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

Monday, 31 January 2011

January Roundup

This is Ightam Mote, a National Trust property in Kent showing its wintery gardens off beautifully. You can read more about this English moated manor house by using the link. I think these houses and gardens, or their cafe's are excellent places to spend time with a book.
Lets have a recap of everything booky in January...
Read - 2 books
Completed -
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Ox-Tales: Water by various writers
Currently Reading -
Whit by Iain Banks
Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water by various authors
The English Novel in History 1895-1920 by David Trotter
TBR Pile - currently at 94 with 6 added...
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
Tinkers by Paul Harding
The Small Hand by Susan Hill
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
L'Assomoir by Emile Zola
Help by Oliver Burkehart
Challenges -
I seem to have 3 challenges on the go this year. The first one was the 8 reading resolutions for The Octogon this year and I have completed # 5, to read a short story collection with Ox-Tales:Water (review coming soon).
Then I set myself the task to read my literary theory book The English Novel in History 1895-1920 to serialise. I am currently on page 34 with the first chapter summary coming up soon. You can read more about this challenge by using the link.
Lastly I am taking part in a personal challenge with AR, a friend at work, to recommend 3 books to each other, ones we think the other will enjoy, and to read at least one of these throughout the year.
His titles for me were...
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Generation X by Douglas Coupland
No Exit: A Play in One Act by John Paul Sartre
My titles for him were...
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Germinal by Emile Zola
Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi
He is already ahead of me because he has almost finished the Levi.
Wishlist Additions -
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis
Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Solo by Rana Dasgupta
The Sound of the Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tora Bailey
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Discoveries -
My unread course book The English Novel in History 1895-1920 by David Trotter during a tidy up at home.
Events -
World Book Night on the 3rd March, a big event to give away loads of free books. Look out for an event near you. I have applied to be a 'book giver' but they were so overwhelmed with volunteers there is a delay on notification. It is a slim chance to be chosen but fun nevertheless. The book I chose was Beloved by Toni Morrison. I will let you know if I get to do this and what my plans are for the books if I get them.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I bought this book about a year ago with some book tokens. I had just seen the movie of The Road and then read a review of this one on another blog so I must have been in that kind of mood at the time.
Translated from the original Portuguese this story takes place in an unnamed city where its occupants suddenly go blind, painless white blindness, and it appears to be an epidemic because those who are only in the same room go blind shortly afterwards. As the blindness spreads the authorities struggle to know what to do and attempt to contain the contagion by herding the blind into a suitable secure unit, in this case an abandoned mental hospital, guarded by soldiers. Strict rules are repeated each day over the tannoy system, they will receive food parcels 3 times daily, will receive no help for the sick or dead or in the event of a fire, they must organise themselves and dispose of any waste, and any attempts to leave will lead to open fire by the soldiers.
Hundreds of people are brought in, unable to see, in unfamiliar and less than sanitary conditions, except for one woman who has not been struck blind but lied to remain with her husband. Through her we are able to see the ensuing carnage, through her blind companions we learn about how debilitating their condition is, to an almost hopeless degree. It is never explained why the doctors wife is not affected by the illness, nor is the illness itself. These things are not important. The emphasis is on observing how the human race would cope.
The food is more and more unreliable, and trigger happy soldiers mow down at will those who come too close, as we follow the plight of the people in the ward that contains the doctors wife who can secretly see. Soon the little food delivered is taken over by blind lawless men with a gun, and they demand various forms of payment in exchange for food. Will the woman who can see be able to organise and help those around her and keep her sight a secret?
We are taken through every horrific indignity in detail, the will to survive in the bleakest circumstances, the cruelties of a society collapsed but also the humanities that help you to carry on, and the kindnesses, however small, that give hope.
It took a little while, no more than a few pages, to get used to the writing style. Dialogue is not punctuated conventionally, so when the characters hold a conversation their dialogue is a continuous paragraph seperated only by comma's. There are some beautiful descriptive passages though...
'the others took a little longer [to wake up], they were dreaming they were stones, and we all know how deeply stones sleep, a simple stroll in the countryside shows it to be so, there they lie sleeping, half buried, awaiting who knows what awakening.'
The characters are nameless too, known only by characteristics such as the man with the eye patch, the doctor or doctors wife, the woman who couldn't sleep etc.
'Blind people do not need a name, I am a voice, nothing else matters.'
This adds to the stripping down of identity and dignity that these people have to endure. The narrator has the voice of a wildlife commentator watching an ant hill or bee hive colony, impartial observation but allowing a wry humour to creep in and sometimes a strange empathy. This comes out especially while narrating the most depraved behaviour in the mental hospital, and there is a lot in this novel, including some unbelievably shocking images during which I needed to put the book down for a bit. It was not long before I picked it up again though because from a few pages in, I could not put this book down. Even during the most base descriptions of living conditions and the vilest kinds of debauchery I had to keep reading because I was so sucked into these poor peoples lives and fascinated by the descriptions of human behaviour. It is as if the narrator is saying 'This is how human beings are', and we know that the narrator is right. There is a painful reality to everything that happens in this book even if the circumstances are fantastic.
This book brought home to me that no matter how much we have made an effort to make our lives civilised, organised and easier (if not more complicated), it can be easily broken down by just losing one of our senses. Society is just that, socialising with each other to form a community with an often unwritten set of rules or agreed patterns of behaviour, which would be quickly lost in a race for survival if order is replaced with fear and anarchy.
It also made me think about what it is to be human, the kindnesses which would survive between people should all else be lost. Yes there are cruel and thoughtless people who would think nothing of using such an opportunity to unleash their own ways to control others to survive, but the majority of people are not like this and can try to work together.
Please be warned, this is not a comfortable read, with often shocking imagery, and it does not hold back on this, as well as descriptions of insanitary conditions. There is dirt and excrement everywhere. Do not let this put you off however. This is a monumental book and I totally loved it, I have not been this excited about a novel for a good while. The subject and narrative style is not for everyone, but this is a book that offers a lot to think about, talk about, and learn from. Appreciating being able to see, everything, is a starting point, but also seeing, totally seeing. As some of the characters say in conversation...
' Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.'
There is a book group guide for Blindness, just use the link.
Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, just after this book was published and you can read about his life by using the link.
There is also a movie been made of Blindness, for more info use the link.
An amazing read that will be recommended by me frequently.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Another project for this year...

I came across this book today, a course book from my Uni days. I hardly read any of it at all at the time, it is practically new. So I have decided to read it chapter by chapter and share what I learn throughout the year. It would be such a waste if it went unread.
I quite like reading literary theory and I enjoyed writing about 2 articles I read for a challenge during 2009, one by Helene Cixous about Feminism, and another by Edward Said about Culture and Imperialism, so I want to include regular posts during this year that dissect what I read along the way.
This book covers an exciting time during novel writing, the period known as literary Modernism, looking at the way writers responded to "contemporary preoccupations such as the spectacle of consumption and the growth of suburbia, or to anxieties about the decline of Empire, racial 'degeneration' and 'sexual anarchy' "and covering mass-market genres as well as classics.
I am looking forward to revisiting this historical period and maybe learning about and exploring some more about the influences and writing evolutions of the time. Writing about it in stages on this blog will help me retain it and I hope will provoke interest in those of you who join me.
Look out for future summaries based on the chapters of this interesting book.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell

This book was bought for me as a present quite a few years ago. I don't know why it was there for so long because it looked like a good read, but I suppose personal challenges and my mood at the times of picking a new book just went in another direction, until now. I had never read anything by this author before.
We have 2 different sets of characters, whose stories run simultaneously, and come together later on in the novel. Jake is from Hong Kong, but with white parentage. His mother met his father while backpacking around the world. Unbeknown to him she is pregnant when they part company. Now in his 20s, Jake and his girlfriend of a few months are involved in a New Year crush in town, where one of their party is killed, he is injured and his girlfriend is dying in hospital. She asks of him the unthinkable before she dies, to marry her, but she lives and he is trapped, having to move to England to take care of her.
Meanwhile, in London, Stella runs across a man she thinks she knows on a bridge and collapses with fear. Knowing it is her past catching up with her, she packs in her life in London and flees to a remote hotel in Scotland without informing her sister. They have been closely bound all of their lives, through illness and an unfortunate incident at school. By coincidence, Jake's past also brings him to the same hotel.
This book is essentially a love story, 2 people running away from oppressive relationships and running into each other along the way. It includes sections that inform you of their wider families and how that has contributed to their situations. A lot of these sections are various explorations on claustrophobic family relationships, their effect and trying to escape them in order to be yourself. This was conveyed so successfully that there were parts where I wanted to scream.
The book also explores families settling in Britain away from their own countries. Stella's family are Italian, relocated to Scotland, driving the sisters together for survival at school from the bullies and generally feeling different. Jake is a non-Chinese native of Hong Kong, now living in Britain. These sections are skillfully done and obviously researched well.
On the whole I enjoyed reading about Stella and Jake, especially the parts in Scotland at the hotel, both of them denying their pasts to try to find where they are. The hotel provides a kind of buffer of anonymity, which can only ever be temporary.
I did find, however, that there were lots of mysteries that came up early in the book and were not referred to until the end, as in Stella's reaction to the man on the bridge. Or not resolved at all and never referred to again, such as Jake's search for his father, so that the focus of the beginning of the book was let go and replaced by the love story.
I also found Jake and particularly Stella so reserved and emotionally cocooned within themselves that I did not feel involved with them as much as I would have liked.
