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

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

This lovely picture is a still from the current movie version of A Christmas Carol. It is probably one of the most well known Christmas stories (apart from the one in the bible) and is certainly one of my favourites, although I have never read the original. I have loved all of the different films, the Alistair Sim movie, the Disney cartoon, the Muppets, the musical version. I have still to see the Jim Carrey one above, although the 3D graphics look amazing.
Here's wishing you all have a very Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year, and that you get to enjoy one version or another of this tale, or some other favourite, over the holidays.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A bookish gift idea.

I wanted to share a gift idea coming up to Christmas. It is something that I used last year and is a great way to solve a gift problem while promoting reading and sharing books.
BookCrossing is a website that encourages you to leave your used books in a public place for someone else to find them, read them, and then leave them for someone else. By registering the book with the website you can keep track of the books you have released or encountered because you can log your thoughts about the book in question through its own unique number.
Anyway, BookCrossing sells starter packs online, which include attractive bookplates to write your books number on it, bookmarks and sticky notes to let whoever finds your book know that it is a travelling book and they can take it home and read it for free. A starter pack to accompany 25 books costs £6.12 or $9.95.
I think the pack makes a nice gift on its own, but accompanying a new book to read it makes a really fun and unusual present that doesn't cost the earth. BookCrossing also sells other accessories to help you share your used books.
You can find out about the packs and other merchandise by going to their website and visiting their supply store, or by clicking on the link below...
Here's to promoting reading, books and literacy for Christmas!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

November Roundup

This wonderful photo of the Menin Gate in Belgium this memorial day was taken for The Guardian by Brian Harris. I find the days around Remembrance Day very moving and emotional, especially when there are fewer veterans left, and hardly any from the Great War. I am a big fan of the poetry from World War One, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Here is my summary of reading from November...

Read - One and a bit books
Completed - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Currently Reading - Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
TBR Pile - currently on 72 (according to Good Reads), with 2 more added...
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
The Light of Day by Graham Swift
Wishlist Additions -
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Bloom's Literary Guide to London
Discoveries -
Halcyon Books in Greenwich, London
Events -
Seeing the wonderful Con O'Neill in Prick Up Your Ears at The Comedy Theatre in London's West End.

Christmas is coming and I've got a big old tome to get through for my course in January. Best get to it...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Having enjoyed 2 other Steinbeck novels I was pleased that this one was on the reading list for the course I am on in the new year, about how American history is depicted in its literature. I already had a lovely 2nd edition hardback from 1940, that a friend had given to me, so it was great to be able to pick up this American classic as my next read.
This famous depiction of the great Depression during the 1930's follows the Joad family, generations of which have worked the land near Oklahoma as tenant farmers, and who now find themselves (along with all of the other farmers from the neighbouring states) losing their home to corporate land owners, who turf them out with no work or home. Like everyone else for miles, they all head west on route 66 to California where more corporate companies have advertised work on the fruit and cotton farms. Sadly there are many many more workers than jobs, a deliberate calculation to keep wages down by the companies, so instead of a bountiful place where you can eat all the fruit you want and make a good living, there are shanty towns of desperate hungry people, oppressed and abused by the police, hated and mistrusted by the locals. There is little work and little hope.
We follow the Joad's, decent and hard working, from their farm, piling their resourses, leaving a life that had worked over generations, on their journey west, losing family members, making friends, surviving with others on the same journey. Their incredible migration fills the first half of the story. The second half is their attempts to do everything they can to find work and survive in California, through the dreadful Hoovervilles, the better government camps where a sense of civility returns, and being forced to leave to work on a peach plantation surrounded by strike pickets protesting about pay cuts, forcing them to live in near prison conditions. They finally settle picking cotton and living in a box car, but the family have fragmented, the work is drying up and their future is uncertain. The last chapters depict their desperate situation with maximum drama.
Steinbeck depicts his characters in such a way that you feel as if you know them, you care about them, spend time with them, understand them. I always feel as if Steinbeck loves his people and it makes you love them. This made this story really hard because you know that things will not go well for them and you worry. The family however seem to hold on to hope despite the worst conditions. Their dignity and resoursefulness is inspirational and heart warming. I rooted for all of them.
Steinbeck intersperses his chapters about the Joad's with short commentaries about the wider picture, some of which incited disgust and fury in me while reading them, while recognising the relevance of those affected by similar organisational giants and their railroad tactics today. I particularly found the chapters about the faceless tractors mowing down their land and houses very moving, and the one about the abundance of fruit while people starved, the rotting mountains of peaches, the vegetables tipped into the river causing people to literally fish for potatoes to feed themselves and their families. In fact I found the entire story very moving on lots of levels.
I loved Ma Joad, the character that is depicted the most, the matrarch who increasingly finds herself making the decisions for the family. I loved it when she stood up to the jobsworth shopkeeper telling him that when you are struggling, it is only other poor people who will help you out, others with nothing.
I really enjoyed this book because I connected wholly with the characters and worried for them all the way through. The disturbing last chapters and last scene in particular will stay with me. I am not sure I could emotionally survive the film version with Henry Fonda. This is not the most harrowing story I have read (that award goes to Germinal by Emile Zola), but it is certainly a very memorable roller coaster, and an important book that I highly recommend.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

British Theatre is booming.

I read an excellent article this week through the Times Online Arts and Entertainment bulletin that I get e-mailed to me (along with the Times Literary Supplement Newsletter).
The article examines why theatre attendance in Britain has increased considerably in the last year or so. Statistics show that even from 2 years ago more of us are choosing to see live performances all year round, not just in the holiday season when Pantomime is popular for families of all ages. Many of us are booking tickets for other shows too. Unusual, especially as we are in the middle of a recession and everyone is watching their pennies.
The article explores many reasons for why this may be so.
  • Are the theatres managed differently, opting for subsidised funding (once frowned upon) to ensure not only a wide variety of popular shows but productions by new writers and plays appealing to more specialist tastes?
  • During these more thrifty times, are some of us abandoning expensive holidays and going for entertainment nearer to home?
  • Are trends changing, as they always do, so that amongst so much home entertainment, do we crave community based activities?
  • Publicity and advertising for live theatre has changed, with TV personalities such as Lenny Henry in Othello and David Tennant in Hamlet taking on the greats, ensuring stampedes for tickets out of curiosity/sensationalism and the rush of excitement at getting a ticket to the hottest show in town, as well as making Shakespeare more attractive to non-regular attenders.
  • Do community based activities offer comfort when times are uncertain?

It could be some, or all, of the above are correct. You may have your own theories. It is great to see so many theatres doing well and so much on offer. My favourite theatres are listed on my sidebar.

My favourite productions this year have been...

A Midsummer Nights Dream by Propeller at the Liverpool Playhouse

Macbeth at the Manchester Royal Exchange

The Caretaker with Jonathan Pryce at the Liverpool Everyman

Prick Up Your Ears with Con O'Neill at the London Comedy Theatre

The poet Roger McGough at the Liverpool Playhouse

All of these have been brilliant and I have been fortunate enough to see many others too. What have you seen this year, or your most memorable plays and performances?

