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.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye