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

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