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

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Brian Tasker

Over the years a number of people, who know of my love for the Haiku Poem, ask where it started. It all began with the man pictured here, Brian Tasker.
About 20 years ago I was in Covent Garden in London, in a street called Neal Street East. There was a quirky shop there, a bit of a warehouse really, and it sold all sorts, and inside to the right was a bookshop that specialised in the arts. I went in many times afterwards, although it is no longer there.
Typically, on that first visit, I ended up in the poetry section and found two strange hand made books almost buried amongst the conventional titles. They were made of parchment, hand made paper, and sewn at the spine with wool and raffia. It was like finding a secret book in a strange bookshop at the beginning of so many stories. They were beautiful, and begging to be opened.
We were in the shop about 40 minutes and the entire time that my family scoured the shelves, I stood in one corner reading these books. They were by Brian Tasker and it was my first encounter with the Haiku.
I didn't get it at first, a deliberately arranged sentence on every page, but they were making me laugh or making me sad and I couldn't stop reading them. They were so simple yet seemed to say so much. I was astounded to find that these little books were for sale, because it felt like I had accidently found someones personal possession, left behind on the shelf. Their titles were Woodsmoke and Notes From A Humdrum - A Year in Haiku, and I have had them ever since.
Brian Tasker is involved with Makeshift Theatre, which has a page about his poetry. I have since come across him in compilations, many of which you can find at the Iron Press, or as editor for other collections. These particular ones were published by the Bare Bones Press, a journal founded by Tasker.
The delight I felt at finding those strange little books all those years ago led to a deep love for the Haiku form and many other collections for my shelves. However those first books by the poet above are my most treasured. Look out for his words on 'Haiku of the Week' on my sidebar, here at The Octogon.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

This book was my lucky dip from last year's Novel Holiday in Dorset. I had heard of the book already having bought it as a present for someone else. This is the 2nd title that is linked to our literary holidays, in accordance to #3 of my own challenges of the year.
The book tells the story of the Khan family, the head of which, Sultan Khan, is the bookseller of the title. The writer was a journalist from Norway who stayed with the family while working in Afghanistan and documented their story as a piece of literature.
The chapters focus on a different family member each time, relaying incidents that happened while she was with them, and the family members thoughts and opinions come from conversations that she had with them, we are told in the foreward.
The chapters cover new marriage proposals, trips to the market or the hammam with the female members, a trip to Pakistan with one of the sons, an attempt to join a night school class by one of the daughters, amongst others. We explore their characters and sense of survival, in a damaged city in a country that has such a violent, shifting history. Tradition holds the family together but suppresses various members in accordance with a hierarchy which is mainly dependent on your sex. Women are are given little opportunity to be independent and yet are criticised for being dependent on the male members, giving them licence to dish out abuse whenever it suits them. The younger male members, subject to the whims of their egotistical elders, take out their frustrations on those below them in the pecking order, so much so that the youngest daughter is kept at home as an unpaid and despised slave for the rest of the family. Sultan is a respected business man and his word is the law. He can treat his family however he likes because society has decreed him all powerful, so selfishness and lack of regard are part of everyday life.
Since this book was published the Khan family have rejected their portrayal, especially Sultan (not his real name). I was confused about the title, because this is more about the bookseller's family than the bookseller himself so I kept wondering when it was getting back to the main protaganist until I realised that it was only marginally about him.
The bulk of this book belongs to the women, wives, daughters, sisters, who also have their hierarchy, the youngest being bottom of the pile entirely. This may be because the writer was allowed to get closer to these members, into their confidence being female, or maybe because their plight interested her more. I couldn't help feeling that some of their opinions about their plight were more the authors than the women themselves though and it was here that I had a problem reading the book.
I really do not like Western writers portraying other cultures as repressive, backward or cruel in an unbalanced or arrogant way. I felt the writing was coming from a viewpoint that was situated on a pedestal looking down. Nearly all of it was negative. There was little said about affection, love, friendship. Do these things not exist in Afghanistan? The whole of this book seemed to be inviting you to sneer and be horrified at how awful Afghani family life is, and God help you if you are a girl. Granted, cruelties exist in all cultures, and need to be spoken of, but Westerners need to be careful not to dwell only on these things. Finding beauty alongside their difficulties, in moments or human relationships allows us to connect to them in some way, otherwise it can seem like a diatribe of derision.
I wonder whether the mistake here is in writing this as a literary work rather than a journalistic piece. I did actually like the chapter in the market describing the difficulties of wearing the Burkhas, or the women washing at the hammam, mainly because the writing became more interesting and descriptive, the women becoming people, interacting with one another. The rest of the book was not this way though. There seemed to be no relief for any of them, no special times, no pride in each other, not even a favourite meal or food spoken of.
The complicated and violent history of the region is dealt with so briefly, mostly in one chapter at the beginning, that I felt I was not given sufficient information to understand their differences. It ended up feeling like a one dimensional story that I didn't fully trust to be authentic to the people that it spoke about.
Discussion Questions about The Bookseller of Kabul can be found by using the link. I think there is plenty to talk about for book groups.
An opinion about the inaccuracies of the book can be read by using the link.
It is worth noting that my opinions about this book were formed during reading it or shortly afterwards. The controversy surrounding the legal cases about the authenticity of the opinions reported came to me later while reading around it for my post, adding further dimension to an already sensitive subject. They did not shape my feelings for the book, my concerns for which I had already voiced to others while reading it.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This book was talked about and recommended during our Jane Austen Novel Holiday in Hampshire 2 years ago. I liked the sound of it so when my mum asked me if I wanted any books for Christmas that year I gave her this title. I read it for #3 of my own challenges to read two titles that came up during our Novel Holidays.
In short compact chapters we hear about 6 year old Sophia and her summer with her grandmother on a small island in the gulf of Finland. As each day is whiled away in the sunshine life becomes microscopic in its detail as well as vast in its imagination. Sophia, under her grandmothers guidance, is finding her individuality. Every day brings an adventure. A storm, a cat, a visit, a boat trip, a game. The house belongs to nature as much as to them, the island is a wilderness to be explored, the summer ticks on and life is changing rapidly for both of them.
The narrator is in the third person but much of it is Sophia's young view of the world. Her wide eyed wonder and cautious sense of adventure is coupled with her grandmothers wisdom and gentle encouragement. There is deep love between them but not without the usual frustrations and tiresomness that comes with living close together. All of this is explored and relayed to us in economical prose conveying the simple truths of the relationship with each other and the island.
Warmth comes not only bounding from the rocks by the shore, but from the tangible heart of this story. It is no surprise that Jansson drew on her own experiences with her grandmother as a child because this feels personal, as if we have been given an intimate glimpse through a keyhole at a private and beautiful time between these two people generations apart.
You can probably tell that I loved it, it was a complete treat to be able to dive into their world in short bursts. It was funny, poignant, moving (but never sentimental) and an adventure for me as a reader. I could feel the heat of the sun, hear the sea lapping the jetty, smell the plants, imagine the course stones and rocks, but this was only part of it. This book is about people and how they get on with each other. The subjects were so simple and yet completely involving and it was one of those books that I was sad to leave behind at the end.
Beautiful, and highly recommended. A rare treasure.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

