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

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This was a book that I acquired in a book swap on the first literary holiday that I organised in Hampshire. The person who donated it recommended it but since then another friend has spoken about it often enough to bump it to the top of my TBR pile.
It fleshes out the story of Dinah, mentioned almost as a plot driver in the Old Testament, as the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who was raped, an event that triggered revenge and slaughter from her family. Taking this as a base to work with Diamant allows Dinah a voice in this first person narrative, to tell not just her own story, but those of her mothers, because Dinah had four.
We are taken into the ancient world of nomadic farmers in the Middle East, but unusually we focus on the life that revolves around the Red Tent, where the women live, cook, sing, menstruate and give birth. This tent is off limits to their male counterparts, who never enter, and the women are allowed to be themselves, talk, laugh, sometimes compete, but always to support each other and offer experience and wisdom.
Dinah's mother is Leah, Jacob's first wife, but she absorbs the stories and experience of all four of his wives, and celebrates each of them with affection. This forms the first half of the novel, the rhythms of existence as Dinah grows from a girl into a young woman in the family camp, eventually assisting Rachel, Jacob's second wife, as midwife to the women in the area. It is when Rachel and Dinah are summoned to the palace in Shechem to help with a birth that the story changes pace and Dinah's life course changes forever. The last part of this story takes place in Egypt and a is a wholly different chapter of her life as she matures and reaches the later stages of life, but with no less emphasis on her experience as a woman so long ago.
This book felt epic, not only because it covers Dina's life so completely, with all of its episodes from Israel to Egypt and back again, but atmospherically it plays out like a Charlton Heston movie. Whenever I pictured the book in my mind it came with all of the colours of that part of the world, reds, golds and desert colours, so that I could feel the sun on my skin, the dust on my feet. I loved being admitted to the Red Tent, hearing their stories. Dinah's affection for her mothers transferred easily to me. When the novel took a right angle turn half way through I mourned the loss of that nomadic world, even though the plot still carried me away in a different direction with little time to look back. When we finally arrived in Egypt, with so many tragedies behind us already, I was so completely attached to Dinah and the people around her that tears were inevitable, and I cried buckets.
I found this to be a beautiful and involving novel, sufficiently re-creating a mythological world from a distant past to a tangible one of my imagination that was difficult to leave behind at the end. The shift of dynamic in the middle is a little sudden and requires a resetting of interest in the reader, but Diamant is following the transcript laid down in the original texts. The story does collect itself again still linking back to the first part while following another path entirely.
While being vaguely familiar with the original story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah from Sunday Schools past, I was curious to see how much of it was in the Bible and re-read the passages in Genesis. I was very surprised how closely they ran parallel to each other, and how frank the ancient text is about women, and their monthly cycles. The story about the stolen idols and Rebecca's reason for keeping them I believed to be an embellishment, surely that is not in the Holy Book, but it is all there.
My friend who had read it spoke with a little envy about the feeling of kinship between the women, especially during menstruation or giving birth, and the enveloping protection of the Red Tent itself. The feminine intimacy of these scenes may put some people off, especially men, while others who prefer a fast paced, plot-driven story may find the earlier parts of the book too slow. However if you like observational story telling based around intricate relationships, heavily weighted towards the feminist aspects of ancient history, this lovely, warm and involving book is for you. I would also highly recommend it for your book group, with lots to talk about, especially if you can get your male members to read it.
A Reading Group Guide for The Red Tent can be found by using the link.
An interesting article about The Red Tent and its success in MS Magazine, including an interview with the author also makes a useful read.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

May and June Roundups

I have been in Italy for over a month and I had planned on posting on my tablet from there but it wouldn't let me post pictures, so instead of the 'sporadic posts' that I mentioned I have been missing unintentionally, but not permanently. Now I am back and service will resume as normal.
While I was away too, just after my arrival, it was The Octogon's 5th Birthday on the 18th May, so I was pretty disappointed not to be able to put something on here. Five years... wow!
I was living in Florence while I did a language course to learn Italian, it was the best fun and a delight to have the excuse to pretend that I lived in my favourite city. Part of me has stayed there, I felt so at home, and hope to go back as soon as I can.
In the meantime, did I do much reading...?
Read - one book. Yes, only one!
Completed -
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Currently Reading -
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Literary Genius edited by Joseph Epstein
Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari
TBR Pile - currently at 127 (according to GoodReads) with 2 added...
If This Is A Man / The Truce by Primo Levi
The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi
Challenges -
Read The Gathering by Anne Enright, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, which fits with #8 of my challenges to read a prizewinner.
Reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks to fit in with #6 of my own challenges, to read at least one title acquired in a book swap at work. It also seemed a fitting tribute to the author who died earlier this year too.
Wishlist Additions
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
Discoveries -
The fantastic bookshop Paperback Exchange in Florence, Italy. Selling books in English it is an excellent place to spend time, with a good assortment of titles and translations, new and second-hand, in a couple of rooms with seats to encourage browsing. The staff are very friendly, and they run a loyalty scheme and will also buy back your unwanted books for credit in the shop. I indulged in more than a few visits. It was here also that I bought the Primo Levi titles mentioned above. I have always wanted to read more after being amazed by Moments of Reprieve years ago. When I came across more in this bookshop, it seemed apt and special to buy them while in Italy.
Events -
Apart from feeling like I was in an E M Forster novel while walking around Florence, and seeing where the Rossetti's lived and where George Eliot and Henry James stayed while visiting the city, Florence is an incredibly artistic and literary place to be, inspiring, beautiful, historic, but also very current. I miss it terribly, but I know I will be back soon.

Monday, 6 May 2013

April Roundup

As this year speeds ahead, so does the literary world, especially here where the Liverpool Literary Festival is in full swing. It has been a great month for books generally.

Here is my personal account of what went on in April...

Read - 2 books
Completed -
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
First and Only by Peter Flannery
Currently Reading -
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Literary Genius edited by Joseph Epstein
Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari
TBR Pile - currently at 126 (according to goodreads) with one book added this month courtesy of World Book Night - Damage by Josephine Hart.
Challenges -
Read First and Only by Peter Flannery, a mystery about a serial killer with a twist for #4 of my challenges, to read a detective mystery, although it doesn't quite fit this because there is detection but not a detective per se.
Reading The Gathering by Anne Enright, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, which fits with #8 of my challenges to read a prizewinner (Eve Green already fits this challenge so I have ended up reading 2 for this category, but no worries)
Wishlist Additions -
100 Must Read American Novels by Nick Rennison and Ed Wood
Palisades Park by Alan Brennert
A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend
Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell
Discoveries -
Lots going on online...
Independent Booksellers fight back against Amazon with a petition to No10, supported by Stephen Fry, Margaret Hodge and Charlie Higson, to pay their taxes, in The Guardian.

Some literary award announcements with...
- The Women's Prize for Fiction longlist
- International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist

The new list of Granta's Best of the Young British Novelists is announced, and The Guardian looks back at the first Granta list from 1993, which included Will Self, Jeanette Winterson, Ben Okri, Iain Banks, Louis de Bernieres, Kazuo Ishiguro, Esther Freud and Alan Hollinghurst amongst others, to see how things have changed and become more complicated for our new generation of writers.

There is a celebration of the work of novelist Iain Banks following the sad announcement that he has been diagnosed with gall bladder cancer.

The Book Doctor at The Guardian asked Do classic childrens books give us too rosy a view of childhood? which I am sure will prompt some strong views and good debate.

On a lighter note...
-Reading Nooks inspires us on fascinating places that people make space to read.
-Are cats the top dogs in literature? You decide.
-For Penguin Books enthusiasts, you can now buy Penguin Library Wallpaper from the Literary Gift Company, to furnish your reading nook.

Events -
Like I said it has been literary central up here in Liverpool, with the Literary Festival kicking off on World Book Night at St Georges Hall, where I met the lovely Simon from Savidge Reads, book giveaways all over the city, a City Wide Read of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini in anticipation of the stage adaptation coming to the Liverpool Playhouse, and a variety of talks and events all over the city.
Simon has been involved with a lot of sessions for the festival, and was hosting a talk that I went to yesterday at the Bluecoat Chambers, called Celebrating The Bookshop, with Jessica Fox who left a career with NASA to open a bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland, Sarah Henshaw who runs a bookshop on a barge, and Mandy Vere from our own radical bookshop News From Nowhere in Liverpool. Jen Campbell, the author of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops, was meant to be there but was unable to make it. It was a good talk, with about 45 people attending, encompassing the passion of booksellers, the decline in independent bookstores, the monopoly of Amazon and it's effects, how booksellers and libraries fit together, and strange and curious tales from the shop floor. It was a very enjoyable and worthwhile talk.

My posts will be a little more sporadic during May and June bacause I am away, but I will still be here, with a host of things to talk about on my return I am sure.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This one, you may remember, was one of the titles I was challenged to read last year by my work colleague BD, after he had enjoyed it. I have only just got around to reading it earlier this year after finding this copy with a very attractive cover picture. I knew of the story but had never read the book, Wilde's only novel, and was keen to do so.
Set during the Fin de Siecle high society in London, the artist, Basil Hallward has been painting the young Dorian Gray's portrait, a young and very beautiful youth circulating the aristocratic scene. Basil has become quite obsessed by Dorian because of his looks, and also his innocence and naivete. On the last sitting for the painting Lord Henry Wotton arrives at the house, an enticing socialite who thrives on excessive experience and aestheticism, being rich and therefore able to do so. His life of indulgence has bred a cynical and manipulative man and on meeting the fresh faced Dorian, he entertains himself by determining to introduce him to a more hedonistic lifestyle and viewpoint, a thrilling prospect for the young man, and against every beseechment from Basil to leave him uncorrupted. They talk about beauty and youthfulness, and in a moment of overwhelming madness after seeing his perfection in Basil's painting, Dorian wishes that the painting would take on the ageing and ravishments of life so that he can keep his youth.
"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in this whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" (Ch2 p29)
Lord Henry's influence shapes the young Dorian's life from then on, and each selfish act is recorded in the painting. Dorian first notices a sneer at the corner of the mouth after he has cruelly let down a young woman and realises that the request has been granted, the picture will record his life while his looks will remain untarnished. This knowledge, a form of redemption against anything he may wish for, alongside Lord Henry's encouragement to experience every pleasure regardless of consequence, leads Dorian on a very dark and shady path, ending in a life of depravity and selfish disregard. The painting, now hidden in a locked room, grows hideous and deformed, while Dorian remains unaged and beautiful. The consequences are far reaching, on those around him, but also his own torments as he swivels out of control altogether.
There are many lessons in this novel, warnings of excess, the preoccupation of image, although Wilde denied any didacticism. Being a supporter of the Aesthetic movement, he believed that art was useless and should only be admired for it's own sake. There is a lot to support this movement in the novel (and indeed in his other works) because it deals with the importance of beauty, and certainly it is Dorian's looks that allow a certain amount of acceptance despite the rumours that surround him. It is only those who are immediately affected by his behaviour who shun him, but no one actively calls him to count amongst the fashionable and the rich. Wealth and good looks seem to provide him with an exemplary pass.
Cleverly, and enticingly, we never find out about some of the acts that have led various former friends (and their sisters's) to avoid him, never speak of him, and in some cases bow out of their mutual circles in a form of escape. This is most profound in the contents of a piece of paper passed to a former close friend in order to blackmail him into providing a gross and terrible service to get Dorian out of a messy situation. We never find out what is written, and it is all the more powerful in it's absence. What on earth had occured between them? It is never spoken of, but you know it will have been indecent, amoral, and probably illegal, with the other man possibly not knowing what he had got himself into before it was too late.
I also loved the details that betray Wilde's own attitudes. Basil's fawning over Dorian's perfect beauty reaches levels of eroticim and idolatory that are way beyond any formal friendship. It is obvious that Basil has been lying awake fantacising about the young man. Then there is the interesting portrayal of women. There are virtually no realistic women characters in it. The young actress, Sybil Vane, is given the most floor time, but comes over as a caracature out of a cheap romantic melodrama, all swoons and grand gestures. Other women are portrayed as pretty furniture, slightly batty and unaware of the goings-on that surround them, only serving to plump up the personalities of the men in their life (probably quite truthful for the times). Lord Henry's observation of the female sex sets the scene.
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." (Ch 4, p 53)
Wilde's deliberate portrayals of the female characters serves to question whether he wanted to bring attention to their disregard in society at the time, or did he find them as tedious as his male characters seem to?
The first few chapters are very wordy, endless conversations between the three men, but it was after this that the plot drove it forward, becoming morally lower and lower than ever imagined, with quite a few nasty twists along the way. There is one particularly unforgettable scene that remains vividly seated in my imagination for its downright ickyness. As I say, a lot of it is left to the reader to imagine, and therefore is a lot worse than any book that provides the details.
Likewise the morality of the book goes in circles. There is no question as to Dorian's actions being bad, but what drives it is less clear, and the depths that he reaches, providing internal misery and torment in equal measure with indifference and disregard. I never knew at any time why Dorian grew into such a dislikeable monster, but I did enjoy reading about him.
A brilliant classic, with an endlessly questionable narrative, full of nuance and polarity, providing eons of discussion afterwards.
LitLovers provide a Dorian Gray reading guide with discussion questions for reading groups.
If you are ever in Paris, I recommend a visit to Pere Lachaise cemetary, where Oscar Wilde's lipstick kissed tomb is amongst many other amazing monuments to the famous and artistic personalities interred there.
Finally, on being asked about any autobiographical conotations in his novel, Wilde had noted in a letter,
"Basil Hallwood is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps."

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World Book Night 2013

It was a great day in Liverpool for World Book Night and I got to do some booky things myself.
I gave out my books, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink this year. I chose it because I felt it was an important book to read, historically and socially, as well as a touching human story. It gives you a lot to think about and I hope those who got a copy get something out of it.
After work I headed off to St Georges Hall which had a marketplace with various stalls, cafe and book swaps, and there were talks and discussions too. We couldn't get tickets for the popular speakers, the advance bookings went quickly for Jeanette Winterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, but there were some drop in sessions and we listened to a talk about the history of the Central Library, which is due to reopen next  month, and also political literature in Liverpool from Steve Binns MBE.
I also got to meet Simon from Savidge Reads which was lovely. My first encounter with a fellow book blogger. Simon has an excellent and very popular blog and has recently moved to the area. He writes for various publications and is actively involved with the literary scene in Liverpool now, indeed he has been working on some of the sessions for the Liverpool Literary Festival In Other Words which is now underway. Among other things we were chatting about The Kite Runner which is getting its European stage debut in this summer, coming to the Liverpool Playhouse from the 13th June. Both of us are fans of the novel. We also both chose The Reader as our giveaway this year.
I came away with a WBN book too... Damage by Josephine Hart. I was trying to be so good.
I hope your WBN was good fun, I would love to hear how yours went.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

World Book Night and the Liverpool Literary Festival 2013

 There are two very exciting events coming up for us bookish types, one specifically in Liverpool and the other around the UK and also in the US too. Both kick off on Shakespeares birthday, the 23rd April.

World Book Night has lots of events planned with many many books being given away to encourage the delights of reading. This year I have copies of The Reader by Bernard Schlinck to hand out, a book I am excited to be introducing to people who get a copy.
There are flagship events in London and Liverpool and many other local events around the country. To view an interactive map that lists World Book Night Events 2013 near you use the link.

I know that Waterstones in Liverpool One has book giveaways planned. I am hoping to get along to St Georges Hall during the daytime where there will be a marketplace with stalls, competitions, bookswapping and a literary themed cafe. There are talks and debates in the evening, some are drop in, some are ticketed, which also mark the start of the Liverpool Literary Festival In Other Words where there will be events around the city until the 19th May, including the grand reopening of the newly refurbished historic Liverpool Central Library. For the full list of Events for In Other Words Festival 2013 in Liverpool use the link.

Maybe I will see you at one of these gatherings in my home town, and I will certainly be reporting back here to tell you how it goes. Here's hoping that WBN goes down well for everyone who is getting involved, and I know a fair few of you who are, book bloggers and others too.

Friday, 5 April 2013

March Roundup

We have already left last month behind by quite a few days, although the weather here in the UK does not show any signs of warming up yet. The bitter cold has meant staying by the fire still, sometimes with a good book. Here is how my reading life took shape during the month of March...

Read - one and a half books
Completed - The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Currently Reading -
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
Literary Genius edited by Joseph Epstein
Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari
TBR Pile - no novels added so it is currently at 127 (according to goodreads), but I did get a copy of The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater, a lovely book that can be used for inspiration in your own kitchen or as a bedside book to dip into.
Challenges - I finished The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which was part of #5 of my challenges to myself this year, to read 1 or 2 titles that came from our literary holidays. This one was my lucky dip prize from our Jane Austen holiday in Hampshire (2010) and a recommendation from that trip.
Also I am reading Eve Green by Susan Fletcher which won the 2004 Whitbread Novel of the year, to comply with #8 of my own challenges to read a prizewinner.
Wishlist Additions -
Pure by Andrew Miller
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Harvest by Jim Crace
The Stranger Child by Alan Hollinghurst
The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan
Ahabs Wife or The Star Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
Discoveries -
Some excellent articles on the net this month...
The death of writer Chinua Achebe prompted a lot of tributes, including
- Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist and poet in pictures
- Chinua Achebe 'a mind able to penetrate the mystery of being human'.
Then to tie in with St Patricks day there was Books of the Irish
A discussion about What is World Book Day?
Some positive news for the future of our bookstores, at least in the US, with A Novel Trend: Independent Bookstores on the Rise
A lovely article in The Guardian about Virago publishing - Has Virago changed the publishing world's attitudes towards women? and A New Study About Which Authors Have Ignored Women The Most.
I love a good list so the Lonely Planets Worlds Greatest Bookshops caught my eye.
Also Folio Society named as sponsor of fiction prize to rival Booker
About book blog reviews in Beyond Good and Awful: Literary Value in The Age of the Amazon Review in Time Entertainment.
An article in The Nation Irritable Reachings: On John Keats on his life and poetry.
A website that collects together many different articles, including literay and bookish subjects at The Electric Typewriter
And finally, the curious and the bizarre...
- Edible Book Cakes in pictures
- Bed Bugs found in Kzoo Library Books
Events -
The Liverpool Literary Festival is gathering speed, due to start on 23rd April in various venues in the city, celebrating the Written Word. To see the Writing On The Wall Literary Festival 2013 program use the link.

Lets hope it starts to warm up a little soon, I need to get out in the garden...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye