44 Square Fiction

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Our final module for the BA Creative Writing was a publishing project and our task – to create three new literary journals (44 Square: Fiction, 45 Square Poetry and 46 Square: Creative Non-Fiction) with work submitted from all four years of the Birkbeck BA Creative Writing Programme.

44 SquareI was Editor of 44 Square Fiction and, as group projects go, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. We generally agreed on most things, from selection of pieces to the front cover design, so our meetings were relatively stress-free. We were fortunate to have a number of illustrators in the group so we were able to supplement the writing with some lovely line drawings.

The most difficult part, I thought, was the final proofreading and copyediting. It seemed that no matter how many times I read a piece I would find (or worse, miss) errors and typos. I’ve always thought I had quite a good eye for typos but it was a much more painstaking job than I was prepared for. My favourite part of the process was the production of the print journal. We were only required to produce an eBook, but our editorial team decided to produce a limited number of print editions and I particularly enjoyed this. It was very satisfying to have a physical souvenier of all of our hard work to keep at the end of the process, and to present to our contributors and teachers.

DSC_1134The final publications were launched on the 4th of June at Stratford Circus. I was fortunate to have had my submissions selected for 45 Square and 46 Square and I was also asked to read an excerpt from my creative non-fiction piece, ‘The Birthday Cake’. The publicity team did a wonderful job of organising the launch and it was an enjoyable evening.

You can download pdf versions of the three journals for free from the following links:

44 Square Fiction
45 Square Poetry
46 Square Creative Non-Fiction

‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth’ by Chris Ware

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Jimmy CorriganI particularly enjoy reviewing books that I hate at first, but that grow on me as I read. Jimmy Corrigan was on the reading list for the module I’m taking at the moment so I didn’t have a choice—I had to read it. I picked it up with some interest but within a few pages I was feeling lost, annoyed and depressed. This feeling persisted for at least the first half of the book. Despite myself I became invested in Jimmy somewhere around the middle of the book. By the end I was weeping, awarding it five stars on Goodreads (and I don’t give five stars lightly) and ready to start reading it all over again—a very satisfactory transformation.

I have never got into graphic novels. It seems that as a graphic-designer-turned-writer this should be my ideal medium, but I haven’t read very many. Perhaps this is because I didn’t read a lot of comic books as a child. I read a bit of Asterix (which was useful for me when my kids started school in the UK and I was expected to know what a ‘mufti’ day was) and I got into Archie for a while but the endless love-triangle was very annoying—why did no one ever call Archie out for being a two-timing cad? I’m sure Archie comics have a lot to answer for in terms of gender relations…

What I find frustrating about graphic novels is that the illustrations slow me down. I am usually quite a fast reader and I tend to skim along the surface of the page without sinking into the individual words and phrases. Jimmy Corrigan required me to read differently. Chris Ware said in an interview in The Guardian:
“…comics are a very active medium. The appeal is they masquerade as a passive medium, but they’re not at all. It takes a lot of effort to read comics, even though it seems like they’re easy.”
Each page of Jimmy Corrigan mires you down in beautifully illustrated detail. Sometimes the format changes and you have to change the orientation of the book. Some of the text is really small and printed on a dark background so you have to turn a bright light on to read it. Sadly, it’s not a book you can read easily in bed and this is obviously not a book that you can read on a Kindle. I bought the paperback edition but I think the hardcover would have been even better. This was a book designed for hardcover and a great case in point to promote the survival of the book as a physical object.

In style Jimmy Corrigan owes a lot to Tintin and classic broadsheet comic conventions—it is a nostalgic flashback to an earlier time. Chris Ware calls the book a ‘comic’ not a ‘graphic novel’ and this in itself is disarming; the author is not pretentious and the book is unassuming—it’s working-class literary fiction.

Jimmy Corrigan himself is an insecure, lonely little man—tied to his mother’s apron strings, desperate to be loved but too fearful to make a move towards his own happiness. He has grown up without a father but one day, at the office, he receives a letter from his biological father suggesting that they meet. He has fantasised his whole life about what his father might be like and the reality is bound to disappoint. Jimmy has a vivid inner-life and through the graphic medium we see his imaginings running parallel to the actuality of his situation. We also learn the sad story of Jimmy’s great-grandfather whose loses his mother and is abandoned by his father, and of Amy—Jimmy’s adopted, African-American sister. None of the characters are comic-book beautiful. They are all rather unattractive and ordinary, but each character has their own inner world of memory, imagination, hopes and fears that is incredibly colourful and moving. It is a book that champions empathy. As Chris Ware says:
“I suppose we all feel like we’re inadequate in some way, and there’s no reason why you can’t empathise with anyone, regardless of their circumstances.”

