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

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Blue Fox by Sjon

This book has been on quite a few blogs for a while and highly recommended, so when I needed another non Jane Austen choice for our holiday in August, this seemed an interesting book to go with.
It is only 100 pages long and I read it in a day. Written by Sjon from Iceland (he writes lyrics for Bjork), it is set in the Icelandic wilderness in 1883. We are told two juxtaposed stories that become invariably linked as the tale comes together. The first follows Baldur Skuggason, a priest, hunting for the valuable Blue Fox in the snowy wastelands. Then we follow Fridrik B. Fridriksson a few days earlier, a naturalist who knows the priest. Fridrik had come back to his parents home 17 years earlier, to sell it and move on. But after rescuing Abba, a girl with Downs Syndrome, who had been shackled to a ship that had run aground, he had stayed and she had stayed with him. The last part revisits the Priest and the fox. All of them are bound together.
As I said, this is a quick read, which makes the depth of its imagery and meaning a skillful achievement. Some pages contain only a paragraph or even a sentence. It suits the rhythm of the book without being pretentious at all. Lyrical and poetic, but never difficult to read, you realise quickly that this book is special. Called a fable, and 'part-mystery, part fairy-tale' this book operates on lots of levels, some of which are incredibly moving (I was gulping back tears at one point during my lunch break at work so as not to embarress myself), and some of which are truly beautiful. It is also funny, no more so than when the Priest is enraptured by a cods head he has to eat. I want to read it again to enjoy the subtleties I missed the first time around.
The book has not suffered in translation as far as I can tell, Victoria Cribb deserves a mention for a translation that maintains its humour and warmth. The only thing that non-Icelandic readers will miss out on are some of the significant references to traditional stories and myths, as I did. It was, however, fun and interesting to find out some of them while reading about the book afterwards.
A beautiful book, full of intelligent passages and magical moments, memorable and moving. A good choice for book groups also. I am looking forward to discussing it on holiday later this year.
You can read an interview with Sjon about his book The Blue Fox on Me And My Big Mouth

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

2nd Blogiversary

I almost can't believe it but The Octogon is 2 years old today. To celebrate this I have indulged my love of lists by compiling some categories about the books I have read.
My top 5 books...
Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Books that made me cry...
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Books that made me laugh out loud...
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Books that I hated...
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
The Magus by John Fowles
Books that it was important to read...
Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Germinal by Emile Zola
Books that surprised me...
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
The Beach by Alex Garland
Books that disappointed...
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Books I read after seeing the film...
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
Books that scared the pants off me...
The Shining by Stephen King
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Books that everyone else has read except me...
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A book I loved but no one else seems to have heard of...
The Dreamer by Daniel Quinn
I compiled this list for my own record really, but I am sure there may be some in there that you agree or disagree with. Hopefully The Octogon will continue so that I get to indulge more lists like these for a while yet..

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Emma by Jane Austen

The edition that I read of this classic was a lovely Hamish Hamilton Novel Library edition that was published in 1952. It was in a box of second hand books that a friend gave to me some time ago, and has a fresh green cover not unlike the one to your left.
As I have mentioned previously about my Jane Austen holiday coming up in August, this is one of the books set for the trip. It is my fourth Jane Austen (I have previously read Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), and also completes my personal directional reading challenge for this year to 'read another Jane Austen'.
For those of you who are not familiar with the novel and have not seen any of the film or TV adaptations, this tells the story of the well-to-do families residing in the fictional town of Highbury in Surrey in the earlier part of the 19th century during the period of one year. The main character of the title, Emma Woodhouse, is 'handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition...and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.' So says the first sentence in the whole book. The trouble is, Emma has a high opinion of herself and fancies herself as a bit of a matchmaker for those around her.
For herself she claims she will never marry, but as we are introduced to the other members of this genteel society, Emma, with kindness in her heart, tries to predict matches and cajole them into reality. In doing so, she gets herself and others into pickle of dashed hopes and unpredictable preferences.
We accompany Emma on her journey from bright and intelligent young girl, oblivious to her own vanities, to a more mature and balanced young woman who retains all of her warmth and generocity but in a much more balanced and attractive way.
We are also introduced in detail to the other friends and residents of Highbury, not only by character, but their all important social standing within this close knit society. The many characters and their interactions are the bulk of this story. We rarely step outside the comforts of this. It is their subtleties of manner and interaction that drive this novel, centering around Emma.
Austen's style is known well enough for her books to be a surprise these days. Many love her enclosed worlds of the higher classes of early 19th century England, the measured behaviour, the concentration upon marrying the right man and bettering your position. You can read between the lines about gender roles and the essentials of health and securing your future, but rarely does anything more topical or gritty infiltrate her stories, and this is her strength for some, and her weakness for others.
Personally I welcome the little holiday from the harsh realities of life that her stories provide. I know that there are wars, poverty, prostitution and child cruelties all just beyond the covers of the novel, and widely covered by other great novelists, many of whom I also love reading. But sometimes Jane Austen provides an enjoyable alternative. Her books are not without talent or importance, and the concerns of her characters are very real.
I really enjoyed reading Emma. I found her suitably naive and slightly annoying at first and therefore enjoyed her development. I grew fond of many of the other characters too, the dependable Mr Knightley, the warmth of the Westons, the intrigue of Jane Fairfax, the ridiculous Eltons, the comedy and sadness of Miss Bates. As the preface of my edition says, 'Jane Austen's laughter is of the quiet and private kind, mocking but sympathetic, sometimes genteel, often sly, seldom unkind and never cruel. And of all her books Emma has the most of this gentle gaiety'.
I have certainly found it the lightest of Austen's novels that I have read.
Jane Austen herself said, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.' I think many, including myself, have and will enjoy reading about her, as well as indulging their need to enter Emma's world for a while. I am looking forward to discussing this book with my friends on holiday to Hampshire in August.
A reading group guide to Emma can be found by clicking the link.
To read an essay written by the Australian Jane Austen society entitled Emma -Understanding Jane Austen's World click the link.

Monday, 3 May 2010

April Roundup

This picture of King Lear's Fool was drawn by Hannah Tompkins and I have used it for April, being the month of April Fools Day, and also to celebrate these essential characters in Shakespeares plays. You can see other images by this artist on the Shakespeare Art Museum website.
Read - three quarters of a book.
Completed - none
Currently reading - still Emma by Jane Austen
TBR Pile - 81 books (according to Good Reads) with one book added...
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniers
Challenges - still reading Emma as my Jane Austen choice, but have also been looking at potential Emile Zola titles too.
Wishlist Additions -
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Grace by Alex Preby
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
Discoveries -
The Open University has 2 new under graduate arts courses...
AA100 The Arts Past and Present is the new arts foundation course at level 1
A150 Voices and Texts is a new introductory course in arts and humanities at level 1
Both of these sound very interesting.
Events - going to see Shakespeares A Comedy of Errors at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester at the beginning of the month.
May is already underway, I have nearly finished Emma, and have lots of things to report on for next months roundup, including my trip to London this weekend just gone.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye