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VINE VOICEon 3 March 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Every so often, a publisher will amass a collection of eclectic pieces by one of their novelists. They usually do this in the desert between the last paperback and the next hardback novel. These can often prove a disappointment to me because I've either read most of the pieces before or they're a messy, scrappy collection of this and that.

Not so here. Graham Swift is one of those thoughtful novelists who is short on output but long on quality and who publishes in journals I don't come across in my daily life. This volume is a well thought-out selection of autobiographical pieces, articles about the art and craft of writing and insights into other writers, living and dead. Arranged into a loose time sequence with insightful introductions by the author, I was able to gain a glimpse into the mind of the writer and, as they say in that awful phrase 'where he's coming from.' Two pieces stood out for me. The title article about the author's father and the piece about the filming of Last Orders.

I have always considered Swift a man's writer and the pieces about other writers (none of them women) were indeed a bit too 'blokey' for me as was the whiff of that male-only self-importance of being 'a writer.' (Thank goodness for the self-deprecation in the piece about the Booker Prize.) I found these less engaging than the autobiographical and topographical pieces which were fresher, better-written and full of insight and humanity. The inclusion of the poetry, however, I felt, was a mistake and only proved that a good novelist is not always a good poet. My favourite pieces were those where Swift forgot he was a 'Writer' (with a capital W) and revealed himself as someone who writes with a keen eye and a human heart.
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VINE VOICEon 18 May 2009
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I came to this book never having read any of Graham Swift's novels (most famous being Waterland and Last Orders). That probably puts me in a minority, since I had no particular prior opinions of the author, but having heard that this book was a collection of short non-fiction essays and reflections on writing was enough to intrigue me. I'd say that it is indeed accessible to others who, like me, haven't read Swift's novels and may even inspire people to read them - though I should warn you that, since it includes some discussions of some of his books there may be spoilers.

This collection consists of essays, interviews, biographical pieces and poems. The poems, as others have said, aren't really up to much - to be honest, I only read a few. The rest, however, was generally interesting, although obviously the various parts will appeal to different readers. Swift describes interactions he's had with a number of others, including fellow authors and behind the scenes types like publishers. Personally, I found the episode with Kazuo Ishiguro most interesting, because he's an author I do know and there's some discussion of The Remains of the Day.

Even without caring particularly about Swift's past, I found the biographical parts of the work still held my attention. Perhaps it's just that they're well-written and convey a human element. It's also interesting to read about how a writer goes about writing, though Swift emphasizes that he's only offering his personal approach - not claiming to be typical or offering a 'how to' model for aspiring authors. In his case, for example, he makes clear that his writing isn't autobiographical or drawn from life, but entirely fictional.

What I found particularly interesting were Swift's reflections on the purposes of fiction, which first emerge in the opening piece (a discussion of two of his earliest memories: polio vaccination and meeting Santa) and are further developed in a lecture 'I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside,' in which he observes that fiction must exist at the borderline of reality and helps us to understand what it's like to be someone or somewhere else.

The pieces are generally short (10-15 pages or so mostly, usually preceded by brief introductions setting the context), so it's easy to dip in and out as your mood and inclination take you. It's not essential to read them all, although for the most part they follow a chronological development so maybe something's added if you read them in order. I assume this collection would be of interest to many enthusiasts for Swift's novels, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that parts of it at least can appeal to literature buffs with no knowledge of the author - and that to me marks it out as a good read.
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VINE VOICEon 4 March 2009
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This is a book of essays, some new and some up to 20 years old, by the novelist Graham Swift. They are not really literary essays, rather are they accounts of some of the author's past experiences as a writer, often written in an appealingly self-deprecating manner. He writes, for example, of his 5-month trek as a teenager across Europe, when he buys, and falls in love with, a book of stories by the great Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel; of his long friendship with fellow Booker-winner Kazuo Ishiguro; of Christmases spent with Salman Rushdie and a bevy of security guards; of being in Prague on a mission to interview a Czech writer at the moment when Communism fell; of fishing with Ted Hughes; of his experiences on the film sets of Waterland and Last Orders. His obvious passion for Montaigne may lead me to sample a writer I have never tried. He also writes lovingly of the South London suburbs, a deeply unfashionable part of the world as far as some of our intelligentsia are concerned but a setting for much of his fiction. One gets the strong impression that he has never actively sought fame or the company of the famous, but that his passion for writing has caused him to drift into these interesting situations. There are also 40 pages (out of 400) of his own poems, all short and obviously inspired by events of his life. The book is illustrated by some 35 photographs relating to the text, including one of an old bus ticket which had been used as a bookmark for many years. The book's title refers to an occasion from his childhood, when he made a little wooden elephant for his father. I usually like non-fiction books to have an index, though in this instance its absence does not matter much.

I had the same inspirational English teacher about whom Swift has spoken in the past (briefly and indirectly referred to in this book), though not at the same time. We can be grateful for that teacher, without whom we would probably not have had nine novels and this delightful book.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I found Graham Swift's recently published collection of essays and poetry an interesting but rather light read. It reminded me of some of Paul Auster's essay collections, but it lacks a focus: Auster's essays all seem to pull together in the same direction towards a unifying theme, whereas these seem to have been almost randomly pulled together without direction.

The recollections and interviews are of varying degrees of interest to me - his memories of his father were very touching, and the details invoked struck a chord; small, personal touches that stayed with the writer in the strange way that they tend to.

The interviews seemed to me to be a bit less worthwhile of inclusion, and of interest only to the die-hard completists and fans of those being interviewed.

I've heard Graham on the radio from time to time, and he has a gentle - almost self-effacing - way of speaking his mind. Most of what he says I find myself agreeing with, whilst at the same time not being particularly excited by the actual content, and the same applies to this book - he writes a lot of sense, and the reader is afforded an insight into his inner goings-on, but I finished the book having bypassed two or three pieces which I found simply of too little consequence to finish - if this book was a stew, I'd be slightly irritated by the lack of tasty bits of meat in it - there's too much here that seems to be straight out of the trunk.

Having said that, I enjoyed his only piece of reportage very much, as he recounts his adventures trying to locate the Czech writer Jiri Wolf in 1989 - a vivid and strangely uplifting account that combines menace and chaos in just the right way to really pinpoint what it was like over there then.

Sometimes his eye for detail reveals little gems of truth in the most unlikely places. His voice comes through in these pieces, and taken as a whole, I enjoyed the book with a few reservation involved: If I had finished it feeling like I had really learned something I would have given it 4 stars (I ordered this book thinking that it would have more essays about the process of writing than it did), but I didn't feel like that, unfortunately for me... So 3 will have to do.
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on 16 October 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A strange beast....

This is a collection of articles concerning Swift's childhood and early life, his literary associations (Ishiguro, Rushdie, Ted Hughes....), his writing and film-making experiences, etc. The writing throughout is erudite and interesting - would be especially so for a fan of Swift - I only having read/watched (and enjoyed) 'Last Orders' did not feel myself fully part of that club!

The 'etc.' includes forty pages of poetry - some of the poems I could appreciate - perhaps I would have appreciated them more in another setting (but then again I probably would not have read them at all!). I would say they are not a reason to get or avoid this book.

There is some insight into the writing process itself which is powerful, but as a mere reader not as helpful as it sounds. Like many writers, Swift expounds on the drudgery and degradation of publicity tours and prize gatherings - life of the modern writer. But surprisingly, I had the impression of a man living in this same world as you and I yet who remains a free and independent thinker.

So I ended up with an admiration for the writer but not the book, which is simply a series of articles and speeches written over many years and, by necessity, re-introduced here. It seemed a cheat to me and although the writing contains intelligence and some aspects of wisdom I imagine even the lover of Swift's novels will be a little disappointed - it is not the real thing! As a book about a writer's life, it does not fail though.
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In his Introduction Swift says that none of his novels have autobiographical material in them. I can believe that, for the eponymous piece (surprisingly named, since the making of a wooden elephant plays a very small part in it) is an affectionate piece about his late father, whereas in some of his novels the father-son relationship is a very tense one.

But in this collection of 18 pieces (plus 26 of his uncomplicated and mostly very short poems) he does say quite a lot about himself, about episodes of his life, about visits to Greece (in 1967 during the rule of the military Junta and again in 1974 just as the Junta was overthrown) and to Prague in 1989, just as the Velvet Revolution was happening. He talks about films being made of his novels; about his writer friends - he interviews two of them, Kazuo Ishiguro and Caryl Phillips, about their novels, and there are pieces about Salman Rushdie and Ted Hughes (who also, like Swift, loved fishing).

But most of it is about how he personally sees the business of writing novels and short stories. Several times he stresses the essential connection between fiction and the imagination. He is interviewed about his novels by Patrick McGrath and by Barbara Barker. The most interesting insight into how he writes is in the interview by Barbara Barker in the penultimate piece: here we see the enormous role played by his intuition rather than by any planning beforehand: he never knows in advance where his story-telling will take him. It has worked brilliantly for him, but his account cannot be taken as (nor would he claim it to be) a generalized statement of how novels come to be written.

It is all interesting and beautifully written; we are in touch with a very reflective person, deeply into symbolism, and very likeable at that.
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VINE VOICEon 4 June 2009
In this collection of short non-fiction pieces, Booker prizewinner Graham Swift aims to do two things as described in his Introduction; they are to reveal something of himself, and to give insight into the process of writing and the writers mind.

The pieces range from recollections of his childhood and family, early travels, tributes to writer friends and publishers and reproduced magazine articles and introductions to the work of other authors. If the work is reproduced from another source there is a more contemporary introduction to it, and little forwards to some of the other pieces. These serve to help build the framework of the structure of the collection, that of the life, roughly chronological, of Graham Swift, and the process of writing, and the fusion of both.

Reading the book proved to be both an intensely rewarding and frustrating experience. Rewarding because there are some passages of real insight and lyrical intensity here. His passages on writing are honest and illuminating and far from romanticise the writer's life. He describes it variously as like solitary confinement or being buried alive. At others times, though; it is the process that makes everything worthwhile, and that illuminates everything. He writes well on other writers. A forward to essays of Montaigne distils the power and wonder of that writer, and, like any well-written piece on another writer, makes you want to reach for that writer's works. He is also good on the theme of `place' in writing, how important it is but also how fragile and easily transcended. He writes well on how fiction allows us to, by the power of our imaginations, travel to other places, both geographical, and inter-personal. Sometimes that place is the life of a character. His pieces on the filming of two of his novels, Waterland and Last Orders, are amusing and illuminating; amusing in his suppressed outrage to the relocation of the London scenes of Waterland to America, something that film goers and readers will be familiar with from their experience of literary adaptations. In the Last Orders piece he reflects on how filmmaking, life and writing all come together in a chamber of echoes. It's a great piece.

The frustration of the book comes with, to me, the elusiveness of Graham Swift. This maybe because of his explicitly stated dislike of fiction having an auto-biographical slant, but here he has written some auto -biographical pieces and reminiscences and I still, on a number of occasions, felt a million miles from him. At times I felt him to be a cold observer of the rest of humanity, bereft of any passions or driving faith or philosophy of his own. But, having finished the book, I know this to be not true. There is passion, and a wonder and striving for the meta-physical in these pages. But there is too much ironic detachment, too little of a sense of a life lived other than by writing. The ultimate example of this was his Prague adventure, a search for a dissident Czech writer, Jiri Wolf, that no one, including Swift and many literary figures in Prague, has even heard of. Assigned by the editor of Granta to track him down, Swift embarks on `Heart of Darkness' Odyssey. But the obscurity of his quest makes this seems a bit of an absurdity, and the adventure reads like Conrad without the drama, poetry, brooding menace or imaginative force. There is horror in the background in the prison conditions alluded to by Wolf and others, but it's told like a short piece of reportage in a newspaper. The cool detachment of the writer observer ultimately detaches us all from what should matter about this adventure, and speaks of everything that is frustrating about this collection.

That said, when I finished this book I felt enriched and gladdened by the total effect of the work. Like a novel, it really delivers as a whole.
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VINE VOICEon 18 April 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is the first book I've read by Graham Swift and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The cover blurb describes it as a "singular and open-spirited account of a writer's life" which was attraction enough - a chance to find out how, at least one, writer approaches the process of writing and of how writing fits within the rest of their life. It certainly lived up to this promise.

Early on Swift describes how he faced up to the challenge of becoming a writer: "If you never put your possible delusion to the test, you'll never suffer the pain of knowing it was a delusion".

From there, in a series of short essays, he describes formative experiences, encounters with other writers, influences and the conversion of his books to film. Most of these were very interesting but - back to my first point - I haven't read any of his other books, so I couldn't grasp all of the nuances when he discussed elements of his novels, Waterland, Last Orders and others. Having said that, his essays were intriguing enough to make me want to move on to the novels themselves; so a positive outcome.

My only reservation - the poetry which occupied the middle section. I couldn't get to grips with it, but given the quality of the rest of the book I'd certainly recommend you have a go and make up your own mind.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is a collection of essays, interviews, photographs and poems. It need not be read from front to back but if it is it tells the story of the author's life and how he developed as a writer. The style, as might be expected from this Booker prize winning author, is polished and unobtrusive. He is a master of the English language and adept at conveying his meaning without resorting to abstruse vocabulary as many literary writers do.

There are interviews which he conducted and which others conducted with him as the subject. There is an excellent piece about Czecholslovakia at the point at which Communism collapsed and seen through the eyes of dissident writers. The memoir of his father brought tears to my eyes and the essay on the history of Wandsworth fascinated me as did Swift's early adventures in Greece.

The poetry was surprising and surprisingly accessible as was the essay on Montaigne which concludes the book. Swift comments about Montaigne that his essays are written in such a way that you can feel him in the room with you when you read them. I felt the same about this book and it has prompted me to read more of his fiction. 'Making an Elephant' will delight anyone who is interested in what makes a writer.
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on 14 July 2009
I've enjoyed three of Swift's novels, and I love reading what writers have to say about writing, but somehow this collection of essays and memorabilia didn't really engage me. There was an awful lot of literary name-dropping, and a great deal of padding in terms of photos and poems. This is a large book, but a fair bit of its content felt purposeless and self-indulgent.

If you're studying the author or simply thirsty to find out more about his life, then I am sure you'll be enchanted, but I agree with another reviewer who complained that the book 'lacked focus'. There's too much of a sense of things being 'scraped together' from existing writing, rather than original thought and comment. As Swift ends the collection with an excerpt from the French essaying Montaigne - whose essays apparently ranged across a diverse and eclectic range of themes - I'm guessing that he was hoping this book would be received in much the same way. I haven't read Montaigne, so I can't draw direct parallels, but I am not convinced Swift succeeded with this volume.

All in all, it put me in mind of a phrased used by an old English teacher I had at school; like the curate's egg, it was good in parts.
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