What are your theories on the theatre-going boom? Is America enjoying similar rises in numbers of theatre attenders?

To read the article Why British Theatre is Booming click the link and let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Writing America

I want to tell you about the course I am enrolled on starting in January. The course is over 4 evenings, one a month, and examines how 'history often plays a vital role in shaping American novels'.
The course is using 4 novels to examine this...
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, quite a substantial novel made infamous by the well loved film of the same name. I haven't read this yet but saw the film a long time ago. I'm looking forward to looking at issues regarding the American Civil War and how it comes into this story, and how it depicts those times.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, my 3rd Steinbeck novel and a book that I am 3/4 through and enjoying very much. My version is a lovely 2nd edition published in 1940 too, and clearly representing the Depression in America.
Beloved by Toni Morrison, which I reviewed in May 2008, a novel I have loved along with many other people, exploring Black American history and slavery.
Finally, one of my favourite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, which I read back in 1994 after a work colleague had recommended it.
So some fantastic titles to talk about. I am really looking forward to doing the course. I have noticed that a lot of American bloggers love to immerse themselves in English historical novels and classics. Maybe I am one of the English bloggers who loves the American classics as I do seem to have leanings in that direction and have chosen to read as many as possible. I also think that the film adaptations have encouraged this too.
As you can imagine this has shaped my current reading list to accomodate the texts of the course. I'll review the books as I finish them and also tell you about each evening as it happens in the new year.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I picked this one up from the Bluecoat book fair a couple of months ago, wondering what the novel behind such a famous film was like. I saw the film years ago, and there are many iconic images from it that are regularly seen in the media. It was also pretty short at just on 100 pages.
Set during the 1940's in New York, the story is narrated by a man who is never named. He tells the story of an enigmatic and exuberant young woman who lives in the same building of apartments. The woman in question has passed into the mists of legend at the beginning, rumoured to be in Africa and just as infamous, making his friend Joe misty eyed with remembered affection. From here our narrator recounts how he met Holly Golightly and became entangled in her life for a short time and the effect that she had on all around her.
The story is an examination of Holly's character as a good time party girl, a charismatic character full of contrasts that are irresistable to all. Prioritising money but yearning for love, needing protection like a naive child but also a street-wise survivor. Holly hates feeling caged or trapped and yearns to be free. When anyone comes too close she closes up and becomes vague, adding to her allure. By the end everyone has a crush on her, is a little in love with her, or even more than a little.
I enjoyed reading about her, once I had got over the fact that she has short, blond hair. She still continued with Audrey Hepburns voice though, such is the endurance of the film. This is a story about one of the most memorable female characters (from a book or film) and I think that it is because Holly is so unpredictable and charming. She gets away with more than most women of her era simply because she is so likeable. You are aware of her materialism, her shallowness, her dubious relations with men, but she is also very alluring, and beautiful, causing men to be entrapped by her personality, like moths around a flame. I couldn't decide whether she really was so in the dark about the mess she becomes entangled in, but the question adds to her mystery.
The abiding theme of the story is that you cannot trap a wild thing. Indeed, the narrator is first aware of her before he meets her, by a notice on her mail box, 'Holly Golightly, travelling' and it seems that she never stops long, anywhere. When Holly buys the narrator a birdcage he had admired, she makes him promise not to put anything in it. She also likens herself to her nameless cat saying they are both homeless.
A series of events ensure that Holly is off travelling again at the end, and appears to still be so fifteen years later where the story began. You can be sure that adventure will always follow her and many more will recount the days in ber presence with a rosy nostalgia that accompanies days spent in a hedonistic hormonal kind of bliss.
The enigma that is Holly Golightly will ensure that this book will be held high, as a classic story about an unforgettable female, for a long time, and will provide lots for readers groups to discuss too.
There is a dedicated website to all about Breakfast at Tiffany's. Click the link.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

October Roundup

Hope you all had fun over Halloween. This lovely drawing was created by artist Jeff Ward and you can check out more of his work on his website thepaintingplace. Perfect for the spooky month of October.
Read - 1 and a half books
Completed - Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Currently Reading - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
TBR pile - currently at 71 (according to GoodReads) with 2 new ones added...
Accordion Crimes by Annie E Proulx
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Challenges - completed all twelve of the 2009 Mini Challenges started in January. You can read my challenge wrap up here
Wishlist Additions - none this month, probably just as well considering how huge my TBR pile is.
Discoveries - Oxford University has distance online courses in lots of subjects, including 10 in literature. Check out the Oxford University Continuing Education department for more details.
Events - attending the one day course The Hour for Loving: Texts in Time at the Liverpool University Continuing Education Department.
The wind has been blowing all of today, blowing us towards winter and into November...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

2009 Mini Challenges: Wrap up

I signed up to this challenge when I saw it over at Caribousmom in January and 10 months later they are all completed. Here is how each one went...
1. Read a collection of short stories and blog about it.
I read Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris. Click the link to read the review.
2. Read a play and blog about it.
I read Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays (a bookcrossing find in Liverpool).
3. Read a non fiction book and write a review on your blog.
I read Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill. Click the link for the review.
4. Read two essays from the same collection and blog about it.
I read essays by Helene Cixous and Edward Said, both from Modern Literary Theory. Click the links to read the posts.
5. Go to a book event and blog about it.
I went to a one day course called The Hour for Loving: Texts in Time at the Liverpool University Continuing Education Department. Click the course title for the post.
6. Borrow a library book and blog about it.
I borrowed A Vegetable Gardeners Year by Dirty Nails. Click for the review.
7. Read a book by a new to you author. Blog about the book and the author.
I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Click either the title or author for respective posts.
8. Make a donation, either a contribution to a literary organization or donate a book.
I made a bookcrossing donation. Click the link to read about it.
9. Promote literacy in some way and blog about it.
I organized a bookswap in work. Click the link for the post.
10. Participate in a buddy read or group discussion and blog about it.
I took part in a discussion about The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Click the link to read how it went.
11. Read a book that is outside your comfort level or from a genre that you don't normally read.
I read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Click for the review.
12. Read a classic and write a review on your blog.
I read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Click to read the review.
I deliberately picked this challenge because I am not a fast reader so did not want a whole list of books to read on top of the mountainous TBR pile I already have. This challenge enabled me to use some of the books already there as well as put some energy and thought into some events such as the course or the bookswap at work. I have really enjoyed all of it and got to do some things I may not have, had I not taken the challenge up.
Thank you to caribousmom for setting it up.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Bought on a 3 for 2 deal at Waterstones, this novel saved me from my recent reading crisis. It is my third Toni Morrison, having previously read Song of Solomon and Beloved and enjoyed both. Its also quite short at 165 pages.
Set in the 1600's we are told an account of a plantation and of how some of the people who live there came to be there. Some of the chapters are 1st person, some are not.
Florens is taken there as payment for a debt at 8 years old, as a slave, leaving her mother to a harsher existence on another farm. The place is owned by Jacob, an ambitious but fair master, and his hardy wife Rebekka who has escaped a life of poverty in England. They have a Native American servant called Lina, who is protective and suspicious. There is also a young pregnant slave girl called Sorrow, wayward and quiet, she was rescued from a shipwreck.
Each of these people, including two male farm hands, have a chapter or two to tell pieces of a story that knits them all together. The different voices of the characters or the narrator keep the narrative fresh and interesting.
The writing is very typical of Morrison's style, non-linear, elusive and poetic, it often feels as if you may have missed something, as if it assumes a fore-knowledge of events while starting in the middle. You feel that the story is much bigger than what is actually written on the page. It is why Morrison is hailed as a truly great writer, but it is also why some find her novels difficult to connect with. Thankfully I am in the former category and gain a lot from her books. I found some of the passages beautiful and intriguing, and I really feel that Morrison loves the people that she writes about.
I think that a novel written in this style by a less accomplished writer could alienate and distance its readers, but this one, though not quite as moving as Beloved, still raised a lot of emotion in me, especially towards the end, when we hear Florens's mother speak. I also found it a little easier to read, maybe because of the short chapters.
Although the characters are not quite as quirky and memorable as the other books, I really enjoyed it and recommend it to Morrison fans, naturally, and anyone who likes their narrative to be less straight forward and 'spoon-fed'.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

'The Hour for Loving': Texts in Time

Last weekend I attended a one day course at the Liverpool University Continuing Education Department. I have taken part in many courses here before and I enjoy the discussion and variety of subjects that they offer. This one was called The Hour for Loving, concentrating on whether there is a right time for love, using the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Hardy among others to explore this.
Looking at Middlemarch by George Eliot, the timing is wrong for Dorothea and Lydgate. The expectation is there but she is already married. When her husband dies Lydgate has married. Their regard for each other is subtle but prompts the reader to ask 'What if...?'
In Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope her love follows a defined path but there is a lack of fore knowledge in the narrative and it claims that men do not plan their future marriages, it just happens.
We then concentrated on Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and how there is a sense of doom throughout the novel, brought about by the narrator who tells the story in retrospect and alludes constantly to the tragedies to come. It is as if Hardy has a ghost plot that runs alongside the actual plot, a story of what may have happened had the timing been right. Hardy's characters have a pre-written destiny which is off set by circumstances, a decision wrongly made, that disables what should have happened. Had Angel Clare asked Tess to dance that very first meeting, everything might have been different. Had the letter not gone underneath the carpet by mistake...etc.etc.
We then went further back in time, to the time of Shakespeare and some of his sonnets (XII, CVI and CXVI). When life expectancies were short we can see references to the immediacy of the timing, when death can come at any moment, so the time is now. If not the death of life, then the death of beauty, although some sonnets tell us that love cannot be confined by time or death, proving that the issue of life expectancy was a prominent issue.
We examined some more characters from Trollope, and also the unrequited love in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, before spending some time discussing Jane Austens characters, particularly in Persuasion, but nearly all of her heroines have to wait some time before getting together with their true loves, usually changing a little or growing up and accepting those changes.
Obviously this is a very condensed account of everything that came up during the day. There were no set texts for the course because of the wide nature of the subject, and I came away wanting to read some of the books that I hadn't encountered. I got most from the texts that I was familiar with though, Tess, Middlemarch, and I've seen films of Persuasion and The Age of Innocence. It was an enjoyable day and a nice way to spend my day off. Anything that encourages listening and talking about books.
This course counts for #5 of the 2009 mini challenges, to attend a book event.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

September Roundup

The year is gathering speed and the months are flying by. September was a difficult month for reading, a lapse of focus for various reasons, but I am now back on track...
Read - 1 whole book and 2 halves of other books.
Completed -
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Abandoned - Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Currently Reading - Breakfast at Tiffanys by Truman Capote
TBR pile - 71 (according to Good Reads) with 3 added
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
The Deeper Secret by Annemarie Postma
Tethered by Amy Mackinnon
Challenges - Signing up to 2 literary courses, one of which is a one day event at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, part of the Continuing Education Department at Liverpool University. This was for #5 of the 2009 Mini Challenges, to attend a book event. The event is called The Hour for Loving and examines how crucial timing is in love within literature, including the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Hardy among others. I attended the event yesterday and will blog about it soon.
The other course is for the new year and I will include details about it nearer the time.
Wishlist additions -
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Discoveries -
An interesting article about what your bookshelf says about you, thanks to Stuck in a book for the link.
Events -
Signing up for 2 literary courses (see above)
Watching the brilliant Jonathan Pryce and the rest of the cast in The Caretaker by Harold Pinter at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool last night. Very talented, very funny and totally fascinating to watch. Off the wall and brilliant.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have wanted to read something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for ages and picked up this one many times before I finally bought this second hand copy earlier this year.
Many hail this as one of their favourite books or author and so I felt there was a void in my reading repertoire that needed correcting.
The premise of the story, an exploration of the many facets of love in all of its forms, spanning generations and written in a style that many pay homage to made it irresistable, so I was looking forward to indulging myself.
Over 6 weeks and 132 pages later I finally succumbed to the idea that maybe this was not the right time to read it. It is not really the book to be honest, the writing is beautiful and there have been some luscious passages. I was quite enjoying the story and have certainly struggled through much less interesting books, but for some reason I failed to be excited whenever I thought of picking this one up. It just wasn't there!
There could be a few explanations for this...
Depending on my commitments at work or otherwise, I sometimes can only snatch 10 minutes or quarter of an hour here and there and I found that this was not a book that sat well with this, being better in longer bursts to establish the plot again. I was also a little distracted after enjoying a great holiday in Devon, and I know that sometimes you are just not in the right mind to read. So with another 69 books on the TBR pile all vying for attention and trying to catch my eye, I decided to put it down, for now. The bookmark is still in it so I hope to pick it up again, when the time feels right. I am very much of a mind that if you are not clicking with a book, then to call it a day and read another.
It was difficult getting into another one too, and I picked up and started about 3 others before settling on the Toni Morrison (see further down on my sidebar), further supporting my theory that my reading head had gone on its own holiday without me!
Hopefully my reading crisis is over, fingers crossed.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

A Meme

This meme has been on a couple of blogs and after seeing it on Caribousmom I decided to give it a go as it looked like fun. You need to answer the questions below using only titles of books that you have read during 2009. Try not to repeat a title. It can be harder than you think.
Describe yourself - The Reader (Bernard Schlink)
How do you feel - Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Describe where you live - Vegetable Gardeners Year (Dirty Nails)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go - Amsterdam (Ian McEwan)
Favourite form of transportation - The Shipping News (Annie E Proulx) A roundabout way of saying boats!
Your best friend is - Jigs and Reels (Joanne Harris)
You and your friends are - The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
What is the weather like - The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
You fear - The Woman in Black (Susan Hill)
What is the best advice you could give - The Deeper Secret (Annemarie Postma)
Thought for the day - Its been a Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)
How I'd like to die - Somewhere Towards the End (Diana Athill)
My Souls present condition - is a Secret Scripture (Sebastian Barry)
How would you answer?

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I picked this one up, after reading good reviews in various places, at The Amorous Cat bookshop. I've read a few of Ian McEwan's novels before and have enjoyed most of them. Being less than 200 pages it was a quick read.
The novel starts at the funeral of a woman called Molly, who has died at 46 from a mysterious brain disease. At her funeral is her husband, a dull publisher, and also 3 of her former lovers. Clive is a successful composer, Vernon is a newspaper editor and Julian is a politician. All 4 are eyeing each other up, unsure of how aware some of the others are of their involvement with Molly. There is a tangible measuring of egos in the air, sly looks and back handed comments. After the funeral some contraversial photos of Julian come out of Molly's possessions, the kind that can finish his career, and Vernon recognises that they are the kind of boost he has prayed for to gain success at the newspaper. Clive however finds it a betrayal of Molly's memory.
This is a story about the kind of extreme comic situations that can ensue from the jostling egos of middle aged men over a woman they have all known. The plot lines clamber over each other reaching unpredictable consequences for all and McEwan exploits every nuance of these flawed personalities to bring, as Caroline Moore from the Sunday Telegraph says on the back, 'A psychologically brilliant study of heartlessness...'
It is a quick read as I have said, and I found the beginning funnier, around the funeral and immediately after. I did find my interest waning towards the end though. These are not likable people, and while this provides their most awkward moments at the beginning, by the end I didn't care much what they did to each other. McEwan is excellent at presenting us with insights into the personalities of his characters, and he does not disappoint here. His writing is as entertaining as ever. I just didn't care much for the characters by the end.
A decent book that McEwan fans will love, just not one of my particular favourites, but still worth reading. The moralistics of the tale may provide readers groups something to chew on, as well as McEwan's style of writing. You can get a readers group guide for Amsterdam here.
Ian McEwan's website can be found by clicking on the link.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

August Roundup

August has been an excellent month for adventures, camping in Devon, working on an Organic farm, and the Green Man Festival in South Wales. However it has been my least productive month for reading so far, but here goes...
Read - 1 and a half books
Completed -
The Vegetable Gardeners Year by Dirty Nails
Currently Reading - Still reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
TBR Pile - Currently at 69 (according to Good Reads) with 3 added...
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
Challenges - Completed #6 of the 2009 mini challenges, to borrow a library book and blog about it.
Wishlist Additions -
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas
Organic Crops in Pots by Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell
Discoveries - That the Open University has a new MA in English course.
Events - Beautiful Devon and working on the farm. Not a book event but just as inspiring.
The winds have come and autumn is on its way. You can tell by the change of light. I love this time of year.

Monday, 31 August 2009

A Vegetable Gardeners Year by Dirty Nails

As part of the 2009 Mini Challenges we had to borrow a library book and write a review about what we borrowed and read. I chose this lovely book because I was shortly going to Devon to work for a week on an Organic farm.
The book caught my eye straight away. It covers an entire chronological year with an entry over a few pages for each week. It covers jobs to do with various plants that need tending to that particular week, trouble shooting and observations. It also includes accounts of things that the author has noticed in the natural world. Clearly written by someone who loves nature and growing produce, the book has lots of charm and enthusiasm, as well as practical advice. Every page is complimented with line drawings relevant to the subject being talked about, whether they are butterflies, or a country signpost, or an apple on a tree.
This is a lovely book that was an absolute pleasure to read, both for a dip into, as well as reading huge chunks. It is not just for fellow gardeners, but for anyone who appreciates the natural world, seasonal observations and the cyclical nature of life. I really enjoyed it and will probably buy it in the future to use as reference and inspiration. It was a shame to give it back.
This completes #6 of the 2009 mini challenges.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Zombie Chicken Award

The Octogon has been awarded the Zombie Chicken Award by Jeane from Dog Ear Diary. I have always wanted to win this one because it made me giggle when I have seen it on other blogs. Apparently...
...the blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the Zombie Chicken - excellence, grace and persistance in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award you now have the task of passing it on to at least 5 other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or by not choosing at all...
So there we have it! Here are my 5 recipients.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This is a rollicking good story. Recommended by a work colleague, I bought this book from Waterstones earlier in the year, but because of its size, I have waited for a decent slot in my reading schedule to tackle it.
Set in the 1100's in England, the story tells of a whole group of people who come together over the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The story is much more than an account of a building, which serves as a pivot for which their complex lives move around. Spanning over 50 years, it intertwines certain key events from history and includes a short episode in Spain and France.
We learn about each character in turn, before they converge at a later stage, starting with Tom Builder, the stone mason who dreams of building his own cathedral, and his family who are dependent on him. There is Philip, the ambitious but fair-minded Prior who wants a replacement church for his run down priory. We have Aliena, daughter of a deposed Earl, using her wits and canny intelligence to survive as a wool trader, a woman in a mans arena, until her brother can reclaim the family title. Then there is Jack, the smart and unconventional son of an outcast woman, and finally William, the slightly insane enemy, paranoiaic and cruel, with more than a little taste for sexual violence, who plots and plunders his way towards his plan to destroy the Kingsbridge cathedral. There are many other characters along the way.
This book is very easy to read, and there are adventures, twists and turns on every page, so that the 1076 pages turn without you noticing. There are huge sections of the book where I couldn't put it down and found myself reading until the early hours, wanting to know what was to happen next. I quickly became very attached to some of the characters (many of the ones listed above) and rooted for them against all the odds that were thrown at them. At times feeling like a cross between The Tales of Robin Hood and The A Team, this is very much a plot driven story about character, and the triumph of good over evil. The text has no ambiguity about it and very little poetry, but the intricacies of the lives of the characters and the plot made up for this.
There are some bloody scenes that naturally occur when writing about this time period, the book starts with a hanging, and there are battles, injuries, punishments and even a bear baiting at one point, but I did not feel it went too far. Just far enough to evoke the period, or to demand justice in the readers conscience when the baddies struck.
Some readers may find the ups and downs of the plot a little formulaic, good triumphing over evil, prayers answered, the baddies getting their comeuppance and love stories coming to fruition. We all know that life is not often like that, but sometimes it does you good to read such stories and restore a little faith. This book certainly does that and hope is an emotion that I felt often during its course. There are still lots of heart stopping moments too.
This is an exciting book to read, not for complexities of language, but for a story that never lets you go once you have opened the first pages. The building of relationships, friendships and industry towards a common goal, of people forging lives against the odds, was infectious. I really enjoyed it and I think it will appeal to many types of readers from lots of backgrounds, especially those who enjoy a good adventure told in a straight forward way.
Ken Follett has his own website where you can read more about how the book came about. It also includes a Pillars of the Earth reading guide.

Friday, 31 July 2009

July Roundup

July is the month where the tradition of well-dressing takes place, an old rite where water wells were decorated with local symbols and pictures depicting stories. This tradition is practised in the Peak District in England to give thanks for the purity of water. The well pictured here is undecorated but I liked it and had character.
Here is my July reading progress...

Read - 2 and a half books
Completed -
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Currently Reading - Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
TBR Pile - 1 added so currently at 59
Challenges - completed #4 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read 2 essays from the same collection and blog about them. I have also borrowed a library book for #6 and will review it here soon.
Wishlist Additions -
Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center
Serena by Ron Rash
Gifts of War: A Novel byMackenzie Ford
The Favourites by Mary Yukari Waters
The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Discoveries - The Bluecoat Centre in Liverpool is having another Chapter and Verse Literary Festival in October
Events - Releasing my second BookCrossing book, at Sudley House, in the garden, on the bench that surrounds the Cherry Blossom tree near the entrance. Its gone, I checked.

I am now away for 2 weeks, going camping in Devon and working for a week on an Organic farm. I'll be back around the 16th August.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This lovely book was bought for me as a birthday present this year. This edition makes the perfect gift because not only does the book look fantastic, even before you open it (huge hardback with gold edging, intriguing illustration suggesting secrets and mystery), but it includes a DVD with an interview with the author. It leaps off the shelf begging to be opened, leafed through and then read. Just holding it in your hand lets you know that you are in for something special.
The book is unusual because it tells its story through words and pictures. The pages of text are interspersed with beautiful pencil drawings that play like an old silent film, drawing you into its pages. It tells the story of a young boy who secretly lives in a railway station in Paris, 1931. Living by his wits and saddened by the memories of his dead father, he is determined to re build a mechanical man that his father had begun, believing that it may hold a message for him. Involving a toymaker who he steals parts from and the toymakers god daughter, Hugo is embroiled in an adventure where each page takes him further into mystery, revelation and also a new beginning.
Even though it has over 500 pages, I read this book quickly because many of them are drawings, and some pages have only short bursts of text, while others are full page. I found I easily worked my way through 50 pages without realising.
The story is captivating and I was quickly rooting for Hugo who seemed to fall on bad luck and unkindness at the beginning. Hugely inventive with lots of twists and turns, there were times when I couldn't stop reading onward to find out its secrets and there are plenty to be discovered along the way. The interspertion of real historic images, tantalisingly dribbled in amongst this childrens tale, frequently had me enquiring where on earth was it leading. There are many lovely surprises. Fans of old black and white cinema will love it, or those with a keen sense of nostalgia. Generally though, there will be few who fail to take anything from this book.
It did feels as if 2 stories have been linked together, because of the scale of the revelations in the 2nd half. It is however all one story, continued and neatly brought together at the end. As with all childrens fantasy, there has to be some suspension of belief, mainly regarding the coincidences along the way. But these were easy to read over because of the nature of the story and the range of age groups that it is aimed at.
This book was a delight, one that I will pick up periodically to admire the drawings, relive the story, and recommend to young and older people alike.
Hugo Cabret's official website can be reached by clicking on the link.
There is also an interactive website where you can see some of the drawings in the book.
Also there was an excellent review of Hugo Cabret in the Guardian
Thank you to my friend for such a lovely present!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Modern Literary Theory: Edward Said

Continuing #4 of the 2009 Mini Challenges (please see former post Modern Literary Theory: Helene Cixous), to read 2 essays from the same collection, I read an essay by Edward Said. I picked this essay because it links to the other essay by Helene Cixous in that both are about how language creates 'otherness', a sense of a fixed template and how everything else is defective, sub standard, other. While Cixous has demonstrated how the female has continually been portrayed as an incomplete version of the male, Said discusses how non western cultures have been portrayed as lesser or other than their white western counterparts.
Edward Said, From Culture and Imperialism (1993), pp.20-35
Said starts by explaining that 'Domination and inequities of power and wealth are perennial facts of human society.' In post colonial society this seems to be viewed, throughout the subsequent literature as an after effect of imperialism, and can be viewed in two ways. One view is that it could be 'a consequence of self-inflicted wounds' like the view of critic V.S. Naipaul. On the other hand 'blaming the Europeans sweepingly for the misfortunes of the present is not much of an alternative'. Said says that we must look at these issues as 'a network of interdependent histories' and he takes Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to illustrate his theory.
Said explains that despite the dominance of wealth and power, ethnic groups will never see those who have it as having the right to rule or as a superior race. However, once independence was reached, the natives realised that they needed the West and total independence was unattainable. Those who insisted on total independence brought 'a callous, exploitative tyrrany reminiscent of the departed masters.'
Today this has dissipated a little so that we live in more of a 'one global environment', and many of us see now that the 'selfish and narrow interests - patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds - can in fact lead to mass destuctiveness'.
Said appreciates that we are all taught to be proud of our traditions and our nations, and there is no quick formula for harmony. He proposes only study of all the interactions between 'states, societies, groups, identities.' To achieve this, he says that we have to take into account the 'significant contemporary debate about the residue of imperialism - the matter of how "natives" are represented in the Western media' to illustrate interdependence and overlapping.
Said praises the honesty of Naipaul when he has argued that a lot of the present problems of post colonised societies is not all down to the brutalities of occupation, but are also linked to the natives own histories, where their pre-colonised societies were far from utopian. This in turn has led Westerners to rethink the processes of decolonization, because they had provided such societies with stability, progression and order. Many decolonized states led to the further occupation of the likes of Bokassas and Amin. Said warns about sweeping generalisations in these matters. It has been popular to blame the Europeans but it is not that simple.
Previous contemporary discourse has assumed the 'complete centrality of the West', shutting out all else with its 'all-enveloping...attitudes and gestures'. These attitudes take us back to the late nineteenth century and Said believes both sides are illustrated in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. 'Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz's great looting adventure, Marlow's journey up river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa.' Kurtz wields power in Africa and Marlow wields the power of narrative. No other points of view are offered and so imperialism has eliminated them as 'unthinkable'. However Conrad does not present the European alternative as perfect either allowing two views. One is to allow imperial enterprise to play on and establish the West as a major world order. The other view is that the world of Marlow and Kurtz is 'local to a time and a place, neither unconditionally true or unqualifiedly certain.' If Conrad gives Imperialism a date, then he allows us to view Africa as something other than a carved up continent of European colonies.
Said believes that Conrad has illustrated that darkness could occur anywhere, colonized or not, in Europe or in Africa. Conrad's limitation however is that 'even though he could see clearly on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that Imperialism had to end so that "natives" could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them.'
Debate over these issues has gone back and forth, both passionately and stubbornly. In conclusion Said writes 'Many of the most interesting post-colonial writers bear the past within them - as scars of humiliating wounds, as instigation for different practices, as potentially revised visions of the past tending towards a new future, as urgently reinterpretable and redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory taken back from the empire. One sees these aspects in Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Aime Ceasire, Chinua Achebe, Pablo Neruda, and Brian Friel.'
I found this essay very interesting, especially leading on from Cixous, and suitably complicated because the issue is so huge. I have read Heart of Darkness too which obviously helps, as well as some of Derek Walcott's poetry and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and other post-colonial work. Said gives a rounded argument, trying to see both sides. In such cases it is difficult, and some may say impossible, to reach a conclusion, but the discussion of it has to be fruitful.
This post completes #4 of the 2009 mini challenges.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

I had seen this book reviewed around various blogs a few months ago so bought it on a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones and took it away on holiday.
Set in Sligo in Ireland, an inmate at a Psychiatric Hospital, Roseanne McNulty, is nearly 100 years old and is their longest serving resident. Sectioned during the 1940s she has spent most of her life as a Psychiatric patient, but like many early inmates, the reasons for her admittance are vague and have little to do with any actual mental illnesses. Roseanne is writing her life story down and hiding it under the floorboards. She wants someone at some stage to know her story. At the same time Dr Grene is assessing all of his patients because the hospital is closing down. He becomes transfixed with finding out about Roseanne and also why she is there.
The chapters alternate between Roseannes accounts of her life, and Dr Grenes investigations. Sometimes these accounts clash as peoples memory and point of view provide different meanings to events. There are also some cover ups on documents so part of the intrigue is picking through these stories to find out what really happened.
The chapters dedicated to Roseanne are more lyrical, and also have a dream like quality that took a little longer to connect to. I do think that this illustrates an elderly lady who has been interred for most of her life successfully. I did like alternating between her and Dr Grene's voice, and I found both of them interesting.
Most of the other characters are explained through Roseanne's point of view, so we get a lot of information about her father, and a palpable feeling of dread surrounding the local priest. But there are others who remain 2 dimensional, her mother, her husband and his family, and even the young rebel she befriends and has more of an influence on her life than she realises. This didn't detract from the telling, but when I remember the story in my mind, these characters are faceless and I tried to examine whether this was deliberate and I think that maybe it is, to add distance to something that happened long ago.
I enjoyed the story and wanted to find out how all of the pieces fitted together. I cared about Roseanne and Dr Grene and found parts of it very moving and tremendously sad. There were a few teary eyed moments. I did guess part of the ending early on but there were some surprises where I had to put the book down I was so moved. Some readers have said they didn't like the ending but I found it tied everything together and was happy with it. I think my only reservation is that she didn't rebel more when certain restraints were inflicted upon her (I don't want to give anything away).
A lot of the books beauty lies in its descriptions, of people and of Sligo. Part of Roseannes fate is sealed by her beauty as a young woman, but her beauty comes as an old lady through her words and how she tells her story. This is a well told and highly moving story about a woman surviving and retelling her story during one of the many troubled parts of Irelands history and I recommend it with enthusiasm.
There is a reading guide to The Secret Scripture which you may find useful.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

June Roundup

Half way through the year and plenty of hot summer days to come hopefully. Nothing like lying on the grass surrounded by Daisies.
There has been plenty to keep me occupied in June, which included a week in Sivota in Greece with friends, which was very hot, pretty and relaxing, and plenty of time to read.
Here is my June reading roundup...
Read - 3 and a half books
Completed -
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Currently Reading - The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
TBR Pile - 5 added, now at 61
The Zahir by Paulo Coelho
The Vintners Luck by Elizabeth Knox
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
Challenges - Completed #11 of the 2009 Mini Challenges to read a book that is out of your comfort zone. I read The Woman in Black for that one.
Also on my way to completing #4, to read 2 essays from the same collection. Using an old unread course book on Modern Literary Theory that I had, I have read and blogged about an essay by Helene Cixous, and have read and will soon be blogging about an essay by Edward Said.
Wishlist Additions -
The Angels Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Brodeck by Phillipe Claudel
The End of the World as we know it: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick
The Little Country by Charles de Lint
Discoveries - 3 new interesting websites...
Events -
My holiday in Greece where I read lots of books in the sun by the sea.
We had another bookswap in work on friday, for staff to stock up on their summer reading. There were probably about 40 - 45 books and only 11 left at the end, so another successful swap. I got 2 new books...the Michael Chabon and the Andrea Barrett.
Let us see where July takes us...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This book has been covered by a number of blogs and I liked the premise of the story so I took it away on holiday. Taking an actual event as its start point, the novel covers a year from spring 1666-7, when the Derbyshire village of Eyam took a brave and drastic measure to try and contain the plague when it hit their village, by imposing a quaranteen upon themselves.
Written in the first person, we follow Anna Frith, a shepherdess and house maid to the young Rector, Mr Mompellion and his wife Elinor. Anna is only young and already widowed with 2 children, and is blessed with a keen sense of survival and common sense. She recounts the year with all of its rural beauty, the folklore, her community,and she is a shrewd judge of character with more than a little kindness. The quaranteen, which was advocated by the Rector, throws them into a bizarre existence, where elaborate measures ensure food is brought in, but they have contact with no one from the outside for fear of infection. The village boundaries are set and their internment is kept.
While bodies drop in every household, yielding to the cruellest of diseases, the Rector, Anna and Elinor try to administer to the sick, while trying to keep order as villagers are consumed with grief and fear. It is not long before they start to turn upon each other as superstition and religious fervour gets a foothold in a frayed society. Desperate survival is sought, however unscrupulously, and many die along the way.
I liked Anna, even though she seemed like something of a wonder woman in parts. Quietly savvy, loving and sensible, she has the fortunate position of being a working girl who is also in with the privileged and educated, hearing their plans and being part of them, enabling us to see many sides of village life. I particularly enjoyed the accounts of herbal lore and rural living, the partnership between people and nature.
Many of the scenes have raw descriptions of death, either by disease, or by punishment. I didn't find these overwhelming, and anyone reading about the plague must expect this, but I didn't think it was gratuitous, however shocking. It pulls no punches.
The language includes some dialect and references to simple country living, which I found added to the beauty of the story, setting place and time. It also helps to place Anna's character within the story.
This is not just a story about death, but also survival, friendship, and sacrifice. It is also about love.
There was only really one part that I wasn't keen on and that was the ending, which didn't really fit with the rest of it. I felt as if I had wandered unguarded into another novel, and when I remember the book, I find I have brushed that part under the carpet, as if it doesn't belong. I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed it, being part of Anna's world for a short time, and I missed it when I finished it, re-reading some passages again.
Geraldine Brooks has a website here, where you can read about her and her work.
There is also a Penguin Reading Guide which may be of interest to reading groups.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Modern Literary Theory: Helene Cixous

This was a course book that I hadn't got around to reading so I thought it would be a good source for the 2 essays that I need to read for #4 of the 2009 Mini Challenges.
I have read articles by the French writer and theorist Helene Cixous before and found her theories about feminism in literature interesting, so the first one that I have picked is by her.
Helene Cixous, 'Sorties', New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivoron, eds (1975), pp. 366-71
In summary, Cixous talks about how the definition of femininity, especially feminine sexuality, has been determined by language. Her theory is that 'thought has always worked by opposition', eg high/low, big/small, light/dark, male/female. All theory is based upon the same system and the hierarchization in male dominated patriarchal society has assigned the male role as being active, and so on the same system females must be assumed to be passive. 'In philosophy, woman is always on the side of passivity.' The father has a will, desire and authority, but if woman is opposite, what does she have? According to Cixous she can be passive or nothing.
All literary theory refers back to 'man and his torment, his desire to be the origin'. Therefore, for everything to fit together, women must be subordinate.
Cixous then brings in her thoughts about Freud, and his representations of women as 'an imperfect man'. In terms of sexuality, Freud anatomically places man in a position of power, with women in a position of 'defectiveness'. Libido can only be male. Cixous calls this obsession with male and female exterior anatomy as a 'voyeur's theory'. There ends up being no place for female desire in all of this because the system cites that she is the opposite of man.
Cixous argues that men and women lose out by such theory, but we are currently living through a 'transitional period' and that 'men and women are caught up in a network of millenial cultural determinations of a complexity that is practically unanalyzable.'
The nature of theory is that we can agree or disagree with them. I found a lot to interest me in her work, and certainly to look out for in language patterns of writing, by male and females. I am sure that there are those who believe that such theories are feminist twaddle, but there are many, both male and female, who believe that language has a lot of power, especially in patriarchal societies, however reformed.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

Now this is a ghost story!
After my disappointment at taking the plunge to scare myself witless with The Turning of the Screw and not getting so much as a shiver, I went for this one when I saw it for £1 in Reid of Liverpool. I saw it as a film one Christmas Eve some years ago on TV and it is one of the scariest things I have seen, (you can read about it on IMDb, read the users comments too). So I knew the story beforehand. It has also been adapted for stage as a play that has been on at the Fortune Theatre in London for over 20 years.
It starts on another Christmas Eve with another family telling ghost stories, leading Arthur Kipps to write down something unspeakable that happened to him earlier in his life.
As a young solicitor, level headed, engaged and with his whole life ahead of him, Kipps is sent to wind up an elderly lady's estate on the edge of a remote Northern England town. Misty and surrounded in marshes, the towns people are shifty and secretive, especially when Kipps explains his business there. At the womans funeral, attended only by himself and Mr Jerome, a local agent, Kipps sees a woman dressed all in black Victorian clothing, first at the back of the church and then in the graveyard some way from them. She appears to have a body wasting disease, her skin hangs on her bones. When Kipps asks Mr Jerome about her, the poor man becomes a dithering wreck, almost panicking to get away.
Kipps is obliged to go to the dead womans house to sort through her papers. She lived in a lonely house on the marshes, reachable only by a causeway at low tide. Only one person from the town will take him there. It is at Eel Marsh House that the main body of the story takes place. Kipps is determined that local superstition will not deter him and he decides to stay at the house to avoid the difficulties that arise getting to it. Poor naive soul!
With all the elements of a good haunting, suffused with good doses of malevolence and menace, this part of the book rockets along without pausing for breath, towards its conclusion.
This is a ghost story in its traditional sense, lots of gothic imagery, scene setting, and gentle tension building. When the roller coaster has finished its climb, the main part of the story whooshes along relentlessly with barely a breath.
I have always said that ghost stories scare me, a lot, and this one did raise my blood pressure more than once. Had I not known the story I may have found the tension and unpredictability more than I could cope with. Thank goodness for Spider, the little dog who stays with Kipps at the house. There is a decent story behind the happenings, leaked to us in pieces like a good mystery. The book uses lots of anticipation to keep us on the edge of our seat. All in all I found it an enjoyably exciting story, well paced and interesting with a number of scenes that made me nervous more than actually frightened (unlike the film where I thought my heart was coming through my ribs and I watched most of it peeping behind a cushion!).
Susan Hill has her own website where you can read about this book and her other work.
Readers Place also have a reading guide that includes starting points for discussion.
I read this for #11 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read something that was out of your comfort zone.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


In case you thought I'd disappeared for good, I have just got home, having been on holiday to lovely sunny Greece, relaxing in beautiful surroundings, where I managed to finish Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and also The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.
Normal service will resume soon with a review of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill posted soon, followed by the others after that.
With my batteries recharged I'm rearing to go...

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

While chatting to a friend recently about another book (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale) which is on my TBR pile, she said that it mentions 2 other classics, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which I have read, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James which was on my TBR pile thanks to our recent Book Swap in work. Being only 94 pages long I decided to pick it up.
Written in 1898 it is about a governess taking up a position at a large country house, taking care of 2 children who are under the charge of their uncle who lives in London. Their parents are dead. One of the clauses of the contract is that the governess does not contact the uncle and is to take sole charge. She is clearly attracted to her employer and excited at the rise in her position so she agrees even if a little overwhelmed with the responsibility. She is to share the house with Mrs Grose the housekeeper, the children, Flora who is the youngest, and Miles, who is to come home from school later in the week, and a few other servants.
Very soon after arrival the governess learns that Miles has been expelled from school, and no reason is given immediately, but on meeting him she finds he is a model pupil and perfectly behaved, like his sister and she quickly becomes attached to them. However, very soon after taking the position she finds strange things happening in the house and in the grounds, and she believes that the children are in grave danger from a supernatural influence.
The beginning has more than a flavour of Jane Eyre arriving at Thornfield Hall half a century before and references it clearly. It also mentions Anne Radcliffes Mysteries of Udolpho, setting the scene for another gothic mystery, and the house and grounds are a very atmospheric base for such a story. I have read Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and so have encountered his writing style before, and it can seem very long winded and evasive as to what the characters are thinking or even communicating to each other. This story I found particularly so. There are long sections of dialogue where nothing is actually said but only vaguely insinuated. This suits the main character very well, as it is her that is telling the story in the first person, and she jumps about 10 paces ahead of everything that happens to her, fixing her own meaning to everything, sometimes wildly, as she becomes more obsessed with the children, citing that they are hers alone.
Although not strictly a sensationalist novel, there are definitely elements of such that James has used here it seems to me. It is also deliberately ambiguous and so anyone who likes their stories straightforward will find this one frustrating. The introduction by Dr Claire Seymour from the University of Tokyo concludes that "The dilemma for the reader is how to preserve James' ambiguity while also locating its 'meaning' ". I agreed with this statement.
I have to say that I quite like ambiguous writing, for example Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which does not explain the whole meaning but leaves it for your own conclusions. However in this case it drove me nuts. I think it was because I did not find our story teller too credible. Apparently there are 2 camps of readers for this story, those who believe it to be a supernatural mystery, and those who believe it is a story about an emotionally fragile woman who starts hallucinating. I fall into the 2nd camp. I thought she was deranged.
Ghost stories scare the pants off me, very easily, and I tend to avoid them. This story did not scare me at all, and disappointed on that level. Maybe that was James’ intention, to make a joke of those who like to be spooked. Especially as the whole tale is related as a Christmas Eve ghost story by someone called Douglas at the beginning. Is James playing with our expectations and love of a good mystery? I don’t know, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe my own expectations were too high. I found the discussion about its meaning more interesting than the actual reading of it, and so it is probably a good choice for readers groups.
You can download a free eBook version of the story here.
There is also an interesting article called Ghost story, or study in libidinal repression by Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh

Sunday, 31 May 2009

May Roundup

I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but it is gorgeous here in Liverpool today. England is famous for its precarious weather and the last few years have illustrated this more than usual, but today is hot and sunny and most people are off work. Everyone's windows are wide open, lawn mowers are going, deckchairs pulled from the back of the shed, bugs are buzzin' and our cats are flaked out under the bush in the garden.
Here is a recap of my May reading activities...
Read - 2 and a half books
Completed -
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Currently Reading - The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
TBR pile - quite a few added, now at 60:-
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Butterball by Guy de Maupassant
The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Challenges - The book I am currently reading (The Woman in Black) is for #11 of the 2009 Mini Challenges, to read a book that is outside of your normal comfort zone. I don't do ghost stories, they frighten the pants off me!!
I've also looked out some essays for #4 too.
Meeting my challenge to read 3 pages a day of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke has taken a downward turn. Basically I haven't read any of it in May. I haven't written it off completely in the hope that I'll come back to it, but it wasn't really holding my attention. I have nearly given up on it a few times before but have made myself read it because it looks like a book I should enjoy. However, I have always felt that if a book becomes a chore and not a pleasure, you should move on to something else. Sadly that has happened here, for now anyway.
Wishlist Additions -
Timeless Simplicity by John Lane
Falling for a Dancer by Deirdre Purcell
The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith
The Hidden by Tobias Hill
Discoveries -
That the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool is doing a monthly book fair, where I snapped up 2 of my books this month.
Events -
The Octogons first blogiversary.
Being nominated for the Lemonade Award by Jeane from Dog Ear Diary.
I hope it is bright, warm and sunny where you are...I'm off to sit in the garden.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Lemonade Award

The Octogon has been given its first award...the Lemonade Award for great attitude and gratitude. My nomination has been recieved with many thank you's to Jeane from Dog Ear Diary. I've been nominated alongside some great blogs and the tradition demands that I nominate 10 more blogs that I think are worthy. Usual blog award rules apply. So here goes and check out the links...
One Swede Read (formerly Bookoholic Boklista)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

My friend told me about this book years ago and has asked me several times if I have read it. After seeing the film with Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench about 4 times and loving it, I pounced on this copy in an Oxfam Shop.
It is the story of a man called Quoyle, a bit of a no-mark, overweight, bullied by his father and bumbling through his existence apologetically. When his wayward wife dies in a car accident he takes off with his 2 children, following his aunt to Newfoundland, to resurrect the family home. The Quoyle's have lived there for generations going way back. It is a chance for both to start again. Quoyle gets a job with the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, doing the Shipping News and Car Wrecks. Slowly Quoyle finds his place in the world. The cold, harsh landscape of his ancestors, the warmth of the friends he makes at work and in the town all help him survive this turning point in his life and make the most of it.
The back of the book says it is 'an irresistable comedy of human life and possibility', and this pretty well sums up the feel of this story. It is really funny, mainly due to Proulx's sharp and punchy sentences which illustrate all of the cadences of each delicious character.
'Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
His jobs: distributor of vending-machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.'
This is the opening to the book and it instantly put me behind Quoyle, willing him to find a way out of his drudgery. All of the characters are explored with enough information to understand their motivation, and there are many people to care about. Proulx infuses each one with warmth and humour, but also with fallability. They felt very real to me as I read.
I also loved the location, the freezing cold, raw Atlantic coast, infused with myths and tales of survival. The steamy interiors that battled the cold and gave refuge. I was reluctant to let it go when I finished the book.
You have probably cottoned on by now that I loved it. I wanted to be there, with the house strapped to the rock by metal ropes that sang in the wind, or drinking tea in The Flying Squid Lunchstop with everyone who knows each other, listening to the icebergs clanking in the bay. I cared a lot about many of the characters. I liked the growing fondness between Quoyle and Wavey, not over romanticised, but real and gentle. I also liked the way both of their names compliment each other, curving shapes around both of them.
I loved this book because it made me laugh and feel lots of things for the people in it and the location. It transported me away each time I picked it up. There are lots of interesting sub-plots and episodes, and nautical themes throughout (each chapter starts with a nautical knot complete with picture). It is a book I will probably read again at some point, and I will definately look out for more by Annie Proulx. Highly Recommended.
A reading group guide can be found here
The Newfoundland Studies Journal have also published an interesting article about the novel.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Today is The Octogons 1st birthday. I posted my first post, a review of Beloved by Toni Morrison, one year ago. What a lot has happened in the last year.
To mark the occasion and to find out, from the horses mouth, so to speak, exactly what the last year has meant to the author of The Octogon, I have decided to conduct an interview to get the nitty gritty on record.
Here is how the interview went...
What made you start this blog?
It was a friends idea after we went to Hay on Wye last year. I was talking about how I didn't have time to go to a book group any more, and how I spoke to lots of people by e-mail about books. From this the blog idea was born, to collect those friends thoughts together, and if anyone else read the blog it was a bonus.
So your main readership was thought to be your friends?
Yes, I thought that it would mainly just be my friends who would be interested.
Is that the case?
No, my friends call in occasionally, but are reluctant to comment. Most of my readers are other bloggers, or people who run into my blog while searching for information. Many many more people read my blog than I ever thought would and I have made some excellent friendships along the way.
Has your blog evolved in any way?
Mainly through becoming part of a very large and diverse community. Through reading other peoples blogs I have discovered many networking sites and community events that I never would have imagined beforehand.
What is your blogs philosophy?
I wanted a place that people could visit that invoked the feeling we get when we envisage ourselves taking a few luxurious moments to read. It may be on holiday, in a deckchair, or a shady seat in the garden, or an armchair in a quiet corner. I wanted my blog to be a haven, to visit during a busy day that replicated this feeling. I also wanted it to be used as a point of reference, not just for the reviews, but for the useful links on it. I don't know if it achieves this, but that is my aim.
What have you learnt?
Naturally I have developed my blogging skills, and also some technical skills. I have learnt a lot about my fellow bloggers. One of the few things I have observed is the differences between the British blogs and those from across the Atlantic in America and Canada. The Brits tend to have intimate sites where they write for a readership, our neighbours across the pond are much more into community, sharing events. There is much to be gained from both types and diversity is a great advantage.
What have you enjoyed about being a book blogger?
All of it! The community, the new friends, the wealth of information, the recommendations, the sharing of appreciation of books. I also like the fact that it has helped me organise my reading life, given it structure. I get to indulge my passion for reading and my blog brings it all together.
Finally, why The Octogon?
Someone asked me once, if I had a reading group, what would I call it. I figured that about 8 people was an optimum amount to get a group started, and so I'd call it the Octogon. The book group hasn't happened yet, so the blog got the name instead.
Thanks to all of the support I have had, from people I know, and from people who have called in to the blog and left very generous comments. It really has been great fun and has opened up a whole new world.
Review of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is coming soon...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye