The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Friday, 26 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

I hope you have all enjoyed a peaceful Christmas, with best wishes from The Octogon.
I look forward to hearing about all the books that Father Christmas brought for you!
Enjoy the rest of the season xx

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Finally, I have finished this one. I was recommended this book some time ago, so when I saw this copy in Reid of Liverpool I was really thrilled. I loved the cover and a quick flick through excited me because the writing was poetic and lyrical and the prologue about lost manuscripts from people who wrote about the holocaust was tantalising.
The story is about a young Jewish boy, Jacob Beer who, while hiding, witnesses the slaughter of his parents and the abduction of his sister, presumably for the death camps, by the Nazi police in Poland. He survives living in the marshland outside the town until he is rescued by Athos, a Greek naturalist/geologist/scientist who smuggles the 7 year old to his home on Zakynthos where he stays hidden until the end of the war. They move then to Toronto where, many years later Athos dies and Jacob becomes an academic and later a writer, but is tortured by his war experiences and survivors guilt. His marriage fails and he eventually finds some solace with Michaela. The last part of the novel follows Ben, a man brought up in Toronto but whose parents were holocaust survivors. He meets Jacob at a party and finds some of his own peace in Jacob's writing.
Some of this novel is beautifully descriptive, moving and inventive. Every now and then I would read a sentence that blew me away...
"I learned the power we give to stones to hold human time."
speaking of temples and Cairns. There were also some shocking descriptions of cruelties that came without warning to draw you back to the relevance of the times...
"Jews were filling the corners and cracks of Europe, every available space. They buried themselves in strange graves, any space that would fit their bodies, absorbing more room than was alloted them in the world."
After enjoying the first chapter I believed that I was in for a real treat of a book and I was very enthusiastic about it. However I wasn't far into it before I realised it wasn't holding my interest consistently. It was clear that meticulous research had taken place prior to writing the book, but its knowledgeable sections about geology, philosophy or other academia, while impressive, were quite a slog and my interest began to wane. There were whole sections of the book where my attention wandered and I was not bothered to recount the lines to re enlighten myself. I felt that these sections compromised any plot or character development so that I did not care much about them. I was feeling very little at all. There is no doubt that Anne Michaels is a talented writer but it almost seemed that she flexed her literary muscles too much at times so that this seemed to be more of a poem than a novel.
I also had a problem when the narrative voice took Ben's persona in the last section, mainly because there is no warning of this and the voice still sounds exactly like Jacob. I was quite a way through before I realised we were now witnessing someone elses story. Quite a lot of the last section is also quite hard to decipher, and I found some of the plot lines are confusing and almost deliberately contradictory or vague and unexplained. At this point though I just wanted to get it finished and was beyond trying to clear up any anomolies.
Its a shame because I really wanted to enjoy it and when its words lit up, I felt inspired by it. But I don't think these interludes were enough for me. There are sections of this book that I don't even remember reading and that is not good for me.
I realise that there are millions who count this book among there favourites, if not the best book ever. It has also won quite a few awards. But there are also others who feel like me, and blogger/writer Elizabeth Baines has eloquantly described some of the problems that I have tried to write about here.
There is also a reading group guide because as you can imagine there is a lot for discussion in this book, both subject matter and style.
Some moments of magic but also disappointing so mixed feelings with this one.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I have just finished reading the stage script of this story, based on the classic novel that I read a few years ago. I loved the book so was keen to read the condensed version for the theatre. It does not disappoint and I would love to see a production of it.
I read the book for a readers group and didn't expect much as I was familiar with the story from the acclaimed film that I saw years ago. I loved it though. It made me laugh and also made me very sad.
It is the story of Billy Casper, a young teenager growing up in a run down mining town in Northern England in the 1960's. He has lived a pretty uncared for life after his father left when he was young, with his bullying older brother and a mother who has given up. He is left to fend for himself, even for food a lot of the time, and has a reputation as a thief, a nuisance and a no hoper in his town and school, where he is bullied by the children and his teachers. But Billy has a secret passion for wildlife, and especially for his trained Kestrel which he keeps in the shed. He has read all of the books and taught himself the refined skills necessary to rear a young kestrel and teach it to fly and return to him. His respect, patience and love for this bird makes us realise that Billy is not a 'no-hoper' if only he was given a chance to hope for himself.
The book is easy to read and very entertaining from the start. Our sympathies are immediately with Billy from the moment there is no food in the house and he has to go and find his own breakfast. We are let into Billy's secret world and longings for a stable loving family and we feel every injustice and misunderstanding heaped upon him. This is not a grim book though, and has many laugh out loud moments, most notably the school football match and Billy's borrowed shorts. It is also beautifully written and very memorable.
The stage play has condensed the novel into a compact play, including all of the major events that keep Billy's day at quite a pace, right up until its dramatic conclusion.
I have read some criticism that the book is dated and it relies on stereotypes of Northern England pit towns. I didn't find it dated at all, and found the main characters convincing and interesting. I have loved this book ever since, and highly recommend it. My reading group at the time all enjoyed it too, even though some of them were not too fussed at the outset. I am now on the look out for the play. And of course the film could do with another viewing too!
Click on these links for a review of how the film was made and also here to read about one persons celebration of the this story and its representation of the Northern Pit Town in England

Sunday, 7 December 2008

BookCrossing: I found a book!

Ever since I heard of BookCrossing from a friend I have wanted to find one. Some people I know have seen loads, but not me. Until now.
For those of you who may not have heard about this art of liberating books, you can register your book for free on the website, attach one of their stickers/bookplates with its number on it, then leave it to be found by another person who can add their thoughts on the website before releasing it again. You can follow its journey through the website too. It is a great way to share books and also your thoughts.
I found my book outside the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre, resting on the automatic door button. I had passed it minutes before and it wasn't there. The book is called Three Jacobean witchcraft plays and the link takes you to the bookcrossing page for this book. An apt place to leave such a book! I did some work on women as outcasts during my Shakespeare year (AA306) with the Open University, when we were doing Macbeth, so I am intrigued by this subject, enough to pick it up and take it home.When I have read it I will post a review.

Sunday, 30 November 2008


Just so you don't think I am neglecting my blog duties I thought I would update you with where I am at...
I am currently making slow progress with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, a novel recommended by a friend. It is very well written and an interesting story but I am being very slow reading it. It may be that my mind is not as focused as usual because it is not a long book. I have had many distractions lately too (a bout of flu, getting new kittens, and the sad death of a friend, plus Christmas coming up a little quickly). I am hoping to get some serious reading done this week and post a review. Then I can plan an attack on the TBR pile, which is now 3 piles of about 40 books. I am itching to get to some of them.
I have enjoyed reading all the posts about Thanksgiving in the US. Being a Brit I have found the variety of traditions and preparations really interesting. I didn't know about making desserts from sweet potato for this holiday until recently, for instance. I think different parts of the US must have their own traditions too. Naturally I have also enjoyed all of your reviews and news.
Have a great Sunday.
This post was co-authored by Tilly, one of our new cats!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is not really a review of this book because I read it about 8 or 9 years ago. To properly review it I would need to read it again, and I think I am going to add it to my personal challenge list for next year. The reason why I have brought it up is because this fantastic, unusual and enlightening book has been made into a movie which I saw over the weekend.
This book was recommended to me in about 1998. It is only a small book in size, so quick to read, but huge in its bravery, optimism and inspiration.
It is the true story of the editor of Elle magazine in Paris, a successful journalist, a womaniser, a father of three, who suffers a stroke at 42 years old and as a consequence suffers the rare and agonizing condition of 'locked-in syndrome'. This is where the mind functions normally but the body is entirely paralyzed, only able to communicate with one eyelid. It is with this eyelid he is able to dictate his book, with the help of his dedicated speech therapists, family members and the publishers, letter by letter as they go through the alphabet and he blinks on the right letter. A painstaking work of love and determination, his book tells of his experiences with an eloquance, humour and insight which can only inspire the reader.
Sadly, Bauby died in 1997, just months after the book was published, but he has managed to voice a truly moving account of his thoughts, his imagination and his condition. It is not depressing, although I got a little teary in parts, and it has been on my 'books you should read' list forever.
I was intrigued about how on earth they were going to make this into a film, about a man who cannot move at all, his thoughts and feelings. It could have been awash in sentiment and sympathy, or too light and fluffy. Or even the opposite, dreary and grey. But I honestly think they have got it spot on. It is a vibrant piece of work. The cinematography is wonderful and the movie sticks pretty faithfully to the book. The performances and casting are excellent in a film that must have been quite an undertaking. It is entertaining, moving, imaginative and does full justice to Bauby's words. I loved it and wanted to urge people to read the book or watch the film. Both are excellent and will make a difference to those who encounter them.
It is not often that a movie can be said to match a book but both hold their own this time within their own form, and come out very much on top.
Click here for a review of the film by someone who has also suffered a stroke:-
You can click on the following link for a reading guide to the book:-

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Amnesia Clinic by James Scudamore

This book was lent to me by a friend I met on holiday in Mexico and Guatemala. We have both travelled through parts of South America since then and she thought I might like this book because it is set in Ecuador.
The story is about two 15 year old boys who are friends. Anti tells us the story in retrospect, a short amount of time after the events he describes have happened. It is set pretty much in the present day. He is English, living a polite existence in an ex-pat bubble, quiet and a little unsure of himself. He becomes friends with Fabian at school, an adventurous and charismatic boy who lives with his unconventional uncle after the death of his parents. The two of them live on stories that they tell each other, enjoying each others ability to lend their imaginations to the everyday, bending reality to suit their will.
Anti loves to visit Fabian at his uncles grand house, where Anti is allowed a more liberal lifestyle than at his parents house. The only thing that is out of bounds is talking about the death of Fabian's parents. That is until one evening Fabian, aided by tequila, tells a fabricated version of their deaths in a road accident, where his mothers body was never found. Fabian believes she is still alive but has lost her memory. To help his friend, Anti constructs a newspaper article about an Amnesia clinic on the coast. Anti thinks that the rules of this game are clear, an indulgent story that keeps the reality at bay. That is until Fabian persuades Anti to skip school and go on an adventure with him to find the clinic that doesn't exist. From then on it is unclear who is playing what game and with who.
This book is a coming of age story that explores the use of construction to replace a painful reality, and how deeply those illusions can run and become confused. It is easy to read, although some sections are a little long winded. There are some interesting descriptions along the way. I enjoyed the episode in the service lift...
"The interior was padded with thick brown material, put there to absorb the blows of furniture or appliances as they were delivered to the show apartments above. It had absorbed more than that, too -the smells of stale sweat, of coffee and polution... It was as if I had momentarily slipped into an alternative version of reality. Even the ping of the doors...was louder, and more ragged, as if some crucial, restraining parts of its apparatus had been snapped off... I reached up, pressed button number seven and wiped the oily deposit this left from my fingertip on to the brown cladding. The machine jerked into action."
I found that the story held some surprising developments, especially towards the end, and it was difficult to predict exactly where it was going. I found the boys friendship a little unconvincing at times. Because it is based on lies and fabrications, and also on deep needs, it is never really warm, despite the way Anti describes it. I also found Fabian's tantrums annoying. I was left wondering why no one stood up to him. Mostly though, I found it a pleasant read that kept me interested on the whole, especially near the end. The place descriptions and South American setting intrigued me. However, I suspect that it did not have enough to remain in my thoughts much after it has finished. Time will tell.
To read an interview with James Scudamore, click on the following link...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Simon Armitage at the Liverpool Literary Festival

I was here last night at the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool to see Simon Armitage as part of the Liverpool Literary Festival: Shipping Lines. He was reading some of his poetry and taking part in a Question and Answer session.
I first came across Simon Armitage's poetry in a second hand bookshop in Whitby called Endeavor Books and I have bought some more of his poetry collections since then. I have featured The Dead Sea Scrolls previously and you can read that post here.
I love to hear a poet read his own work and being from Huddersfield in Yorkshire, Simon's accent lends an interesting slant to the poems that we heard last night.
The small room where he performed was packed full and people were trying to buy tickets on the door, asking for cancellations. I think that his poetry is very accessable and both entertaining and often emotional. There are unusual subjects that play with the reader and their perceptions of the world. I also find his poetry to be very current and I nearly always connect to something that I recognise or that excites and inspires me.
Another interesting part of the session was the Q&A part. Simon was asked about his own poetry influences and also his musical influences because of his passion for being in a rock band and writing music. He spoke about Ted Hughes and Bob Dylan among others, of his admiration and inspiration. He was on for an hour, which went over quickly, but it was good to have been there, and to have taken part of the Literary Festival too.

Friday, 31 October 2008

I've been tagged...

Michele from over at A Readers Respite has tagged me with this random facts: book edition tag. You have to share 7 book related facts about yourself. I am not sure that mine are that weird but they are random and it sounded like fun so here goes...

1. I bought a copy of Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd over 20 years ago and it is still sitting unread on my shelf. It was the strange language that originally drew me to it and I still have every intention of reading it. Every now and then I pick it up and can't believe I still haven't read it. Maybe I will set it as a New Years resolution.

2. When I graduated in 2005 after doing a part time degree in Literature over 6 years, one of my friends, who I have known for a long time, bought me a first edition of my favourite book, Precious Bane by Mary Webb as a celebratory gift. Published in 1924 it is a lovely hard covered book bound in leather. I have no idea how she got hold of it but it is certainly a very treasured possession and I was both touched and surprised by her very thoughtful and very apt present.

3. Ever since I picked up a little hand made paper book, in a funny little bookshop in Covent Garden, London, by a poet called Brian Tasker, I have been completely taken with Haiku poetry. The bookshop is sadly no longer there on Neal Street East but I still have the little book, and have been adding steadily to my collection over the years. I now have 19 books of these wonderful 3 line poems, a number of which make it onto my 'Haiku of the week'.

4. My love of literature also extends to plays. I did a year of Shakespeare as part of my degree and I now work in the theatre as a direct result. It fascinates me how the meaning of the written word can change depending on what is on stage and how the words are performed.

5. I have a weakness for buying old versions of classic books that I have enjoyed. I especially love it if it has something written in the front cover, like 'to Fiona on your 21st birthday with love from grandma, 1917'. I always feel privileged to come across these treasures.

6.When I was little, about 7 or 8 years old, I used to wake up early on a Saturday morning, deliberately while everyone else was asleep, and get my books down to read off my shelf. I had 3 shelves above my bed, and I would read until I had to get up, usually Enid Blyton at the time. I saw it as a secretive pleasure, something no one else knew about.

7. I wasn't especially good at Maths, and mediocre at games at school, but I learnt to read very early on, astounding teachers and outgrowing the books appropriate to my age at school. Very often they simply let me get on with it as I was way ahead of the other children who needed more help to get started. I just took to it and have run with it ever since.

So there you have it, my secrets laid bare. Who should I tag now? Here are my 7 tags. You can continue this conversation with your own facts if you want to, and I can't wait to read your entries.

Gentle Reader at Shelf Life

Teabird at Tealeaves

Verbivore at Incurable Logophilia

Jeane at Dog Ear Diary

J C Montgomery at The Biblio Brat

Bookfool at Bookfoolery and Babble

Katrina at Katrina's Reads

The instructions are at the top of this post.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisabeth Hyde

This was another present bought for me, and another cover and title that intrigued me. I don't often pick up murder mystery thrillers so it was a really nice change to come across this book. It has also been mentioned on Richard and Judy's book club.

Diana, a very successful and talented surgeon who runs a contraversial abortion clinic, is found dead at home, and it looks like murder. We are taken into the lives of the people who knew her and the two detectives assigned to the case, exploring the investigation in present time and also in flash back, building up a picture of what happened to Diana and why she died.

The central characters, and whose view we visit the most, are, naturally, Megan her daughter, Huck, the younger detective and Diana herself, although there are quite a few others relevent to the story. Megan is a free spirited and confidant girl of nineteen, indulged by her parents since the death of her young brother who had Down's Syndrome. She has been brought up to think for herself, and she does, sometimes a little selfishly but also showing unexpected levels of maturity too. Huck, the detective, is twenty six, has a nose for crime, but seems to be drifting within his personal life, despite having a girlfriend he is comfortable with and who loves him. Then there is Diana, who outwardly seemed strong and in control, dealing with a stressful job by believing in a woman's choice to 'reset her button' regardless of the personal circumstances that led to the unwanted pregnancy. Diana deals with the emotion and the controversy (protestors and death threats) with a determined and professional air, while inwardly she struggles with a compromised family, her son's death, her decision to have him in the first place, and her husbands disagreement, plus the strain of constantly justifying her chosen career.

There are several possibilities as to how she ended up dead in their new pool, suicide or accident included. There are also several people on the suspect list for the detectives to pick around. Diana had heated arguments with her husband and her daughter on her last day, as well as a meeting with her most vehement opposer, the Rev. Stephen O'Connell, the leader of an anti abortion movement, plus an abortion that went wrong and also contact from an obsessive ex-boyfriend of Megan's. There are plenty of skillful sub plots that all have their own place around the main core of the story.

The language is very straight forward and easy to read. It is uncomplicated and there is very little word play or lyricism. It is made interesting with observations and contemporary details, that make this an up-to-the-minute thriller which is pretty slick in its execution and therefore very recognisable. Those who love complicated thrillers with lots of twists and turns, may feel a bit short changed with this one. The eventual conclusion is given very readily, although quite late on, and is not that surprising. For anyone who likes character studies however, this is for them and it helpfully replays Diana's last awful day in its entirety so that we can leave the book with satisfaction. This is not a book that plays with ambiguity.

There is quite a bit of exploration regarding abortion issues, as you can imagine, giving interesting opinions for both sides without ever forcing anything either way. I feel it does not get bogged down with this, providing enough of an insight into a highly emotive subject to provide a sound base for a mystery of this sort. There are, however, some images that are alluded to that may be too much for readers with sensitivities in that area.

I enjoyed this book as an insight into the complexities of peoples lives, which are only exposed after a huge tragedy or other drama that forces them out. I liked following the people in it, how they interacted to find out who was responsible. Its only weakness to me was the portrayal of the husband, which was a little weak, and there is very little mention of any grief, after such a massive tragedy. These are reasonably small niggles. It is because it concentrated more on their lives and gave less precedence to the mechanics of the murder that I got more from it. It was like stumbling across a really good late night movie that you become engrossed in, and are glad that you watched. I feel it would make a good holiday read for that reason, and there are lots of issues for readers groups to get their teeth into.

If you would like a reading group guide then click on this link...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


I know, I couldn't believe it either, but I won again.
Michele over at A Readers Respite had Buy A Friend A Book Week (BAFABW) a little while ago and very generously offered to buy someone a book as a giveaway. You just had to name a book you would like and leave a comment on the post as well as an invitation on Library Thing for her to be your friend, and one person would be picked at random. I didn't really think it would be me. A lovely hardback version of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came in the post this morning. It looks like a lovely book and I have read so many good things about it. I am very excited to read it. Thank you so much Michele, and also for your blog which I love reading!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

In the bin!

Over at bookchase this week Sam was talking about books that everyone seems to love except you. This conversation started over at Faemom's and both came up with 10 examples. While I can't quite get to 10, I have printed my own examples below to continue this train of thought.
I would never throw a book away, preferring to pass them on, but metaphorically, I put loads of stuff from life in the pedal bin that lives in my mind. The following were consigned there...
1. The biggest offender, the one that is often accompanied with "don't get me started..." from me, is The Magus by John Fowles. I was recommended this book by quite a few people as 'amazing' and for the duration (and it was an endurance) of time that I read it people would come up to me and say things like 'that book changed my life' and they would go all dreamy eyed. On holiday in Greece you could go on a Magus tour of Spetses island, where the book is meant to be set. Someone even told me her ex-boyfriend had Magus tattooed on his arm after reading it. Wow, I thought, this is some book. However I was struggling through it, mainly because I found it difficult to follow (this is a story where nothing is as it seems) and I was also bored stiff, but another friend told me it all comes together on the last page. It took me months to finish it. The book had wafted me through re-plays of classical mythology, to an underground courtroom where everyone is dressed up as animals, and no one is who they say they are, playing mind games with the main character and you. The last sentence was in Latin, it bore no light in translation. I have asked the people who loved it to explain it...they all went a bit quiet, 'I'm not sure I remember it now' they said evasively. I have begged others to read it and enlighten me. One day I will come across someone who will adequately explain why they loved it so much and put me out of my misery. Until then I will always view this book as a self-indulgent tome that was a waste of time to me. Deep breath...
2. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. I love Dickens (I have not read them all), and after totally enjoying Great Expectations I was pleased and excited to see this one on my course list for the final year of my degree. It was so awash in sentimentality and gender stereotypes I just got bored. I didn't even batt an eyelid for 'Poor Paul'. Another tome that was so unreal I was glad to reach the finishing post and put it behind me.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Another course book, for obvious reasons, and I understand why, the gothicism, written by a woman, and the concept is truly amazing. But actually reading it...the coincidences were too much for me and I got bored.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. One I share with Sam from Bookchase, I didn't hate it, but felt it passed me by without moving me in any way. I would love to go to a seminar about it to find out what I missed out on.
5. Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen. We did this one for our reading group and everyone loved it, were quoting bits from it and finding it hilairious. Except me. I couldn't get into it and never finished it.
Which books have you read that everyone else loved except you? Which ones would you put 'in the bin?' Any Magus lovers who can shed any light and convince me otherwise???

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

I was bought this book as a present a while ago, and I knew very little about it or the author. The cover picture is very inviting and reminded me of my own time in India, those warm, earthy tones and splashes of colour.
We are transported into the life of a family in India, where 2 sisters, Uma and Aruna, live with MamaPapa, a fusion of 2 people who, although individuals, present a force of tradition that dictates the family's way of life. Into this situation is born a son, Arun, a boy who unwittingly changes the course of the family's dynamic with his potential and his value.
The novel begins with emphasis on Uma, the bespectacled, clumsy, childlike older sister. Forever a disappointment to her controlling parents , she is expected to help bring up Arun, and is emotionally neglected by her parents in favour of the other siblings. Uma also has fits and her family finds this embarressing and unnecessary, as if she deliberately courting attention. Two unsuccessful marriage attempts after many rejections before she is even met, lead to 2 stolen dowries, and a stigma that is neither of her making, nor one she can ever hope to escape.
Uma's only allies are 2 outer family members who are disapproved of, her aunt who pays random visits on religious pilgrimages, and her cousin who hides his physical afflictions by being brash and loud, but eventually turns his back on his family and becomes a hermit. Uma's aunt believes her fits are a mark of the lord. 'You are the lords child' she says, and Uma is given some respite from her family when she accompanies her aunt to an ashram. It seems Uma's only real happinesses come in brief and desperate bursts, while viewing her Christmas card collection when her parents are out, or more sadly, when she nearly drowns after stepping off a boat and is disappointed to be pulled from the peaceful waters. It is not a suicide attempt, merely somewhere quiet, non-judgemental.
Interspersed with Uma's story we learn of Aruna's marriage to a successful business man and her move to fashionable Bombay and 2 children. However, despite her deliberate flaunting in front of her parents, and Uma in particular, she is also unhappy at heart, as her obsessions with having the best overtake her life and render it sterile. There is also their beautiful cousin's marriage which ends in cruelty and then tragedy. Are their any women who triumph in this novel? Any women who are allowed to be themseves? It seems only the next door neighbour is content, and only after a long battle with her mother-in-law.
Two-thirds the way through the book we have a sudden shift in direction. We are taken to USA where Arun is at university and staying with a family during the holidays. Arun is now a timid and reclusive individual, weighed down by his fathers aspirations and relentless education, and thrown into an alien environment he finds baffling. Surprisingly this forms the most humourous part of the book, and I laughed out loud at some parts. The American family are drowning in their own problems of Western psychological neuroses, of obsession, delusion and dysfunction. Arun is horrified, but also recognises similarities with his sisters situation, and instead of embracing his freedom, he retreats further inwards, missing his own dysfunctional family.
The title of the book clearly comes from the comparison of those who have little and those who have too much. A lot of the imagery and episodes and comparisons take place around food but this is only used as a metaphor to illustrate constraints or abundance of freedom and its subsequent problems.
This book is not for those who enjoy plot driven novels full of action or even conclusions. It is a beautifully written study of characters, a skillful set of observations, but it offers no answers, only presentations of comparisons. Although I enjoyed the last part in America, it was the weakest part of the book because of its abruptness, and its stereotypes. I just did not believe in the family being so unredemptive and hopeless. I longed to get back to see if Uma had hauled herself away from her prison with her family. We never find out. And for all of their faults I never viewed her family as hopeless.
There are many beautiful and colourful descriptions in both parts of the novel and I was attatched to Uma, willing her to find a way out and knowing she probably would not. I enjoyed this novel because of these things and its subtle comedy. My favourite quote comes after a painful evening with the Pattons at a compulsory barbecue (Arun is vegetarian), the episode is wryly wrapped up by the author...
"The blue oblong of electric light that hangs from a branch of the spruce tree over the barbecue is being bombarded by the insects that evening summons up from the surrounding green. They hurl themselves at it like heathens in the frenzy of their false religion, and die with small piercing detonations. The evening is punctuated by their unredeemed deaths."
For a reading group guide:-
For more about the author:-

Monday, 6 October 2008

Another winner...!!!

I won a book over at Book Club Girl. A lovely hardback copy of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and a mousemat came through my door this morning. We were asked to write about our favourite pets and I told about my lovely 2 cats, Maddie and Prue who sadly died, age 16yrs old, very close together earlier this year. They have left a big hole and we loved them both very much. We hope to get some more little ones soon.

Anyway, I was one of the winners and I can't wait to read the book. A big thanks to Book club Girl, and a raised glass to Maddie and Prue!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The winner is...

I picked the winner randomly and the Roger McGough book will be going to gentle reader from Shelf Life.

However, a runners up mystery prize will be on its way to tea bird from Tea Leaves.

Thankyou both for taking part, I hope you liked the poems, its always good to discover new writers I think. E-mail your details to me and look out for your goodies in the post!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Banned Books Week Sept 27th-Oct 4th

The American Libraries are celebrating the freedom to read by having Banned Books Week and I thought I would like to contribute. Some of the books that have been banned or challenged are surprising and A Readers Respite has been featuring some of those books with explainations as to why they were found to be controversial. There is a list of banned books here so you can see which ones you have read or want to read. There is also a Top 100 Banned/Challenged books in 2000-2007 list.

There are quite a few books on the list that I have read and enjoyed, important works that have influenced, inspired and entertained us and many more that I would like to read. So go on, read a banned book today...

Banned books I have read:-

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Awakening by Kate Chopin

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

and of course by Shakespeare...Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.

Which ones have you read?

The Guardian Newspaper has a Banned Books Quiz. Click here to have a go!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Way Things Are by Roger McGough (Giveaway)

Those who know me, know that I have enjoyed Roger McGough's poetry for a long time. He writes entertaining and accessable poetry for adults and children and makes an excellent night out when performing his poems live. There is a lot of humour in his work, but also truth, humanity and sadness too.

During his long career he has become something of a National Treasure and was awarded an OBE in 1997, not only for his work, but for being an international ambassador for poetry. From my home town of Liverpool, he now lives in London, but frequently holds events here. He is speaking at the Liverpool Literary Festival held by Liverpool University in November (click here for details).

In celebration of Roger McGough's work and his continuing contribution to poetry in Liverpool and elsewhere, I have a copy of The Way Things Are to giveaway. Just leave a comment below telling me why you would like to win a copy and I will enter you in the competition. The winner will be announced next Sunday and is open to international participants. You can also e-mail me - theoctogenarianATymailDOTcom

Roger McGough's own site can be visited here...

where there are examples of his work.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This book was given to me as a present. It was very easy to read and I got into it very quickly. It ensured my attention from the first few pages, even if the narrative style took a little getting used to and was not without inviting several questions...why is the story told by Death and why is he so jolly when it was probably one of his more exhausting periods, during Nazi Germany during the Second World War? The answers came during the unfolding of the story.

Death tells us the story of Liesel, a little girl of 9 years old, being taken with her brother to a foster home. Their parents are accused of being communists in a Germany with little political tolerance. They are also poor, and on the journey with their mother, Liesel's brother dies. This is Death's first encounter with a girl whose book he will later read and recount to us. Liesel's life is transferred to her foster home, new parents, new friends, and a new political climate that will affect them all.

The writing is quirky, with amazingly inventive descriptions, a bizarre speech tone full of asides that conveys an 'other worldliness' suitable for Death, but also a child like quality which links us to the children and more particularly Liesel, as we take part in her world and point of view. There is a lot of love in the story, warmth and decency, amongst a dangerous Germany that seems hell bent on stamping out all of these things. We are all used to second world war stories where the Germans are our enemies, but in this book it is not the Allies against the Germans, but normal, decent human beings against the Nazi's, the ordinary v's those in power.

Once I got used to the style of writing, the cheeriness despite the background, I realised I had become quite attatched to the main characters, to Liesel and her street urchin friend Rudy and their many adventures, and her foster parents, her rough love mama, and a papa who is kindness itself. By the time Max, the Jewish fugitive is introduced, the book had tightened its grip on me and I was helpless as it squeezed tighter. There were times, the tension being built up slowly, when I was desperate to read what was happening but dreaded continuing. I knew every empathetic button was being pressed and that at some point it was going to cause me damage. Do not get me wrong, the majority of the book is full of humour, light hearted childrens accounts of getting into trouble and creating havoc. Also in observing adults and forging friendships, however unlikely. But amongst this the book cleverly alludes to something big and terrible to come, to break the blow and keep you reading. You are always aware that this is Nazi Germany and life is far from innocent.

When the blow came I broke my heart. I don't think I have read a book that upset me so much for a long time. I must have sobbed for an hour! It shook me in the best way a book can, mercilessly making me feel every emotion. As water flowed out of my face I re-read parts of the book and I am still enjoying doing that.

This book is well written, and provides an alternative slant on the Nazi war story. It is warm and full of the joy of human spirit. It illustrates that even when life is at its most awful there are stories of courage and kindness that outweigh the bad. There are also books that have the ability to move us, and it is the impact of this novel that made it wonderful to read even when it hurt. I would urge anyone to read it, and my copy is already in the hands of one of many borrowers.

If you would like to read more about the book and its author, the following website is useful...


Thursday, 11 September 2008

Liverpool Literary Festival 3rd-9th Nov

The Liverpool Literary Festival schedule has been finalised and tickets are on sale now. There is a whole week of events to choose from at various venues. Speakers include Philip Pullman, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and many more, covering all aspects of literary subjects. You can buy tickets at the Liverpool Philharmonic or online. The whole thing is run by Liverpool University.
Click here for full details.
See you there...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

My top 10 novels on Flashlight Worthy

Peter from over at Flashlight Worthy (see literary links on my sidebar) contacted me and asked if I wanted to contribute a list for the website. It is a fun site with loads of book recommendations, top 10s in every subject, including some famous authors favourites, such as Stephen King and John Irving. Naturally I was thrilled and you can view my choices by clicking here. You can contribute your own lists if you want to, it tells you how on the site. Or you can just trawl the lists of recommendations to get a whole lot more ideas on what to read, and see what others are into. It is well worth a visit!

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

I am aware that this book has been around for a while. I fell upon it in an Oxfam bookshop after hearing quite a bit about it previously, as well as seeing the film. The well known painting by Vermeer on the cover ensures that the book attracts attention. Such is the quality that many people find in Vermeers work, especially with this one. Very little is known about Vermeer or the background to the painted girl, so Tracy Chevalier has shaped a story around a picture that has already prompted wonder and speculation.

The story is told by the girl herself, named Griet. Set in 17th century Delft in the Netherlands, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in 'Papist Corner'. Her family has fallen on hard times after her father, a talented craftsman tile maker, is blinded after a kiln explodes. Griet is 16 years old and has an artistic eye and a shrewd mind, which she mostly hides, except to us. We are transported into a maids life of washing, cooking and cleaning in a large household of the artist and his large family. We also take part in the dynamics of the house as Griet intergrates with a family of mixed characters. Her status in the house changes when Vermeer favours Griet to help him with his paintings (something no one else is allowed to do). This causes resentment and suspicion but also some grudgingly felt respect. However, when Griet is asked to pose for a new painting at the behest of Vermeers leering patron, everything will change and there is no going back. There are also many layers and sub plots interwoven with the main story, about Griets reluctant relationship with a local butchers son and also the on going fates of her family members.

This book is very easy to read and slides along with an effortless smoothness. I was quickly engrossed in Griets world, fascinated by the descriptions of Delft in the 1600's, but mostly I really liked her. I liked reading her thoughts, her way of describing her position in life, her comfortable understanding and self-respect, but also her ability to learn. I found her accounts of doing the laundry as interesting as her enthusiasm over Vermeers paintings. She has great depth and people around her are drawn to her even if this means they dislike her. She invites opinion, just as the painting does.

Griets relationship with Vermeer forms the heart of the novel, it is where its warmth comes from. She loves his work because she understands it, and therefore his needs and obsessions. His wife does not. The growing attraction and sexual tension is outwardly restrained but inwardly palpable. Griet knows her position, and so does Vermeer. As we know the troubled heart within her, we suspect it in him also, but it is Griet who is stronger and willing to sacrifice, knowing the possible consequences. Although he does come through for her in the end, he is also weaker and more selfish in the short term. There is no tawdry affair, no affair at all. But it is tangible all the same. The result is an enigmatic painting that implies far more than it says. We can read into it what we will.

There are many other layers and characters that I haven't even touched upon, the savvy Maria Thins who is entertained by the ruckus Griet is causing in the household, the scheming daughter, Cornelia, who plots Griets downfall, the faithful and persistant Pieter who fights to win Griets heart. All of this whirling around a maid who likes to keep herself to herself. It is not a large book but there is something new happening, some new direction of plot or sub plot on each page. The conclusion seemed a little sudden but rounded all the streams of plot lines off. Within the factual dates of Vermeers life line, and within the boundaries of realism, there was never going to be a sunset ending, but Griet deserves a decent chance, and I found the ending provided something for her to look back on, but also to move forward from too.

I really loved reading this book, the gentle descriptions, the domestic life in a large house. I enjoyed getting to know a girl whose face I already knew of, and learning her (fictional) story. Without wanting to sound too cliched, this is a story told with a warmth of words that parallel the warmth of feeling that you can get from looking at a Vermeer painting. It is not my favourite book but I would definately recommend it as a good read.

Tracy Chevalier has her own website which talks about her book, offers a reading guide and shows you the paintings by Vermeer that are mentioned in the novel...

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku

Ok, ok, I admit it. I am a HAIKU JUNKIE, I can say it, I'm not afraid. And this week my weakness won and I bought this lovely book of Contemporary American Haiku.
I have quite a few Haiku collections which I hope to feature here at times in the future, and from which I feature poems for Haiku of the week (in the column to your right). I love both traditional and contemporary versions of these three line poems. I am not going to present the Japanese history or dynamics here. You can learn more about Haiku origins and rules, if you wish, by clicking here.
Each chapter in this anthology is written by a different poet, with a short introduction followed by a small collection of their work. Each chapter is very firmly written in the voice of its author, creating some very diverse styles of thought and subject matter, some traditional, gentle, nature-based and seasonal, some more modern, punchy and unusual, even.
The introductions to each poet are also individual and a joy to read. We have a couple who lived in a run down house in Japan for many years and wrote poetry about their stay. We have a man who had a brief but passionate affair with a mysterious Japanese woman with whom he translated some haiku into English and then wrote his own about her. We have an old couple who have lived in Japan for many years, writing and walking their way through the landscape they love, only now in their eighties, find themselves in sheltered accomodation and too ill to go far from home. There are many more.
The introductions also include many descriptions of what Haiku means to them, why this very distinct form of writing is important to them. My particular favourite came from Patricia Donegan...
"Haiku can be the antedote to the speed of post-modern culture, allowing one to step off the spinning wheel, to stop and breathe deeply and slowly. To note the birth and death of each moment."
There will be many haiku from this book that will make it onto Haiku of the week so look out for those. There are also links on the right hand column for good Haiku sites that I know of...

Sunday, 17 August 2008

One Life by Rebecca Frayn

I was looking forward to reading this book, which was bought for me as a present, because I was drawn to the picture on the front. It tackles the highly emotive subject of infertility and the longing to have a baby.

Rose and Johnny are in their 30's. Rose, a photographer, is happy with the way things are but Johnny feels it is time they had a child together. Rose stalls at first, but they start trying, to no success. They eventually go to the doctor and IVF treatment is suggested because Johnny's sperm count is low. Three lots of IVF treatments later and Rose and Johnny are coming apart at the seams, the stress, the dashed hopes and the strain of the treatment is taking its toll. Rose is now considering desperate options to make their wishes come true.

Rebecca Frayn is a film maker who has worked on Cutting Edge and The South Bank Show on TV (among others). She has also undergone IVF treatment herself, so knows first hand the rollercoaster that must accompany these experiences, and she explores every facet and possibility that arises with such a situation, the emotional ups and downs, the obsessional longing, and the strain it places on a relationship. It is sensitively and thoroughly written. However, there are times, especially during the first half, that the book feels journalistic, like a documentary that I've seen before, and sadly that is where I found it disappointing.
Rose's character does develop with the responsibility of the treatments and keeping her husband happy, especially during the second half where there are some well crafted paragraphs. In contrast, Johnny seems to behave like a petulant child, largely unsupportive while she undergoes various tiresome, sometimes undignified and uncomfortable procedures to fulfill his wish for a child. She was the one reluctant at first, but gave in because she loves him. He spends much of the story being moody, and barely civil towards her, absorbed in his own grievances, unless he is getting what he wants. The story is told from her point of view but she remains forgiving and understanding as her own need for a baby grows. The other characters are representations to furnish the different sides to their predicament - the highly fertile friends, the gay friend and potential sperm donor... The ending was not a complete surprise either.
The book is certainly representative of our modern times, IVF becoming a more common option for desperate couples. There is also the angle that, while genuine people have been saved by this treatment, how much does it serve our growing psychologies of acquirement, the consumer within us that demands the right to have what we want. There is lots to consider in discussion.
I was trying to think who would enjoy this novel. People who have gone through IVF have probably had enough of it to want to read about it. Possibly those involved in councelling or the medical industry may gain some insights, or relatives of a loved one undergoing such trauma's to their lives. From a literary point of view I found it one dimensional. Yes, I did want the blue line to show on each pregnancy test, for all of her efforts to pay off, so her husband will start to speak to her again and they could get on with their lives. Generally though, I found it dull, and as a novel and not a biography, it could have been deeper, more imaginative and therefore wring every emotion out of the reader in a very profound way. It remains that the thing I liked the most was the picture on the cover.

For an interesting interview, Making babies the Noughties way, with Rebecca Frayn, about her own experiences that drove her to write the book, click on this link...

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I knew this one would be emotional so I've waited a while to make sure I was receptive and in the right frame of mind to read it. It was lent to me with his recommendations by my friends husband some time ago.
This is the story of Stephen Wraysford, starting in 1910 while working in France, he has a passionate affair with a married French woman. They run away together but finding herself pregnant, Isabelle, driven by her conscience returns to her family and then her husband. We are then pitched headlong into 1916 and the trenches of the First World War, where Stephen is living and fighting along with his men. The war forms the bulk of the novel and is interspersed with accounts from his grandaughter in 1978 (and has never met him) who is researching her grandfathers life to gain an insight on where she comes from. We learn, mainly from his perspective as it happens, but also from an retrospective view in the future, about his war experiences, his re encounter with Isabelle and how war affects and changes everyone.
It is written in a very straightforward style, with little poetry or wordplay, just strong characters and plot. I was surprised by the first 100 or so pages describing the love affair. Although a good introduction to the characters it is a little long and some of the plotlines it introduces peter out later in the book. The core of the book is the war itself and this is when the book really gets going.
The characters of the book are built up with details of their lives, making them seem real. They are never representational, nor are they over sentimentalised. You feel you get to know them, you connect to them, you worry about them, their circumstances, of which we can never truly imagine, and you are hurt when they fall. The author describes the horrors without sensationalising them. You are not let off lightly and some parts are difficult to continue. I had to put the book down and come back to it more than once. The main character, Stephen, is the hardest to know, 'a strange one', described as cold and enigmatic. He grew on me and I found I admired and cared for him towards the end. I also found, although a male dominated story and set up, that the womens characters, when present, were also well rounded as recognisable individuals, not just periphery to the real action.
It is the details that allow you to glimpse their crippling and inhuman conditions. I wanted to feel the irritation of lice, or to hear the noise of the shells, only momentarily, just to know. I don't want to go down the tunnels or experience the death. I was moved greatly on many occasions, by the poor boy in the hospital who is burnt and whose treatments add to his agonies before he dies, or Brennan in the nursing home in 1978, muttering about his brother, who, only we know was killed on the frontline during the war and whose torso was found by Brennan 2 weeks later. The incapability of those not in the war to fully understand or deal with the horrors the soldiers have witnessed adds to the situation they are in. They pray for it to be over but how do they go back to any normal kind of life, finding themselves forever alone and damaged because of it. I found I was racing the last part with disbelief, just to know the outcome. I also found the arrangement of the sections between the war and 1978 heightened the experience and gave a linked perspective to modern day.
I didn't think it was going to, but this book grabbed me, almost against my will. I would urge anyone to read it because these stories need to be told. We are very soon to be handed the responsibility of passing them on, so they are not forgotten, and this book is an excellent place to start.
For anyone who enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Germinal by Emile Zola, describing similar depths of the human spirit to survive in abject circumstances, not during a war but working in the mines in 19th century France.
Book Browse have a readers guide for Birdsong...

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

A first novel by Keith Donohue and a highly ambitious and imaginative story to tackle and make a good job of. This is the story of a young seven year old boy, Henry Day, who is kidnapped by fairies and replaced by a replica, a Changeling, who lives in his place, while the boy lives in the timeless world of the forest fairies. We are told, chapter by chapter, of these displaced peoples view, as they grow in their new existences.
When the book started I was worried it was going to be all 'acorn cups full of sunshine' and 'robes spun from spiders web'. A pseudo-Disney fairy world. I was quickly relieved and sometimes quite surprised by the brutality and animalistic qualities of the Changelings world. Forever children, they are frequently hungry, cold and dirty, living on their wits, a life out of sync with the world we know, all of them wishing for the time to re-enter the world again, as another child will be courted as a swap.
Essentially we have 2 stories existing side by side, the protagonists only meeting briefly at the end. We have a little boy learning to survive in the forest using the skills and heightened senses taught to him by the others in the small feral band, as well as retaining the need to write it all down. His relationship with the others and his becoming one of them and their society (some of which has echoes of The Lord of the Flies) forms the boys story, as the they prepare, many years in advance for the next swap. Then we have the Changeling who becomes Henry Day, his coldness and inability to relate to other people well, despite his ability to mimic the boy, the suspicions of his parents, and as he grows older, his own need to forget his previous life in the forest, as well as his obsession with protecting his own son.
I enjoyed greatly listening to each of their strange tales, their outsiders views, their alienation and need to survive. I found the Changeling character less likeable but none the less interesting. I also enjoyed the fact that I really did not know where the stories would end up. There are enough close encounters and originality to keep the reader gripped all the way through. Sometimes other people are involved in these encounters which taps into our own folklore, things mysteriously missing, even people traumatised by overstepping into the Changeling world. I found the inevitable meeting and discovery of each other, many many years in the future was what drove the plot, and its eventual fruition moving and quite tragic. While one grows into a man with his own family, I found myself shocked at the physical description of how the boy looked after the same amount of time living another kind of life, rough and primal. A life of half remembered longing that will never be fulfilled. I will leave this for you to discover.
My only complaint is the overuse of unbelievable coincidences that the book relies on heavily to drive the story forward. There are too many and at least one becomes almost implausable. This could make an otherwise excellent piece of story telling appear a bit sloppy in places. I found that this could be forgiven though, amongst so much else that entertained and gave food for thought in a first novel. A highly memorable book.

Here are links to another interesting review from the Guardian and a Readers Guide from Book browse...

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Dead Sea Poems by Simon Armitage

I picked up this book from a lovely second hand bookshop in Whitby called Endeavor Books, a great place to lose yourself for an hour or two. As always with poetry books I flicked it open and if something does not catch my eye, I put it back. This one fell open on A Hip Flask and I was hooked. I read the whole book in an evening and found many that I liked and have shared with others many times. While some of the longer poems do not appeal as much, the shorter ones I find interesting and intriguing.
I tend to mark my favourites so I can easily find them when I need to revisit them. In this book these include the strange and disturbing Man with a Golf Ball Heart, the almost nightmarish, Dr Phibes quality of The Anaesthetist, or the funny but poignant C.V. It contains a mixture of rhyming and non rhyming poems.

A Hip Flask

To bring about safe passage to the States
and back, when taken from its sleeve or pouch
this gift sits where it should, tucked like a gun
inside the holster of a pocket, snug
against the leg or thigh or buttock, but
more suitably it fits the chest, the breast,
top left inside a jacket, where it feels
like armour plating or a sheriff's shield.

Good going for a little silver tin:
convex, concave, reflective on the out
and on the in. Misplaced, but then again
not knowing one malt from the next it's gin
that I'll be swigging, tipping to the lips
or sipping from the thimble of its lid.

I have a watch, map, toothbrush, cards and cash,
a licence, permit, pass, a ticket
going Eastern Seaboard, Central, Mountain
and Pacific,
and a hip flask: tailored, weighed
and measured, worked both ways, this present made
to hide the heart and hold the heart in place.

Simon Armitage

If you want to know more about Simon Armitage, here is a link to his website...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro

A strange one this book, narrated by one of the 3 main characters, most of the story is told in retrospect. It is about 3 people and how they grow up at school together and what happens to them afterwards. Not that strange so far and the early part reads a little bit like a more sophisticated version of Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton, children at a mixed boarding school in England in the near future, playing sports, learning, socialising. But this is not an ordinary school and our narrator, Kathy drops enough hints even on the first page. The full picture, however, emerges slowly. Strange words like 'donors' and 'completion' litter the otherwise ordinary beginning of a carer recounting her school days. There are no parents, endless creativity for the Gallery, sales of 2nd hand items and, most profoundly, the reactions amongst the teachers towards the children to make you want to read on and find out the roots of their situation. Some teachers seem embarressed to be there, others view them with open distaste, one recoils in horror if they come near. Most are civil and kind, but distant. One wants the chidren to be more informed. Anyone who visits from outside rushes in and out as if they will be contaminated.
The children find some of this intriguing but also used to it and are preoccupied by growing up. Their world seems second hand and a bit shabby, the children willingly forgotten. This is most evident when they leave school and are deposited on a dilapidated farm in Norfolk, where it is so cold at night they have to pile rugs on the bed to keep warm. During this time, as they grow, have relationships, fall outs, they learn of their destiny. This life is all they know and there are periods when you forget that their situation is far from normal.

The whole idea behind the book raises a lot of ethical questions which are good for discussion. The writing is unusual, sedate, stoical. None of the children rebel or even argue about it. They do not want sympathy or understanding. They have no contemplation of the guilt that surrounds them. You find yourself asking them 'Why don't you just run away?' Kathy's point of view is insightful as well as distancing. It is as if she needs to write it down to put it together herself. Also I really did not like Ruths character and couldn't understand why none of them stood up to her. At times I found them infuriating, their obsessions, building dramas out of nothing, like going to see this legendary boat, which is just a boat and never mentioned again. I also found that this illustrated their differences and also their sadness, from an outsiders point of view. The emotionless cloud that forms around the text is unsettling but is successful as it is the only way we can experience these unfortunates, who are not machines but people, brought up kindly, but practically, and without love, knowing that their purpose is a service with an ultimate price.

A book I found interesting, more after I had read it. I was unable to connect with anyone in it to have any great impact emotionally. It does provide, however, food for thought about the morality of some developments that are nearer than we think. A definate talking point and unusual read.
Here are some links for further reading:-

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I was surprised by how short and easy to read this was. My experience of this book before I read it had frequently included groans about how heavy and deep it was, usually by those who had not read it themselves. Others have had to read it as part of a course. Some adopt an air of intellectualism, as if they alone are truly in touch with what Kafka was about. After watching an excellent play based on the book I wanted to investigate for myself.
I was intrigued by the idea of someone transforming into a beetle, but knew little more before seeing the play. It is a very human story, told in a straight forward way, of how Gregor becomes a giant beetle over night and how this affects him and his family.
The narrator takes Gregors point of view for the majority of the story and I found the text in translation added an endearing and vulnerable side to him, an innocent abroad feeling, as we are taken through his difficulties and the repulsion and rejection towards him of those he loves. He finds himself unable to communicate with them, although at no time does he blame his family or show anything less than love for them, as they withdraw from him and eventually inflict a cruel series of rejections in which they feel justified because of his distasteful and embarressing situation. It is easy for them to turn their back on him and treat him inhumanely, for his own good of course, now he is unrecognisable as their relation. This continues until his tragic end, when the family reflects little on his plight and more on their own relief.
Tied in with all of this is the fact that Gregor was the main breadwinner, saving his family from debt when their business failed. Now he is no longer useful and they must seek employment themselves to survive. The passages concerning employment provide a glimpse of the work ethics of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.
There are lots of theories about Gregors transformation, and whether he physically transforms at all. Is it in his head? This adds further curiosities to the storys interpretation. In the play that I saw Gregor stayed a man, which I found incredibly moving and upsetting. We could see he was the same person, his family couldn't, as in the book.
There are many parallels drawn with those who are marginalised either by disfigurement or mental illness. I found this most profoundly when I considered reactions to the elderly, especially those with Alzheimers or other forms of dimentia, needing to be looked after, maybe a breadwinner earlier in life, unable to communicate, sometimes violent, and unrecognisable as their former selves. Not all of these people are unloved or cruelly treated as Gregor is, but how would we react? We would all like to think we would do the right thing by our family, but what if one of our family became a smelly, screaching insect for real. How happy would we be about it? Maybe the extreme reactions to this book are not because it is difficult to read, but because it raises difficult questions, things we don't want to think about.
Here are some links you may find useful...

Sunday, 6 July 2008

If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz

This is a story about stories. Stories that people tell, stories that people believe and stories about things that have happened. The plot follows four generations of women, the oldest of whom was born in the Northern European forests of snow, and who emigrates to America where her family grows. Told by the four women themselves, this story has an added injection of folklore and superstition which continues through the more western life in the States and provides another dimension to the novel. Interpretation, myth or reality, all of life is as real as the person who tells the story believes it to be, and here we have four points of view, four realities.
Llana is the matriarch, mysterious and strong, in touch with the 'old ways', who survives a climate (meterological and political) to find love and a new life. Sashie, her daughter is very different and rejects her mothers traditional roots for the 'clean' American way. Mara is the grandaughter, the darkest character, whose view is almost sociopathic. Finally Nomie in the present day, who is closest to Llana and sees the truth through her eyes.
All four have a distinctive voice in the narrative, but it is Llana from the old country who is the strongest presence and provides the pivot that all other characters revolve around, and finally circle back to.
Some of the novel feels like a series of short fairystories, especially the first part in Europe. This is emphasised by the short punchy sentences. The first 20 pages were a captivating opening into Llana's world, and raced away without me noticing that I was enveloped in the plot.
Some of the stories later in the book are more ambiguous and left unexplained, like Sashie's cleaners, or Mara's ladder to the sky. Reality, story or delusion? This sometimes left me frustrated but it also leads you to ask what is reality?
Budnitz pulls no punches in illustrating the horrific episodes in life too, like in war, with poignant descriptions and the economy of words adding to the distasteful scenes. Every fairystory has some sense of the horrific, a wolf lurking in grandma's clothing. Budnitz employs all of these tales we were brought up on with fascination and wonder.
This is not a long book but the time scale (early 20th century, through World War II, to the present day) gives it an epic feel which led me to a few tears at the ending. A very enjoyable book and an interesting voice to look out for.

To read an interview with Judy Budnitz about the book and her writing, click on this link:-

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Short and Sweet - 101 very short poems

I bought this book a while ago from a bookshop in Oxford. It is perfect for dipping into, and I do so, often. No poem is more than 13 lines long and the poets (and the poems) are wide and varied, from William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy, to Stevie Smith and Sylvia Plath. The introduction by Simon Armitage is funny and entertaining and it is a lovely addition to any bookshelf. It is published by Faber and Faber. One of my favourite poems from this book is written below...

Second Marriage

The sky stops crying and in a sudden smile
Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs;
Widow who has married widower
Poses outside the Registry for photographs.

Their grown up children are there
And damp confetti like a burst from a bag
Accumulated from a morning's marriages
Is second-hand for them against the door.

In the wood of the world where neither of them is lost
They take each other by the hand politely;
Borrowers going to and from the Library
Pass through the group as if it were a ghost.

Stanley Cook (1922-1991)

Here is a link to read an essay about Stanley Cook's work:-

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I had been recommended this book for ages, so I was glad to be able to borrow it from a friend. I had been told the beginning, about a young girl of 14 years, looking down from heaven after being the victim of a horrible murder. This all happens in the first few chapters so I am not spoiling the core of the plot for you. It then explains how she observes her family and friends, and how they deal with her untimely death.

The murder itself is dealt with swiftly and brutally by the author, providing a strong first chapter with an unusual perspective from the girl herself, which allows us to step back and observe with her, alongside a reaction of shock and abhorence. However it is the reactions of her family that I found hit the hardest. I had several teary moments during this first part of the book, which were heightened by the simplicity of the language. The bits in-between, the unsaid parts of the text were what pierced me the most. The mum sinking to the floor with her hat, the dad crying into the dog.

The book does not continue with this level of emotion though, and is actually upbeat and hopeful as it covers a fair distance of time after the murder, a number of years in fact, all recounted by the victim in 'heaven'. As we follow these peoples lives, the sensitivity of the writing makes a very believable set of ongoing stories that resound around each character. We can identify easily with them, their connection to this event, how they forever carry it with them and also move on from it. In this the book remains interesting, but I found it lost some of its momentum, and the resonance of the early part of the book petered out.

I know some have found the book too idealistic, presenting an answer to an after life as a little too rosy and fantastic, a delusion. I found that I just went along with it as a possibility, a 'What if?...' scenario. It has also prompted some interesting discussions about 'What if the dead do watch us from above?' I know one person found this disturbing, to think of her relatives seeing all she does. I personally found it comforting. Everyone will bring their own experiences, beliefs and theories making this a good readers group choice.

I enjoyed it, found it lighter and more hopeful than I expected and I think it provides an interesting point for discussion on many levels.

Bookbrowse do a reading group guide with further things to think about:-

Sunday, 15 June 2008

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

A good choice to read on holiday, this was lent to me while away in Turkey. A short novel, skillfully written by Ian McEwan which could have had completely the wrong tempo had it been handled perhaps by someone else.
Briefly, the story evolves around a couples first night of marriage, in 1962 where attitudes to sex and relationships were more restrained, innocent and even ignorant. The story examines their courtship and their internal anxieties regarding their first night of conjugal matrimony.
The novel builds up the tension slowly and brilliantly throughout, so that by the time we have all the background and we face that first night with them, you firmly believe anything could happen.
The greatest part of this novel for me, and why it works so well, is that the narrator tells us this story retrospectively, from the present day, letting us know early on that things would have been much different for the couple had they taken place now. It would probably have been somewhat different just a few years on, at the other end of the '60s (post Pill and Liberation) where taboo issues like sex may have been more talked about. The characters have their worries, but reading about them, their needs, fears, their naivete, with a modern perspective, brings the reader to a fever pitch of helpless frustration, where at times, I wanted to yell at them, slap them out of their politeness, their Englishness.
Although for different reasons, our frustration almost matches theirs as the book builds to a conclusion, along with our deflation and feelings of regret and needless loss for them. I left this book with such a heavy feeling, which deposited me alongside the couple from 1962 in a hugely profound way, and this was because of the skill of the writing. The narrator clearly sympathises with their situation with great empathy as he unfolds the events. As a couple who love each other, if only they had belonged to today, it might have been so much different.
Here are some links you may find useful:-

Sunday, 8 June 2008

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I saw the film of this when I was 16 and fell in love with James Dean, so when this book was suggested for a readers group I used to belong to, I was very enthusiastic. I had never read anything by John Steinbeck either.
I read a lot of women writers and love the more feminine style of writing - lyrical, cyclical, repetitive and pattern-like qualities of Jeanette Winterson or Toni Morrison etc. However it was refreshing to have a change and read a more linear plotline written in a more straight forward language that contains its own beauties and treasures.
As always the book was more complicated than the film which had taken plot lines from the various generations in the book and condensed them into one. Also the relationships within the family were much more complex, adding more for the reader to chew on.
The book however, presents with no ambiguity, one of the most hideously compelling female characters I think I have ever encountered - Cathy. Steinbeck describes her often as animal-like, making curious noises and with 'sharp little teeth'. The other characters perceptions of her add an almost diabolic quality to her motivations. This is most evident during the labour scene with Samuel Hamilton when she bites into his hand, tearing it deliberately with her teeth. She scared me, in the same way that Linda Blair scared me in The Exhorcist. Small suggestions of emotion (eg glimmers of feeling toward Abel, however slight), betray you into hoping for some light in such a dark spirit. Her cold, emotionless and ruthless encounters with her family and those who are kind to her belie explaination as she calculates each ones usefulness and demise. We are told early in the book that 'she was not like other people' and born bad, like a 'monster'.
Cathy is finely counterbalanced by many other good and warm characters, wise like Liza Hamilton or Lee, or kind like Samuel. There are other females too who are smart and feisty, my favourite being Olive and her hilairious encounter with an aeroplane. There are others like the brothers (of both generations) who fall in between good and bad, as most of us do, all threading their way through this epic story of family complications and the extended family who share our lives. I am sure some may find the characters one dimensional or stereotypical but I enjoyed this book very much for its warmth and as a good, solid story.
Bookrags have a guide for readers groups:-

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye