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David France wins the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for How to Survive a Plague

David France has been awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction! The announcement was made on the evening of 16 November.

As per the press release, composed by Picador publisher Ravi Mirchandani:

I am delighted to share the news, to those of you who don’t yet know, that last night our author David France won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize).

The prize is the UK’s leading award for non-fiction, but it is open to books published in the UK by writers from all over the world, including in translation.

David’s book tells the story of AIDS from the first cases in the US in the late 70s to the emergence of the combination drug therapies that mean that an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence in the 90s. It is in part his own story, as a gay man in New York at the time and as a journalist who covered AIDS, at a time when the mainstream press very largely did not, but it is also a significant work of history.

Thanks to the fact that the virus very disproportionately targeted members of stigmatised groups – gay men, heroin addicts and Haitian immigrants – the American establishment, from President Reagan to the pharmaceutical industry, the medical authorities, the churches and the media, for years turned a blind eye to the increasing number of deaths, usually terrible, drawn-out and agonizingly painful deaths, and to the health crisis that was emerging in plain sight.

Thanks to this willful neglect, 40 million people around the world have died. Many of them need not have.

But the book is also the story of how groups of HIV-positive people across America and the world, many of them literally fighting for their lives, fought one of the most effective protest campaigns in history. And how they eventually won.

Thanks to these activists and to a crucial group of scientists and drug developers, many millions have not died and are ‘living with HIV’, thanks to the combination therapies.Their achievement has changed not only HIV, but also the ways in which medical research is done and made a major contribution to the emergence of the ‘patients’ rights’ movement.

For all these reasons the book is an important one; it is also hugely readable, not only at times almost unbearably moving, but also gripping and inspiring, a story of heroism and victory as well as of sadness and bereavement.

Book details

"It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material" - Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Michele Magwood

Famed US novelist and birder Jonathan Franzen was recently in South Africa, where he shared literary insights, and a defence of the LBJ, with Michele Magwood.

Jonathan Franzen is, as is his wont, talking about birds. Specifically, South African birds, and, even more specifically, the Cape grassbird. This is a bird that is usually dismissed at a glance as an LBJ – a little brown job, one of those ubiquitous dun-coloured birds that fade into the landscape and live in the shadow of rarer, more colourful birds. But not by Franzen. “I like the little brown ones,” he exclaims. “The Cape grassbird is the epitome for me of what a great bird is – it’s small and unobtrusive and yet when you look at it carefully with binoculars it just explodes with detail and subtle colours.”

Looking carefully and finding subtlety in seemingly ordinary things that then explode with detail is precisely what Franzen does as a writer. He comes heavily garlanded and routinely described as one of the US’ s greatest living novelists, but in Cape Town last week there wasn’t a trace of ego or the testiness he is famous for.

He was in the country for a National Geographic story on seabirds. South Africa, he says, is doing “very good things” for seabirds. He’d added on a 19-day birding tour of the country, and was now planning on getting out into deep water to see what he called the incredibly diverse seabird life off the coast.

Franzen is tall and rangy, woodsy in a way in scuffed boots and a checked shirt. He has beautiful, expressive hands and a mind like a sheathed blade. He has been interviewed countless times but there is none of the well-oiled shtick that many authors inevitably slip into. There are Pinter-long pauses as he considers a question, sighs and glances out of the window as he carefully composes his thoughts. Every now and again a teasing, self-deprecating humour ripples out.

He says he is less angry than he used to be, and less depressed – although he does refer to himself as a “depressive pessimist” – but concedes that there is still simmering anger at “the stupidity of the world and the meanness of people”. What human beings are doing to the natural world, the “atrocious political times in the US”.

He’s dismayed at the Trumpian effect on reading and writing. “A lot of people who used to read books are no longer remembering why they did, because they are so focused now on the outrage of the day. I blame devices. It seems to be an excuse to be distracted by your phone. People claim they have to remain up to date with what’s going on in Washington, but really they’re dependent on the stimulation from that phone.

“To me it makes the role of the writer all the more urgent. People need a haven from this ultra politicised, ultra angry nonsense that is coming at them every waking minute through their phones.”

Since Trump won the nomination, he says, book sales have collapsed in the US.

Franzen has written five novels. The first two, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were well-received critically but not commercially. It was the third, The Corrections, that broke out, picking off literary prizes and selling more than three million copies. The infamous spat with Oprah helped, of course, but the two made up when she anointed his next novel, Freedom, for her book club and this time he appeared on the show. His latest novel, Purity, was published in 2015. In the lengthy gaps between books he writes astringent essays in such publications as the New Yorker and the Guardian.

Fiction, though, is clearly his first love, and he returns to it again and again during the course of the conversation, whether pointing out the historical correlation between liberalism and the rise of the novel, his belief that reading fiction is an opportunity to be somebody you aren’t – “very important if you’re living in any kind of diversity as a society” – or the value of escapism. “It’s good to be reminded that there’s a world in which meaning is possible – sophisticated, nuanced meaning, that doesn’t have to reduce to political simplicities. There are other more humane ways to make sense of the world.”

He calls writing “purposeful dreaming” and describes the intimacy of the relationship between writer and reader. “It’s the magical quality of the written word, that what you do as a writer, the process of investing imaginatively in a character or a story in order to put the words on the page, that that experience then gets replicated when you read that page, that the same investment springs up on the reader’s part. That is unique to the written word.”

One of the hallmarks of Franzen’s fiction is his intense characterisation. He leans in and drills down into his characters, excavating them with forensic skill. And when he’s done with excavating them he throws in a hand grenade. Life, he shows us, is messy. He is uncommonly perceptive about the human condition. What is the source, the spring of this perspicacity?

“I wish I could say something completely, brilliantly original,” he chuckles. “But I do go back again and again to my position in the family.” Franzen was a laatlammetjie, his two brothers much older than him. “So by the time I was 10 years old there were four adults in the house and me. They all had powerful, different personalities and although there was never any doubt they loved each other, they didn’t get along all that well. I grew up listening and trying to provide comic relief.”

When he discovered literature in college “it was like someone had handed me a key to understanding why people were saying the things they did. I suddenly had a magic decoder for my mother’s utterances. When I learnt to understand what Kafka was doing, I could understand the subtext of what was happening in the room. What was really going on when my mother would talk about the cranberry sauce. She’s not just talking about the cranberry sauce!” he laughs. “And that’s it right there – as a writer you want to present the cranberry sauce in its full specificity and vividness but you also want to understand what it signifies.”

Just as Franzen excavates his characters, so he excavates his own self, and one gets the sense of how hard the work really is, how psychologically gruelling it is for him.

“The process of trying to find a new character who is vivid to me, who I instinctively love, is in part finding some part of my existence that I have not explored. That relentless question of ‘What does the character want?’ is the medium of self-investigation, really. It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material.”

He has what he calls “shadow documents” for each novel, drawers of abandoned pages and jottings. “The shadow documents are much longer than the books – they consist of almost daily note-taking, relentless psychoanalysis done in the symbolic language of fiction. It’s tedious and repetitive.”

He’s started a shadow document for a new novel he’s working on. “I’ve got, like, two and a half characters and a few pages.

“Each time it feels like I can never do this again.”

The Twenty-seventh City

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Strong Motion

 
 
 
 

The Corrections

 
 
 
 

Freedom

 
 
 

Purity

Book Bites: 12 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Blackwing: The Raven’s Mark
***
ED McDonald, Gollancz, R310

Multi-volume fantasy series are generally soap operas, but every so often there is an excellent series with a rich, complex story that’s simply too long for a single volume. Blackwing may be one such, set in a world with three moons, where energy is spun from moonlight, magic has replaced science, and The Deep Kings (evil sorcerers) battle against The Nameless (non-evil magicians). Captain Ryhalt Galharrow works for Crowfoot, one of the Nameless; his workplace is the blasted wasteland of The Misery, frontier between The Republic and the Dhojara Empire of the Deep Kings. Galharrow and his cronies win this battle, but the war is still to come. Riveting. – Aubrey Paton

100: A Lovely Spirit Here
****
Cynthia Kros

Written to commemorate the centenary of Parkview junior and senior schools in Joburg, the book traces their evolution from one small school for whites to two multi-cultural, racially diverse schools open to all. Parkview Government School opened in 1917, a difficult time in both South African and world history. Kros has built a picture of what the school must have been like then, with the discovery of a fragile admissions register unearthed at Parkview Senior. Fast forward 100 years and you have a Model C school known for its academic excellence. This is not just a book about a school but one about the sorrows and triumphs of South Africa. – Bridget Hilton-Barber

Reading with Patrick
****
Michelle Kuo, Macmillan, R330

In her early 20s Michelle Kuo was determined to teach US history through black literature. Instead, the reality of rural poverty and institutionalised racism slapped her in the face. She persisted, making progress with her students before leaving for law school. A few years later, Patrick Browning, her most promising student, landed in jail for murder. Kuo returned to the Mississippi Delta to tutor him during his incarceration, feeding his love of words. The memoir goes beyond their story, providing insights into US racism. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Solve the girl-meets-boy equation by looking very closely: Rosa Lyster reviews Elif Batuman's The Idiot

Published in the Sunday Times

The Idiot
****
Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape, R290

It’s difficult to classify The Idiot. Elif Batuman’s novel begins on the narrator’s first day of college. Selin, a tall and clever Turkish-American girl, is going to Harvard. She is going to do all the things expected of a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel: she is going to make some friends, take some classes, and fall in love for the first time with an unsuitable mathematician called Ivan. She is going to Experience Life. Easy.

Not at all easy, though. The Idiot is about experience, but it’s also about the way we describe and understand experiences, and how we summarise the incoherencies and absurdities of everyday life and turn them into a story that makes sense.

Early on in the novel, Selin describes her approach to literature (and to life: Selin’s world is made of words). Selin believes that “every story has a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” How does she understand the meaning of the conversations she has with the unsuitable mathematician, where all they ever do is “mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time”, and yet she comes away from these interactions feeling so besotted and preoccupied she can hardly see straight? What is she supposed to do, and what is she meant to think, and how is she meant to behave all the time, and who is going to tell her? Who is going to decode the e-mails between her and the unsuitable mathematician, or explain what his sigh means when she produces a pack of alcohol swabs from her bag? Well?

This is all much funnier and much less tortured than it sounds. Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a high sense of the absurd and a gift for observation that borders on the creepy. She see things that other people don’t see, and she makes her readers see them too. – Rosa Lyster, @rosalyster

Book details

A crime plague to cherish: Bron Sibree talks to Minette Walters about her new debut historical novel, The Last Hours

Published in the Sunday Times

Minette Walters has combined her talent for psychological thrillers with the Middle Ages, writes Bron Sibree.

The Last Hours
****
Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin, R330

It’s no secret that British crime writer Minette Walters has re-directed her talents to historical fiction. Now, on the eve of the release of her debut historical novel, The Last Hours, Walters, whose crime novels have sold in excess of 25 million worldwide and have earned her the epithet “queen of the psychological thriller”, attributes her genre swap to a desire for change.

“I do love to challenge myself,” says Walters, 67. “I love the way the crime genre has developed but I worry sometimes that people aren’t innovative enough, that everybody is producing similar things so you get a trend, like my psychological thriller trend, which I’m told I was a pioneer of. I love change, constantly refreshing it all.”

Indeed, the extraordinarily gripping The Last Hours owes as much to her driving curiosity as it does to her quest for writerly challenges. It is a novel, Walters says, “that I’ve had on my mind ever since we moved down to this tiny hamlet in Dorset 18 years ago. The idea started the moment we were told there is a plague pit somewhere around the houses. Shortly afterward I saw a plaque on a wall in Weymouth harbour that said ‘This is where the Black Plague entered England,’ and from then on, even when I was writing the crime novels, I was thinking,’Gosh that would make a fabulous story.’

“But then I had to persuade publishers to publish it, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world if they want you to write crime novels. But it would have been awful to have this idea in my head and never to have written it.”

Set in Dorsetshire, The Last Hours opens in July 1348, soon after the Black Death has entered England. It revolves around events at the demesne (pronounced as domain) of Develish where something unheard of happens following the death of its brutal overlord, Sir Richard, from a mysterious illness. An illness that has, in a matter of days, killed dozens on the neighbouring demesne, their rotting corpses left lying by the thoroughfare. Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering wife, takes control of Develish – including the lives of its 200 bonded serfs – and refuses entry or exit to a single soul. Even more scandalous, she chooses a bastard serf to act as her steward, instead of the Norman steward appointed by Sir Richard.

In creating The Last Hours, which is, in effect, a riveting psychological thriller that runs to 555 pages, Walters has deployed the same analytic techniques she applies to her crime novels, cannily calling into question the thinking of the day in relation to class and gender as well the disease itself. “It’s so hard to get your head around the level of devastation that it brought,” says Walters.

“War never brings that level of devastation. And of course, everyone believed it was a punishment sent by God. Within three days to a week people were dead.”

In keeping with her reputation for tackling controversial subjects on the page and off, Walters also touches upon paedophilia, one of her most enduring concerns, in the novel. For while she has abandoned what she calls “the whodunnit part” of the crime genre, she says “real crime still does, and will always, fascinate me. I’m deeply interested in motivations, in psychology, in why things happen. So in a sense I don’t feel the move from the crime genre to historical fiction is so great,” she adds, “because human nature does not change.”

Book details

Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo on International Dublin Literary Award 2018 Longlist

Via PEN SA

Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo

 

Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo have been longlisted for the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award 2018!

Omotoso and Mashigo have been included on the list for their novels The Woman Next Door and The Yearning respectively.

The shortlist will be announced in April 2018 and the winner will be announced on 13 June 2018.

Seven Irish novels are among 150 titles that have been nominated by libraries worldwide for the €100,000 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the world’s most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English. Nominations include 48 novels in translation with works by authors from 40 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand.

Click here for the full longlist of 150 titles.

The Woman Next Door

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The Yearning