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

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

When I said that I wanted to 'read another Russian' at the beginning of the year, a kind person e-mailed me with this book as a recommendation. I liked the sound of it so it joined my wishlist and a friend then bought it for me. It sat on my TBR pile for a few months until I saw that it was the favourite novel of Sjon, the author of The Blue Fox (review here), so it was time to give it a go.

Written just before Bulgakov's death in 1940, but not published until 1966 this novel follows the events affecting some of Moscow's literary elite when the devil and his motley band of followers (including a big black cat called Behemoth and a naked lady) pay them all a visit, resulting in carnage and chaos in the city. Posing as a magician and calling himself Woland, the devil takes over someones flat, causes several people to be admitted to the local mental hospital, undertakes a show at the Variety theatre causing the audience to strip naked and run out of the theatre with fists full of paper that they are convinced are money and lots of other mischief. The only people resistant to Woland are The Master, currently residing in the same mental institution previously mentioned, since his disappointment over his own novel about Pontius Pilate, and his ex-lover Margarita. Woland invites Margarita to a ball where history's most macabre characters are due to attend. But beforehand, she is transformed into a witch and flies over Moscow and Russia to a lakeside. This is one of the novel's more fantastical scenes, as well as the ball itself where Margarita is guest of honour and has to receive the bizarre and the wonderful while sitting naked. Margarita manages to pull this off and is rewarded by Woland. Interspersed with all of this are sections from The Master's book about Pontius Pilate and the events of the day of the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha Nostri, or Jesus of Nazareth as we know him more commonly.

The language of this translation and the literary style of the novel is not difficult to read, and certainly the narrator in my version resembled the chirpy, friendly voice that reminded me of the narrator in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (which I never completed). This constantly cheery voice may possibly be to convey humour but the resemblance to a Blue Peter TV childrens show presenter seemed to totally belie the subject matter. This is probably personal to me, and could be a voice I have concocted in my own mind, but it is one of the reasons I stopped reading the Susanna Clarke novel.

I have found the review of this book to be one of the hardest ones I have had to write, not only for the complicatedness of the novel, it's story and themes, but also because of how I feel about it. When I told a work colleague, who has also read it, that I was writing this review, he said, 'Where are you going to start...?'

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed immensely. Mostly the beginning few chapters, and the sections about Pontius Pilate as an alternative view of an ingrained story from the Bible. I also liked it that Woland was not your conventional kind of devil, showing a generous and also a compassionate side. However there were other sections where I was aware of my attention waning. Hordes of more naked women ended up boring me. I like fantasy realism a lot (see my review of The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue) but some style of fantasy may just not be to my taste I guess.

When I was trying to think of what to say in this review I realised that I have probably enjoyed the novel more afterwards, while reading about it's innovative stance on social and literary issues in Russia at the time, rather than during the actual reading of it. There is another author, a hugely loved and inspirational writer, who has had the same effect on me, and that is Virginia Woolf. I can see the reason why they are important, I can admire their forward thinking and talent, I enjoy learning about them and their work and some parts are memorable, but the reading of the book itself was hard work.

This book is an excellent choice for reading groups however. There is such a lot to talk about both with the story and also its literary and social context and it will probably raise a whole array of opinions. I am glad I read it, some of it will stay with me, even though I didn't find all of it enjoyable.

Penguin does a Master and Margarita reading guide if you click the link.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Rural and Pastoral Novels

I first saw this film many years ago. Made in 1987 it stars a young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh and is set in the English Countryside in 1919 during one balmy summer. I have seen it a few times since and I have always loved it. So much so that I have found myself recommending it twice in the last two weeks.
Then, (how is this for a coincidence), I was in Waterstones in Southport at the weekend, and they were promoting books about the British Countryside and there was the novel of the same name by J L Carr. It was the last copy left on the display so I snapped it up and can't wait to read it.
Apparently the film has been quite scarce in recent years and there is a website dedicated to reviving A Month in the Country on DVD.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how much I love stories set in the British Countryside, 'Far from the Madding Crowd' so to speak. I can be a bit of a country bumpkin and totally buy into the nostalgia of it.
Here are some of my favourites...
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Precious Bane by Mary Webb (my all time favourite book)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Cousin Phyllis by Elizabeth Gaskell
and numerous Catherine Cookson's from my youth.
On my TBR pile I have...
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
and now A Month in the Country by J L Carr.
Do you have any favourite pastoral novels?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

June Roundup

After having a great weekend last week in Shropshire and seeing Othello at Ludlow Castle as part of the Ludlow Festival, this logo seemed a good place to start.
Read - 1 and a half books
Completed - 1 book...The Girls by Lori Lansens
Currently Reading - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
TBR Pile - No books added so the pile is at 80 books (according to Good Reads).
Challenges - My current book by Bulgakov complies with my personal goal to 'Read another Russian' this year.
Wishlist Additions -
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Kings of the Earth by Jon Chich
What is left the daughter by Howard Norman
The Unit by Nimmi Holquist
Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo
Discoveries - The Ludlow Festival
Events - Othello at Ludlow Castle, really good production on a summers eve in Shropshire. Would love to go again and will be keeping an eye on the program for next year. I love outdoor theatre!
Now preparing for our Jane Austen holiday at the end of July, and also make progress on The Master and Margarita.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Just a quick post to fill you in on how things have been going here at The Octogon. I was camping in Shropshire last weekend so missed my usual slot here on the web, and it seemed like a good time to regroup some thoughts.
We have had some gorgeous weather here in England, warm and sunny. Perfect weather for camping. My lovely friend and her cool sis, who both live in Nottingham, invited me camping to test out their new Bell Tent that they want to take to Bestival in August. We chose Shropshire on my recommendation because it is kind of between Nottingham and Liverpool, and one of the most beautiful and less well known counties in England. I had not visited for about 15 years but used to go quite a lot because it is the place where my favourite author came from...Mary Webb (Precious Bane, Gone to Earth etc). All of her novels were set in the county during the 18th and 19th centuries and you can visit lots of the natural locations that appear in the books. It is one of my favourite places and I have lots of special memories there.
Coincidentally, we were staying near Ludlow and the Ludlow festival was on and we got tickets to see Othello at Ludlow castle on Saturday night. It was brilliant, a real treat. I didn't know what to expect at all. Of course the weather was fantastic, and Ludlow is a lovely old medieval town. The play was full and everyone was dotted about, lounging on the grass inside the walls, having picnics and drinking wine and Pimms in the evening sunshine. The performance took place within the castle walls itself. The set was impressive and the production was really good, very exciting all the way through with excellent performances and direction. A lovely summers evening thing to do and a great location. We have already mentioned going again next year, and we know it has quite a following. The play is not the only thing happening at the the link above to see for yourself. It was a great weekend.
I am still reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I am about a quarter of the way through. Some parts are interesting, then others drag a bit and my concentration wanes so it is slow progress at the mo. I need a good session with it to pick up the motivation again.
Lastly, over at Book Club Girl there is a link to an interesting article in the LA Times about Book Bloggers and their relationship with publishers which I wanted to mention. Click the link to take a look.
Thats where I am at for now. Hope the sun is out where you are!

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye