30 January 2011

Charity Shop Treats

There is absolutely nothing more enjoyable than wiling away an afternoon waltzing in and out of charity shops and plunging your hands into the huge lucky dip that book shopping in those kind of establishments can be..... My ordinary Saturday afternoon spent archiving at John Rylands Library in Manchester City Centre was promptly abandoned this weekend when, in preparation for guests coming around that very evening I realised, in utter disgust with myself, that the flat was an absolute filthy pigsty and had to be blitzed immediately; a task that took a good couple of hours and meant that, rather than traipse into the centre of town for closing time, my time was much better spent mooching (I love that word) in and out of my local butchers/grocers and of course, charity shops.

  As book shopping goes, I suppose this wasn't as enthralling or fruitful as other trips have been in the past, but I thoroughly enjoyed looking at everything on offer (even if I had no intention of purchasing  any of it) all the same. I finally procured myself a copy of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which has been lurking around on my wish list for some time now, and also bought two thirds of the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman which I read long ago and have now decided enough time has passed to own copies of my very own. I adored these books the first time around and as someone who discovered the story years before the film was made am still not overjoyed about everyone else jumping on board with video games, posters and who knows what else...I've found it nearly impossible to find a copy without Nicole Kidman plastered all over the front - not to mention Daniel Craig, who, although exceedingly scrumptious and easy on the eye, also pops up on the cover of my current read (see right) - a beautiful copy of which I, rather irritatingly, saw in Oxfam today, minus the 'now a major motion picture' bit....gah.

Another quick sweep of Oxfam today saw a copy of Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières fall into my hand, a tad obvious perhaps and, probably again due to the whole 'books made into major Hollywood blockbuster' problem, a book I've never been particularly drawn to, despite rave reviews from my entire family.  However, after reading and loving De Bernières marvellous War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts whilst camping in Scotland last summer, it is time I feel to read his most famous work and see what all the fuss is about. This particular problematic crossover with films and the books that originally gave birth to them could become a common theme over the next couple of posts as I review Sense and Sensibility, a classic that has for too long escaped my attention, but whose reception, most understandably I feel, has been substantially affected by the well-known filmic adaptation...

'Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. Willoughby. Willoughby. Willoughby.....'

27 January 2011

The Winter Ghosts

As someone who loves exploring new literature and discovering new authors (although on that note I have a shameful list of classics that I have yet to pick up for whatever crazy reason - my current read being one of them!) I am shockingly complacent when it comes to swatting up on what's new out there.  Apart from other readers out in the 'blogosphere' whose opinions I generally respect and that do, at times, affect what I choose to read myself, I quickly skip by the book reviews in newspapers/magazines etc as, at a glance, I don't often find that the selection of books they choose to look at particularly enthralling and, being highly self-opinionated, I find I would rather make my own mind up rather than let someone else's opinion colour my experience

.... reading that back there is clearly a complete contradiction between my attitude towards who I see as 'fellow readers' and bloggers and those poor souls I have condemned because they write for an official publication. (most likely through complete envy as I would absolutely adore to read and review books for a living) Have I perhaps automatically presumed that their selections will be a little to 'light' or 'popular' for my liking?  What snobbery and foolishness and hypocrisy, as I will literally read anything once! That said, this must stop at once as I have, of late, realised the error of my ways and quite rightly discarded them. This habit of mine has finally met its end, along with my tendency to, again, literally judge a book by its cover (my Dad was mortified to discover that I had never bothered to look at Catch 22 by Joseph Heller or find out what the book was about for the simple reason that the dull grey cover of his copy had put me off (!))

So, speaking of modern authors, popular novels and judging a book by its cover I was very, very excited when I spotted a very fresh, very pretty looking new edition by Kate Mosse in Waterstones whilst wandering around after work with a friend one evening (always wandering, browsing and drooling; I am more of a 10p Amazon girl than a 3 for 2 Waterstones girl, although the smell of new books is just as exciting as any musty old book...) I immediately added The Winter Ghosts to my wish list and finally purchased it when my Mum got a copy for Christmas. It was she who originally introduced me to Mosse, and I finally got around to reading Sepulchre after much poking and prodding from her. It was excellent and I declare myself a firm fan - despite the fact that I still haven't read Labyrinth - I'm a terrible person.

