Recommended Reads: Black Swan Green

David Mitchell is surely one of the best British novelists writing today and his latest novel Black Swan Green strengthens his claim to that title. The novel’s predecessor, the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas – an intricately woven tale spanning multiple time periods and different narrative voices – was a truly captivating read, a unique balance of the real and the fantastic. Black Swan Green displays the same intricacy, allowing a truly human and heartfelt story to be told through a conventional artifice. In this novel, the balance is not between reality and fantasy but a carefully explicated portait of a young boy’s struggle between social conformity and individual expression, set underneath the glassy archetypal nostalgia of the early 1980s. The struggle and the setting, the factual and the poetic are written with such a sense of stablility that Mitchell’s prose is simultaneously radiant, amusing and resolute.

A painful minute went by. Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone? Somehow this is to do with Moran’s dad. Somehow this is to do with everyone and everything. But too many things’d’ve’ gone wrong if I’d tried to say this to Moran.

Life is not easy for Jason Taylor: it’s hard enough turning thirteen – threatening bullies, those mysterious things called girls, family discord – it’s even harder when that comes with a stammer and you’re a reluctant poet. As Jason attempts to conceal his stammer, it leads to other problems: use of ‘over-elaborate’ replacement words, untold anxieties and low self-esteem. Jason’s stammer becomes fictionalised as the director of missing letters: Hangman. This imaginary character has his own codes of behaviour and has an incredible power over Jason’s life.

The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer word coming up, alter your sentence so you won’t need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the other person you’re talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you do have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad’, for example, I’d be a laughing stock, ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy’. Not at Upton upon Severn Comprehensive, anyway.)

There is a sincere nature to the book and it is not surprising to learn that a large amount of Mitchell’s own adolescent tribulations are recorded here. Like Jason, he too grew up in a small village in Worcestershire and was a stammerer (not a stutterer, an important distinction), adopting his own rules of speech to manage his problem. It is this skill with words that has enabled Mitchell to develop such proficiency interweaving different registers for his narrators within his novels. His forthcoming novel will demonstrate this skill further, opening up issues about the perceptions and misperceptions in the encounter of cultures. Black Swan Green is an acutely observed account of the transition between childhood and adolescence set against a vibrant nostalgic background, with a sharp injection of humour and a vivid evocation of life in a backwater village in the 1980s. Mitchell’s beautiful poetic and powerful prose exposes this transitionary period for its strains and difficulties, asserting the importance of the individual and in making your own rules.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Recommended Reads: Einstein, His Life and Universe

By Siobhan Chapman.

Walter Isaacson. Einstein, His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2007.


Albert Einstein was an engaging and much loved but an aloof and at times emotionally withdrawn individual. His work is a byword for intellectual rigour and, for most people, incomprehensibility. Isaacson’s new biography manages both to describe the complex personality and to offer accessible accounts of the theoretical physics. Most readers will not come away from this book having understood the theory of relativity, light quanta or unified field theory. But they will have the intellectual smugness of understanding a bit more about these scientific landmarks, having been exposed to some remarkable ways of thinking about the universe, and having had the chance to try out some fascinating thought experiments, Einstein’s stock-in-trade.

Einstein certainly lived in interesting times, and he cared passionately about them. Because of his historical and personal circumstances, and because also of his growing political involvement, his biography encompasses many of the major events of the twentieth century. He lived through and reacted to the First World War and its aftermath, the rise of anti-semitism in Germany and the ascent of Hitler, the development of the atom bomb, the creation of the State of Israel and the extremes of McCarthyism. Isaacson handles all these events with aplomb, bringing out both their global significance and their impact on Einstein, and in the process producing a genuine page-turner.

There are flaws, and since these are largely of the kind that would have been obviated by rigorous copy editing it does look suspiciously as if the quality of the book may have been compromised by the rush from the release of numerous new Einstein papers in 2006 to publication in 2007. For instance, the caption on a picture at the start of chapter fifteen places it in 1927, while the description later in the text insists that it was taken in 1930. There are too many sentences as clumsy as the following (describing one stage in Einstein’s troubled and complex relationship with his elder son): ‘Together he and Hans Albert went sailing, played music, and built a model airplane together’. And several favoured anecdotes turn up repeatedly.

Nevertheless, the anecdotes are one of the many joys of this book. Einstein’s wit, charisma and cautious enthusiasm for fame meant that stories and bon mots are associated with him almost as closely as his theories. Asked by a star-struck reporter during his first visit to America in 1921 for a one-sentence definition of relativity, he retorted: ‘All my life I have been trying to get it into one book, and he wants me to get it into one sentence!’. One book cannot of course tell us everything about such an individual any more than one sentence can capture such a theory. But Isaacson has given us an engaging and highly readable portrait of his formidable subject.


Siobhan Chapman has just finished writing Language and Empiricism, After the Vienna Circle. Her other books include Philosophy for Linguists, Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist and Thinking about Language.

Neglected Books

One of the areas where The Reader magazine excels is in looking again at writing that would otherwise get lost in the flood of bestsellers and prizewinners and shortlists. Not neglected books exactly, but things you might have read and haven’t had time to revisit, or things you might never have read had someone not said: ‘Read this. It’s terrific.’ The Reader magazine’s core purpose is to allow great writing and great writers to bob back to the surface. As editor Philip Davis puts it, ‘it is a magazine concerned with the direct effect of books on readers, with the human content and purpose of literature.’

Taking this a little further is the website The Neglected Books Page, which uncovers literary gems that have been hidden in some cases almost from the date of their publication. Site editor Brad Bigelow, who is an IT project manager for NATO by day, says:

Back when I was an undergraduate, I spent many hours wandering through the shelves of the university’s libraries, pulling down anything that seemed interesting. This is how I stumbled across W.V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, for example, which tends to be the first book I name when asked for an unjustly neglected work. Over the years, I’ve collected books and lists on the subject, such as David Madden’s Rediscoveries series, and I finally decided to create the site about 18 months ago.

In those 18 months the site has accumulated a large volume of material, all painstakingly referenced and annotated with extracts from contemporary reviews. The great thing about it is that it is browsable and serendipitous, just like those library shelves. Here’s the link to Neglected Books again.

Posted by Chris Routledge

V.S. Naipaul on Young People These Days

He’s been everywhere the last week or so. V.S. Naipaul has a book to sell and he seems to think he will do it by going on the radio to talk about how literary culture is dying; how the novel is finished, repetitive, in terminal decline. His curmudgeonly outburst on the BBC’s Today programme coincides with rumblings from the United States about the condition of newspaper book reviewing (bad) and the consequences for publishing of Google’s book scanning antics (bad for business). This may well be the age of the grumpy old man, but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them. I read a comment somewhere today in relation to ‘cyber-bullying’ arguing that countries are run by people nearing retirement age who have absolutely no idea how under 30s live their lives and who confirm their ignorance by adding e- or cyber- to everything. Zoe Williams at The Guardian seems quite annoyed by Naipaul’s latest too. She says:

At one point, he starts off about Cambridge criticism. You lean in, thinking he might be about to say something of meaning about the poets and independent publishing houses working in Cambridge right now and for the past two decades – and it turns out he’s talking about FR sodding Leavis! Overall, it is just a shame. Bits of his new book might be inflammatory, but mainly he is too pompous to inflame anyone, and even his harshest attacks are too dated and meaningless to stick …

F.R. sodding Leavis indeed. In all of this Naipaul does have one good idea: sack all literature academics and make them work on the buses. But maybe limit it to one day a week, on license from the lecture theatre. And make Nobel Prize for Literature winners work as traffic wardens at the same time.

Posted by Chris Routledge

The Booker Prize: Those Readability Stats in Full

Over at One-Minute Book Reviews Janice Harayda has been having fun with Microsoft Word’s readability stats feature. Sadly this amusing feature wasn’t enough to keep me using Word when I fell out of love with it some time around the turn of the century, so I can’t try this for myself, but Harayda’s experiment on the Booker Prize shortlist is a little shocking. Of Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip she writes:

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word …

Read the rest of Harayda’s post here.

Posted by Chris Routledge Powered by Qumana

Reading and Readers Through the Ages

In celebrity and not-so-celebrity interviews in Sunday newspapers one of the most common questions is a variation on “what books are by your bedside?” It seems we are fascinated by what people read. The Reading Experience Database takes this further, exploring the tastes, attitudes, and experiences of readers between 1450 and 1945. Researcher Shafquat Towheed has been in touch to announce that the previously closed database is now freely available:

Have you ever wanted to know who read Byron in the nineteenth century? Or what first time readers of “Jane Eyre” made of the novel? Or what kind of books servants preferred to read? The Reading Experience Database, the world’s largest archive of the experiences of reading in the British Isles (or by British subjects abroad) from 1450 to 1945, is now available to everyone.

… At present, RED contains nearly 10,000 entries describing the reading habits, tastes and practices of British subjects at home and abroad from 1450 to 1945. The majority of this number have been edited and released for public searching and viewing. During the next year, visitors to RED will be able to conduct general keyword searches across all the fields in the database and will also be able to refine their searches by the century of experience, by the name and gender of the reader, listener or reading group, and by the author and title of the text being read. Searches in a single field or in a combination of these fields will yield significant, interesting and even surprising results!

The project seems to be in constant development and is well worth a bookmark, but it will also improve as the number of participants grows. If you come across written evidence of someone reading, whether in a diary entry, a letter, or any other kind of text, why not record it in the database? The Reading Experience Database can be found here. More information about the project can be found here.

Continung Education: Journey to the Centre of the Book

Amanda Boston writes to remind us of her Continuing Education course ‘Journey to the Centre of the Book’ which will run over five monthly meetings starting Wed 10th October from 2 – 4 p.m at the University of Liverpool. Amanda says:

We’ll explore the significance of place, both real and imaginary, in five wonderful novels spanning a century. Each two hour session will focus on reading, discussing and enjoying a number of selected passages. Jane Austen’s 1816 masterpiece Emma will be our departure point and personally I can’t wait to journey to Highbury and to reacquainte myself, in your company, with Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley and friends.  It would be great if you can read Emma before the first meeting but don’t worry if you can’t manage – copies of the passages, and various other goodies, will be provided.

In subsequent months we’ll be reading Hardy’s Return of the Native, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and finally visiting Joyce’s Dublin in his short story collection The Dubliners.

I am really excited about teaching this course as some of my most vivid reading experiences have been with C. E. classes both as teacher and initially as a student.  looking forward to meeting you.

Here’s the link to Continuing Education at Liverpool. The closing date for signing up is Monday 1 October.

Links We Liked for 21 September 2007

Here are some of our favourite articles and links from across the web in the last week or two:

A quick mention for The Library Project and the book swap taking place at mello mello on Slater Street Liverpool today from 7pm to 9pm.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself spending more time reading and researching online, using ‘gated’ services such as JStor but also the excellent Google Books and Google Scholar as well as online newspapers, library catalogues and other sources. One of the problems with that is keeping track of the material. This week I came across Zotero, an addon for the Firefox web browser which not only allows you to store material for reading later but will generate bibliographies, link between research materials and even link with documents elsewhere on your computer. I’m going to be reviewing Zotero over the next few weeks, but in the mean time here’s the link to the website. I recommend taking a look at the tour. You will need to be using Firefox, but but Zotero runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows computers.

I’ve been a fan of Clive James ever since I stumbled across his essay on Raymond Chandler, ‘The Country Behind the Hill’ in the school library circa. 1981. The Times Literary Supplement has a review of his most recent collection of essays Cultural Amnesia that sums up James for me. Despite his broad brush strokes, which can be so frustrating, James, in the words of reviewer Adam Bresnick is an ‘excellent, passionate reader’.

On the subject of detective fiction this week saw a flurry of reviews of Andrew Lycett’s biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This review by Philip Hoare in the Telegraph highlights the paradoxes of Conan Doyle: his creation of an archetypal rational detective versus his spiritualism; his sympathies for groups opposed to Jewish immigration from Germany before World War 1 and for humanitarian causes. It is also a little sniffy:

Holmes was also a Bohemian drug addict and melancholic who sometimes resembles an invention of Oscar Wilde. Indeed, in another of his telling anecdotes, Lycett describes how it was shortly after meeting Wilde that Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four – his second Holmes adventure, with its own specifically Wildean character – whilst Wilde went off and wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.

And finally The Guardian is today running an article on writers’ rooms that is well worth a look, if only to see how diverse writers’ workplaces need to be.

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Paul Muldoon: New Yorker Poetry Editor

The New York Times reports that the New Yorker magazine has appointed Irish poet Paul Muldoon as its poetry editor. The New Yorker is an important magazine for poets, printing work by established and new writers and presenting it to an exacting and influential audience. Muldoon aims to be “absolutely open to the poem that one simply did not expect to have made its way into the world and somehow suddenly falls on one’s desk”. The selection procedure can not have been as easy as David Remnick makes it sound:

“It’s not just a matter of picking the best poet you can think of,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. “It’s also somebody who would know how to be in touch with an enormous range of poets, and that narrows it down a little bit more. And also somebody who’s not in Alaska.”

Mr. Remnick added that the selection of Mr. Muldoon, who had his first poem published when he was just 16, did not represent “some sort of radical aesthetic or theoretical shift.”

He added, “It’s not as if we went from a structuralist to a post-structuralist or a Beat to a conservative.”

Here’s the link to the New York Times article in full.

Cold Pastoral: The Security of Nouns

An item on the radio this morning was discussing the security situation in Iraq and describing the ferocity and ruthlessness of the security services as they struggle with insurgents, snipers, and roadside bombs. Nothing unusual there you might think. Except that there was an insight into the language used by security personnel which was revealing of how deep Iraq’s crisis has become and what it means for us in our comfortable lives. Apparently security personnel are allotted ‘nouns’ to defend, by which they mean ‘people, places, and things’, an elementary school definition from years ago. Of course linguists no longer limit their definition of ‘noun’ to these three items. Are the security services no longer defending ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’? What about ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’?

This seems a withdrawal of sorts and a sign of desperation. Or perhaps our appointed forces are simply not able to comprehend–through stupidity or lack of education or both–the complexities of what they are really protecting. Either way this is a frightening tell-tale. When you are reduced to defending people and property alone you have reached the back of the cave and there is no way out. Though he could not have anticipated the horrors of twenty-first century guerilla warfare, Keats knew a thing or two about how limited this world-view is and what its human consequences might be:

Ode On a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Posted by Chris Routledge