he had read, Donald Trump replied, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,” …

Donald Trump Does Not ReadI think, considering the current goings on in the US that a blog post about Donald Trump wouldn’t be out of place, plus it follows on rather nicely from my post last week about making time for reading.

Firstly, to say you don’t have time to read – as I’ve mentioned before – is nonsense. If you don’t read it’s because it isn’t your priority. I’m sure Trump finds plenty of time in his day to Tweet bigoted bullshit or watch a baseball game. He just isn’t interested in picking up a book – despite making plenty of money from those he has “written”. But secondly, it is truly alarming that someone running to be president of the United States is so uninterested in self improvement and a widening of knowledge. Not that it comes as much of a surprise that Trump isn’t interested in either of those things!

However, as Harry Truman – himself once president of the United States – once said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” All leaders should indeed be readers. In fact, successful people tend to read an awful lot. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk… The list goes on and on but they all share a common passion for reading.

Reading opens your mind to new perspectives, different ways of viewing a topic, and, most importantly, it makes you think. We live in a world where too many people take information at face value and don’t stop to question its veracity. We live in a society of Facebook memes wrongly attributing quotations to random famous people. Where it is easy to mindlessly “share” information without thinking about where it has come from. Is it a surprise, then, when someone like Trump comes along and suddenly seems to be a serious candidate for president? Or is it a rather inevitable outcome?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, once said: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” I think it’s safe to say that Trump is not a wise person. An excellent self-marketer and a remarkable salesman he may be, but that won’t help run a country.

So what are you – a non Trump – reading right now, dear reader? Anything you can recommend? I’m currently enjoying Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and I’ve just started listening to an audiobook version of Frankenstein. I’ll be popping up reviews of both as soon as I’m ready! Stay tuned for those.

There’s Something About Libraries

library
I still remember those occasions when I was very little when I’d get the chance to go into the library in my village. Libraries are a way to escape reality – on many levels.

libraryOften it was after having been on a walk with my mum and our dog at that time, Teasel. She was left tied to a tree outside while we got to go in to that cave of book wonders. There was a certain dusky, musky smell that would hit as we walked in to the cool, dark, hushed room. An old, Victorian schoolhouse, the library had high ceilings and high up windows, and an old creaky wooden floor.I’d be allowed to wander down the aisles, staring at all the beautiful, differently coloured spines, until I’d made a choice and chosen a new book to take out. We’d then go together, hand in hand, to the smiling lady at the desk and she’d ask for my library card. Upon being proudly presented, the card would be beeped, the book stamped and, after some hanging around while the adults chatted, we’d be off again, back outside with the new book clasped tightly in my arms.

Many years later, I had the amazing privileged to study as an undergraduate at Oxford university. Truly a book-lover’s dream. Every college has its own uniquely beautiful library, each faculty (or department to use a simpler, less Oxfordy name!) had its own as well. And then, of course, the mother Queen of all libraries, there was The Bodleian. I never got over the awe of being inside that book heaven. Although, anyone who has read The Historian will understand my slight creepings of fear when entering the darkest corners of the library alone!  😛

But what about now? What about in real adult life? How many of us use the library nowadays? How many of us even have a local library now?

Only last month a BBC article revealed that a staggering 8000 library jobs have disappeared in the last 6 years. 343 libraries have been closed, with plans for another 111 to be closed this year. Here in the UK, “Our public library system used to be envy of the world.” And now look at them.

The battle cry of those in favour of library closures would seem to be, What on earth do we need libraries for in this day and age? We have the internet. Everyone has tablets – no one reads physical books…. But this simply isn’t true. Libraries allow people of all classes and walks of life to access the same materials. They open doors to learning for children who come from poorer backgrounds. They provide a safe space to study for those from unstable homes. And they are a place of community in an ever more insular society.

As fellow book lovers I’d love to know your thoughts on this matter. Do you still use libraries? What do you feel about the closures?