The Winter Ghosts is the extended version of a short story that Mosse originally wrote called The Cave as part of a campaign for adult literacy. It deals with the story of Freddie Watson who is coping with the death of his beloved brother George in the Great War and travels over to France after a period in a sanatorium to rest and recuperate. On his way to visit friends in the French Pyrenees Freddie is spooked by a sudden turn in the weather and the whisperings of voices in the air and crashes his car, almost diving into the valley below the mountain road. This dramatic turn of events marks the beginning of a chilling and disorientating journey between past and present for both Freddie and the anxious reader.

My personal interest in France's past and present makes any book of Kate Mosse's instantly intriguing. The imagined village of Nulle (a word that interestingly enough depicts the idea of nothingness in French - e.g nulle part meaning 'nowhere' - I wonder if that was intentional) is evocative of the many timeless, slightly down-at-heel, isolated villages that can be found across France, not merely in the South and, along with the few inhabitants (or many depending on which period in history we are thrust into) are very believable indeed. Without giving too much away; apart from the ever-pervading grief that permeates the thoughts and actions of the main protagonist, his meeting and short-lived friendship with the ethereal Fabrissa is central to this tale. This relationship leads him to delve into the bloody history of the village and its surrounding area and eventually to a discovery that incites change for both Freddie on a personal level and the destiny of the tiny village.

Like Kate Mosse's other works, The Winter Ghosts is a haunting tale that fully showcases the author's talent for storytelling as well as her rich and accurate knowledge of the region's history and people.  As a result, although I understand the origins of this book and why it is shorter than her previous novels, I was left desperately wanting more!  I would be interested and pleased to see a development in the future on this story and the history of its characters, which could easily fill another few hundred pages and which I would happily devour. The next logical step should certainly therefore be to read and review Labyrinth and then wait in eager anticipation for her next instalment and my next dose of Occitan majesty.

23 January 2011

A pleasant surprise

A brand new bookshelf courtesy of B & Q means that we can finally begin to transfer the crates of books over from the bf's parents' house that have been languishing there gathering dust for the last two years. (Yes two!) Although my enthusiasm I understand should be entirely focused on the fact that my beloved now has room to have almost all of his possessions in his own home and a special reading corner of his very own, it is of course completely selfish as I have seen at least twenty books already, many of them classics I still have not got around to reading, that I would like to get my teeth stuck into.

Living his life as a flâneur (a professional loafer or 'stroller' if you will) whilst we were living in Paris, the bf had a great deal of time to improve his culinary skills, knowledge of Parisian backwaters and, most vexing of all, his literary repertoire. The classics many of us promise ourselves we will get around to reading and never do were probably given the most attention during this period and both of us spent many a happy afternoon in the park with our noses buried deep in the likes of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London (rather apt at the time) and the works of Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. Now, and I may be shot down by many for confessing to this, but I never have been able to fully 'get along' with the writings of the latter two authors, although their absolute literary mastery I certainly would never doubt.  Although it may sound odd, they are two authors, along with the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Joseph Conrad, that have always seemed rather masculine in their appeal, whether that be due to the style of their writing or the subject matter they choose to address.

With that in mind, and after once attempting and failing to read Waugh's Scoop all the way through (upon reflection I think this failure was perhaps due to my state of mind at the time, I simply wasn't in the mood to appreciate that kind of satirical offering) when an early Penguin edition of A Handful of Dust was thrust upon me with great enthusiasm I have to admit that apart from the classic orange border with the title sitting in simple bold type in the centre (fantastic!)..... I wasn't overly enthralled.

I will eat my words.  Unlike a Yorkie, Evelyn Waugh is definitely here for both us girls and the boys. Yet another satirical tale, focused on the English gentry and the breakdown of the marriage of Tony and Brenda Last; the former a rather traditional sort of chap, absolutely intent on maintaining his rather uneventful yet settled life in his family home and the latter a rather more restless sort whose flight off to London and affair with the feckless John Beaver eventually leads to their separation, a situation encouraged by a number of other unfortunate circumstances that I won't detail here for fear of spoiling the book for anyone reading this.

Waugh's characterisation of poor Tony Last and his relatively simple wants and needs; i.e. to be comfortable in his home spending time quietly with his small family contrasted with Brenda's screeching shallow 'society' friends is highly effective and left me taking sides and chuntering to myself throughout the novel at this woman's stupidity at leaving such a decent man behind on a simple whim. The dull, vacuous John Beaver who she decides to run away with only adds to the frustration in the first half of the novel.

