James Ley

The ABR Podcast 

Released every Thursday, the ABR podcast features our finest reviews, poetry, fiction, interviews, and commentary.

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Beejay Silcox

Episode #92

‘Those shelves have power’

Beejay Silcox on Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef

‍In 2002, Nadia Wassef founded – with her sister, Hind, and their friend, Nihal – the Cairo-based independent bookstore Diwan. Wassef’s memoir, Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, is a record of the setbacks and success of the store’s creation, while also an insight into a nation simmering with revolutionary politics. In today’s episode, ABR critic Beejay Silcox, who spent several years living in Egypt, describes in a personal review how she stumbled upon Diwan on her first night in Cairo: ‘a pocket of alphabetised calm in the city’s ever-roiling chaos’.

 

   

 

Recent episodes:


Murray Bail’s fiction has often been interpreted in light of its explicit rejection of a prevailing tradition of Australian realism that someone once described as ‘dun-coloured’. This rejection has manifested itself in his willingness to appropriate some of Australian literature’s hoariest tropes – the harsh beauty of the landscape, the issue of national identity, the inherited cultural anxieties of the New World – and subject them to the ironising pressures of fictional constructs that wear their conceptualisation on their sleeve. The result is fiction that occupies the shifting ground between the formal rigours of modernism and the reflexive playfulness and generic self-consciousness associated with postmodernism. Bail’s later novels, in particular, beginning with his best-known book, Eucalyptus (1998), are concise, concentrated affairs that organise themselves around the kinds of overt structuring oppositions whose apparent simplicity seems to invite allegorical readings.

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Richard Ford has earned a place among the most venerable practitioners of a durable brand of American realism. His fiction draws strength from its stolid traditionalism: its faith in the idea that formal conservatism, respectful attention to the lives of ordinary people, and a line-by-line dedication to the craft of writing are the surest paths to literary significance. His aesthetic, broadly speaking, is that of a writer who reveres Anton Chekhov and John Cheever, thinks everything James Joyce wrote after The Dead was a mistake, and believes with Ernest Hemingway that the only eloquence manly enough to deserve respect is a plain-spoken eloquence.

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Here are some of the interesting things you may learn if you read John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists:

that James Fenimore Cooper was expelled from Yale for training a donkey to sit in the professor’s chair

that Evelyn Waugh once attempted suicide but was prevented from drowning by a passing shoal of jellyfish

that Fanny Burney underwent a double mastectomy without anaesthetic and lived to write a toe-curling description of what it felt like

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Silence by Rodney Hall

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November 2011, no. 336

Isaiah Berlin famously divided people into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. The former know one big thing with absolute certainty; the latter know many small things. When it comes to writers of fiction, a parallel distinction might be made on stylistic grounds. There are some writers who cultivate a finely attuned personal style – a style that becomes unmistak ...

Literary biography is an often derided genre. Writers, in particular, tend to be suspicious, if not openly hostile, toward what they are apt to regard as a secondary or parasitic form. And there are valid reasons for this wariness. The assumption behind a biography is, reasonably enough, that the writer’s life informs the work, but establishing the precise relevance of the life to the work is a treacherous business. Because it is possible to argue that anything a creative writer experiences is at least potentially significant, there is no obvious line between a legitimate and a trivial, or even a prurient, interest in the details of a writer’s personal life. 

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HEAT 24 edited by Ivor Indyk

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March 2011, no. 329

A declaration of interest is in order. I have twice appeared in the pages of HEAT. I am also in the latter stages of a doctorate, which I have been writing for the past few years under the supervision of HEAT’s editor, Ivor Indyk. Under normal circumstances, I would decline to review a new edition of the journal for these reasons. The latest edition is, however, of particular significance, for it is the last that will appear in print form. It is important to stress the qualification: Indyk has stated that he is interested in reinventing the journal in an electronic format. But it is difficult not to feel that the occasion has the sense of an ending about it. Whatever form HEAT may take in the future, its life as a printed journal, which began in 1996 and continued through two series of fifteen and twenty-four editions, respectively, is now over.

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In 1996, with two well-received but not widely read novels to his credit, Jonathan Franzen published a long essay in Harper’s magazine in which he aired his concerns about the novel’s waning cultural authority...

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On Evil by Terry Eagleton

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October 2010, no. 325

One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of lectures, published as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (2009), which condemned the atheist movement for its allegiance to an outdated form of nineteenth-century positivism and for its optimistic belief in the virtues of progressive liberal humanism. His latest book, On Evil, is a kind of supplement to the debate, in which he attempts to drive home what he considers the naïveté of such a view.

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A New Literary History of America edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

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March 2010, no. 319

Cynthia Ozick’s most recent collection of criticism, The Din in the Head (2006), contains a brief but engaging essay called ‘Highbrow Blues’. It begins with her musing about a gaffe made by Jonathan Franzen following the publication of The Corrections (2002). Oprah Winfrey had selected Franzen’s novel for her televised book club, which was popular enough to turn any work she chose into a bestseller, but Franzen was uncomfortable with her program’s folksiness. He felt that the club’s reputation for featuring works of middlebrow fiction did not fit with his literary ambitions and that an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show was not likely to enhance his credibility. ‘I feel,’ he explained, ‘like I’m solidly in the high-art literary tradition.’ Brickbats flew from all directions. But why, wonders Ozick, did Franzen’s remark seem so jejune?

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The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1: 1929–1940 edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck

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June 2009, no. 312

The play that made Samuel Beckett famous, Waiting for Godot (1953), must be the most unlikely box-office success in theatre history. Its upending of dramatic expectations – its bathetic preferencing of repetition over development, tedium over excitement – is an act of aesthetic brutalism as outrageous in its way as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ four decades earlier. Yet its depiction of two grubby tramps waiting interminably for someone who never shows up has become a definitive representation of humankind’s state of metaphysical suspension. Life is a conceptual joke: we wait for an explanation that will never be given, beholden to someone or something that, if it is not nothing, might as well be nothing.

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