More armchair exploring…

1. OMAN: Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Abdulaziz Al Farsi. Translated by Nancy Roberts.

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Well, this is a bit of one-upmanship, reading a book about Oman IN Oman. And look how beautiful the background, hard sometimes not to just put the book down and sit and stare. But this book was so different from the novels I usually read that it wasn’t just the charming note at the beginning: ‘those living elsewhere will have to take the time difference into account’ that kept me reading.

The book starts with Khalid Bakhit so passionate about his village that he weeps so loudly every night when dark wipes it out that he almost causes a riot …

‘Did you know that spaceships are taking pictures of you now? The pictures they take will be broadcast on satellite television, and the visllage will appear as a mass of light. So you can thank me for this free service!’ Muhammad ibn Sa’id clapped his hands. ‘The man’s lost his mind! THe man’s lost his mind!’ Walad Shamshum chimed in spitefully, ‘Your homeland’s died, then and we’ll have a peaceful, happy life from now on.’ ‘It hasn’t died,’ I shot back.’I was only lamenting the fact that it’s left. It leaves me every night and comes back the next morning. it’s sure to come back. It’s sure to come back.’
Thoroughly exasperated, they turn to go home.

And then we hear the voices of other village members and understand a little more, the politics and petty arguments, generosity and small minded victories, tragedies and some comedy too. And what happens when villagers who have moved away come home, and when strangers come to a village too. There were moments I laughed out loud, and other times I wanted to cry. This is a novel that isn’t afraid to be emotional, and made me want to know more about Oman so I could understand what I guessed were some deeper references too. In a bizarre way it reminded me of the EF Benson novels, and how, never mind how different Rye and Muscat might be, humans are still the same.

2. SYRIA: Cinnamon by Samar Yazbek, translated by Emily Danby.

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Well, for obvious reasons I didn’t read this book in Syria, but having been there in spring 2011, it’s a country I think about so much. What’s happened to these two men above, for example, clutching their flowers? I can’t bear to think. So one of the books I’ve read in 2015 is Diana Darke’s My House in Damascus, a book I thoroughly recommend if anyone wants to understand a little more. Diana Darke is a journalist and fluent Arabian speaker who fell in love with Damascus and, as the title suggests, built a house there. As the book ends, her home is full of her friends, who have now become refugees, and Diana can only dream of going back there herself. She describes the complexities of what is going on for the ordinary people and away from the newsheadlines. Here’s another Syrian I think about often too.

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But Diana’s book didn’t really fit my challenge as it was written ABOUT a country rather than literature from a country (which I’m learning will nearly all be translated so this is really a project honouring all those wonderful translators out there. THANK YOU!). The author of CINNAMON though has also written another book I want to read, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. She won the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Prize for that book, and Samar is apparently living in hiding, as she has been an outspoken critic of the Assad revolution.

Cinnamon is her first novel to be translated into English, and is written about Damascus before revolution. It tells the story of two women – one, indeed, of a group of women in a similar position – who is forced into a loveless marriage and lives a luxurious but claustrophobic existence, and the other, a maid from the Damascus slums, who, not surprisingly takes what she can from the plenty all around her. Although the book itself is set during just one night, it explores the decades in which the women, Hanan and Aliyah, become close, lovers and loved. However, they never treat each other equally and it’s this that makes the explosion that happens almost inevitable. If you are interested in Syrian life before revolution, as I am, this book is a very intense portrait of an important if admittedly small section of it, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of relationships, and how we all carry the seed of our own destruction.

Where can maps take us….

To a beautiful piece of art, for one thing…

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… and like many maps, this one keeps changing and growing as more people contribute to it.

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This is the work of artist, Susie Leiper and I was lucky enough to see it this weekend on show at the VAS:T 2015 exhibition in Edinburgh. It was still half-finished, and Susie was adding comments and thoughts that people wrote for her – while they stood next to her. And in many languages too. Somehow this immediacy got all across the excitement of travelling. Maps in the making.

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Mine’s here…

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Susie is going to be at the Royal Scottish Academy at the Mound next weekend too, 21st and 22nd February, so if you can do go along, suggest a destination, or a journey, and Susie may include it on the wall.

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I really do love this idea so much! And the rest of the exhibition is pretty spectacular too…

One of the best things I’ve seen in Edinburgh for a long time.