The final portion of the book deals with Tony's escape from his situation at home as he travels to Brazil with the seasoned explorer and academic Dr Messinger. Helped along by the stark contrast between the jungles of the Southern Hemisphere and the rolling English countryside, this section of the book is characterised by the overpowering sense of danger and delirium as Tony is gripped by a tropical fever which leads us through his journey in the jungle and tense encounters with the natives.

I can say no more for fear of revealing the utterly genius and terrifying final chapters of this book, which is, need I say it, an absolute must read. The surprise twist in the tale that comes with Tony's trip abroad is highly unexpected and lends something particularly special to this book.  The best thing about it all is that I now have an itching desire to read the rest of Waugh's work, the majority of which have been collected and popped in the TBR pile ........ soon to be dug out I think!

22 January 2011

Brand new beginnings ... brand new blog!!

...and here to fulfil a New Years Resolution of 2011! - To create a forum where I can muse and ponder to my heart's content about certainly one of my primary passions in life; the world of literature.  A list simply won't cut it any longer. I need a place to conduct the kind of discussion (whether with myself or perhaps one day with one or two other book lovers!) that would eventually drive away hapless friends and acquaintances in droves.

A rather speedy and enthusiastic beginning to the reading year seems like good place to start, proudly declaring to the bf the other day the sudden realisation that I have read three and a half books already this year already and we are barely half way through January! This of course is unfortunately never the norm, I am ordinarily so drained of energy at the end of a working day that I can barely keep my eyes open, let alone absorb myself in a book in the way I would like to.
I have however, it seems, entered into 2011 with renewed strength and vigour, and, although I usually simply let my hand guide me, mostly at random, in amongst my huge TBR pile for my latest offering, it seemed right to make a more calculated decision regarding the first book of the year, one that would hopefully be a reflection of the year to come....

Siddartha by German/Russian born novelist Hermann Hesse was, I felt, exactly the right place to start. An undeniable classic that I bought my Dad for his birthday earlier last year and, rather strangely as I almost always succumb when buying gifts (particularly books) for other people, did not buy for myself at the same time. Happily, my parents, who always hit the nail on the head when it comes to reading material, bought this for me for Christmas - along with Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and a wonderful (I think first edition though I will have to check) book called In Troubadour Land which takes me right back to my medieval French days at university.

Through a keen desire to understand the meaning of life, Siddartha's spiritual journey takes him down many roads; from his life as a young Brahman (holy man) to a wandering 'Samana', to the worldly life of love and wealth as a merchant in the city, and eventually, as the companion of an old, wise Ferryman who helps him down the final road on the way to enlightenment and a true sense of 'oneness' with the world surrounding him.

I thought this was a wonderful book, though I think you have to enter into it in the right spirit.  There is no point picking this up expecting a story with a conventional beginning, middle and end. This is, essentially, the tale of one man's lengthy reflection on the meaning of life and his search for 'completeness'; something which Hesse himself apparently explored whilst writing the book, delving into both Hindu and Buddhist teachings to do so. The Buddha himself appears on Siddartha's road to enlightenment and serves, as the other key characters do (such as his loyal companion Govinda and lover Kamala) to explore and introduce spiritual ideas and arguments that characterise Siddartha's inner struggle.  By the end of his life he has found the peace and the meaning he has been looking for in the depths of the river that he both lives and works on.

Although Siddartha turns away from the Buddha and his followers to seek his own path in the book, the tale is infused with Buddhist teachings and attitudes towards life.  I have a great deal of respect for and interest in Buddhism and its teachings, particularly nature and what it can teach us about life, represented here by the great river that Siddartha learns to listen to in order to quiet his mind and establish meaning within his life. My only criticism would be a slight question in my mind as to the complete accuracy of the translation.  This has been translated from the German (the fact that this was originally written in German is still not a concept I can get my head around for some reason - perhaps this is proof of the authenticity of Hesse's story and understanding of the belief systems in place in that part of the world) As a former languages student I can at times be more sensitive to the nuances of translation and at times, but I stress only at times, something seemed a little 'off' in the turn of phrase used.  Although this didn't take away from the important ideas and attitudes towards life that the book leaves you with, it did make me do a double take on certain sentences.  I have read a few reviews on the internet and dodgy translations seem to be the over-arching criticism of the several different editions of this book, perhaps something to consider if looking to get a copy for yourself.

That aside, this was a wonderful way to start things off, the perfect book to calm the mind for another busy year ......