BWC Recommends – Jeanie Keogh

BWRJeaniePhoto

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

This time we’re talking with BWC member Jeanie Keogh. Jeanie’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in the Canadian literary magazines Riddle Fence, Broken Pencil, Grain, FreeFall, Room, and The Puritan. Her play Baby Making was produced by Thought Bubble Theatre and staged at both The Geordie Theatre in Montreal, Quebec, and The Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Ontario as part of the Summerworks’ theatre festival. She has completed degrees in creative writing, journalism and theatre. On this side of the Atlantic, she currently works as an editor for a press agency and is the fashion and travel writer for Together magazine.

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

I can’t answer questions like this without feeling seriously muzzled and tranquilized so I’ll cheat and list my top favourite contemporary fiction reads in the past two years.

In the long fiction category: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver and ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.

In the short fiction collection category: ‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner, ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ by Miranda July, and ‘This Cake is For the Party’ by Sarah Selecky.

We would never try to muzzle you Jeanie, and we so rarely tranquilize people. Choosing one book from the list above, can you tell us what you found tastiest about it?

Cheating again. I’m choosing two. I’d have to say Shriver’s bravery in taking on such a daring subject in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ and doing so from such a controversial point of view. From a socio-political standpoint, it was a story that needed to be told and was so unapologetically. Reading her feels like being in freefall with no parachute.

And ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride reads like the voices you hear in dreams. The tone is lone Yo-Yo Ma cello meets Nirvana. Her style is brutally raw, the plot is take-no-prisoners, her characters are headed from the first page toward a train wreck end.

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her?

There is nothing that Joseph Boyden could write that I wouldn’t read. Same for Ali Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, David Mitchell and Jose Saramago. Wow, I’m really not following rules here….

Cracking the spines of these books, you know you’re in for a good literary ride. Personally, I have a sense that I’m going to close the book a changed being, or at the very least, my perception of “the way things are” will have radically shifted. In each, you learn something about the human condition you didn’t know before. What they all have in common is their ability to write characters so complex and well-defined that even the most unsympathetic ones are people whose motivations you understand and can even feel compassion towards. Not to mention they tackle subjects head on in a way that makes the reader come to realisations about themselves that even the best psychologist could never unveil.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated.

I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert because I was sick of telling people why I would never read it and how I didn’t need to read more than twenty pages to know how terrible it was.

What put me off the book was that it was shelved as literary fiction in the bookstore rather than as well-written self-help. Beyond that, the premise bemoaning the broken-hearted, well-off American woman in search of herself while travelling seemed a bit thin and there didn’t seem to me to be much in the way of suspense, unless you belong to the first-world problems set.

Then I watched a TED talk featuring her and she didn’t seem like a totally pretentious self-help charlatan after all. As much as she is a one-hit literary wonder, the book was not as egregious as I thought it was going to be. And it withstood my initial scathingly critical and biased attitude towards it.

 

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BWC Recommends – Sarah Wiecek

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

Sarah Wiecek

Sarah in cartoon format

This time, for something completely different, I will be interviewing myself. For a little introduction, my name’s Sarah Wiecek, I come from the land of Vegemite but am currently living in the land of chocolate. Apart from keeping the BWC blog tottering along, I write short stories and will be starting my first novel very soon.

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

  1. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
  2. If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino
  3. Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
  4. Smallcreep’s Day – Peter Currell Brown
  5. Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Choosing one book (or poem or play) from the list above, tell us what you found tastiest about it. 

I’m always harping on about Gormenghast, so I think I’ll turn a different direction today and talk about If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller.

For me, Calvino is one of those rare successful writers who manages to inspire rather than intimidate. This isn’t to say that his writing doesn’t knock you down like bowling pins, but somehow even his best stuff always fills me with the urge to write more myself, rather than burn everything I’ve ever done. It just fills me with this incredible sense of openness, of possibility, a feeling that you can – and should – write about whatever the hell you want. Here’s a guy who wrote about people called ‘Qfwfq’ and ‘Xlthlx’ harvesting milk from the moon back in the day when it used to be so close to Earth you could climb up onto it with a ladder, for crying out loud.

Apparently some people absolutely loathe If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and it’s true it takes some rather bizarre turns, becoming more and more abstruse as it goes on. But for me, the first two chapters alone are reason enough to fall in love with it. They tickled me more than I’ve been tickled since I was a kid.

And what’s tastiest about those chapters? Why are they so delightful? Because Calvino doesn’t only write about whatever the hell he wants, he also writes about them in the way he wants. Which means: This would be practically impossible to film. I can’t see this as a movie. This could ONLY be written. And that’s something I always try to remember: when you’re writing, really take advantage of the fact that you’re writing, not describing everything in such a way that you can practically see the cameraman. When you’re writing, you can do things that they can’t do in the movies, you can do things that are only possible in the upper-most somersaulting realms of your imagination.

Of course I don’t mind when books turn into movies. It’s just that the stories that usually make the biggest impact on me are the ones that are delightfully impossible.

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her? 

Mervyn Peake. Because he wrote an entire trilogy that is delightfully impossible.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated. 

I’d always heard this Hemingway name tossed about, so eventually I figured it was time for us to get acquainted. Unfortunately, at our first meeting in a London café, I quickly came to the conclusion that we had nothing in common. He spilled his drink on me and could only say, ‘I spilled my drink’, with no indication of how this might have affected the spillee. Generally I am quite patient with ‘the classics’, but I could only stand three chapters of The Sun Also Rises before I pronounced my literary relationship with the big H dead. After that I traipsed home to seek comfort from my old pal P.G. Wodehouse. Jeeves cleaned my dress and asked if there was anything else he could do to make me feel better.

BWC Recommends – Sabine Sur

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

This time we’re talking with BWC member Sabine Sur, a knitter, translator and writer based in Belgium. She knits narratives, writes from one culture into another and translates patterns into garments. She is also French and writes in French and English, just because it’s fun.

Writer, translator and knitter, Sabine Sur

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

Just five? Oh, ok.

  • Colette, The Tendrils of the Vine
  • T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
  • Terry Pratchett, The Discworld Series, especially Monstrous Regiment
  • Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Avalon Series, especially Ancestors of Avalon

Choosing one book (or poem or play) from the list above, tell us what you found tastiest about it. 

The Waste Land was required reading in college, and although for many classmates it was an acquired taste, or something they could never get their head around, I instantly loved it. What I found tastiest about it was how one world blurred into another, how much he could evoke – images, sounds, feelings – in those snippets of verse. The resolution, with its reference to Hinduism, stayed with me: “What have we given?/My friend, blood shaking my heart/The awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract/By this, and this only, we have existed”

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her? 

Colette is my favourite writer, and has always been since I stole my cousin’s copy of Claudine at School at age eleven. Her sense of rhythm and her choice of words is impeccable. She also has this mixture of lyricism and humour that’s quite compelling, and even when she deals with serious subjects (like the two World Wars) it never feels heavy-handed. She was at her best in short texts and those are the ones I read over and over again.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated. 

There was this book that purported to be a testimony from a Chinese eunuch who had lived in the 19th century and served at the imperial palace. It had been written by a journalist who supposedly acted as a ghostwriter for a eunuch (based on the backcover blurb). I bought it, thinking it would be a good way to discover a bit more about Chinese culture. The novel was naff and featured obvious made-up, sensationalist scenes (the eunuch spying on his master at a bordello, and so on), including an unbelievable love story where the eunuch is reunited his girlfriend, whom she thought had died, in a lost village thirty years after their last encounter, by total coincidence. The translator and the publisher had written a preface, which I read afterwards, explaining that they had cut whole pages of sentimental monologues that “were visibly added by the journalist” and that it was a “somehow embellished account of a eunuch’s life” from “several real-life accounts”.

I just gave the thing away to charity. What a waste of paper. It taught me two things: 1) don’t lie, 2) have high stakes in your stories, by all means, but don’t go for gratuitous, implausible sensationalism. It’s cheap and boring.

BWC Recommends – Julien Oeuillet

When I was fifteen, my uncle gave me a book and said that I should treat it like a fine wine. I should take time to savour it, and be sure not to read too much at once. He was right about its fineness, though sometimes I shirked his advice and ended up drunk.

In this new (and hopefully regular) segment, members of the BWC will talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

First up we’re talking with BWC member Julien Oeuillet, a French author, journalist and documentary filmmaker who hopes one day to publish delicious dishes in English language literature.

French author Julien Oeuillet

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov might be the only real writing lesson I ever received – eighteen chapters dismantling all the stereotypes and tropes a writer should avoid, and two last chapters to demonstrate what writing really is.

Valis by Philip K. Dick should be read by anyone regardless of its questionable label as a science-fiction novel – at least the first chapter, which might be the most beautiful thing I ever read, and a perfect demonstration of what non-linearity can do for a writer.

Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown is the best example of how a writer can convey a wide range of emotions and statements without feeling the need for a proper ending. No writer, outside of the detective genre, should ever listen to people who tell them to write a proper ending.

Titus Groan, the first volume of the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, teaches you how the scenery – in this case, the building – can actually be the main character of your story. On top of that, it is yet another proof that your imagination should never be restrained by the need to explain everything.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is the best novel that has been written in our times. It shows why it is important to write a book not about one topic, but about several of them – and to make your novel the only possible crosspoint between all these lines. It is an example of construction, style, characterisation, and this is all in the service of pure emotion.

Choosing one book (or poem or play) from the list above, tell us what you found tastiest about it.

In the aforementioned Eugenides novel, the narrator mentions in the very first paragraph having experienced two births. The second birth, which happens roughly two-thirds in the novel, tore me apart in another single paragraph. And yet, these two paragraphs have no value whatsoever if you don’t read everything that lies inbetween. The remaining third is there so you can re-read the first paragraph after you completed the book and have your heart broken again.

Nothing has ever been written with such a perfect sense of structure – bridges were constructed this way, castles were built like this, the freaking Atomium is built like this. But no other book is, and it stands so firm in front of you that you can only cry about it. If I ever write something half as good as Middlesex, I will have exceeded all the expectations I had for myself.

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her?

Nabokov may be my favourite. The man can be both a monster and a magician, and I like such a complex personality. His writing is always flawless – in my sense, which means he tramples on many rules and he is right to do so every time. Everything he ever wrote touched me and inspired me: he taught me how to embrace absolute freedom in writing. Every writer should be like Nabokov: make their literature their own realm, governed by their own law, and keep their diplomatic skills for the rest of their life routine.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated.

I can tell you everything about a book I hated except its title, because I know the author personally and I don’t want to damage the results of a Google search over this name, so I will use a pseudonym and a fake title.

When Eddie Murphy wrote Beverly Hills Cop, it was a ridiculous wish-fulfilment with a self-insertion narrator whose life in Paris is of no interest and whose multiple boyfriends I personally couldn’t care less about. But the worst thing is that she really pretends she is making a point with her story, proving a social fact, representing a contemporary phenomena. Give me a break Eddie, if you want to write about society someday, write a thesis or a documentary, but not a novel.

The funny thing with this description is that there are a hundred French novels that could be hidden behind this mask. And in fact, perhaps I was speaking about all of them.