Getting the Picture finally comes home

Getting The Picture astutely probes the quotidian eeriness of that other planet that is old age and a life recollected. Marvelous.’
WILLIAM GIBSON

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‘The best novels seduce the reader, so allow the wonderful chorus of voices in Sarah Salway’s Getting The Picture to do just that. Let them whisper secrets, plans and mysteries; of the past, of the present. Let their possible futures come into focus for a celebratory final picture. This novel is uplifting, sinister and beautiful.’
TIFFANY MURRAY

I’m delighted that – several years after its first publication by Ballantine Books in the USA – my third novel, GETTING THE PICTURE, has been published here in the UK by Dean Street Books, and is already getting good reviews. Not just the comments above (oh my) but here and here. I’m so grateful to the writers for reading and commenting!

GETTING THE PICTURE is a mash-up of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in an English care home. I was fascinated by the idea of someone evil coming into a situation where the others can’t escape. But is anyone ever really evil? And who are we to judge without knowing the back story?

But mostly I wanted to break down the illusion that old people don’t still desire. I’ve never forgotten talking to a poet-friend (who is over seventy) and her telling me that she hoped she’d never get too old to cry over love.

A strange wish, in many ways, but so powerful. To want to keep opening your whole heart and being vulnerable like that.

It was special therefore to get this review from Publishers Weekly when the book was first published:

Salway (Tell Me Everything) refutes the adage about old dogs and new tricks in this breezy epistolary novel set in a British retirement home. Not that the residents of Pilgrim House don’t know plenty of old tricks already: Salway’s appreciation of her characters is refreshingly nonpatronizing—her oldsters have rich and naughty pasts, but live in the present, very much alive and eager to gossip, conspire, and seduce. George Griffiths is the archetypal stuffy widower, determined to control the behavior of anyone near him. He’s also the only male resident of Pilgrim House until Martin Morris, a photographer who specializes in female nudes, moves in with his cameras and his photo collection. Martin’s a schemer who, unbeknownst to George, had an affair with George’s wife decades earlier and has been obsessed with her since; he saved all the letters he wrote her but never sent, and continues to write to her about his increasingly menacing plans. Although the epistolary device requires that some key revelations are reported from a distance, relationships and characters evolve nicely in this lighthearted novel about family and lovers and the not-so-lighthearted secrets that separate them.

You can buy the book here, and read an extract here.

It costs just £2.99, which I think (although I’m biased) is rather a bargain.

And I’m going to post the cover again, because I love it. I didn’t see first time round that it was actually an envelope, with a Pilgrim House stamp. Thank you, Dean Street Press and all who sail with you!

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Armchair Exploring 4 – Japan

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My love for The Pillow Book has been well-documented, and when I started to count how many Japanese writers I have on my ‘loved books’ shelf, I must admit I was surprised. Latest addition are the short stories of Yoko Ogawa.

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But while I didn’t pick her, because I’ve read her stories so recently, do note that cover quote from Hilary Mantel: ‘Original, elegant, very disturbing’, because that’s exactly what I might say about my own Japanese armchair exploring: Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki, and translated by Howard Hibbett.

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So while I loved these stories, they might not be for everyone. They date from between 1910 and 1959, and several are disturbing! For me the most wonderful – story of all was The Tattooer, about Seikichi, ‘an exceptionally skillful young tattooer’, who is searching for the perfect body for his art. Along the way, the power play between tattooer and ‘client’ is explored so beautifully and viscerally, that I couldn’t help but shudder physically while reading:

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But then one day he catches sight of a ‘woman’s bare milk-white foot peeping out beneath the curtains of a department palanquin’. Finding the owner of the foot becomes a passion, and when he does, he finds no shrinking violet:

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So why did I love this story so much? I’ve been thinking about this. The whole reading 50 books challenge has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I wanted. I think it’s because these Seven Japanese Tales break many of our safe taboos but with the utmost control, and as Hilary Mantel says of Yoko Ogawa, elegance.

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Any cruelty in these stories, and there is, is integral to the whole story, to the characters, to the time, and to the balance between the characters, and within themselves too, as opposed to being the main hook or for the sake of sensationalism. I’m suddenly realising that I haven’t read much of this side of human nature, and yet it’s part of us. How much we accept it, or even see it around us, is of course individual, but it could be argued that it’s the writer’s job to look at the whole of humanity.

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And, as I’m finding out to my cost, one book is leading to another.

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In his introduction, Howard Hibbett talks about the debt Junichiro Tanizaki owes to the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, written as is The Pillow Book by a woman, Lady Murasaki, born in 978, and recognised still as the supreme classic of Japanese literature. So how could I resist…

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And I can’t do a post about Japan, without mentioning the charity, Cocora Charity my sister, Mary Atkinson, is involved in to help the victims of the recent Tsunami. Please click here to find out why the heart!

Writing in your swimsuit

As an ex-fashion student, I’m already convinced that the clothes we wear have an impact on how we feel. It’s an interesting dilemma these days when I write mostly from home and don’t need to make any attempt to impress. Hmmm. I don’t think so. Comfort is the king here.

Cor… look at those elasticated leggings and cosy slippers.

And yet, and yet… the last thing I want in my writing is comfort.

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Being involved in the Bespoken Project with ace tailor, Nathalie Limon led me to write more about clothes and fashion recently. And it’s been fun. And exciting to see how much clothes can tell, how many memories are connected with clothes, and just how much emotional resonance they have. Here’s one of the writing prompts that was written for Bespoken:

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There is a paragraph from one of my favourite novels, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, that gave me a frisson of recognition when I first read it as a child and still does. It comes when Maria Merryweather is on her way to live with her mysterious cousin, the Lord of Moonacre. She’s understandably nervous but finds a surprising source of comfort:

And the boots she had on today were calculated to raise the lowest spirits, for they were made of the softest grey leather, sewn with crystal beads round the tops, and were lined with snow-white lamb’s wool. The crystal beads, as it happened, could not be seen, because Maria’s grey silk dress and warm grey wool pelisse, also trimmed with white lamb’s wool, reached to her ankles, but she herself knew they were there, and the thought of them gave her a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated.

Write about a fictional character who gets much-needed strength for a particular situation from something she or he is wearing. Ideally this should, like Maria’s boots, be invisible to the outside world. Some examples could be ‘lucky interview pants’, a particular pair of socks, or even a scrap of material hidden in a pocket. Try and describe the garment as lavishly as possible, bringing in the senses as much as you can. Give us the history of the garment, why does it have this magic power? Why does this character need it? You could write this also as a piece of memoir. If you would like a line to start, try… ‘It should have been just a normal day…’

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I think lucky clothes is a concept the psychologist Karen Pine, who amongst other things has a title to die for, Professor of the Psychology of Fashion, would understand. I’ve just finished her book, Mind What You Wear which is full of research, notes and anecdotes that kept me reaching for the pen.

… in a world where people endlessly try to work out what others are thinking, many interpersonal forces operate beyond consciousness. Impressions, aesthetics, judgements, prejudices, desires all work beneath our mental radar, cunningly dodging our awareness and conscious understanding.

The most startling research project for me was by Barbara Fredrickson. She conducted an experiment in which 42 women and 40 women were given a maths test while wearing either a swimsuit or a sweater. The result? While it made no difference to the men’s results what they were dressed in, those women who wore a swimsuit had a significantly diminished score. Fredrickson put this down to the fact that the women were so consumed in worrying about other people evaluating their body that this used up their mental resources.

Men, it seems, just got on with the test, not caring what they looked like.

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So, in an effort to add some edginess to the short story I’m struggling with at the moment, I am sitting here writing this in my bikini…

Nah, only kidding. BUT I must confess I did dress up a little this morning as a result of reading this book. I’ve been a big fan of Dr Pine ever since I discovered her Do Something Different project, and I can see the benefits of her fashion-based programme – what fun to receive an instruction every day to dress a little bit differently. It certainly seems to work for some of the case studies she quotes in the book, and as she says:

After two weeks of wearing something different, participants’ life satisfaction scores had gone up. More importantly, their negative mood levels had gone down. Simply breaking free from their usual wardrobe habits, experimenting a little, dressing more consciously and less automatically, improved their positive emotions and feelings about life in general.

So here’s one of the Do’s that I’m going to try tomorrow –

‘Do wear the oldest item in your wardrobe today. You loved it once, why not wear it again? Dig deep and resurrect an old favourite’.

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And if it’s a swimsuit, at least I’m going to make sure it’s a Superman one. Dr Pine also found out that wearing a Superman t-shirt led to students gaining better exam grades.

Shake Up Your Writing – one-day workshop

STOP PRESS: HAVE JUST HEARD THAT THIS COURSE IS NOW FULLY BOOKED (IN LESS THAN A WEEK!!) BECAUSE OF DEMAND, WE WILL BE RUNNING A DUPLICATE THOUGH LATER SO PLEASE CONTACT tonbridgeadmin@kent.ac.uk IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE PUT ON THE WAITING LIST FOR THAT. MORE DETAILS TO FOLLOW.

I’m really pleased to let you know about this one-day workshop (from 10-2pm) that I’ll be running, via the University of Kent, in Tonbridge on Monday 9th February.

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The workshop is for you if…. you want to start writing, you’re tired of writing the same old things, you need some fresh inspiration, you want to see if you actually want to write something, you’d like to find people nearby who write too, you have always wanted to write, everybody keeps saying you need to write these stories you tell down, you’re in the middle of a long project and want a break, if you’re a poet, or a novelist, or only want to write for yourself, or you’re not sure what kind of writer you actually are.. I think you get the picture!

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For those of you who have worked with me before, a little reassurance. We won’t be repeating exercises. All that we will do is fresh and new and… ok, we MAY repeat one or two but only those worth doing again and with a different slant. I’m aiming to surprise you!

Treat it as a little writing spa…

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All you need to bring with you is a journal (oh and a pen, perhaps two because people often run out.) I promise you that we will write and write and write…. but you won’t have to read anything out until you feel ready.

Details are here, and you will need to contact the University office in Tonbridge for more information and to book. Do book early, these courses often get sold out.

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Armchair exploring, part 2 – Czech Republic and Norway

Who on earth arranged this travel itinerary??? Geez, you could almost believe I didn’t do very well at geography in school.

1. First stop on this whizz-bang tour is The Czech Republic. HOW I CAME TO KNOW FISH by Ota Pavel.

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There’s a great interview with Ota Pavel here which gives a clear description of his life and works. But really I imagine you could just read this book. It’s autobiographical, and quite devastating in the simple way it’s told through short chapters.

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Pavel was born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in Prague. He was eleven when the WW2 broke out, and most of his family were arrested and imprisoned. By the time you reach this in the book, you know the family, and you know how central fishing is. So it’s fitting that the craziness of the world situation is introduced through a simple remark about fish:

At the beginning of the occupation they confiscated Papa’s pond in Bustehrad.
“How can a Jew breed carp?” the mayor asked.

The same stark simplicity is given to Ota Pavel’s own situation in the epilogue.

I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman – the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fun, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog.

I’m not sure when I have read a better description of what it must feel like to be mentally disturbed. The cold – almost rational – explanation for this behaviour. The biography at the beginning states that he “spent much of the rest of his life in various mental hospitals, during which time he wrote the marvellous How I came to Know Fish.”

But that suggests this book is ‘therapy’ or will somehow be disturbing to read, and it reads as neither. It is an absolute joy, with humour, wry characterisation and some beautiful descriptions of both landscape and women, such as: ‘Papa was in the maarket for a pond, a very particular pond. This pond of his soul would be surrounded by leaning willows and marsh marigolds with yellow blossoms, and basking in its waters would be carp the size of calves.’

And then there’s the incomparable boss’s wife, Mrs Irma: ‘As she turned, you could see her gorgeous plump buttocks and slender legs which tapered down into high-heeled snakeskin shoes. The elaborate curls in her hair suggested a magnificent butterfly about to escape the musty stairway of the boring academy.’

Oh Irma. After she is disappointed, she ‘never wanted to see my dear Papa again. She remembered how he had eaten chicken with his hands.’

How perfect is that? Or this?

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It’s these little touches of humanity and humour that I loved in this book. And somehow the fact that the memories came from a man dreaming of this childhood from a mental hospital just made the details more poignant. How about this list, to sum up the man who taught him to fish:

With Prosek we were burying a real English soccer ball, cold buttermilk, pickled fish and marinated deer meat, Prague sausages, Holan the dog, and the phonograph recording of ‘A Thousand Miles’.

We’ve got to know Prosek throughout the book, right from the very first paragraph in fact:

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How I Came to Know Fish is translated by Jindriska Badal and Robert McDowell.

2. And now to Norway, for The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Deborah Dawkin.

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This has this rather unpromising – for me – line at the start of the book:

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Hmmm. Actually, it resembled more The Story of O, a book I first read when I was 18 with my then-boyfriend as we walked in the snow in Hyde Park, taking it in turns to read pages out to each other, and circling the Serpentine again and again. A strange and rather wonderful memory.

So I did want to love the book, especially as the publisher, Peirene Press are one of my crushes at the moment, and probably the reason behind this project in the first place. I’ve read so many DELICIOUS books in translation from them. However, despite the fact that I was able to see the similarities between this book and my own, Tell Me Everything, this one didn’t do anything for me. I felt as trapped in its pages as Johanne is in the story.

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Perhaps I was missing something. It just all felt a bit distant and mannered for me, although it has had rave reviews. Anyway, I’m planning to come back to Norway later, because now I’m moving on to Japan.

I told you I was no good at geography.

Armchair Exploring – 1st stop EGYPT

(Read about my armchair exploring project here)

And we’re off…

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And in fine style too. Naguib Mahfouz is one of Egypt’s best known authors and Nobel Prize winner, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. As the title suggests, it’s a tribute to One Thousand and One Nights, starting off where that one ends.

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As the book’s introduction suggests, Shahrzad is safe from threat. Her stories have had the necessary result of making the sultan consider his responsibilities and she has borne him a son, but she is not in love with her plot-eating blood thirsty sultan:

‘But you know, father,’ she said in a whisper, ‘that I am unhappy.’
‘Be careful, daughter, for thoughts assume concrete forms in palaces and give voice.’
‘I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood.’

Indeed, thoughts DO assume concrete forms in the seventeen stories that follow. They aren’t however told by Shahrzad, and are a combination of magic realism, politics and moral lessons. But much more lively and amusing than that sounds largely because of the solid characters Mahfouz creates. Take Ugr the Barber, for example, the ‘deeply-rooted minder of other people’s business.’

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There are deaths, transformations, lusting, trysting and robbing. Not all good men win, and some bad men don’t repent. There are questions of whether ends justify the means and whether corruption is a necessary part of power. Just when you think you know what might happen, you are whizzed down another alley, into another storyteller’s head, and a new adventure. And so back to the beginning, but now it’s a completely different beginning. Stories to completely give yourself over to – just like the sultan did.

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There’s an interesting interview (1992) from the Paris Review, and I liked this answer to that usual question – How do you come up with the characters and ideas for your stories? – here. I think this is why I enjoyed this book so much, it might have been written about an medieval Arab community, but I can imagine varieties of all these characters in Tunbridge Wells too.

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Let me put it this way. When you spend time with your friends, what do you talk about? Those things which made an impression on you that day, that week . . . I write stories the same way. Events at home, in school, at work, in the street, these are the bases for a story. Some experiences leave such a deep impression that instead of talking about them at the club I work them into a novel.

Take, for instance, the case of a criminal who killed three people here recently. Beginning with that basic story, I would go on to make a number of decisions as to how to write it. I would choose, for example, whether to write the story from the point of view of the husband, the wife, the servant, or the criminal. Maybe my sympathies lie with the criminal. These are the sorts of choices that make stories differ from one another.

The translator:

The translator of my edition is Denys Johnson-Davies, described in the book by Edward Said as ‘the leading Arabic-English translator of our time.’ He has written his own book called Memories in Translation.

Reading My Way Around the World in 2015

It’s like a New Year quiz. How many countries in the world are there??

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Well, here’s a thing. No one is quite sure. But I’m going to go round the world in 2015.

Not really of course.

Better than that. My resolution is to read one book from 50 different countries over the next year. I’m looking forward to exploring the literature of Slovakia, Palestine, Nepal as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada. Oh, and heck yes, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England as well. All suggestions of books I should/could read are very welcome.

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I haven’t set myself any rules. I can read books I’ve read before. I can read short stories, poetry, fiction and memoir.

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It’s a celebration of the translators, as well as independent publishers such as Periene Press, And Other Stories, and Dedalus Books, and inspired by proper reading bloggers such as my friend, Ted Altschuler.

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Can you tell I’m excited?

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Of course, I’m also going to lose weight, save the world, and be a better person….

… after I’ve finished this chapter.