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

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...

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Literary Tourism

I was reading an interesting article this week on Arts and Letters Daily about Literary Tourism (you can read the article here). The article explores the notion of how many of us, in these times where organised and fervent religion has taken a back seat in many Western peoples lives, and replaced religious pilgrimage with other types of devotion. Are these trips taken in the pursuit of the spiritual experience, a pure encounter with a place connected to a book or author, in the hope that it will bring on a deeper connection with the writers we love? The article also comments on how some literary landmarks have almost become theme parks as some organisers seek to profit from this need, and also to re create what they think the tourists want.
Anyway, it got me thinking, do I do that? Do I seek places that are connected to authors or books that I love? If so, what drives me and is there anything wrong with it?
I set about listing the places I had visited with a literary connection...
Whitby on the Yorkshire Coast, famous for being part of the setting for Bram Stokers Dracula. I had read the book but was going anyway because some of my friends live in York and its a nice town to stay. I spent New Year there in 2002.
Wordsworths Grave in Grasmere, as I was passing through it seemed rude not to visit, and my friend knew where it was.
Haworth, Bronte country, again I was passing through. I'd like to visit again to have a look properly.
The Globe in London, I visited as part of my Shakespeare year for my degree and had a brilliant day there. Surprisingly (for a Shakespeare fan), I've never been to Stratford. I always feel that I'll get there someday and I wonder if that has become a bit of a Shakespeare theme park.
Highgate Cemetery in London, a great cemetery to visit because of its Victorian opulence in an overgrown, ramshackle and highly atmospheric park. George Eliot is here as well as Charles Dickens' sister. There are lots of other famous burials here too.
Shropshire, Mary Webb country, my favourite author. I have been on holiday in this beautiful county more than once and did actively seek out the magical settings that crop up in so many of her novels...The Stiper Stones, The Long Mynd, as well as villages where Mary Webb had lived. I even bought a book (listed below). Proper literary tourist here!
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, one of my favourite places in the world. I have been here at least 4 times and taken other people too. I should be on commission. There are loads of writers, artists, philosophers and curiosities here, including Moliere, Oscar Wilde and Abelard and Heloise, and the link gives you the full list. I go mainly because I love graveyards and this one has loads to interest you in a very atmospheric setting.
The Pantheon in Paris is where Victor Hugo and Emile Zola are buried. I had just read Germinal when I first visited so it was the literary link that determined the visit, although that part of Paris is one of my favourite areas. I found it very moving to think of the miners lining the route to the Pantheon, shouting 'Germinal' as Zola's coffin passed.
Les Trois Garcons in Aix en Provence, the cafe and bar where Zola, Picasso and Cezanne used to meet and talk. This was an incidental encounter but I still stopped to have a drink.
The Four Cats Restaurant in Barcelona, a beautiful place to eat, famous for being where Picasso and the artists and writers of the day used to gather. It is also mentioned in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It really is an experience!
The house where Keats died in Rome, next to the Spanish Steps. It has been turned into a museum about the Romantic poets because I think Percy Byshe Shelley and Mary Shelley also stayed here. It was a chance encounter but the literary connection drew me in.
On top of this I also own 3 books...
Literary Landscapes of the British Isles by David Daiches and John Flower
Walks with Writers (in Shropshire) by Gordon Dickens and Gladys Mary Coles
Novel Destinations (pictured above) by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and John Rendon. A present from a friend.
So I guess I can be a bit of a literary tourist but a lot of the places have been incidental. It has been mainly curiosity that has been the reason to want to see these places, and being in the vicinity anyway. I like reliving my favourite books by seeing somwhere or something that gives me another aspect. I don't expect a mysterious enlightened moment, and I don't have a tick list of places, but I see nothing wrong with using a literary connection as a motivation to get out and see something and maybe even learn something or inspire a moment of appreciatiation. There will always be people who want to cash in on these ventures, people need to make a living, and it is up to the individual to decide if they think they are being ripped off.
Where have you been to with a literary connection, and was it a deliberate or a chance encounter?

Sunday, 3 May 2009

April Roundup

Having eaten my way through the chocolate ones I thought I'd include some real eggs for April. Traditionally being the month of new birth, it has been a pleasure to see the blossom and the plants and trees stretching their new growth. It has also been the month where some summer adventures have been planned, holidays and projects. Great to have things to look forward to! Taking a look at how the books have been coming along...
Read - 2 and a half books
Completed -
Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Inventing the Abbots and other stories by Sue Miller
Currently reading - The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx
TBR pile - only 1 added so now at 56:-
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Challenges - I have completed #3 and #8 of the 2009 Mini Challenges and I am also on target at page 329 of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a personal challenge to read 3 pages a day to complete it within 1 year.
Wishlist Additions -
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Middle Aged Man and the Sea by Christopher Meeks
Doghead by Morten Ramsland
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Remembering the Bones by Frances Itain
The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Discoveries -
New York poet, Todd Colby's blog - after I quoted him on this post and he left me a comment.
Holly Farrell's beautiful paintings of books and other everyday objects. Take a look at her website -
Arts and Letters Daily, thanks to Antipodean Owl in Australia.
Events - Leaving Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels as a bookcrossing book in Abercrombie Square in Liverpool.
This year seems to be hurtling by, lets see what May brings...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye