Friday, February 29, 2008

2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

SIX BOOKS have been shortlisted from a treasure trove of literary fiction from all over the world for the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on May 8, 2008.

The Shortlist
1. Castorp / Pawel Huelle (trans. from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones) (Serpent’s Tail)
2. Measuring the World / Daniel Kehlmann (trans. from the German by Carol Brown Janeway) (Quercus)
3. Gregorius / Bengt Ohlsson (trans. from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella) (Portobello Books)
4. The Model / Lars Saabye Christensen (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Barlett) (Arcadia Books)
5. The Way of the Women / Marlene van Niekerk (trans. from the Afrikaans by Michiel do Heyns) (Little, Brown)
6. Omega Minor / Paul Verhaeghen (trans. from the Dutch by Paul Verhaeghen) (Dalkey Archive Press)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

2008 Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and Nonfiction

THE SHORTLIST for the 2008 Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and Nonfiction has been announced with writers hailing from Australia, China, India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the U.S. Though eligible writers can be from anywhere in the world, books that are considered for the prize must be available in English and published in the U.S. or Canada. The annual Kiriyama Prize recognises and awards outstanding books that promote greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and of South Asia.

The 2008 Kiriyama Prize finalists are:

1. Mister Pip / Lloyd Jones (Text Publishing, Australia; Knopf Canada; Penguin Books, New Zealand; John Murray, UK; and The Dial Press, U.S.)
2. The Complete Stories / David Malouf (Pantheon, U.S.)
3. The Last Chinese Chef / Nicole Mones (Houghton Mifflin, U.S.)
4. Mosquito / Roma Tearne (HarperCollins, Canada and U.K.)
5. I Love Dollars / Zhu Wen (trans. from the Chinese by Julia Lovell) (Columbia University Press, U.S.)

1. The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam / Tom Bissell (Pantheon, U.S.)
2. East Wind Melts the Ice / Lisa Dalby (University of California Press, U.S.; Vintage Books, U.K.)
3. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy / Ramachandra Guha (Ecco/HarperCollins, U.S.; Macmillan, U.K.)
4. The Talented Women of the Zhang Family / Susan Mann (University of California Press, U.S.)
5. The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific / Julia Whitty (Houghton Mifflin, U.S.)

Winners will be announced on April 1, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Common Faults in Short Stories

I FOUND the following article by Steve Moran on the Willesden Herald blog of February 21, 2008. Moran has written a rather useful article for writers on the mistakes they make when writing short stories. He does an excellent job of writing it all down and gives tips on what books to read, too.

Common faults in short stories submitted
Some people have expressed interest in knowing why entries in the Willesden Herald short-story competition are eliminated or advanced, so I offer the following notes on why all but the last few are eliminated.

Writers need to realise that writing is like music: there is no getting away with bum notes. Think of the judging process as a series of auditions—X-Factor, American Idol, Young Musician of the Year, if you like. Now think of the hopeless cases. Out of tune: Next! Inept: Next! Hopelessly feeble: Next! Ego tripper: Next! An open competition is by definition a talent contest, and the entries can be imagined in the same way. But what are the bum notes, gaffes, misconceptions, delusions and ineptitudes in writing that are analogous to the failings of talent show entrants? Here are a few, not rearranged, but simply as they come to mind.