There are a lot of issues in the book to talk about, resettled families, the relationships between sisters, running from the past. There are some lovely descriptive sections and incidents related from both Stella's and Jake's point of view showing a skillful writer. I would possibly consider reading another by this author even though this one felt a little uninvolved and disjointed on the whole,but altogether it was a pleasant and untaxing read, a book that would be suitable for relaxing with on a sunny holiday.
Maggie O'Farrell has her own website which includes a reading guide for The Distance Between Us. Just click the links.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Looking back and looking forward

I love this part of the year, reviewing what we have done, and setting some goals for the next year.
The image on the left will accompany my reading resolutions for 2011. You will see this picture on my sidebar which will link to my progress throughout the year. Many thanks to my friend LCS who designed this picture for me. My 2011 reading resolutions are explained further on in this post, first the stats from 2010...
In total I have read 19 books, one up on last year but in keeping with my pace of reading. Nothing like many blogs who are into the 100's but a good amount for me. The female writers clocked up as 12, whereas the male writers came in at 7, so very different to last year when it was equal. While interesting, it is purely coincidental.
The nationalities of the authors was as following...
English - 8
USA - 4
Canadian - 2
Danish - 1
Brazilian - 1
Icelandic - 1
Russian - 1
British (as in born in Northern Ireland and then living in Scotland and Wales) - 1
- Three of these books were in translation
- Three were non-fiction
The genres of the books read in 2010 were as follows -
Historical drama - 7
Drama - 3
Fantasy - 2
Spiritual Adventure - 1
Crime drama - 1
Romantic drama - 1
- 3 of the books were prizewinners
- 5 of the books are known as classics
- 2 of the books were short story collections
- 1 book was by a new writer
Favourite reads of 2010...
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Emma by Jane Austen
The Blue Fox by Sjon
A Month in the Country by J L Carr
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year by Susan Hill
Favourite Cover Design (a new category for this year)...
The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint, design by John Jude Palencar (click the title to see)
Other accomplishments during 2010...
Organizing and taking part in my first Novel Holiday, the Jane Austen literary holiday in August.
I also set myself some directional reading challenges to complete during the year and the results of these are printed in red...
  1. Read another Jane Austen - Emma
  2. Read another Russian - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  3. Read another short story collection - Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  4. Read another American classic - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  5. Read an Irish classic - uncompleted
  6. Read another Zola - uncompleted (but carried to next year)
  7. Read another Charles de Lint - The Mystery of Grace
  8. Read another Elizabeth Gaskell - Cranford

I enjoyed setting these goals, not as a rigid challenge, but just to organise and focus my reading with my TBR pile in mind, and to see where I got with it.

So onward into 2011...

My new reading resolutions, 8 in all, in keeping with the spirit of The Octogon...

  1. Read another Bronte
  2. Read Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  3. Read an Eastern European Writer
  4. Read an Isabelle Allende
  5. Read a short story collection
  6. Read an Iain Banks
  7. Read another Carson McCullers
  8. Read another Zola (carried from last year)

These choices are simply prompted by my TBR pile as well as personal wishes. It is not set in stone and will be interesting to see how far I get.

Also for 2011 there is a possibility of another Novel Holiday to organise. I'll be getting on to that in January so watch this space!

There it is, a whole year in one little post, although we know it is so much more than that. Many thanks to all of you who have joined me along the way, checked out the blog from time to time, left comments. Also thanks is due to all the other book bloggers who make up this unique and inspiring community. All the best for 2011.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye