Jonathan Franzen Partook My Hamster

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Poor Jonathan Franzen is getting it in the neck because he has a new novel out – Purity (about what a ball-breaker his ex-wife is) – and he always drips ego in his interviews… Personally I enjoy ego in interviews esp. if it’s marinated in bitterness and petty hatred but then I also enjoy his jealous haters spewing think-pieces all over the arts pages because trying to keep your intellectual dignity when you want to scream ‘why that bastard and not me!!!’ is entertainment.

It’s also a sneaky schadenfreude because he’s so successful and they’re so serious… and its rooted in the pecking order that exists between readers, writers and reviewers.

In the genre world the writer has to please the reader… they need to be their best mate or wise guide… they chase the readers with fantasy, wish-fulfillment and flattery… The readers have all the power although they often elevate the writer to the position of guru or God… It’s the kind of relationship that could exist when we were hunter-gathering and all our knowledge came in the form of animistic folk tales.

Literary novels are different. They’re supposed to be objectively educational – expanding our horizons and depth of understanding about What We’re Doing and Where We’re Going and When We’re Doing It and Why and How. The writer has to be a word-master with something new and important to say. The literary reader may be more sophisticated than the genre reader – but – if the literary writer is accepted as good – the literary writer is above them. And that can feel slightly demeaning when you’re a smart cookie.

Genre hits this power-struggle when it comes to awards. In the sci-fi world there’s currently a culture war between Progressives (or Social Justice Warriors) whose stories include more minorities and Conservatives (or Men’s Rights’ Activists) who prefer old-fashioned adventures with male protagonists… Good writing is good writing, fan-bases are fan-bases… the fight has more to do with us being trapped between the hyper-demands of individualism and the tanking economy… it’s a narcissistic malaise that finds comfort in cosplay and scrolling without being entirely sure what it wants to dress up as or look at… but to the fighters it’s about who gets to be Top Dog.

Literary fiction is Top Dog but it has to be championed by a critic or academic in order to have a tiny smart cookie public. The critic has a higher status than the writer or the reader – but only if he or she likes the work. If they don’t like the work and someone else does – they’re lower. Agents and publishers are higher than the writer until the writer is successful – but then they’re consoled by money and most wannabe writers don’t care about them now self-publishing is a click away and all they can offer is the prestige of being ‘picked’.

Who gets ‘picked’ by agents, publishers and critics is an issue. The white male heterosexual is still the universal voice. Everyone else is niche. They might be an interesting, talented or worthy niche – but you can’t learn about the Human Condition from the them. They don’t control enough resources. Not controlling enough resources often throws them off literary fiction and into Causes – which may or may not punt them higher than the keyboard-bashers – who may or may not resent that X is whinging about Y and getting all the attention.

It’s these massive, conflicting – and superficially pointless but soul-deep vital – status war tensions and pressures that make reading about writers so enjoyable.

http://observer.com/2015/09/the-literary-industrial-complex-of-hating-jonathan-franzen/

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Allison and Busby Haul !

I was the winner of one of Allison and Busby’s newsletter competitions (it’s worth a sign-up folks – it’s a brilliant Independent publisher with some especially great escapist holiday reads) and I got this lovely loot in the post:

Booty! With my hamster Endeavour in the background.
Booty! With my hamster Endeavour in the background.

1. Deeds of Darkness by Edward Marston (a 1st world war murder mystery).

2. Monsieur Pamplemousse and the Tangled Web by Michael Bond (French gastronomic super-sleuthing).

3. Snapped in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho (murders in Cornwall).

4. The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Braag (magical life turn-around).

5. An Allison and Busby bag.

I’m delighted!!

Allison and Busby’s website:             http://www.allisonandbusby.com/

Shrek the Musical – Review!

Gerald Carey as Lord Farquaad - a brilliant performance.
Gerald Carey as Lord Farquaad – a brilliant performance.

Finally I’ve caught up with the UK touring version of Shrek the Musical.

Overall I loved it – here are my musings divided into pros (shreks!) and cons (drecks!).

Shreks!

1. Lord Farquaad! Played by Gerard Carey he steals the show.

2. The Dragon! Fiona! Donkey! – the characters are still as wonderful as the film.

3. A great, funny, heart-warming, book (that’s the script).

4. Witty lyrics (that’s the songs).

5. Some decent tunes.

6. A proper plot.

7. A life affirming message using fairy-tale characters as a metaphor for being gay and/or Jewish while working in Showbiz which is a metaphor for being fat and/or suburban while sitting in the stalls.

8. Dancing! Singing! Puppets! – all round fabulous production values.

Drecks!

1. Diction – I couldn’t hear half of the words despite the ear splitting volume.

2. Shrek’s Scottish accent drifted down South for most of the show.

3. Expensive merchandise (the company’s fault) and expensive snacks (The King’s Theatre, Glasgow’s fault) – some parents must be missing a kidney to pay for all the ears/teddies/ice-cream their kids required.

4. Many of the songs were too long and boring for a children’s show, which meant many adults (me! me! me!) being stuck next to a squirming, sighing, munching monster for what felt like days at a time.

5. Bland, generic music.

6. Too much smut for a kid’s show. I disapprove!

7. It was too long – at least 2 songs could have easily been cut.

8. Not enough development of Shrek and Donkey’s relationship. It was pretty much taken as read.

But the Shreks! outweigh the Drecks! So if you haven’t seen it – I recommend it.

The Bailey’s Prize 2015 Shortlist

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UPDATE: I was wrong to snark (although it may be useful for blurb writers and cover designers) – having read them all – they’re all good. 

My favourite? 

Surprisingly : Ali Smith ‘How to be Both’. 

I have managed to not read a single-one of this year’s shortlisted Bailey’s Prize books – so I can give my ‘what I would think in a bookshop’ first impression of them.

First off – every single book cover is either boring, seen-it-before or actively ugly. Putting that aside and ignoring most of the content we have:

The Bees – by playwright Laline Paull – about a rebel bee leading a double life in a collapsing bee colony… it’s apparently an allegory about race or the Monarchy… or anyway… something human.

Outline by Rachel Cusk – a creative writing teacher asks her students to tell her about the one thing they noticed on their way in (which sounds like A Chorus Line without the singing)… I’m sure I read an interview with Rachel in which she had marriage issues and lived in Norfolk.

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – is an epic about about Empires falling and Nations rising and archaeologists digging stuff up. I think its main period is the First World War and its protagonists are mainly in Turkey, London and India – but it sprawls – so I may be wrong.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith – has a half decent cover – but one that’s entirely misleading – since it makes it look like a Retronaught novel set in the 1990s’ favourite decade the 1960s. Apparently it’s about a teenage girl now and an Italian Renaissance artist then – who are somehow connected in time – and who both are a bit both.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Ann Tyler is about an American family and is described as homely, spot-on and melancholy.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – promises to be genre trash (that’s a compliment) but I have bad memories of Tipping The Velvet having terrible plot development and the prose felt like I was being dragged backwards (I mean I literally felt that – which wasn’t entirely pleasant – although it must take some skill).

So what would I buy if I was in the book shop?

The Bees – it’s about bees – it’ll either work or be funnier than The Swarm (Oh my God – Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!).

The Paying Guests – it’s about taking in lodgers in the 1920s and has a lesbian romp and a murder and got denounced by The Guardian as ‘middle-brow’ – so clearly a winner.

The rest – meh – maybe. Probably not.

The Straw Chair

Selina Boyack as Lady Grange, Pamala Reid as Isabel, the Minister's Wife  - with THE CHAIR.
Selina Boyack as Lady Grange, Pamala Reid as Isabel, the Minister’s Wife – with THE CHAIR.

I’ve fallen behind with my posts about ‘things I have done’ – I have random reviews and musings cluttering up the draft page from months ago – but last things first.

Tonight I went to see The Straw Chair by Sue Glover at The Tron (it’s on tour), directed by Liz Carruthers and produced by Liz Burton-King – for their own company ‘Hirtle’* – which – and for this I will adore and support them for all time – boasts that between them they have 100 years of professional experience. Because it should be a plus. People don’t die at 35. *

(*with Borderline –  ages unknown).

And yes – I will still sound like I’m giving them snark – but that’s my style. I give myself snark.

The Straw Chair had a tiny wee set – representing the Island of Hirta – made out of astro-turf, bouncy stones (a la Classic Doctor Who) and a bed-sheet hung at the back… I couldn’t decide if I liked it – or thought it was too literal – or liked it but didn’t like the way the actors seemed to hold themselves back on it as if they were going to fall or stub a toe.

It also had a tiny wee straw chair – the only one on the island – which seems a bit daft since it was made on the island – so you’d think they could make another one… but maybe they ate it when they ran out of eggs (they mention eggs a lot… eggs and birds… birds and eggs… ).

I liked the sounds of the sea and seagulls that played at the start (and I swear I could smell the sea)… even if it’s a cliche it’s still a powerfully evocative cliche… and what else are you going to listen to in Ye Auldie Western Isles?

The play is set sometime between 1732 and 1745 and is about a young Minister and his new wife sent as Missionaries to St Kilda (Hirta) and encountering a kidnapped Edinburgh aristocrat, Lady Grange, who intended to expose her husband as a Jacobite.

The acting was a bit under-powered… but Lady Grange was magnificently played as Edina Monsoon (from Absolutely Fabulous) and while I’m not sure that’s the way the character was meant to go – it did work… you felt sorry for the poor spoilt cow stuck in the world’s worst rehab… Unfortunately it did leave the two leads a bit adrift with their po-faced lines about marriage and God.

The Minister’s wife was very sweet – but had one facial expression and a monotone through-out and I wasn’t sure why she needed to meet Lady Grange in order to find out she quite liked plucking puffins… or why the Minister needed to spend time on an uneducated Island to find out that Highlanders have weird ideas about fairies and Edinburgh is full of corruption.

Our heroine should have been painfully caught between three things – the natural rhythm of life on Hirta (represented by the servant Oona) – the sexy High Life of Lady Grange – and the piety of her husband (who was a wet fish of a Presbyterian – his character was crying out for a few good rants). In the end she did a bit of everything, nothing bad happened – and Lady Grange was left as she was found.

I wasn’t bored though. With a bit more welly in the vocals and the action I doubt I would’ve had time to ponder what it all meant.

I Love Gerald Harper

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Gerald Harper starred in two huge UK t.v. hits of the 1960s and 1970s – Adam Adamant Lives (1966-67) about an Edwardian who gets frozen in 1902 and wakes up in 1966 and who fights crimes while coming to terms with the permissive society and Gazette (renamed Hadleigh – 1969-76) where he played a laid-back country squire/newspaper proprietor who solves thorny problems for himself and the community.

He also starred in a great Francis Durbridge thriller ‘A Game of Murder’ (1966) and as Detective Inspector Alan Milton in ‘A Man Called Harry Brent’ (1965). As well as guest turns on great shows like Thriller, The Avengers and Emergency Ward 10 – and in one-off plays for ITV and the BBC.

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His great charm was in his energy and authority combined with the way his voice would become quiet and sympathetic in times of great stress or injustice. If aristocrats were anything like Gerald (and they’re not) the Empire would still be flourishing and I would be doffing my cap at all times. Technically he was no looker – he had a thin face and beady eyes – but he had a warmth and charisma that made him incredibly handsome (which should be a lesson to all actors – and modern casting directors – buff can be bland – personality wins every time).

Gerald is near forgotten by the under 50s – although occasionally he’ll turn up in the press with a much younger girlfriend… but in his day he was constantly featured in magazines, newspapers and on chat shows. He became a radio host on BBC 2 and would give champagne and chocolates away as prices in between playing classic tunes. Since the show ended he’s been touring in theatre productions including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for Bill Kenwright.

He deserves to be remembered as one of our finest stars and while his hit shows have dated they’re still well-written romps through our recent(ish) past. *

*many of them are available on DVD.