  1. Failure to observe the rules. Let’s get this most boring reason for rejection of entries out of the way. In this year’s competition, the rule most breached was the one that specifies no author’s name on the manuscript. Not double-spaced or single-sided also featured, as well as missing or incomplete entry forms. Last, in both senses, were entries received after the closing date. Something approaching one in ten was eliminated for not complying with the rules. It is likely that some people took incomplete information from third party sites, so I recommend that you get the official rules and entry form from the competition website. Then follow the rules exactly, not approximately. Any entry that is not in compliance with the rules will be binned, unread.
  2. Overcrowded with characters. Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. Like a jet the novel takes a long time to get off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started. On the other hand, the short story takes off vertically, rises directly to a great height, usually carries only one or two people, and lands not very far from where it took off. So when three, four, five and sometimes even more names are mentioned in the first two pages, it is inevitable that readers will be turned off. They will always suffer from the following problem as well.
  3. Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own CV if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives, etc., though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.
  4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.
  5. Well-enough written but I just don’t like it. This is the uncongenial protagonist or narrator, arrogant, cruel-minded, usually petty, often attempting gross-out effects, and usually going round in ever-diminishing circles before vanishing in a puff of studied triviality. It leaves a bad taste and invariably evokes the response that it’s well enough written, but I just don’t like it. There is no gun to the reader’s head. People do not read to be grossed out, or to join in somebody else’s squalor or misery. There has to be an element of transcendence, transmutation of the base material into the gold of fiction.
  6. Throwaway endings. The story has been going along fairly well, showing signs of life and suddenly the writer must have thought, “Oh I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to put a twist here and finish it.” It’s literally almost impossible to believe sometimes why anybody would ever think of sending in something that is clearly truncated and given up on—what a waste of postage, etc.
  7. Over-elaborated endings. All has been going well, we’re hoping this might be a contender, we come to an excellent sign-off line, then woe, woe, thrice or four or five times woe for every extra sentence or paragraph that follows after that, telling us what should be left for us to decide for ourselves. So frustrating to hit one of these after reading all the way.
  8. Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it’s not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact that it starts with something, the fact that it’s of a particular kind, the fact that you’re going to tell it. Cut, cut, cut. Then we come to the line where it really starts, but by then it’s too late: for something to get on a shortlist, it has to be virtually flawless and you’ve just started with a whopping great flaw.
  9. Boring. “Middle of page 3 and I am totally bored.” “Well enough written but what is the point?” “I’m losing the will to live.” Again, I keep repeating, the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own. To us, yours are far less interesting—and ours were not that interesting to start with. Who cares if somebody listened to a news story on the radio, went shopping, bought a packet of corn flakes. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
  10. Banal. Commonplace, dull, the sort of thing you hear every day. This is really a continuation of “boring”. A lot of stories about elderly people living in squalor. A particularly English phenomenon. A lot of stories about dying relatives. Okay, but they better be good. It’s important to write about these things, but when you do you need to realise that there will be ten other people writing about the same thing, so you’d better make it very good. Life can be banal, but we turn to fiction to find—again—transcendence. This is more or less the same point that dead henry made in his “statement to the peasants”, which was so ill-received.
  11. Mush. Mom and Pop and kiddie all having breakfast mush and school mush and boy and girl friend mush, car and scenery mush and all starting and ending up in a nostalgic sunset mush. I’ve given you English kitchen squalor, now I give you American kitchen mush. Both equally nauseating. I might as well add princess and frog fairytales in here.
  12. Failed experiment. It’s fine and admirable to try an experimental format, but it’s not an excuse for slightness, skimpiness, overwriting, repetitiveness, underwriting, forced or boring content, or as often as not for semi-disguised or decorated solipsism, or any of the other failings listed here.
  13. Unconvincing. Clunky or melodramatic. I just don’t buy it. This is fake, phoney baloney, unbelievable but presented as supposedly realistic. Often forced and plot-driven. Corny ending likely. Let’s add in here “routine police procedurals”, where hard-bitten Captain Craggy trades inscrutable comments on cases with eager tyro, etc.
  14. Weak premise. The triviality of some themes submitted is hard to believe. When you get a story that is 30 pages all about a minor ailment that has no apparent effects or significance, what are you to make of it? The writer is talking to himself, like one of those poor souls you can see on the high street any day. A sort of sub-category here is the “clever-sounding” element, that is like a lump of gristle in the apple pie of the story. Some people have a compulsion to mention things they have some specialist expertise about or simply know the names of, in a certain way that makes me think, “Go away.”
  15. Not a short story. We don’t tell you what a short story is, you’re supposed to know. If you don’t know, tough. You need to go away and find out. I can tell you it’s not something over 220 pages long, as one entrant must have thought. Neither is it an essay. I presume people send in essays, thinking “Well it’s a longshot.” No, it’s not a longshot, it’s a dud. Regardless of length a short story is not a mini-novel—a real tyro failing. The simplest advice is to read as many good short stories as you can and yours should be at home in their company—if you aspire to that. And if you don’t then why do you bother writing?
  16. Full of errors. Slapdash spelling and grammatical errors are like bum notes in a musical audition. Even if you are a shining genius (as you all think you are) it is unlikely you will get away even with one. More than one and you’re stone dead. A lot of people who do not speak English seem to think they can find success in a short-story competition with texts that contain errors in every sentence. Very rarely, there may be a story that is otherwise compelling but frustratingly riddled with errors.
  17. Transparent attempt to pander to the judges. Every year we’ve had one or two (usually impossible) journeys in London, invariably ending up in Kilburn or Willesden. Try to see it from my point of view, imagine I open a guide book and try and write something about your city, where I’ve never lived—imagine the phoniness of the result. I would suggest you do not attempt to write to order for a competition. You can if you insist, but I can spot it a mile off and it is really off-putting. It just suggests that you have no real hinterland of your own.
  18. Poor dialogue. Exposition of the story in dialogue is a common failing. “We must be very careful, as it is raining now and visibility is low.” “Yes, and it is cold. Ooh, look at the traffic there,” said Pinky. “Yes, there is a lot of it, isn’t there,” said Perky. “Look out! Elegant variation dead ahead”, muttered Pinky and exclaimed Perky simultaneously. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere that there has to be dialogue. What they didn’t add was, “not at any price.” If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say. Do not make your characters into ventriloquists dummies to tell your story through. There can be long passages without dialogue or there can be lots or a little dialogue. What there must not be is phoney dialogue. Another thing, if your characters are well enough defined, you should find that hardly any attribution is needed.
  19. Unevenness. This includes unevenness of tone, pace, style and theme: parts of the story that are not in keeping with the rest, which should have been edited out or replaced. A story that starts out in one tone, maybe as a serious and really compelling story, then halfway through turns into a facetious spoof. A digression from the main theme that makes the reader think, “What is that doing here?”. I think there was one entry we received that seemed to be three short shorts stuck together. More slapdashery. Remember: it’s like music—you can’t “get away” with anything. With most competitions it should be safe to assume you are writing for/playing your music for people who can say in all modesty that they are not tone deaf.
  20. Summation. “All in the past” syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.
  21. Underwriting and overwriting. Too sketchy or too longwinded. I get the impression that the longwinded are probably more pleased with themselves, but they’re no more popular with readers than the skimpers—rather the reverse. Cut out as much as you can, without cutting into the quick, and you’ll find that your text will improve. Isaac Babel said that our writing becomes stronger, not when we can add no more but when we can take nothing more away. The skimpy efforts are just rushed, undercooked, choose your own metaphor. I’m sure we know when we have underwritten (I include myself), so why do we waste postage sending underwritten pieces out?
  22. Unicorns and elves, chick lit, police procedurals and bodice rippers. These should only be submitted to specialist competitions for their specific genres. The Willesden is for so-called literary stories. It’s not a pleasing term, so I would rather say non-generic stories. (I think Joyce once said that the word “literature” was used as a term of abuse.) Readers will not get beyond the first line of—and they are invariably labelled thus—the Prologue: “Nervelda gazed on the mistfields of Thuriber. Her green eyes glinted in the slanting sun, as the tribes of Godnomore straggled over the barren land.” Lord and Lady Farquahar and their servants will journey in vain to quaint villages full of worthy and unworthy peasants. I think I’ve already mentioned Inspector Craggy (promoted in the sequel) and his eager sidekicks. As for chick lit: in reading as well as in life, we may be partial to a bit of office romance, but about ten or twenty of them later and they begin to pall.
  23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.
  24. Ankles. Particularly ankles in Asia. But I don’t want to be overly negative and turn critique into a despicable blood sport, because there have been many charming, fascinating and amusing entries from the subcontinent as well as from Africa and other (to me) strange places. As a matter of fact, I’m not at all sure that Ankles in Asia, though it sounds worryingly now like a rare disease, is not in fact a virtue. Let a thousand professors dream of butterfly kisses with a thousand feisty young neighbour girls. And please do try us again with wonderful tales of African village life and politics.
  25. Clumsiness. Proliferation of unnecessary commas. Awkward mis-edited clauses, unintentional rhymes, pedestrian, dull prose, infantile expressions, over formality (“Mr Smith had a reputation as bit of a disciplinarian. Miss Elma Furblong often thought that, while thinking about what to get to ease the hunger pangs in her tummy.”) Stuffiness generally. Let’s save a few more categories and add here out-of-date literary sensibilities and pretensions, the aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic and polemical. If I think of any more I’ll most likely add them into this catch-all category.
  26. Clichéd. I’m thinking mostly of clichéd expressions. If I said I’m thinking “by and large” of clichéd expressions, that would be an example in itself. It’s usually little clumps of words that always seem to go together, but also whole concepts that go unquestioned. Cities are always bustling, sunsets always golden, looks always stern, etc. The Irish poet Jean O’Brien said (in a workshop I attended) “Beware of the bits that seem to write themselves.” In avoiding clichés it is the underlying assumptions that have to be dispelled. A “translated cliché” would still be a cliché.
  27. Unspeakable. “Actors call some lines pills to swallow, for they cannot be made to sound genuine” is an example of this syndrome. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the use of the word “for” instead of “because” archaic and laboured. I tend to think that if I wouldn’t use the word in speech then I shouldn’t in writing. I wouldn’t say “I think it’s very cold today for the pond is frozen” so why write it? Anything that would sound laboured if read out has to go. You probably recognise the dismal effect when somebody says something and “it sounds like they’re reading it out”. If I write: “The solution to this problem is to read everything aloud first” that in itself contains an example of the problem. If I read out that sentence, it sounds like I’m reading it out. Maybe it’s acceptable in an after-dinner speech, but it’s death to a story. It breaks the spell.
  28. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. If it’s not a simple case of writing to a formula, this is more seriously a lack of a genuine “voice”. What I usually say about pastiche is that I’m very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, because I find it difficult enough just to write like myself. Here’s a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. One Sunday I went to see The Jolson Story (I think I saw parts 1 and 2) at the Casino cinema in Finglas and memorised some of the songs. That night I began to sing them in bed, and trying to sound like Al Jolson. Lying back in the dark, after a while I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I’ll always remember his answer because it said so much. He said, “I prefer your own voice.”

    In summary, when there are hundreds of entries to a short-story competition, only a story that is near as dammit technically flawless has a chance of reaching the shortlist. As you know, there are still more qualities beyond technical perfection that are then required. I remember hearing a conductor say that when he conducted a good orchestra he relied on the fact that every musician in it was technically perfect, which left him free to work on interpretation and expressivity. With stories I suppose it’s subtle resonances and other quasi-poetic elements in the layering of words, a sense of adventure, newness, etc.—another list for another day.

    I’ve just added another three categories of fault, a couple of days after posting the first draft of this, and a list of books stopping short of literary theory, philosophy of language and suchlike. In the Willesden short-story competition we’re not asking for high philosophy—dead henry might be, I can’t really say, though he has been compared with Baudrillard—but we are looking for something technically perfect, original, vivid and compelling in serious or humorous non-generic stories. How or why these come into existence may always remain a mystery but—like life itself—they do.

    P.S. I should add that every single entry was a valiant effort. It’s a labour of love to read them as it must have been to write them, when most of us have full working days and only the tired few hours remaining to devote to our art. I only wrote the list of points above to be helpful and to open my own thoughts and prejudices to constructive criticism. Speaking only for myself, I think and always think every year, that all of the writers who entered showed talent and potential, and that among the stories there were many “near misses”.

    Some books about writing:
    The First Five Pages / Noah Lukeman (Prentice Hall)
    On Writing / Stephen King (New English Library)
    Bird by Bird / Anne Lamott (Anchor Books)

    About the short story:
    The Lonely Voice / Frank O’Connor (Melville House)

    A few interesting links:
    Belief and Technique for Modern Prose / Jack Kerouac
    A Short History of the Short Story / William Boyd
    Principles of a Story / Raymond Carver

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Best of the Bookers

IT’S TIME to walk down memory lane and trot out all the Booker Prize winners since 1969 and see who will win The Best of the Bookers as part of the 40th-anniversary celebration of the most prestigious literary prize in 2008. The Best of the Bookers will honour the best overall novel to have won the prize since its inception in 1969. Forty-one novels will be eligible for the prize as there were two winners in both 1974 and 1992. (Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday in 1974, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in 1992.) Of course, Salman Rushdie won the Booker of Bookers in 1993 on the 25th anniversary of the prize with his magnum opus Midnight’s Children.

Here’s my shortlist of 8 novels:

1. J.M. Coetzee / Disgrace (1999)
2. Arundhati Roy / The God of Small Things (1997)
3. Michael Ondaatje / The English Patient (1992)
4. Kazuo Ishiguro / The Remains of the Day (1989)
5. Peter Carey / Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
6. Salman Rushdie / Midnight’s Children (1981)
7. Nadine Gordimer / The Conservationist (1974)
8. J.G. Farrell / The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)

The Booker Prize for Fiction, 1969-2007
1. Anne Enright / The Gathering (2007)
2. Kiran Desai / The Inheritance of Loss (2006)
3. John Banville/ The Sea (2005)
4. Alan Hollinghurst / The Line of Beauty (2004)
5. D.B.C. Pierre / Vernon God Little (2002)
6. Yann Martel / Life of Pi (2001)
7. Peter Carey / True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)
8. Margaret Atwood / The Blind Assassin (2000)
9. J.M. Coetzee / Disgrace (1999)
10. Ian McEwan / Amsterdam (1998)
11. Arundhati Roy / The God of Small Things (1997)
12. Graham Swift / Last Orders (1996)
13. Pat Barker / The Ghost Road (1995)
14. James Kelman / How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
15. Roddy Doyle / Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993)
16. Michael Ondaatje / The English Patient (1992)
17. Barry Unsworth / Sacred Hunger (1992)
18. Ben Okri / The Famished Road (1991)
19. A.S. Byatt / Possession: A Romance (1990)
20. Kazuo Ishiguro / The Remains of the Day (1989)
21. Peter Carey / Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
22. Penelope Lively / Moon Tiger (1987)
23. Kingsley Amis / The Old Devils (1986)
24. Keri Hulme / The Bone People (1983)
25. Anita Brookner / Hotel du Lac (1984)
26. J.M. Coetzee / Life and Times of Michael K (1983)
27. Thomas Keneally / Schindler’s Ark (1982)
28. Salman Rushdie / Midnight’s Children (1981)
29. William Golding / Rites of Passage (1980)
30. Penelope Fitzgerald / Offshore (1979)
31. Iris Murdoch / The Sea, the Sea (1978)
32. Paul Scott / Staying On (1977)
33. David Storey / Saville (1976)
34. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala / Heat and Dust (1975)
35. Nadine Gordimer / The Conservationist (1974)
36. Stanley Middleton / Holiday (1974)
37. J.G. Farrell / The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)
38. John Berger / G. (1972)
39. V.S. Naipaul / In a Free State (1971)
40. Bernice Rubens / The Elected Member (1969)
41. Percy Howard Newby / Something to Answer For (1969)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize: Regional Shortlists

THE REGIONAL SHORTLISTS for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (for Best Book and Best First Book) was announced on Friday, February 13, 2008. And as always, there were a lot of surprises; this year there were many lesser-known authors who made the cut. From a longlist of some 320 books, the following books have been shortlisted according to region:

Best Book
1. End (Jacana Media) / Barbara Adair (South Africa)
2. Waiting for Maria (Spectrum Books) / Ifeoma Chinwuba (Nigeria)
3. Flyleaf (Penguin Books SA) / Finuala Dowling (South Africa)
4. The Hangman’s Game (Peepal Tree Press) / Karen King-Aribisala (Nigeria) (my choice)
5. Quarter Tones (Harvill Secker) / Susan Mann (South Africa)
6. Cion (Penguin Books SA) / Zakes Mda (South Africa)

Best First Book
1. Imagine (This SW Books) / Sade Adeniran (Nigeria) (my choice)
2. Blood Kin (Penguin Books SA) / Ceridwen Dovey (South Africa)
3. Reading the Ceiling (Simon & Schuster) / Dayo Forster (Gambia)
4. A Fragile Hope (Salt Publishing) / Ken Kamoche (Kenya)
5. The Story of Maha (South Africa Kwela Books) / Sumayya Lee (South Africa)
6. No Man’s Land (Umuzi) / Carel van der Merwe (South Africa)

Best Book
1. The Outlander (House of Anansi Press) / Gil Adamson (Canada)
2. The Rainmaker’s Mistake (New Beacon Books) / Erna Brodber (Jamaica)
3. The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins) / Lawrence Hill (Canada) (my choice)
4. The Culprits (Random House Canada) / Robert Hough (Canada)
5. Remembering the Bones (HarperCollins) / Frances Itani (Canada)
6. Divisadero (Bloomsbury) / Michael Ondaatje (Canada)

Best First Book
1. Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp Press) / David Chariandy (Canada)
2. Town House (HarperCollins) / Tish Cohen (Canada)
3. Post (Thistledown Press) / Arley McNeney (Canada)
4. The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre) / Ameen Merchant (Canada)
5. The End of the Alphabet (Doubleday Canada) / C.S. Richardson (Canada) (my choice)
6. Bang Crunch (Knopf Canada) / Neil Smith (Canada)

Best Book
1. The Solitude of Emperors (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) / David Davidar (India)
2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Penguin Viking) / Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan)
3. Girl and a River (Penguin Books India) / Usha K.R. (India)
4. My Revolutions (Hamish Hamilton) / Hari Kunzru (U.K.)
5. Secrets of the Sea (Harvill Secker) / Nicholas Shakespeare (U.K.)
6. Animal’s People (Simon & Schuster) / Indra Sinha (India) (my choice)

Best First Book
1. A Golden Age (John Murray) / Tahmima Anam (Bangladesh) (my choice)
2. Ishq and Mushq (Transworld) / Priya Basil (U.K.)
3. Tunnel Vision (Roli Books) / Shandana Minhas (U.K.)
4. What Was Lost (Tindal Street Press) / Catherine O’Flynn (U.K.)
5. Salt (Penguin Viking) / Jeremy Page (U.K.)
6. The Illumination of Merton Browne (Sceptre) / J.M. Shaw (U.K.)

Best Book Award
1. The Time We Have Taken (HarperCollins) / Steven Carroll (Australia) (my choice)
2. The Ghosts Child (Penguin Australia) / Sonya Hartnett (Australia)
3. The Crimes of Billy Fish (ABC Books) / Sarah Hopkins (Australia)
4. Burning In (Giramondo) / Mireille Juchau (Australia)
5. The Lost Dog (Allen & Unwin) / Michelle De Kretser (Australia)
6. Landscape of Farewell (Allen & Unwin) / Alex Miller (Australia)

Best First Book Award
1. The Zookeepers War (HarperCollins Australia) / Steven Conte (Australia)
2. The Anatomy of Wings (University of Queensland Press) / Karen Foxlee (Australia) (my choice)
3. The Orphan Gunner (Giramondo) / Sara Knox (Australia)
4. Nights in the Asylum (Picador) / Carol Lefevre (Australia)
5. The Edge of the World (Fremantle Press) / Marcella Polain (Australia)
6. Other Country (Allen & Unwin) / Stephen Scourfield (Australia)

The two regional winners will be announced on March 13, 2008 and will enter the final stage of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize where they will compete with the six other regional winners

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


the author of His Illegal Self (Alfred A. Knopf/Faber, 2008)

Photograph © Elena Seibert

Monday, February 11, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. Wolves of the Crescent Moon (trans. from the Arabic by Anthony Calderbank) (Penguin, 2007) / Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
2. His Illegal Self (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / Peter Carey
3. My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro (Harper Press, 2008) / Jeffrey Eugenides (ed.)
4. The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago/Little, Brown, 2008) / Linda Grant
5. The Age of Shiva (W.W. Norton/Bloomsbury, 2008) / Manil Suri
6. The Death of Vishnu (W.W. Norton, 2001/HarperPerennial, 2002) / Manil Suri

1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [trans. from the French, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (1997), by Jeremy Leggatt] (HarperPerennial, 1997) / Jean-Dominique Bauby
2. The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (The Ontario Review, 2003/Ecco, 2004) / Joyce Carol Oates
3. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / David Shields

Sunday, February 03, 2008

James WOOD and The Art of Reviewing

I AM GLAD to note that a new group of book reviewers are developing in Malaysia at the moment. Reviewers like Janet Tay, Sharon Bakar, Daphne Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Dina Zaman, Elizabeth Tai, Michael Cheang, Eudora Lynn, Shakeel Abedi, Alan Wong, Ahnaf, Martin Spice, Boey Ping Ping, Tan May Lee, Alexandra Wong, Li-Hsian Choo, Jamie Khoo, Sarah Chew and Ted Mahsun augur well for the book reading culture in Malaysia. Book reviewing is basically writing about books, a primary form of literary criticism. There are now more bookshops in Malaysia and there are people who actually enjoy reading “literary fiction.” For those who do not know what literary fiction is, literary fiction ain’t “love stories” like some people I know think it is. It just means fiction of a higher level. There are no papers in Malaysia—with the exception of The Star, of course—that devote a generous number of pages to books and all matters literary—book reviews, author interviews, literary events, industry news, etc.

Photograph © Miriam Berkley

Talking about book reviewing reminds me of James Wood. When Wood started writing about books in the early 1990s, book reviewing wasn’t much considered a proper occupation. He wrote for the Guardian and the London Review of Books before becoming literary editor at the New Republic in the U.S. A staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the Adjunct Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University, he is today considered by many to be the pre-eminent literary critic of our generation. I especially enjoy reading his really, really long essays on literature and the ways of the world. Wood is the author of two books of criticism: The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999) and The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (2004), as well as a novel, The Book Against God (2003). And this month he has a new book out, How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), an erudite yet entertaining mixed bag of provocative essays, perhaps his most accessible work of literary criticism. Many literary critics have praised Wood for his sublime critical insights and his refreshing intellectual honesty. “I try to ask some of the essential questions about the art of fiction. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character? When do we recognise a brilliant use of detail in fiction?,” Wood writes in the introduction.

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring:
it all began with him.” James Wood

Anyone who enjoys reading and writing book reviews (and would like to bring these pursuits to the next level) and those who would like to write fiction would do well to read Wood’s new collection of literary essays. There is much we can learn here. It is almost like learning from the very best in the world.

Suggested Reads
1. Reading Life: Books for the Ages (Graywolf Press, 2007) / Sven Birkerts
2. Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (Harvill Secker, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / J.M. Coetzee
3. Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (Secker & Warburg/Viking Penguin, 2001) / J.M. Coetzee
4. Why Read the Classics? (Vintage, 2001) (first published by Pantheon in 1999) / Italo Calvino
5. Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007) / Michael Dirda
6. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (Harcourt, 2006) / Michael Dirda
7. An Open Book: Chapters from a Reader’s Life (W.W. Norton, 2004) / Michael Dirda
8. Aspects of the Novel (1927) / E.M. Forster
9. The Curtain (Faber & Faber, 2007) / Milan Kundera
10. A History of Reading (Penguin, 1997) (first published by Viking in 1996) / Alberto Manguel
11. The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life (Anchor Books, 2007) (first published by Pantheon Books in 2006) / Edward Mendelson
12. How Novels Work (Oxford University Press, 2006) / John Mullan
13. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) / Francine Prose

How Fiction Works is published by Jonathan Cape

Saturday, February 02, 2008

MPH Breakfast Club with ... Wena POON & CHUAH Guat Eng

There will be no Breakfast Club in February 2008

The 12th MPH Breakfast Club on Saturday, March 22, 2008, at 11.00a.m. to 12.30p.m., will be featuring Singaporean writer Wena Poon, whose début collection of stories, Lions in Winter: Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2008), was published by MPH Group Publishing in December 2007. Poon left Singapore as a teenager and has lived in Hong Kong and the U.S. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely anthologised and published in the U.S., Europe and Asia. She read literature and law at Harvard University and currently lives in San Francisco, California.

In this collection of eleven insightful stories, Poon examines the quiet lives of displaced Singaporeans living abroad and in Singapore who are often torn between two worlds in their search for an imaginary homeland.

Poon’s portraits of various lives share a common, constant yearning to belong in a place made foreign whether by time or space. Occasionally humorous, but always with compassion, she captures the rich inner lives of individuals who form part of the kaleidoscopic modern history of Asian migration in their quest for modern lives.

Wena Poon will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan’s at 3.30p.m. the same day


We will also be featuring Chuah Guat Eng, the author of Echoes of Silence (Holograms, 1994), who has just come out with her first collection of short stories, The Old House and Other Stories (Holograms, 2008).

Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee will be introducing Wena Poon and Chuah Guat Eng respectively while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

Date March 22, 2008 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2 Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Phone (603) 2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome


“Travel broadens the mind, but emigration often carries with it the dilemmas of dislocation. It is often a question of knowing when to leave and when to return. Wena Poon’s stories dissect this question delicately, ironically, wickedly. Hers is a voice that should be heard: its wry mirth bubbles beneath culture clashes, runs between the hidden agenda of generations and genders, washes over the quotidian clangour of transculturation. These stories are a classic mixture of city and jungle. Poon rattles the familial cage with wit and vigour.” Brian Castro, author of Shanghai Dancing (2003) and The Garden Book (2005)

“A commendable début, refreshingly unpretentious and heartfelt. Wena Poon’s writing is confident and deft, and she doesn’t resort to fashionable and intrusive postmodern gimmicks. As a result, her stories are so much more effective and powerful.” Tan Twan Eng, Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Gift of Rain (2007)

Wena Poon’s stories are both delicate and explosive. In Lions in Winter she writes about people at the margins of our lives, people who are so because we fail to invite them closer. Here they insist on the invitation and each new encounter is a revelation.” Brian Leung, author of Lost Men (2007) and World Famous Love Acts (2004)

Wena Poon’s frank, refreshing stories bravely reject the pat stereotypes of Asia so common in the West. Asia desperately needs more narratives like hers to cancel out all the foolish, precious exoticism, pagodas and bound feet and concubines everywhere. Instead, she gives us complex characters negotiating urban realities. Her characters wrestle with dislocation, hybrid identities, tradition and modernity, and ultimately demonstrate, as the best literature always does, that so much of the human experience is universal, whatever its geographic and cultural particularities.” Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening Is the Whole Day (2008)

“Evocative.” Tinling Choong, author of FireWife (2007)

“Reading this book was like attending a family reunion at which each of my warped, wacky, flawed relatives took turns to drag skeletons out of closets and regale me with anecdotes that were by turns funny, dramatic, thought-provoking or tragic.” Alexandra Wong, in The Sunday Star

“Refreshingly direct, absorbing from each opening paragraph. I thoroughly enjoyed Wena Poons storytelling.Lansell Taudevin

“Although several of the stories in Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter have been published in different places and at different times, the collection as a whole is unified by the common thread of displacement. Like the Chinese lions in the snowy New York landscape in the title story, many of her characters are Asians transplanted to the west. Sometimes they also make the journey back to Singapore, giving us the chance to see the country through their eyes. Poon’s great gift, though, is to keep that freshness of vision and to bring out the extraordinariness of the ordinary lives she describes, looking not only at immigration and the sometimes painful path to assimilation, but also questioning just what it means to be Singaporean. She writes beautifully in a style that is both informal and conversational, and there are clever little asides thrown into the narrative that really tickle the funny bone.” Sharon Bakar



April 19, 2008 (Saturday): Kunal Basu, the author of such novels as The Opium Clerk (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001/Phoenix, 2002), The Miniaturist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003/Phoenix, 2004) and Racists (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006/Phoenix, 2007) as well as the short-story collection, The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India, 2008)

Kunal Basu will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan’s at 3.30p.m. the same day

Friday, February 01, 2008

February 2008 Highlights

LOTS OF NEW BOOKS for the glorious month of February 2008:

1. The Palace of Illusions (Doubleday, 2008) / Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
2. Split Estate (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) / Charlotte Bacon
3. The Soul Thief (Pantheon, 2008) / Charles Baxter
4. His Illegal Self (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / Peter Carey
5. A Person of Interest (Viking, 2008) / Susan Choi
6. The Flowers (Grove/Atlantic, 2008) / Gilb Dagoberto
7. Gardens of Water (Random House, 2008) / Alan Drew
8. Counting the Stars (Fig Tree, 2008) / Helen Dunmore
9. The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago/Little, Brown, 2008) / Linda Grant
10. The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) / Samantha Hunt
11. Song Yet Sung (Riverhead, 2008) / James McBride
12. We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (Canongate, 2008) / James Meek
13. Out of Breath (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / Julie Myerson
14. The Truth Commissioner (Bloomsbury, 2008) / David Park
15. My Favourite Wife (HarperCollins, 2008) / Tony Parsons
16. Death at Intervals (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Harvill Secker, 2008) / José Saramago
17. Unforgiving Years (trans. from the French by Richard Greeman) (NYRB Classics, 2008) / Victor Serge
18. The Age of Shiva (W.W. Norton, 2008) / Manil Suri
19. Friday Nights (Bloomsbury, 2008) / Joanna Trollope
20. John (Bloomsbury, 2008) / Niall Williams

First Novels
1. Submarine (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) / Joe Dunthorne
2. The Monsters of Templeton (Hyperion, 2008) / Lauren Groff
3. The Outcast (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Sadie Jones
4. A Fraction of the Whole (Spiegel & Grau, 2008) / Steve Toltz

1. The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets (Sort Of Books, 2008) / Sophie Hannah
2. Dangerous Laughter: 13 Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / Steven Millhauser
3. Breathless in Bombay (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008) / Murzban F. Shroff

1. Pure Lizard (Carcanet, 2008) / Sujata Bhatt
2. Another Country: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008) / Jane Griffiths
3. Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008) / Jen Hadfield
4. Valentines (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) / Ted Kooser
5. Selected Poems (ed. Mark Ford) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / Frank O’Hara

1. Poe: A Life Cut Short (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Peter Ackroyd
2. Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (Fourth Estate, 2008) / J.G. Ballard
3. The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (ed. Mark Richardson) (Harvard University Press, 2008) / Robert Frost
4. Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i (Grove Press, 2008) / Susanna Moore
5. The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad (Allen Lane, 2008) / Tariq Ramadan
6. The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008) / Richard Sennett
7. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) / David Shields
8. A Step from Death: A Memoir (Counterpoint, 2008) / Larry Woiwode
9. How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / James Wood
10. Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (Jossey-Bass, 2008) / Irvin D. Yalom