June Roundup

Lovely gooseberries, the sign of summer. Bought a load of these from our local market last week to make Gooseberry and Elderflower Ice Cream. The luscious green of these fruit, in season for such a short time, seemed a good representation for June.
On to the books...
Read - half a book. It has been a slow month, being away for a week and an otherwise busy month.
Completed - none
Currently Reading -
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
The Organic Year by Patricia Gallimore
TBR Pile - currently at 124 books (according to GoodReads) with just one added...
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
Challenges -
Still managed to stick to #1 of my challenges to not buy any new books this year. My one addition to the TBR pile was a second hand copy from The Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street in Lyme Regis, a great bookshop to get lost in for an hour or so.
Completed #5 of my challenges to compare 3 books to films with The Great Gatsby in my last post.
Wishlist Additions -
Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
Tiny Homes Simple Shelter by Lloyd Khan
The Green Self Build Book by Jon Broome
The Art of Mindful Gardening by Ark Redwood
Red Sky At Night by Jane Struthers
Discoveries -
The Old Books Guide and its accompanying website, a very useful resource for Antiquarian and Second Hand Booksellers in the Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset.
Two great bookshops in Lyme Regis in Dorset...The Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street I have already mentioned, and The Bookshop on Marine Parade by The Cobb. Both lovely bookshops and mentioned on the above website for The Old Books Guide.
Beetroot Books website, a site that specializes in books on gardening and cooking.
Events - An amazing and heart wrenching performance by Leanne Best in The Match Box by Frank McGuinness at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio.
Lets hope the rains dry up a little in July because it hasn't stopped for the last few weeks.
I am also loving being on Twitter (@leah_theoctogon) and am rapidly becoming addicted. Great way to share information, on books or just about anything else.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye