Stet, an Editor’s Life Diana Athill

LakesideI read most of Diana Athill’s book in two afternoons, sitting under a willow tree beside the lake L’étang de la Bonde as the children swam continuously, refusing to get out until it was time to leave. Despite the fact that we were outdoors, I felt as if I had just spent two days in Athill’s living room, listening to her share this particular segment of her life, that as Editor at André Deutsch, the publishing house where she worked for four decades.

Stet is not a common word and I am perhaps only familiar with it because, back in the old days, when I was a 23-year-old Market Research Assistant without typing skills, I used to write reports and had a secretary to type them. I even had my own office with a door that could be closed. Using the word stet meant I’d changed my mind after I’d crossed something out, wanting it left in. The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us :

Not the first of Athill’s memoirs, but the one I was attracted to, since it offers a glimpse inside an Editors office. I had already read and reviewed Betsy Lerner’s The Forest For the Trees, which this book made me recall, you could say they complement each other in a certain respect, though they are very different books, as one might expect when comparing the perspective of an English Editor to that of an American Editor. Both equally interesting and insightful in their own way.

In Part One, Athill shares how she fell into publishing as a career, knowing she would have to find a job, while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation had lost it and she talks about many aspects of the job, the decisions that were made, the dramas that were lived and worked through.

“The story began with my father telling me: ‘You will have to earn your living.’ He said it to me several times during my childhood (which began in 1917), and the way he said it implied that earning one’s living was not quite natural. I do not remember resenting the idea, but it was slightly alarming…Daughters would not, of course, have to earn their livings if they got married, but (this was never said) now that they would have to depend on love unaided by dowries, marriage could no longer be counted on with absolute confidence.”

Diana Athill

Diana Athill

The start to her career was disrupted by the onset of the Second World War, however she was fortunate to have a friend working in the recruitment office of the BBC and found an information/research position in the Overseas News Department. She and a friend lived in a small apartment in London and had a good social life, at one of the parties she met the young Hungarian intellect André Deutsch, the start of a lifelong friendship and she would eventually leave her job to join him as a shareholder and working Director when he decided to start his own publishing firm.

Not the easiest of employers, Athill shares some interesting insights about working for an often disagreeable and intolerant man whom she respected despite his deficiencies. She is also quick to point out her own flaws and it is perhaps the counterbalance of their personalities that made them such a successful pair and helped keep the publisher in business for as long as it was able. She also shares her continued love of literature, reading and writing.

Stet“They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of the life: of its consuming darkness, and also – thank God – of the light which continues to struggle through.”

In Part Two, she expounds on her relationship with a small selection of writers, providing a chapter each and very frank accounts of what transpires between Athill, the publishing house and the following authors: Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. One is left with the impression that there was a lot more drama and pandering to personalities in the past than there can be in today’s less nurturing publisher – author relationships. Eye opening indeed!

As I mentioned in the Man Booker Prize longlist post, Diana Athill won the Costa Prize for her most recent memoir Somewhere Near the End in 2009, which she wrote in her nineties, a book which is sure to be equally enlightening and one I look forward to indulging, knowing as I did with this book, it is bound to offer delightful company for future afternoon reading.


Fetish or Inspiration, Uplifting Shoe Art

manolo blahnok drawings

I mentioned in my recent review of Deborah Batterman’s Shoes Hair Nails that it had reminded me of a book lurking on my daughter’s shelf, a gift from a family member who is a designer.

The book is manolo blahník’s drawings, a small pocket-book of 120 original sketches and quotes that create a visual history of the talent of one of Spain’s most creative and alluring shoe designers. Being a book full of hand drawn images, there isn’t much to say about the content, because it just must be seen and appreciated.

Manolo Blahník

Born in the Canary Islands, he has been sketching shoes since the age of seven and had hopes of becoming a set designer, before fashion editor Diana Vreeland suggested he concentrate on shoes. No surprise that there is a theatricality to his designs and a sense of the artist at work.

One of the best quotes, this definition of Manolo Blahník, expressed by Franca Sozzani, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Italia:

Manolo Blahnik

Manolo Blahník

While I am not a great fan of shopping for and trying on shoes, I do love looking at and admiring them and these designs are pure inspiration, going beyond any practical requirement and into the realm of art which is more likely the reason I was so keen to visit the Shoe Gallery when it opened in London a couple of years ago.

These are some of my favourite images from the book.

Manolo speaks through his shoes. For him, the foot, the shoe, implies the whole nature of a person, and expresses a story. ANNA PIAGGI

The day we bought the book (from Liberty’s in London) was also the day of the opening of the Shoe Gallery in Selfridges in London.  A gallery of shoes and in 2010, while the middle class were keeping a low profile in the gardened suburbs due to the recession, it seems the creative younger generation of London were being inspired to flaunt shoe art!

Selfridges Shoe Gallery

Designed by the architect Jamie Fobert and the largest shoe department in the world, it contains 6 salons, 11 brand boutiques and more than 4,000 pairs of shoes. And what an outrageously joyous wander around that was, a gallery with none of the pressure of a shoe shop, one is free to wander around and admire the masterpieces of the many diva’s of shoe design. There was even a Shoe Booth, where you could have a photo taken with your favourite pair, how generous is that!

Instead of one large department, you enter six different zones, each space a character in itself. The line of Spanish alabaster plinths modelling their shoes in regal splendour, give it a real feeling of a gallery, the shoe taking pride of place and unlike in a gallery or museum, all available to buy. The architects only managed to convince Selfridges to go with concept of plinths, having proven that sales of shoes displayed on them, far outstripped sales all other pairs. It seems we all aspire to the pedestal, no matter who or what sits on top of it!

Shoe Cerise

So does anyone own a pair of Manolo’s and is it true that some like Anna Wintour will wear no other?

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013

Man Booker 2013 logoToday judges announced the Man Booker Dozen that have made it onto the long list for 2013. Last year Hilary Mantel won it for the second time and with a sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which is the 2nd book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

StetI have just finished reading Diana Athill’s excellent book Stet, An Editor’s Life arguably the person with the longest active memory of the history of books and publishing today, she won the Costa Prize for her most recent memoir Somewhere Near the End in 2009, when she was 93 years old. Stet, she wrote at the sprightly age of 80 shortly after retiring.

In the book she mentions the launch of the Booker Prize, mentioning that in the sixties, it was becoming more and more costly and less profitable to publish books and to compete against the bigger publishing houses. It was becoming difficult to sustain a publishing house that appealed to the more literary reader. She describes the two kinds of reader that existed, still relevant today:

People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can forsee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers’ headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.

The Booker Prize was instigated in 1969 with the second group in mind: make the quality of a book news by awarding it an impressive amount of money, and hoi polloi will prick up their ears.

WBN 2013It worked for the books named, but the underlying aim to convert more people to reading did not. Not much has changed. The latest attempt to convert the population into reader, we could say is World Book Night, where publishers print thousands of books for free and they are given out on one night in the year, to people who don’t really read. Has that worked? Unlikely I think.

But onto the prize for 2013, this year’s long listed titles and authors are:

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Jim Crace, Harvest

Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

ColmTóibín, The Testament of Mary

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic – my review here

Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart – my review here

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names – my review here

Tash Aw, Five Star Billionaire

Richard House, The Kills

Alison MacLeod, Unexploded

Charlotte Mendelson, Almost English

Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Congratulations to all those authors and good luck to anyone hoping to read the list, I’ve only read one and I do have The Spinning Heart, so I guess that will next.

The shortlist will be announced on 11 September and the winner on 16 October.

Time to get reading!

Shoes Hair Nails, Fragments of the Whole

In October 2012 a pair of Marie Antoinette silk slippers were put up for auction on the anniversary of her execution.

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

I knew about it because I use BBC News texts rewritten for learning purposes to teach English to mature French students; it keeps the lessons interesting and relevant, no more “Brian is in the kitchen” or “Michelle is at the swimming pool”, now we can introduce rich new vocabulary such as guillotine, opulent, goes under the hammer, scaffold, artefacts and tyranny and more importantly, improve competence and confidence in the art of conversation and communication.

Knowing that the author Deborah Batterman had written a collection of short stories with Shoes in the title, I tweeted her a link to the Marie Antoinette story. She offered me a copy of her book and though I warned her shoes, hair and nails weren’t my thing, if she was willing to risk sending me her book, I’d read it. While I was keen to read the stories, I admit that I hesitated at the Cinderella type image on the cover, which may explain why in my reading, I began to rename the stories as I went, partly to help remember them, but also to reclaim them and give them the credit I believe they deserve.

Shoes Hair NailsThe stories are like vignettes, fragments, captured moments in time and life that feel familiar, even if the experiences are not what we know. Because in reading we inhabit the character and Batterman has a cathartic way of writing that puts us in the shoes of her protagonist, we understand implicitly what it was like to be there and to live through that experience.

She articulates instinctive, feminine sensitivities, fears, and concerns we will all recognise and yet struggle to put into words ourselves, and why bother when one can sit back with this gentle, funny and considerate collection of stories which take us to those places without the struggle to explain ourselves and may even help us feel better about facing similar issues.

Here is a glimpse into a few of the stories:

Vegas or as I think of it Last Trip to Vegas – Not wishing to acknowledge, even less to accept that Norman is at the stage where he needs care other what he can provide himself, his son Kevin takes him and the family off for a weekend trip to Las Vegas, hoping that the familiar experience will reignite those no longer charging cells in his decrepid body and somehow turn back the clock.

“Kevin argues with the doctors, reminds them of studies showing how physical stimulation helps not only the body, but the mind too. He knows Norman cannot live with us, refuses to think of any alternative. Except this one. He will take his father to Las Vegas, the place he loved more than any place on earth. The place that bombards the senses every which way you turn, every hour of the day… If the body has memory, Kevin reasons, this is the place to bring it back.”

It’s an entertaining trip and not on account of the expected offering of the casino city. It’s like Norman’s last stand and he has a whale of a time, as his family come to the realisation that they have up until now been avoiding. That there is no going back, the body is not a machine we can put in reverse, or slow motion, or pause. I loved this story and think it would make a better movie than that one about those three blokes who go to Vegas – and anyone experiencing mixed emotions with their parents going through the ageing process will appreciate the laughs and the stark realities of this tale.

kittens learningCrazy Charlotte – I think of this story as The Innocents, about a girl who wants to befriend a family living outside accepted social circles, who are the subject of gossip. She is intrigued by them all, Charlotte the mother is unlike anyone she has ever met and wants to give her children a broader education even if that means occasionally keeping them at home so they can visit an exhibition or see the birth of kittens. Charlotte isn’t crazy, but she allows one little girl to see the world through different eyes.

Nails, I think of as The Unfortunate Inheritance and it is appropriate that it also features in the title, because it is a deeply memorable story that reads like a novel and one that I could easily have kept turning the pages for and delved even deeper into all those characters with their Shimmering Reds or Deathless Velvet or whatever it was they wore on their nails, the references to nails actually reminded me a little of that “Where’s Wally?” character, the way they turned up in the most unlikely places, with regular consistency.

The protagonist moves on from a relationship and into an apartment on the 8th floor, already populated by complex, interconnected characters, whose lives and jealousies and pasts we begin to learn something of. Everyone arrives or is already ensconced with their baggage, physical and emotional, created or inherited, a stray dog, a piano, memories of a previous relationship, a past job. And sometimes an inheritance doesn’t make life any easier at all, in fact it can be lethal.

Deer Crossing2In Defensive Driving or as I recall it, Lesson 1 : The Many Effects of Deer, a woman and her husband find themselves in a random group of people, some of whom are there for similar reasons to their own, others because they have no choice. Regardless of their reasons, they all bring their many perceptions, which will be altered significantly by what occurs in lesson 1.

An inspiring collection of stories I recommend.  And even though I said I’m not into shoes, this post inspired me to seek out another book I’m going to revisit and share with you soon, more about shoes as art and inspiration, coming soon…

The Honey Thief Stories and Recipes by Najaf Mazari, Robert Hillman

I requested The Honey Thief to read because it appeared to offer a unique insight into a culture we know little about and about which we see and read far too much negative press.

The Honey ThiefThe book promised an alternative perspective, not because the author had lived an extra-ordinary life, but because as part of his upbringing he and others like him listened to these stories passed down and sometimes relived from one generation to the next. They are not about war, oppression, the Taliban, terrorists or western women living in a foreign culture, they are about sharing the wisdom and perspective of a people who have only experiences to share, wisdom to offer and guidance as their intent.

Sometimes stories are all that is left to be passed on to the younger generation and we are fortunate to be given this glimpse into these gifts of an ancient culture and tradition.

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Najaf Mazari was born in Afghanistan, though he only refers to his homeland as that since he left it, because before anything he is Hazara, one of the many peoples of that vast and mountainous tract of land surrounded by six countries, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and inhabited by more than 14 ethnic groups, separated socially and geographically.

Rather than an affinity with what we casually call Afghanistan, his loyalties are to his people and the area they have inhabited for at least 800 years, Hazarajat, although due to its’ long history of domination, they have often fled their spiritual home for the sanctuary of the mountains or other lands. But loyalty remains deep within them all, no matter where they find themselves.

Living as a refugee in Australia, Mazari with the aid of his friend Robert Hillman, shares these stories that are part of the fabric of Hazara life, stories of an oral tradition, keeping their bonds and culture alive, giving them courage and hope to continue to endure the many challenges that will face them, from family expectations to foreign visitors, to facing an enemy and offering forgiveness.

snow leopardThey know the mountains and rocks are loyal and must be respected, they read the wind and interpret the moon and understand that wars can last 100 years. We see their relationship to the mountains in the poignant story The Snow Leopard, where a visiting English photographer wishes to track and photograph the elusive creature. His first visit is unsuccessful, no one will guide him to those dangerous parts of the mountain where it is believed the snow leopard resides, as there is more than just the mountain to fear. On his second visit, he finds a guide and though unsuccessful, their journey is filled with insight, learning and a renewed respect for the mountain.

The stories share something of the way the Hazara see the world and the story The Honey Thief  brilliantly encapsulates their relationship with nature, animal life and shows how good can sometimes come from bad. The narrator shares with a boy how he became a beekeeper, caught red-handed stealing the honey, his captor observing that he wasn’t stung – thus finding his future apprentice.

Similarly this boy, whose grandfather is a wise man whom the villagers consult daily, discovers that even wise men have something to learn from young boys who like to ask lots of questions in The Wolf is the Most Intelligent of Creatures and learns that what might appear to be ill advice may in fact be the correct advice to give. This story, the very first, is sure to immediately challenge your own perceptions, something I adore in travel and delight in finding in a great tale.

Almost like fables and yet not, because all of these stories, while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism that convinces the reader they tell of lives actually lived and not conjured up or given magical powers, a device that the common fable sometimes utilises.

The author Najaf Mazari

The narrator Najaf Mazari

And when the stories finish, we discover perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that can be referred back to and shared at home ourselves, a small collection of mouth-watering recipes with names and ingredients like Lamb Qorma, Sabzi Gosht, (lamb with spinach), Kofta Nakhod (beef & chickpeas), Boulanee (like Cornish pasties) and Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew); surely living proof of the richness and diversity of their culinary culture and the trade that has passed between these boundaries of peoples for hundreds of years.

If you are interested in learning more, or considering reading the book, I highly recommend checking out these two excellent reviews:

  • Richard Marcus at BlogCritics – a beautiful, sensitive and concise review, how he packs so much into so few words, I’m still trying to figure out.
  • Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes – check out this short but flavoursome review and the recipe with pictures, she not only read the book, but cooked that first recipe with astounding success!

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, a member of the Penguin Group US, in return for an honest review.

TransAtlantic Journeys, Real and Imagined

Colum McCann’s latest novel did well to live up to my raised expectations and has now become a symbol of a path on the journey of this blog itself. I was always keen to read McCann’s next novel, after the hype of Let the Great World Spin, which I enjoyed although I wouldn’t class it as one of my all-time favourites. TransatlanticHowever, TransAtlantic became a “must read” after I received a hardback copy in the post, in recognition of one of my reviews being profiled on The Guardian’s online book pages, where I occasionally post extracts of reviews and comment under the pseudonym RedBirdFlies. The review that was acknowledged, was Zadie Smith’s NW and you can read what the Guardian had to say about it here.