 

PS Don’t just listen to me bang on about this. Here’s a few, possibly  definitely more articulate – words from Caitlin Moran about why we need to save libraries. Go take a listen to her for she is very wise.

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

a god in ruins

“When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal” – A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

“War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.”

a god in ruinsKate Atkinson is, without doubt (for me at least), one of the greatest writers of our time. I remember discovering her books when I was about 14 and devouring my way through my school library. I was recommended Behind The Scenes At The Museum and was hooked on her from then on.

Having read and adored Life After Life, I was very exciting when I found out Atkinson had a new, in her words “companion” book on the way. And I can happily say this book does not disappoint. Whilst Life After Life chronicled the multiple lives of Ursula, in A God In Ruins,  Atkinson delves into the life of Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  Once again the author plays with the structure of the narrative, allowing herself to jump backwards and forwards in time in a non-linear direction but often linking these episodes by an idea or an image. As Atkinson herself notes in her wonderful Author’s Note, she often comes back to certain images or ideas such as birds, flying and falling, and the notion of Utopia. In this way, the time-hopping doesn’t jar and we can easily follow the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, it brings into stark relief the idea that life is fleeting, one day we are a young boy gazing at skylarks, and the next an old man in a nursing home.

There is a sense of melancholy and loss which permeates this book, only fitting considering its subject: that of World War II. A large component of the book focus on Teddy’s role as a RAF bomber pilot and his missions as part of the bombing campaign which devastated Germany during the Second World War. One of Atkinson’s many strengths is her ability to conjure up these ‘set pieces’ and bring them to life with such clarity.  Her descriptions of bombing missions, the fear, flying through thunder and lightening,  are some of the best passages of the book and it is clear how much time and research she put into her novel.

As Atkinson says, “War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.” It is always unfair. This novel doesn’t just chart the effects of war at the time but shows the reader how it resonates down the generations, affecting everyone, in particular those who are left standing afterwards. It is about “All those beautiful songs that would never be sung.” The stories that were silenced by war. And silence is something which permeates the novel. The silence which weighs heavily on Teddy and those around him, in all his relationships. It comes in the form of things left unsaid, of secrets, of failing to open up, of repressing memories and keeping them to oneself. And, of course, we see that this question of silence holds extraordinary poignancy when we reach the end of the book. But that way lie spoilers, so I will say no more. Suffice it to say many tears were shed.  In her Afterword, Atkinson acknowledges it as “the whole raison d’être of the novel…hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination, which is revealed only at the end.”  It really is a master stroke and packs a big literary wallop!

However, whilst the vein of silence and war runs through this novel, a large part of Atkinson’s brilliance lies in her wonderful ability to capture and present the essence of human beings and humanity. Her depiction of Teddy and those around him really capture what humanity is, and sadly what it can sometimes mean. The lives of humans are terribly short, and our actions and our relationships with others are what makes it special. We must embrace every moment of our song, for we are lucky – unlike many young people in the war – to have so long to sing it.

This book is worth every tear I shed, and cements in my mind the brilliance of Kate Atkinson. If you haven’t read it already, grab a copy now!

Making Time In Your Life For Books

making time for books

making time for books

When I first graduated from university and entered the big, scary world of adulthood, it was quite a culture shock. Apart from the usual horror of discovering your years as a student are suddenly, and alarmingly, over, and the reality of needing to go out a get a J.O.B sinks – or rather, is aggressively thrust – in. What really struck me is how little time I had for doing the things I enjoyed.

I was suddenly caught up in a tide of fellow adults, getting up early, going to work, sitting at a desk all day until the commute home, arriving back and being totally knackered. The weeks zoomed by and I felt like I didn’t have any control over my life because I had no time for myself, to do what I enjoyed. And I, like many people, was a voracious reader.

I’ve always loved books and there I was, no longer reading any – particularly horrible having just spent four years at university studying lots of them. I felt like I was slipping out of touch with the book world, and even my list of must-read classics lay untouched.

I decided things needed to change, so I started consciously making time in my life for books. I took certain measures and slowly but surely, I got back into reading, I made sure that I was reading everyday and had exciting piles of “to be reads”. All was good.

But What About You?…

Well, I still felt something a little lacking. It got me thinking, and then it got me Googling – always a bad move people! – and then, because my googling wasn’t especially fruitful, it got me thinking again.

There must be plenty of other people out there feeling the same as me.

You must love books too, or you wouldn’t be here. But do you read as often as you would like? Do you get through as many books as you want to? Or do you end up cramming all your book time into a two week holiday in the summer? I know how it feels! It’s so frustrating.

So I want to help you out, and show you how to make space in your busy life for books.

But not just that, to make life even easier for you  I will help you choose books to read, so you don’t have to cut into your precious reading time. You’ll also find useful background information, character analyses, details of themes and imagery all to help you read and understand these books in greater depth.

Welcome to The Town Crier!

It’s your complete guide to literature and all things bookish, and aims to guide you along the path to book Nirvana.

Just as its name suggests, this website is aimed at encouraging thoughtful discussion and a love of reading – or, most likely, reigniting your love of reading.

You’ll get tips on how to make more time for reading in your hectic life. You will discover a whole exciting range of genres and styles of books – including some you might never have dared try before. You’ll get honest, in-depth reviews so you can make your book buys with ease.

Writing A Killer Thriller…(Well, actually a whodunnit)

write detective novel

Come into the parlour and let me reveal what my little grey cells have been assembling for you on the subject of Detective Fiction.

write detective novelThe book idea I have brewing in my mind for the writing is a murder mystery, Agatha Christie style – less gruesome stabbing and more puzzle-solving. A classic, detective story in fact.

So, today I have decided to write a bit about Detective Fiction and how it came into being.

Detective Fiction can be roughly summed up as the following: a subgenre of mystery fiction in which there is a character who investigates a crime (usually a murder). Pretty broad eh!

I love a good detective novel and I’m particularly fond of Agatha Christie (now you know why I’m tempted by writing a detective book!) – in fact my brother in law recently gave me the most enormous collection of her books. They’re currently sitting in a bag in the living room because I’ve run out of bookshelf space! But that’s the bookish dream isn’t it?!

Anyway, back onto detectives… I’ll start you off with some background context to help you understand how detective fiction came into being.

During the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, London grew rapidly and it became clear that a better system needed to be put in place to deal with increasing crime rates. Therefore, in 1829 the Metropolitan Police Service was established to help bring law and order to the city. Prior to this law enforcement was a source of public controversy and ridicule because of its lack of organisation and inefficiency. With the establishment of the police force, we begin to see the figure of the official police detective emerge in fiction. In fact, there is a move away from criminals being seen as the plucky heroes fighting against the system, to being the villains who are brought to justice by the police. All good stuff, eh?

So, with that piece of history in mind let’s look at two of the earliest authors to introduce us to Detective Fiction as we now know it.

Poe and Collins

Around 1841, Edgar Allan Poe published three stories all featuring a character called Detective Dupin, one of the very first literary detectives to appear. Furthermore, the first of these novels, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is credited with being the pioneer of the locked room subgenre of mysteries. It included a seemingly impossible crime and an ingenious solution.

These novels included some ideas which we still see in detective fiction today but it was Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone which really drew together many elements we now associate with classic detective fiction. Published in 1868, the story is set in an English country house, there is a celebrated investigator who must work with the bungling local police to solve that case, there are false suspects and red herrings, a reconstruction of the crime and a final twist at the end. Many argue that this was the true birth of detective fiction.

Right, I’d better get back to planning the murder! But on Friday, I’ll carry on where I left off today and have a look at the development of Detective Fiction – including the Golden Age of Agatha Christie. See you there 🙂

In the meantime, if you’d like to rip your way through a murder mystery but don’t know where to find the time. Worry not, I have the answer: