BookBlast’s Top 10 Reads for Independent Minds for this month take in calypso and a debut children’s book by Junot Díaz; Europe and the Middle East; murder most foul in the Australian Outback; tales of survival and hope; and life on the road.
The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961-1993 by Anthony Burgess (ed) Will Carr (Carcanet)
“The general public does not care much for genius. Originality is dangerous, so is the naked truth . . . How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things? But nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word. They prefer to hear about failure really being success, about a great writer killing himself at the early age (my age) of 62.” ― Anthony Burgess
Best known for his novel, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester in 1917. A novelist, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic, he wrote over 60 books of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography, as well as classical music, plays, film scripts, essays and articles. Burgess contributed to newspapers and periodicals around the world, among them the Observer, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, Playboy, and Le Monde. During his lifetime, he published two substantial collections of journalism, Urgent Copy (1968) and Homage to Qwert Yuiop (1986); a posthumous collection of occasional essays, One Man’s Chorus, was published in 1998.
These collections are now out of print, and Burgess’s journalism has fallen by the wayside. The Ink Trade is a new selection of his reviews and articles. Some of the material was discovered in the archives of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity in Manchester.
“The writings cover a range of subjects, including Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film, and fellow writers Ernest Hemingway and JB Priestley. They also include an unpublished 1991 lecture on censorship . . . The essays span Burgess’s journalistic career, including the Yorkshire Post, from which he was sacked after reviewing one of his own books, Inside Mister Enderby . . . The review, dated 1963, is included in The Ink Trade.” ― The Guardian
For Love or Money by Jonathan Raban (Eland Publishing)
“Life, as the most ancient of all metaphors insists, is a journey; and the travel book, in its deceptive simulation of the journey’s fits and starts, rehearses life’s own fragmentation. More even than the novel, it embraces the contingency of things.” ― Jonathan Raban
Best known for his nautical writing, Jonathan Raban was born in Norfolk in 1942. Educated at the University of Hull – where he befriended Philip Larkin – he started out as an academic, but ended up working as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming involved with Ian Hamilton’s magazine, New Review. From the 1970s Jonathan Raban embarked on a series of journeys, from which he created a series of books. Eland are reissuing five of his classic titles this month ― perfect summer reading!
For Love or Money is the “part case history, part memoir” of a modern man of letters: a selection of Jonathan Raban’s very best essays, reportage, travel writings and literary criticism. It is an engrossing and candid exploration of what it means to make a living from words. He weighs up the advantages of maintaining an independent spirit against problems of insolvency and self-worth, confesses to travel as an escape from the blank page, ponders the true art of the book review, admires the role of the literary editor and remembers events from his eccentric life at the heart of literary London.
Hunting Mister Heartbreak by Jonathan Raban (Eland Publishing)
Jonathan Raban followed in the steps of Hector St John de Crèvecoeur – Mr Heartbreak – and several million other emigrants to discover America and the immigrant experience afresh. From Liverpool docks he sailed to New York and travelled on to Alabama, Seattle and the Florida Keys.
“He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasn’t intended to be permanent – he retains British citizenship – but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that book’s most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to “wide – wide – wide” America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading ‘Rainbird’ on the door. Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed.” ― The Guardian
The Radiation Diaries: Cancer, Memory and Fragments of a Life in Words by Janet Todd (Fentum Press)
“The green beam isn’t the important part. It’s what comes out of the machine, invisibly. The machine is a hammer, an arm without a body. There’s a box one end, a round shape with a square eye on the other, above it 2 slit eyebrows of lit-up wires. Darkness beyond. The square eye matters, the box is its moon that rises when it sets, passing round and under your backside. The eye goes behind too, right round.”
It’s near midwinter. Janet Todd, the novelist and internationally-renowned scholar, is facing over a month of whole pelvic radiotherapy, so she resolves to keep a diary. English literature is not much help when it comes to the “tumults and agitations of life,” and nosebleeds and nausea. The stray words of Dylan Thomas, Joan Barton, Jane Austen and other literati float through her mind while waiting for treatment; the other patients leafing through “magazines in the side waiting-room tell of celebs or cars.”
Then, “under the machine, thinking of Aldous Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza – Milton was blind when he wrote the phrase in Samson Agonistes. Aldous lifted it perhaps because he too was nearly blind – too much mescaline?” Her mind meanders back to school, her aunt’s cold damp house in mid-Wales, and au pairing in France. She is haunted by her father and memories of his treatment: he endured radiotherapy to the head, needing the face to be masked, when he was over 90.
In an acutely observant manner, Todd evokes family and feminism, past memories and present agonies while going about hospital-land. The result is an immensely engaging and compellingly written mixture of medical and cultural comment, bleak wit, shrewd aperçus and aching joy in this disarmingly honest diary.
A courageous book that forces us to confront our worst fears, The Radiation Diaries is a must read for those facing a life-threatening illness, as well as for their carers, nurses and doctors. It is a testament to hope.
On Literature and Philosophy, Vol I by Naguib Mahfouz (ed & trs) Aran Byrne with a Foreword by Rasheed El-Enany (Gingko)
“The importance of these essays [. . .] lies in their value as historical documents ― which can provide insights into the historical milieu, and the mind of Mahfouz himself.” ― Aran Byrne
Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz is one of the greatest modern writers to emerge from Egypt. He wrote a many great novels, among them Midaq Alley and Children of Gebelawi. The “Pharaoh of Literature,” he helped bring Arabic literature onto the international stage. Far fewer people know his nonfiction works, however — a gap that this book fills. Bringing together Mahfouz’s early nonfiction writings (penned during the 1930s and 1940s) which have not previously been available in English, this volume offers a rare glimpse offer a rare glimpse not just into the mind of Mahfouz himself, but the changing landscape of Egypt during that time, from the development of Islam to the struggles between tradition, modernity, and the influences of the West.
In his essays, he discusses a wide range of authors, from Anton Chekov to his own Arab contemporaries like Taha Hussein. He also ventures into a host of contemporary issues, including science and modernity, the growing movement for women’s rights in the Arab world, and emerging ideologies like socialism—all of which outline the growing challenges to traditional modes of living that we saw all around him.
Europe a Love Affair by Giles Radice (Haus Publishing)
The Rt Hon Lord Radice was Labour MP for Durham North and Chairman of the Treasury Committee until he became a Life Peer in 2001. He has held Europe close to his heart from his childhood on. Ten years after the end of World War II, at the age of 18, he set off to cycle across the continent. Meeting his European contemporaries, Radice discussed the prospects of building a new and better Europe, in which war might be ended forever and prosperity assured for all. It was clear to him that Europe should unite, and that Britain could not stay on the margins. Elected to Parliament, Radice did his part, pushing Britain to become and remain officially a part of Europe, and asking why the British always remained reluctant Europeans, forever sceptical about the benefits of greater union. Now, post-Brexit, he confronts those questions anew. Why have the underlying forces of the EU not pulled Britain closer to the continent? How much should we blame the negative influence of the media? From Thatcher’s Euroscepticism to Blair’s soundbites and the half-hearted campaign from both main parties in the referendum of 2016, Radice ultimately places the blame squarely on the political class itself. He brings to his writing the skills of an historian and the insights of a politician.
Islandborn by Junot Díaz illustrated by Leo Espinosa (Oneworld)
“Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”
When Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember The Island — she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories — joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening — Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to The Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the meaning of belonging and our connection to our families, to our past and to ourselves.
Shatila Stories by nine Syrian and Palestinian refugee writers trs. Nashwa Gowanlock (Peirene)
“I arrived in Shatila last July. I had brought with me the London-based Syrian editor Suhir Helal. Over the previous six months, Suhir had helped me to brush up my Arabic and together we had worked out a programme for a three-day creative writing workshop. Collaborative works of literature can achieve what no other literature can do. By pooling our imaginations we are able to access something totally different and new that goes beyond boundaries – that of the individual, of nations, of cultures. It connects us to our common human essence: our creativity. Let’s make stories, not more war.” — Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press
Adam and his family flee Syria and arrive at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Conditions in this overcrowded Palestinian camp are tough, and violence defines many of the relationships: a father fights to save his daughter, a gang leader plots to expand his influence, and drugs break up a family. Adam struggles to make sense of his refugee experience, but then he meets Shatha and starts to view the camp through her eyes.
“This remarkable novel isn’t about the refugee voice; it is born from it and told through it. On every page, the glint of hope for dignity and a better life is heartbreakingly alive.” Khaled Hosseini
Kitch by Anthony Joseph (Peepal Tree Press)
The biography of Trinidadian calypsonian Lord Kitchener, or “Kitch”, by Anthony Joseph is published by Peepal Tree Press on 21 June to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury on 22 June, 1948. When Kitchener disembarked, Pathe News caught the “king of calypso” on camera.
Combining factual biography with the imaginative structure and language of the novel, Anthony Joseph recreates the great calypsonian’s world and presents a multifaceted view through the memories of his friends, rivals and enemies and so gets to the heart of the man behind the music and the myth.
Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth (Pushkin Press)
“Patrolling the nineteenth-century frontier in small detachments made up of a British officer plus a handful of Aboriginal troopers, the Native Police was an official yet shadowy arm of colonial power kept largely out of the record books and away from prying eyes on the coast, operating with impunity on the borderlands of white settlement and ‘dispersing’ Indigenous Australians however and whenever they saw fit. I was shocked, captivated, intrigued . . . I wrote a long story, 25,000 words, creating the characters of the orphaned young brothers Tommy and Billy McBride, the savage Inspector Noone, and the racist squatter John Sullivan, and sending them all into the outback on their misguided mission for revenge . . .” — Paul Howarth
“They stalked the ruined scrubland, searching for something to kill. Two boys, not quite men, tiny in a landscape withered by drought and drenched in unbroken sun. Vast plains pocked with spinifex and clumps of buckbush, grass brittle as old bone, red soil fine as gunpowder underfoot. There’d not been rain for a year. The whole bush smelled ready to burn. Dust blew in rivulets between the clutches of scrub and slid in great sheets over open ground.” Set against the harsh landscapes of the Australian Outback in 1885, Only Killers and Thieves, is a tale of savagery and race, injustice and honour. Two brothers, Tommy McBride and Billy, return home to find their parents brutally murdered and set out to find the killers which leads them to the charismatic but deadly Inspector Noone and his Queensland Native Police. The brothers are exposed to the brutal realities of life, the seductive cruelty of power and the loss of kinship.
Refugee Tales edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (Comma Press)
Two unaccompanied children travel across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat that has been designed to only make it halfway across . . . A 63-year-old man is woken one morning by border officers ‘acting on a tip-off’ and, despite having paid taxes for 28 years, is suddenly cast into the detention system with no obvious means of escape . . . An orphan whose entire life has been spent in slavery – first on a Ghanaian farm, then as a victim of trafficking – writes to the Home Office for help, only to be rewarded with a jail sentence and indefinite detention . . . These are the frighteningly common experiences of Europe’s new underclass: its refugees. While those with ‘citizenship’ enjoy basic human rights (like the right not to be detained without charge for more than 14 days), people seeking asylum can be suspended for years in Kafka-esque uncertainty. Here, poets and novelists retell the stories of individuals who have direct experience of Britain’s policy of indefinite immigration detention.
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