Reading Matter with Anna Caig
What were you doing twenty years ago?
An unknown author called JK Rowling was seeing her first book published, a long shot taken on by Bloomsbury about an orphan boy who discovers he is a wizard, then goes off to a very special school. To celebrate, for nine weeks Sheffield libraries will become a veritable Gringotts vault of wizarding treasures, as the ‘Harry Potter: A History Of Magic’ exhibition and events programme comes to the city. See more below.
We also have an Off The Shelf highlight from Joanna Walsh, and a reader review of Tony Williams’s extraordinary Nutcase. One of last week’s Off The Shelf highlights was Joanna Walsh in conversation about her recently released book of short stories, Worlds From The Word’s End.
Published by And Other Stories, who have recently moved to Sheffield with a launch party held only last Thursday , this is a collection that has cemented Walsh’s reputation as one of the most exciting writers of contemporary fiction today.
One story is Travelling Light, the tale of a mysterious ‘shipment’ transported all the way from London, via Paris, Munich and Belgrade, to Athens. Along the way it loses its bulk, going from inhabiting multiple shipping containers, to consisting of just a few crumbs in an ashtray. Having made a similar journey myself on trains with two children, I first read this as an extended metaphor for expectations of travel! But by the time I reached the end of the collection, this was the story that summed it up for me. Walsh is all about changes in scale. Grand themes, lightly told. And light themes, grandly told. From nothing less than the meaning of life itself, to the significance of an x after a name signing off a message. While I enjoy her deft touch with what it takes to make a day mean something, it is the gravity with which she treats the minutiae that is the star of the show for me. The pettiness of office life; the chips in a teacup.
We’re left discombobulated; what is important and what is frivolous? I can’t tell anymore. And maybe there is no difference anyway. I picked this book up fresh from reading a number of novels full of exposition and detailed description.
And a reader should really be provided with some kind of airlock to move from that to a Walsh story, in order to prevent a serious case of the bends. Okay slow down, read it again. Ah, there you are. Walsh is a writer who eats, sleeps and breathes language, and words. his is a reading experience akin to spending the day in a huge bookshop, breathing in book-smell, unashamedly luxuriating in words on pages.
Get yourself through that airlock and dive down deep. Or shallow. I’m not sure which is which anymore.
Let me know what you make of it. Send 250 words on this, or any of the books I’ve featured, to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via twitter @AnnaCaig
Nutcase by Tony Williams
Steve says: As I pick up my pen to review Nutcase by Tony Williams, I’m still not sure what I’m going to write. Did I like it? Not sure.
Was it well-crafted and compelling? Certainly.
Did I enjoy reading it? Probably not.
Was I glad to have finished it so that I could read something less disturbing? Oh yes! The first thing that strikes you is the language. It is very simple – almost ‘Janet and John’.
But once you get the hang of it, it moves fast. Add to this lots of characters, plot dead-ends and tangents, and you work hard to keep up. It is language stripped bare of centuries of development of the novel (it is loosely based on a 13th century Icelandic saga).
It deliberately lacks writing sophistication – but that is not to say it’s not intelligent fiction.
There’s no scene-setting, no description, no free indirect style – no inner thoughts revealed. Just about all the characters’ motivation is left to the reader. I couldn’t get the intro to 1970s sitcom Soap out of my head: “In last week’s episode of Soap, Danny once again tried to kill Burt, but couldn’t. Corrine tried to talk Father Timothy etc… Confused?
You won’t be after this week’s episode of Soap.” That’s what it reminded me of. But it does feel like an authentic, if condensed, portrayal of the dark underbelly of Sheffield life – brimming with nastiness, violence and reprisal: a code of ethics outside the mainstream, and I recognised some of the characters.
So did I like it? Still not sure.
Literacy City - The Sheffield Connection
Whether you travel by Knight Bus, portkey, floo powder, or good old fashioned broom, get yourself down to Sheffield libraries to enjoy the ‘Harry Potter: A History Of Magic’ exhibition and events programme running over the next nine weeks.
Fans of Harry Potter, muggle and magical alike, will be spellbound by the array of wizarding delights on offer, all celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The programme includes magic-themed crafts, Harry Potter quizzes and a series of family-friendly sessions delivered by the University of Sheffield relating to their cutting edge research and the world of wizardry and magic.
Sheffield has a special connection with JK Rowling after awarding her the Sheffield Children’s Book Award for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. This was one of the first awards presented to the Harry Potter author.
The presentation was made by Michael Palin, before the pair visited Clifford School to read together to the children.
The exhibition includes many books and artefacts unique to Sheffield, chosen from the city’s very own answer to the vaults at Gringotts: the more than five miles of shelving stored in the Central Library basement and strong-rooms, some of which are more than 400 years old.
The displays in Sheffield Central Library’s Reading Room will include notes on the bezoar stone (used by Harry Potter in potions class) and ‘A History of the Wonderful Things of Nature’, written by Johannes Jonstonus in 1657.
This describes the properties of the bezoar stone as an antidote ‘against all venome’ and describes how it may be used.
You will also be able to view instructions for using magic wands from 1546.
Georgius Agricola published a discourse on mining and metallurgy as it was understood at that time. In this illustrated Latin edition of De Re Metallica we find instructions for locating metal through the use of ‘magic wands’.
The exhibition and programme of events has been developed by Sheffield City Council working with the British Library and the University of Sheffield. ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’ is being enjoyed simultaneously across the Living Knowledge Network, an innovative partnership of 22 major libraries across the UK, and in tandem with the British Library’s own exhibition. Based on the subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the exhibition will showcase material from JK Rowling and Bloomsbury’s own collections going on display for the first time, combined with centuries-old British Library treasures.
Visit www.sheffieldlibraries.eventbrite.co.uk for more information about the events and to book places.