So thank you to The Guardian Books team for sending me a copy of TransAtlantic, a welcome surprise and wonderful to know that a few of these “word by words” have flown the page and landed elsewhere to an appreciative audience.

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs-Newfoundland 14 June 1919

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs Newfoundland 14 June 1919

TransAtlantic is a hybrid novel (is that an oxymoron?), in which McCann takes real historical figures, all of whom made a transatlantic journey which subsequently had a bearing on the story of Ireland and re-imagines a part of their story, interspersing the narrative with fictional characters.

He starts with Alcock and Brown in 1919, who ditched their bomb carriers, modifying the Vickers Vimy by taking war out of flight and adding more fuel than had ever been strapped to an aircraft in their attempt to cross the Atlantic non-stop.

The names sounded familiar, but I didn’t know as I began to read who they were, so looked them up and was startled to see Alcock’s date of birth and then death, the same year in which he makes this attempt – are they going to make it I asked? And is it cheating to look up a historical figure in the midst of reading a novel? Brown dies many years later, so I settle back into reading, content they are going to make it. Until I read that Alcock couldn’t swim.

Their preparation and journey are captured by a journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie, who reappear in later chapters, two women whose family have made the crossing many times, the first family member to do so Lily, inspired by meeting Frederick Douglass, who we meet in the second chapter. In a chance encounter with Brown, Lottie asks if he will carry a letter written by her mother to an address in Cork. A letter that survives this entire novel.

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass visits Ireland while in the throw of becoming a free man, he is spreading the word against slavery, a young abolitionist, a charismatic presence, in awe of how he is received, as an equal, yet disturbed by what he sees outside the warm, accepting rooms of his well-off hosts, the onset of famine in Ireland, people living in more dire conditions, than what he has left, though they are free. It is a humbling experience, as it is for anyone meeting those worse off than they, no matter how tragic one’s own circumstance.

“He thought he knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time. It was not something even the most aggrieved Irishman could understand. To be in bondage to everything, even the idea of one’s peace.”

A young maid, Lily Duggan is inspired by his presence to abandon her employ and take a ship to America, where she meets mixed fortune, her descendants equally inspired to search for new shores, leading them back full circle to that island of her birth Ireland. It is through the women characters that the threads of narrative are interwoven and connections are made across the years, witness to, or affected by the consequences of those significant events that the men of those first three chapters represent.

These characters might represent us, the population, those that stay in a country generation after generation, some harbouring seeds of revenge, and those who leave, immigrate, seeking utopia, hoping that there does exist, a place where men and women of any race, class, religion or persuasion have an equal chance at bettering their lives.

And as McCann himself says in the interview with Jeffrey Brown:

“Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.

It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.”

There is something alluring in the novelist who takes on a historical figure and imagines their past, it can bring the past to life in a more animated way; in the present when the media delves into the personal life of an important political or scientific or literary figure, it is deemed an invasion of their privacy, the cult of the celebrity. When a novelist looks back and intertwines the narrative of their accomplishment and the context of their life, their loves, and their thoughts beyond the significant reason that they have become known, it makes them whole and they become characters that we might even relate to.

Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

Past in the Present
Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our loves connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing Möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

Whist many authors safely inhabit the lives of historical figures from a distance, many years or centuries after their death, dwelling in the safety of already published and authenticated research, McCann goes one step further by taking as his third character the US Senator, George Mitchell, effectively channeling his thoughts during the day that he journeys to Northern Ireland to broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Clearly, this was no mean feat, as the interview comments quoted attest, but he succeeds in creating the man behind the politician, without it seeming like an invasion of his privacy.

McCann’s prose style often reduces to the minimum, he sometimes dispenses with conventions of grammar, reducing his phrases to only the words that describe or evoke the scene or emotion and it is compelling reading. He doesn’t strip beauty from language; if anything he accentuates it by removing the accessories.

I don’t wish to make comparisons, but the only other writer whose prose has that kind of addictive effect on my reading is Cormac McCarthy. They don’t strum their words in the same way, but if they were musicians, they’d both be on my playlist. They possess talent worth dwelling within.

“It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences.”

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland