New Salman Rushdie novel depicts Obama and Trump’s US

According to publisher Jonathan Cape, The Golden House, Rushdie’s 13th novel, follows “a young American filmmaker whose involvement with a secretive, tragedy-haunted family teaches him how to become a man”.

Starting with the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, the book will include current and recent political and social events, including the rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party; the Gamergate scandal, which saw the widespread online harassment of female gaming journalists framed as a debate about media ethics; the debate over identity politics; and, perhaps most urgently, “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair”.

Publishing director at Jonathan Cape, Michal Shavit called it “the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies” for “a new world order of alternate truths”.

Now waiting for Trump to issue a fatwah sending Rushdie back into hiding again.

A book definitely on my “to buy” list.


Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

Hilary Mantel’s memoir (and thoughts of my own) with just a hint of Rushdie

Hilary Mantel is a double winner of the Man Booker Prize, first for Wolf Hall and then for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. These are the first parts of a trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII.

I read Wolf Hall two years ago and included my impressions of the book in an article here *:

Yesterday I received Bring Up the Bodies, something I’ll have to try to fit into my crowded reading schedule. But it’s another book by Mantel that I’ve been reading over the last few days, a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost.

Giving Up the GhostCompared to the last memoir I read (Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – see note below*) this one is a small book, but it seems to contain far more than its size would suggest. I’m only 2/3 of the way into it, but there has already been a lot to keep me interested. I can identify with a few areas of her experience; from Derbyshire village life in the 1950s-60s (though she’s six years older than me); living in homes that have a “ghostly” presence; to the occasional “tip” for writers. She also has a liking for semi-colons.

The first half of the book recalls her childhood and she is able to create a cohesive narrative out of many fragments of memories.

I occasionally consider writing my own memoir (which at the most may be of interest to future generations of my family) and I can see how my account of childhood would be made up of fragments – just brief glimpses of things I did and saw; a few seconds of a movie playing in my head.

Things like an image of a holiday cottage beside a beach. At that cottage I recall lying in bed between my parents. I must have been under three years old because I was later told that my mum was pregnant with my sister at the time, and she is two years ten months younger than me. I also ecall a walk through the back garden of the cottage to get to the pebbly beach. There are other incidents of this holiday that I don’t remember myself, but I know of them through family conversations over the years. The difference between the actual memories and those recounted anecdotes is in the detail. The memories are snapshots or brief loops of “action”; while the anecdotes have a form of narrative.

In Mantel’s book the most covered part of her childhood is her primary school years and earlier. It is during this period that she gives up her belief in God after a strange unnerving experience in the garden of her home. An experience that she thinks God could have (should have) prevented – and because He didn’t, He couldn’t exist.

Like so many who have given up (or never had) belief in God, the conclusion of His non-existence was formed according to criteria of Mantel’s choosing. God didn’t fulfil her expectations, He didn’t act how she thought He should, and therefore He couldn’t be real.

Joseph AntonA similar thing came up in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where the child Rushdie concluded God couldn’t exist because He’d never live in such an ugly “house of God” as the church building near his school. And in an interview (and maybe not in the book) Rushdie also told of how (as a “moslem” child) his ability to eat a ham sandwich without being struck down by an angry God gave him further certainty of God’s non-existence.

Surprisingly, the teen years of Mantel’s story are skimmed over in comparison to her pre-teen life. It is that period of my own younger days that I remember most, and my hypothetical memoir would perhaps need a separate volume to cover it.

I have now read up to the start of her adult life; her time at university and her early marriage. And how times have changed – Mantel’s marriage being an economic necessity; home life for two being more affordable than home life for two individuals, and culturally impossible for an unmarried couple to make a home together.

Even as an engaged couple they had difficulty finding “a place together in anticipation of [their] marriage…the landlords demanded certificates …to say that [they] had really booked the priest and registrar”.

I’ve already mentioned the size difference between this memoir and Rushdie’s, but that isn’t the most significant difference. Rushdie keeps a regular journal and that practice clearly helped and shaped the book he wrote. It is largely a straight forward narrative that avoids the playful approach to language and storytelling found in his novels.  Rushdie is getting his story across,  putting right the many false impressions of the “fatwah” years presented by others.

Mantel’s book is one of reflection rather than reporting;  remembering the past from an adult’s perspective, but not just as an adult; she writes as a mature literary writer interpreting her life from a present day vantage point. 


*I see that I had a problem with Mantel regularly using the term “he” to describe her main character in a way that made it difficult to determine exactly who was being referred to. That’s a problem I also found in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie continually referred to himself in the third person often making me unsure of whether he was referring to himself or someone else.


Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind was structured like a sandwich. It began and ended with academic essays related to books and authors I haven’t read. So through the first 90 or so pages I wondered whether it was worth persevering. Fortunately I stayed with the book and came across the more appealing sandwich filling.

The “filling” that made the book worthwhile includes essays on:

zadie0001The craft of writing.


Human nature and identity.

Film reviews.

 and lastly

Personal memories of childhood, family and in particular of Smith’s late father, to whom the book is dedicated.

Then came another academic essay to enclose the sandwich

In the academic essays, the idea of “rereading” comes up several times, and those references seem to  show an aspect of Smith’s reading practice, and her literary interests, that differ greatly from my own.

I am not a rereader.  I rarely read novels twice, and when I have it has been many years later when I’d forgotten enough of the story for it to be like reading the book for the first time. The only time I recall finishing a novel and then immediately restarting it was almost 40 years ago with Frank Herbert’s Dune.

When I re-read Dune, it wasn’t because I needed to dig deeper into its wordplay or its philosophy of life or to admire the author’s skill, it was because I loved the story and the characters.

When rereading is mentioned in Smith’s essays I think it relates to more “literary” or “writerly” issues, and while those things don’t really motivate my reading of fiction I can understand the idea behind them. After recently finishing The Satanic Verses I thought I’d probably get more out of the book if I read it again; a second reading would build upon the first and maybe some of the puzzling aspects (of which there were many) would become clearer. 

If there wasn’t so much else to read it might have been something to consider. But there are far too many other books around that I find much more appealing. And the need to understand The Satanic Verses doesn’t come high enough in my life’s priorities to want to spend another couple of weeks reading through it again.

When I read fiction I am more interested in plot and character than in philosophy or gaining insight into the meaning of life – for that I’ll stick with the Bible: a book where continued rereading is more than justified.


The Satanic Verses – finished at last!!!

It’s finally over. The last page is turned.

The Satanic Verses has bitten the dust.

It was like running a marathon, an endurance event, painful at times, needing gritty perserverance, but I got through its 547 sometimes tedious pages.

But at times it wasn’t so hard. Along the way there were a few refreshing sections to make some of the journey easier. And it DID feel good to read those last sentences.

It’s perhaps a book that would benefit from a second reading. But that’s a possibility I don’t intend to test, at least not in the short term. I’m sure I must have missed a lot of literary gems: jokes, cleverness and tricky wordplay that went over my head. Rushdie likes his language games – and cultural references that mostly missed their mark with this reader.

For me the problem was the lack of engagement with characters. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I found any emotional connection. Then there was one section that rang very true with a family face to face with death, so powerful and moving – maybe enhanced by the lack of emotion throughout the rest of the book.

But maybe I’m being unkind to Rushdie. Maybe  I missed an important point and it was ME and not the book that was off target. Whatever the situation, I’m now free to move onto something else and after two decades I finally have “I read The Satanic Verses” bragging rights.



Rushdie’s Satanic Verses

satanicversesMy reading of The Satanic Verses has made it clear to me that the Moslem response to the book came from people who had not read it – they merely responded to hysteria whipped up by others. The majority would not have known whether Rushdie was guilty or not of the accusations of blasphemy against him.

How can I say that? Because the book is NOT one that the everyday reader would tackle, it’s not an easy read. It’s DIFFICULT and a struggle to get through. It’s not a book the average man-on-the-street (even the average Moslem) would attempt to read.

Moslems therefore seem very much like most Christians in their willingness to “follow the leader” without giving those leaders and their teachings due scrutiny; without holding their teachers to account. Without holding THEMSELVES to account for the things they accept as being true. In this case most condemned Rushdie on the say-so of others without conforming the facts for themselves.

Overall is Satanic Verses “blasphemous”? – I could see it that way, but NOT specifically against Islam. I’m sure Christians would find its representation of God to be blasphemous but what god is Rushdie portraying? I suspect he portrays a composite god based on various religious traditions and filtered through the author’s preconceptions of those traditions. I think my view is supported by the way Rushdie picks and mixes references from a variety of traditions as if they were all part of the one.

So what kind of damage could this book do to Islam or to their prophet, or to their god? Nowhere near as much damage to the public perception of Islam as that caused by the death sentence placed on Rushdie’s head, or the acts of violence committed in response to the book. Surely any god worth worshipping doesn’t need his “honour” to be protected by angry violent mobs. Christians should also take note. Maybe there aren’t so many violent Christian “angry mobs”, but there have been some very unwise, counterproductive protests against objectionable films and books that MOST of the “angry mob” wouldn’t have seen or read.

I don’t know how much Rushdie really knows about Islam, even though I understand he grew up as a nominal Moslem. If he knows as much as most nominal Christians know about the religion they claim to be part of, then his real knowledge would be minimal and any offence given to the Moslem world would be a result of ignorance and possibly arrogance as much as any intention to offend.


Buy Less, Read More?

On the weekend I visited my parents. My mum was reading one of her books for the third time. She had read everything in her library at least twice and had nothing new to read.

booksI don’t have that problem. I have a few bookcases and two large cupboards with bowing shelves full of mostly unread books. When I got home from my parents’ place I tried to go through them to sort out things I’d be unlikely to read, but I found few I was willing to cull.

I WANT to read them all. I bought them over many years because they interested me. But I have a problem with time. I don’t have as many opportunities to read as I would like and yet I continue to find more and more books to add to my growing collection.

Why do I keep buying?
One reason is that I don’t want to miss out. Some of purchases are remaindered or liquidated stock. Others are second hand. They aren’t things you can put aside to buy at a later date. Their availability is limited. While I probably won’t read a new purchase immediately, at least it’s there for me to read when I’m ready.

A second reason is my wide ranging and regularly changing interests. For a few weeks I’ll want to read about the space programme and will find a few books about that subject. And I’ll read one or two before moving on to something else, leaving the rest of the books in my to-be-read-later pile.

books2That “something else” may be literature, and I’ll pick up a book or two that has alleged literary merit, fully intending to read something of “quality”, but then I’ll struggle through the first choice, quenching any ambition to read the others (at least for a few months). This also creates the disadvantage of slowing down my reading. It dampens my enthusiasm, ridding me of that “can’t wait to get back to it” drive that ensures I’ll read at every available opportunity. On rare occasions I’ll eventually put the book aside only half read – but that’s something I really want to avoid.

Why do I bother with these “literary” works? Because I’m hoping to come across a gem, something that makes the disappointments worthwhile and surely my own writing can’t be harmed by exposure to “the greats”. And even the books I struggle with usually have moments of recognisable quality.

As well as the above “reasons” for book buying, occasionally I’ll discover the author of a series of books. At Christmas I came across Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s a book I remember from childhood, not through reading it, but possibly through a TV or radio adaptation. I found a copy in a Wagga Wagga bookshop and enjoyed it so much I tracked down all of the sequels in the series. I’ve now read a few of them, but the rest have been put aside for later while I try to catch up on other things.

My current reading projects include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind and At Risk by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington.

SVThe Satanic Verses is one of those “literary” books that I find a struggle to read but I’m determined to get through it. It’s a book I first started maybe 20 years ago and gave up on. This time I want to make sure I finally get to the end. I’ve past the half-way point and have given myself the luxury of taking a break to tackle something easier and more interesting: the Stella Rimington book, an authentic thriller (I naively assume,considering the author’s background) about British security services discovering and trying to prevent a planned terrorist attack.

The Rimington is another purchase (second hand) that led me to buy more of her books, all taking their place in my to-be-read-later collection. And that is often why I continue to buy: one good book leads to another…