In traditional novel form this would be an incredibly depressing book but there is something in the rich visual detail that renders a depressing story more appealing. It somehow gives meaning and dignity to an undignified life. A comic about a lonely man with an overactive imagination becomes a haunting and devastating treatise on the human condition. It’s quite the magic trick.

In class last week we also got to look at Chris Ware’s latest book, Building Stories, which I hadn’t realised was a box the size of a board game containing a set of smaller pamphlets which could be shuffled and read in any order. So that’s on the top of my Christmas wishlist now.

‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

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The-White-QueenI generally try to read a book before I watch the TV adaptation—I like to see if my image of a character lines up with someone else’s interpretation—but I had watched the first three episodes of the new BBC series The White Queen before I decided to read the book. I haven’t read Philippa Gregory for a long time—she used to be an established feature of my Johannesburg book club—but I haven’t read any of her books since her very popular Tudor series.

The White Queen is an enjoyable, readable piece of historical fiction, set in a period that I’m not very familiar with—so I did some googling about The Wars of the Roses as I was reading. It was a complicated web of warfare and treachery, so kudos to Philippa Gregory for taking it on. The scope of the book is ambitious—she does cover a huge stretch of time, twenty-one years, which gives it a slightly disconnected, episodic feel. I do like the idea that two other books in the series deal with the same events, just from a different perspective: The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. As a collection I think it must give a layered, nuanced view of all of the characters involved.  But I haven’t read the others yet…

Elizabeth Woodville, the Yorkist ‘White Queen’, is a compelling character and great foil to the ‘Red Queen’—the Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort. She perceives the other woman as grasping, scheming and ambitious but she is a blind to her own relentless ambition—and it is better concealed behind her beauty and charm. Though the men are the ones wielding swords and spilling blood, the women are just as quick to send them off to battle in the name of their cause and their superior claim to the throne. Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of the blood on her own hands is poignant, as well as her realisation of the backlash that the curses she has wrought on her enemies have had on her own family. The Rivers family connection to the myth of Melusina is beautifully woven into the story; in historical fiction accusations of witchcraft are common enough but rarely founded on any real evidence—so the Woodville women’s supernatural gifts add a fascinating element.

The White Queen has also given me a better understanding of Henry VIII, in particular the desperation he felt to produce a male heir to avoid any return to the bloody years of The Wars of the Roses, and also the very great strength shown by Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I to hold on to a throne that had been traditionally so unstable in the absence of a male heir. Yes, I know that historical fiction is not history—but it does help us to engage with history and to visualise what it might have been like.

The BBC adaptation, so far, is a very faithful rendering of the book. I think they’ve done a good job with casting and adapting the script. Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson are suitably young and attractive as the King and Queen. Amanda Hale, as Margaret Beaufort, is incredibly annoying, but I suppose she is intended to be. James Frain is very good as the scheming kingmaker Warwick, better than he was as Cromwell in The Tudors. (Hilary Mantel has set the bar very high for any depiction of Cromwell.) The creators of the BBC White Queen, however, will have the same problem as the creators of The Tudors—how to age a cast of twenty-somethings for a script spanning twenty years. Save me from Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ gruff, old-man voice and Henry Cavill’s pompous posturing. We’ll see…

I am also very glad to report that I now fully understand the historical background behind the first Blackadder series. Forget about The White Queen, I’m off to watch Blackadder again.

Then I Don’t Feel So Bad

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With-Tall-Walls-image-620x414My short story ‘Then I Don’t Feel so Bad’ was published on the Litro website for their #StorySunday on the 5th of May.

It is about a pregnant woman who suffers from claustrophobia and is terrified that her unborn child might be feeling claustrophobic as well.

It was originally called ‘With Tall Walls Wall Me’ referencing Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Prayer Before Birth':

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

But the Litro editors suggested that this rather pretentious literary reference didn’t suit the tone of the rest of the story and I had to admit that they were right. The new title references The Sound of Music instead.

You can read the story on the Litro website.

‘The Great Gatsby’

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the-great-gatsby-poster1I was sixteen when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet was released in 1996 and I was absolutely dazzled—I had never seen anything quite as cool as this before. I was already a Claire Danes fan after My So Called Life, I had watched Leonardo DiCaprio grow up in Growing Pains, and ‘Verona Beach’ was a grungier, funkier version of Beverly Hills 90210. Luhrmann had created an incredibly stylish time-travelling device with which to resurrect Shakespeare for a new generation. I was slightly older but no less impressionable when Moulin Rouge came out in 2001. I sat with my mouth literally open through the opening scenes—overwhelmed by total sensory overload. A year later, in Paris, I dragged Paul through the red-light district for the purpose of photographing the famous windmill. I did enjoy Strictly Ballroom but it didn’t have quite the same impact on me and I have to confess I still haven’t seen Australia. To this day, though, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge rate in my top-ten favourite movies. So I was rather excited to hear that Baz Luhrmann was doing Gatsby and I re-read the book a year ago in preparation.

It was beautiful: an opulent visual feast—I would expect nothing less from Luhrmann. The twenties aesthetic is perfectly rendered in the typography of the titles, the costumes and the sets. It is probably unfair to say that I was less overwhelmed by Gatsby than I was by Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge—film-making technology has advanced so much in the last decade or so that it must be increasing difficult to surprise or impress an audience. Luhrmann was working with an additional element this time though, 3D, and he made good use of it but sometimes the 3D was a little distracting and I felt that it may not have actually been necessary.

The casting was very well done. Leonardo DiCaprio’s awkwardly contrived accent and painful idealism were well-suited to Gatsby. Carey Mulligan was lovely as the beautiful, self-absorbed Daisy, attempting to be the heroine of her own life but not quite able to live up to Gatsby’s idealised version of herself. Tobey Maguire was convincing as indecisive Nick Carraway—the perpetual observer, and Joel Edgerton did a very good Tom Buchanan. They were all pretty close to how I had always pictured them.

The music was a little disappointing. The twenties had such great music that there was scope for an amazing soundtrack, but Gatsby’s parties had a twenty-first century sound that wasn’t particularly exciting. The mixing of eras and stylised anachronisms that were thrilling and revolutionary in Romeo and Juliet felt a little contrived in this soundtrack.

The film has been criticised for losing of lot of the subtlety of the original and this is a fair assessment. The TRAGEDY is rather hammered home and all of the intricacies of plot and nuance are spelled out just to make sure we didn’t miss any of the CRUEL IRONY of this story. There were some sequences that were laughably over-the-top—the moment when Gatsby is revealed for the first time for example. Nick Carraway has spent the entire party searching for his elusive host; he mutters something to a passing stranger who spins around dramatically to reveal a beatifically smiling DiCaprio who announces grandly, “I am Gatsby!” to a simultaneous climax of fireworks. We did giggle—it was a moment worthy of Willy Wonka. But I can’t imagine subtlety was ever the intention of this film—the intention was to create a lavish, stylish, flashy, theatrical spectacle. Luhrmann is the King of dazzling melodrama and the film should be appreciated for what it is.

The script is pretty faithful to the original plot as far as I can remember. There is one significant element added as a framing device. Nick Carraway is in some kind of mental hospital—he has become a depressed, anxious alcoholic. His doctor encourages him to write as a way to achieve peace and closure. It is not elegant but it works and it does allow the manner in which the story is told—the words themselves—to become part of the narrative. What I really appreciated about this movie, and didn’t expect, is that it is a tribute, not just to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but to his actual words. This is where the use of 3D technology is most stunning and affecting—when the words of Fitzgerald’s original come to life and float in the midst of the cinematic action. (For a graphic designer the typographic visuals were particularly satisfying.) The closing sequence, superimposed by Fitzgerald’s transcendent final line, is intensely moving:

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Although comparisons to the original are inevitable, I believe that each new interpretation of a story should be judged on its own merit and can only extend the reach and influence of the original. (Could a film ever be a true reflection of a book anyway?) Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a visually-stunning movie with an emotionally engaging narrative and it has already, undoubtedly, renewed interest in the book—as a result perhaps a new generation will discover the subtlety and nuance, the lyrical prose and the tightly-plotted narrative of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

‘Zoo City’ by Lauren Beukes

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ImageOne thing that is sure to put me off reading a book is to describe it as a ‘gritty, urban fantasy’. I am an escapist reader and I have an uneasy, love-hate relationship with dystopian fiction and dark fantasy. Despite my literary-snob pretensions I secretly long for happy endings. The only things that overcame my aversion to this category and motivated me to pick up this book were personal recommendations and its South Africa context.

As it turns out there were many things I enjoyed about this book but firstly; the South African setting. I lived in Johannesburg for eight years, ten minutes’ drive away from Hillbrow (‘Zoo City’) so many of the settings in the book were very familiar. And it is not just that it was familiar; Lauren Beukes brought it to life—the vibe, the pace and the slang of Joburg were pitch-perfect. I did wonder if the cultural references might have been off-putting or confusing for international readers but the book did very well in the UK—winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award—so apparently not.

The second thing I loved was the really imaginative concept behind this alternative dystopian world. It lends from the animal familiars of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials—but adds a new dimension. The animals are not universal—only people who have blood on their hands receive an animal. They are albatrosses—signs of guilt. Zinzi’s sloth represents her responsibility for the death of her brother. This physical manifestation of difference allows all sorts of stigmatisation and segregation and the formation of ghettos such as Zoo City. The animal familiars do come with some advantages though—other magical gifts. Zinzi’s gift is for finding things: ‘Lost a small item of personal value? I can help you find it for a reasonable fee. No drugs. No weapons. No missing persons.’ Against her will she gets sucked into searching for a missing girl—half of teenage pop-duo sensation ‘iJusi’. But the case is more complicated than it first appears.

Zinzi December is a fantastic heroine—she’s tough, she’s brave, she’s cocky, but she’s not perfect. Far from it; she’s an ex-con, ex-drug addict, paying penance for her past life—forced to write scam emails by her former drug dealer to pay off her debts. She’s the underdog—she’s up against criminal overlords and the threat of doom represented by the sinister ‘Undertow’. It a fast-paced, gripping, wild-ride of a story—I couldn’t put it down.

Mention should also be made of the very striking cover design—the edition I have is published by Angry Robot and the cover illustration is by Joey HiFi. It is exquisite—a greyscale sketch collage of animal fur, feather, faces and urban landscape forming the title, and another carrion collage on the back of the sinister Marabou stork. It’s the kind of image that sucks you in—both fascinating and horrifying.

It’s great to be pleasantly surprised by a book—I am really looking forward to Lauren Beukes’ new book, The Shining Girls, now.

‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal

The InnocentsI re-read ‘The Age of Innocence’ a couple of months ago and so it was quite fresh in my mind when I started reading this contemporary interpretation. At first I was concerned that the narrative might be a little too formulaic—it is clearly a devoted homage to the original; the story follows the same arc and each event has been pretty directly translated, with just one notable exception. And yet, despite this, ‘The Innocents’ felt like its own story.

New York high-society of the 1870’s somehow converts seamlessly to a present-day North-London Jewish community; a difficult task and testament to the skill and sensitivity of the author. Both societies have a close-knit community and strong family values in common, but Francesca Segal is slightly kinder to her community in ‘The Innocents’ than Edith Wharton was to hers. She describes it with affectionate warmth—the whispers about the scandalous Ellie are merely gossip, not censorious judgment. Perhaps this is the hardest element to translate to a contemporary setting—today we have the liberty of second chances, the opportunity to remake ourselves. Ellen Olenska’s reputation was irredeemable. In contrast Adam’s contemplation of betrayal seems somehow more despicable than Newland Archer’s. Perhaps we are more cynical about love these days—literature’s grand passions have been reduced to your garden-variety lust.

The characters are very well-crafted though, their feelings are authentically conveyed. Adam’s recurring grief at the loss of his own father and the role that Rachel’s father plays in his life is a poignant addition. It is an ambitious project—to take on the timeless genius of Edith Wharton’s original—but ‘The Innocents’ does add a worthy alternate dimension to a classic story.

‘Visitation’ by Jenny Erpenbeck (trs Susan Bernofsky)

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VisitationVisitation is a compact but powerful book that is hugely emotionally engaging despite its experimental structure and non-emotive prose. As Michel Faber writes for the Guardian: ‘Visitation allows us to feel we’ve known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place, without authorial pestering or pathos-cranking.’

The main character in Visitation is not a person but a place, a house on a small piece of land on the edge of a lake in the Brandenburg forest. The human characters, the successive inhabitants of this house through the early decades of the twentieth century, are ghostly and transient against this backdrop. Like many things in this book the title has layers of meaning. Visitation has connotations of hauntings – the inhabitants of the house live with the presence of the former residents – but it also suggests that our occupation of this world is temporary. We are all just visitors here.

The book opens with an even bigger picture – the shifting tectonic plates and melting ice that created the lake in the first place: ‘Approximately twenty-four thousand years ago, a glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of rock that now is nothing more than a gentle hill above where the house stands.’ The message is clear from the first sentence of the prologue – even the landscape is transient in the great sweep of history.

There is a common thread that ensures that the succession of characters does not feel too swift and desultory—a framing device in the form of a caretaker. ‘The Gardener’ is a constant figure who crops up between each chapter, pruning, sowing and weeding. ‘…he’s always lived there, everyone in the village knows him, and yet he is only ever referred to by both young people and old as The Gardener, as though he had no other name.’

The first human characters we encounter (after our introduction to The Gardener) are the Mayor and his four daughters. This recounting of their lives has the feel of a fable. Their world is framed by superstition, rituals and rules, but it does little good—the tragic Klara (the first owner of the land by the lake) slips slowly into madness and ruin. There is also an interesting reversal: instead of setting up Klara to haunt the future inhabitants of the house that is yet to be built, Klara sees a foreshadowing of future ghosts: ‘Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are all around her in this bit of woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, […] It’s no doubt because all these people are so quiet that she didn’t notice them before.’

Most of the characters are not referred to by name but by designation: ‘The Architect’ ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’ ‘The Childhood Friend’. As readers we are disarmed into believing that we are seeing the characters in a dispassionate and impersonal way where in reality we are drawn in and absorbed into their lives. Each small action, related in rich detail in the present tense, has significance and is intensely moving and engaging. The huge historical events that lie under the surface of the narrative, including the Second World War, are not reported chronologically. Occupation of this particular territory, rather than being subject to regimes, becomes almost seasonal, in rhythm with the ubiquitous Gardener’s planting and pruning. The concept of conquest and ownership seems ridiculous in the vast metanarrative of history. Erpenbeck does not take sides or make judgements; there are no ‘good’ characters and ‘bad’ characters. She merely gives us glimpses, telling details about how the events affect the lives of the characters. This creates a sense of authenticity; the scenarios are observed rather than engineered: ‘When he acquired the bathing house from the Jews, their towels were still hanging there. Before it could occur to his wife to wash them, he’d gone swimming and rubbed himself dry with one of the strangers’ towels. Strange towels. Cloth manufacturers, these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods. Not too much to ask.’

The epilogue, rendered in the technical language of demolition, is intensely moving – testament to the author’s skill in creating emotional investment in a piece of property, for all that it represents: ‘…care should be taken to minimise vibrations when the demolition is carried out so as to reduce the environmental burdens of dust and noise and prevent cracks from developing in nearby buildings.’ As a reader you actually mourn the death of the house—the vibrations continue to resonate after the house is gone and the book is finished.

The Best Book Cover Designs of 2012

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Since this is the time of year for lists I thought I’d add my opinion on the best book covers of the year (published in the UK). With the rise of Indie publishing and the easy DIY cut-and-paste photographic options provided by stock art websites, the stand-out covers for me this year were primarily graphic illustrations with custom typefaces. In no particular order…

Will Self-UmbrellaUmbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury – August 2012)
This is one of my absolute favourites – a broken umbrella is a useless, pathetic object but in this context it is rendered iconic and beautiful. The monchromatic palette and subtle texture makes this cover stand out next to a slew of busy, brightly coloured books. The nostalgic slab-serif title alternately grips and fades behind the contour of the umbrella. Lovely.

 

 

Alison Moore-The LighthouseThe Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt – August 2012)
Another Booker shortlisted book, the image is beautifully framed, the weight of the monolith is offset by the light-weight font and intersecting lines.

 

 

 

 

 
Hawthorn & ChildHawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta – July 2012)
In my opinion the most striking and original cover this year. You don’t find an image like this on stockart websites. Intriguing and disturbing.

 

 

 

 

Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate – September 2012)
Bright, bold and fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NW

NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton – August 2012)
Iconic, instantly recognisable, almost hypnotic.

 

 

 

 

 

Ned Beauman-The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre – July 2012)
Love the twenties-meets-cubism feel here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy - Jonathan LeeJoy by Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann – June 2012)
The exhuberance of the title word contrasts beautifully with the mundane materials that have been used to construct it – staples on an office folder.

 

 

 

 

 

Hope a TragedyHope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Picador – February 2012)
Subtle and beautifully crafted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Bread White Beer - Niven GovindenBlack Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden (The Friday Project – September 2012)
I love the hand-drawn, collaged effect. It’s hard to pull this off without making it look like a pre-school mess so I think the designer did a great job here.

 

 

 

 

Lightning Rods - Helen DeWittLightning Rods by Helen DeWitt (And Other Stories – September 2012)
Honourable mention needs to be made of And Other Stories and their bold, graphic covers. The designs are not particularly exciting on an individual basis but together they create a very strong visual identity for the brand and, for my money, I think they did a better job on Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, than Faber and Faber did with their generic ‘woman in swimming pool’ stock.

 

 

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown – September 2012)
And one that didn’t quite measure up to expectation – it has the fashionable bold graphic look and the customised type but somehow it lacks the personality of some of the designs above. Almost, but not quite.

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