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

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...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye