Today on the blog, new contributor Laura Waddell kicks off with the first edition of Spine, a new regular book club feature for TYCI.
Hello and welcome to my first book column for TYCI.
I work at a Glasgow-based publishing house, and as such, I think about books all day, every day. But outside of promoting my ebook backlist or getting excited about forthcoming releases during working hours, I still end up spending a lot of my spare time reading, tweeting about reading, or surrounding myself with readers and writers. Work / life balance concerns aside, I’m here to share what I’ve been reading recently and chat with you in the comments about what *you’ve* been reading. Let’s start an ongoing TYCI book conversation and introduce each other to new books and new perspectives. Recommendations and comments are encouraged!
Since beginning my career in publishing my tastes have diversified. I’ve stopped splashing exclusively in the cosy, academic, everyone-I-read-is-dead puddle of university and have started to discover new voices not as often heard in beloved lists of classics or Modernist icons. Projects like the brilliant #readwomen on Twitter encouraging us to think about the gender balance of what we read, the Vida Count providing annually hard, uncomfortable stats on the demographics of literary reviews, and prizes such as the Green Carnation awarding LGBT writing shine a light on a whole new world of potential talent to discover. And I find that exciting, don’t you? You can expect that kind of thing in this column, a bit of publishing chat, and a bit of translation, too.
Over the summer I started to notice the hashtag #FerranteFever on Twitter, increasing in usage with each month. More in July than in June, and more still in August. Curious, wondering whether it was a bug I wanted to catch, I sought it out in a bookshop and immediately put it back down again. That cover! Or, to be more precise, those covers. The Neopolitan series is a series of novels by Elena Ferrante, set in Naples mid twentieth century, following the friendship of two young girls through to adulthood across the span of four books. My Brilliant Friend, the first volume, is hideous. Truly. See the photo below to see the kitsch but not in a cool way front cover, reminiscent of sickly wedding cake icing, of desperate petrol station greetings cards. They don’t look like the exciting, unusual new writing contained within, but like they’re destined to linger unsold in a car book sale box alongside perfume that has gone off and teacups you remember your aunt having in the ’80s. Never judge a book by its cover, I hear some of you cry. But that is nonsense. Good design should be representative of the content, and an enhancement of the pleasure. And who doesn’t like taking a good book-and-coffee snapshot? Although publisher Europa Editions claim it was a deliberate choice, whatever aesthetic it is referencing is lost on me. I overcame my aversion only on the strength of the overwhelmingly positive chatter I was hearing about the series, and oh! OH! I’m glad I did.
The first night after beginning My Brilliant Friend, I fell asleep with the book in my hands and had feverish dreams about childhood friends and episodes I’d long forgotten. The story focuses on the complicated relationship between two girls Elena and Lina, a friendship complex not only for the usual, coming-of-age reasons close friendships between kids can be complex, but for the eerily insightful way Elena Ferrante weaves in often harsh, fateful impact of societal factors. I’m so impressed by what seems like a rare ability to put on paper insights into poverty, envy, money, girlhood, corruption, and community, and the way in which these factors impact our lives and options. As a record of working class female experience and associated pressures, it feels powerful, fresh, and important, unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s also so utterly readable, told in the recounting of domestic, everyday episodes. I inhaled the first two in the series, equally frustrated by and identifying with with girls, and am soon to begin the third. #FerranteFever – I’ve caught it and I thoroughly recommend you let me sneeze on you and catch it too. I would love, love, love to talk about it with some TYCI readers. I think many of you would love it. Please do comment if you’ve read or are planning to pick it up.
I’ve also recently been following the translated fiction book club organised by English Pen’s Jonathan Ruppin. The book club takes place in London, but I’m reading along from a distance and following the Facebook group. August’s read was The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated from Arabic by Max Weiss (I’m a little behind schedule.) The title refers to the inability to express contrary political opinions in a climate of political brutality and sycophancy for a Dear Leader, and the author himself wrote it in self-imposted exile from Syria. I’m not in love with the style of the writing, finding it for the most part a little unfocused, but as a record of experience from a writer of a country very much in our news at the moment, I’m glad I picked it up, especially for the occasional powerful moment of heart-wrenching unfairness and cruelty serving as a brief insight into life without freedom of expression or democracy. Next up in the English Pen Translated Book Club list is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Now there’s a good book cover. Nicer still, I was given a copy by a friend. Hopefully, I’ll have read it by my next column.
Finally, on a Friday night train to London recently, I read a manuscript from work. Reading manuscripts is not actually my job, but occasionally, just occasionally, I’m unable to stop myself picking one up that I like the look of and carrying it off. It’s a forthcoming short story collection by Lara Williams, and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read recently, making me forget the indignity of lack of leg room or wifi on the five and a half hour journey. It’s not out until 2016, although one story has been previously published on McSweeneys if you fancy a look, but the way in which she manages to pull out all the weird moments of 20s/30s existing, working, and dating; all foibles and impulses and moments of heart singing and things lurking in the shadows, real and recognisable but not cliched (Yes! Me too!) made me fall for it, and I read it all weekend between meetings, on the tube and in hotel rooms. It made me happy, it made me smile, it made me remember I love what I do – it even made me stop refreshing my phone when I know I don’t have a signal (a maddening habit.)
And what have you been reading recently?
Find Laura on Twitter and tell her what you’ve been reading.