27 April 2011

The TBR pile - take 2

As you may remember, a week or so ago I began to tackle the issue of by hheeeyyooouuuggeee TBR pile...and here we are in week two, and the saga of what I need to read continues...

The prince of mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - I love love love Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I read Shadow of the Wind years and years ago and adored it and recently picked up The Angel's Game, a beautifully written novel that was made all the more attractive as I read it shortly after coming back from Barcelona.

Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources by Marcel Pagnol - I stumbled across this sitting on my shelf with great shame the other day.  I love the films but have started and not quite got into the books a few times.  Perhaps better read in French?

A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry - A book I have heard fantastic things about. I'm not sure I've read much work by Indian authors and am keen to start, especially since (fingers crossed) that's where we will be off to come September.

Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac - I thought I had read this but it turns out, much to my dismay, that I haven't! Buddhism + France = big thumbs up.

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro - I hardly need to put the author's name down here.  The remains of the day was a book that had a profound effect on me and I have had this in mind for a while now.  With Keira Knightly now sadly invading my space I need to get this classic read, and quickly.

Watch this space...

25 April 2011

The Cement Garden

Ian McEwan is often cited as being one of our greatest contemporary authors. After reading Atonement I certainly felt this to be the case, however, as some readers may remember, I was a little let down by Enduring Love, a novel that promised so much and yet I felt didn't quite deliver. However, faith has now been restored. It is certainly a good job that McEwan's debut novel; The Cement Garden, is short (approx. 100 pages) as I simply couldn't put it down, and that is no joke. Taking advantage of our long bank holiday weekend as I'm sure many of you are, I tucked this little beauty into the pocket of my camera case, only to read it all sprawled out in some crag in Derwent whilst the bf got some climbing done.

This is a Lord of the Flies-esque, experimental tale. Four children orphaned and left to their own devices living in a creepy old house in the middle of a desolate wasteland on the outskirts of London; these children are isolated both mentally and physically as they deal with the aftermath of their parents' deaths.  The only trouble with attempting to review this book is that it is simply shock after shock as you turn the pages and it is impossible to speak in any depth without spoiling it entirely....

What I can divulge is that this is a coming of age tale; told through the eyes of Jack who is fifteen years old, suitably moody and sexually frustrated. We are made to feel tense and excitable throughout, constantly in expectation of some taboo act that is about to be committed or of the discovery of the dark secrets that lurk in the depths of the cold shell of a house. As a result this book is certainly long enough and when we are brought back to reality with a bump at the end I was not disappointed but, rather, relieved and satisfied.

This is an excellent story that pushes the boundaries in terms of subject matter and severely risks making its readers feel very uncomfortable, and why the hell not?  Call me crazy but this felt like a bit of an old school tale for me that put me in mind of the likes of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the rye (although I admit it is a few years since I read it) perhaps teenage boys and the feelings of alienation that purvey throughout created this connection in my mind.

I know I have given practically nothing away here but DO give this a read as soon as you possibly can, I promise you will NOT be disappointed.

Mr McEwan, I will be reading more of your work sooner rather than later...

23 April 2011

The Long Song

I have never read a huge amount of books, either of a factual nature or otherwise, that deal with the issue of slavery and I don't really know why.  It is a greatly disturbing subject that nevertheless had me fascinated at junior school, yet my learning has never really gone beyond that.  After reading a positive review on another blog (can't remember which or you would get a mention, sorry!) I decided that I had to give Andrea Levy a go ... stories that follow the lives of strong women always appeal for obvious reasons.

At the beginning of this tale we are introduced to an elderly lady, July, who is in the process of writing her memoir and her son, Thomas Kinsman, who intends to publish her experiences as a slave upon a Jamaican plantation and educate those who read it of the hardships July and her peers were forced to endure in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Interjections and arguments between Thomas and his mother as she is writing this book are then charmingly interwoven into the text as we read on...

July's situation is precarious from her birth; the product of a brutal act performed by the overseer of Amity plantation upon her Mother (Kitty) for his amusement, her life is set to be a short and hard one working with the other slaves in the cane fields.  One day, seeing this pretty young girl walking with her mother along the dusty track to the market, Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner's sister who has recently arrived from England, decides that she will take July off her mother's hands and keep her as a house servant she calls 'Marguerite' (and almost as a kind of pet, I felt, at the beginning of the book) much to Kitty's despair.

This young woman is living through extraordinary times, yet always stifled by her flabby mistresses' constant whims and need for attention. News is arriving from England that the King has ordered the abolition of slavery and the workers of Amity gradually begin to make plans for what they will do with their new found freedom, causing their masters, in their panic, to commit the most atrocious crimes. Even the most well-intentioned are eventually turned into monsters as they struggle to keep their businesses going with workers who will suffer no longer.

Perhaps I have always been turned off literature that focuses on slavery as I felt it could only be depressing in nature, and that was certainly what originally turned Andrea Levy herself away from travelling back to 19th century Jamaica. However, she has managed to create a book that, whilst it certainly does not trivialise what is essentially a very serious and harrowing subject, the natural humour and realistic characters she creates lend the novel a levity that allows us to access this vivid, exotic world she has created more easily. I warmed to our straightforward narrator from the first page and I knew that this warmth would grow as the story went on and Levy's writing (I was surprised to learn that she only started writing in her thirties, after taking a creative writing course) is so utterly evocative of the Caribbean that you can feel the heat beating down on your shoulders and the dust in your eyes as July walks around the plantation she calls her home.

The young July turns out to be a difficult character. She does have her flaws and I found her particularly disagreeable in certain scenes where she acts almost as a kind of accomplice to her new master as he strides around the plantation, attempting to force the other slaves to work.  However, we ask ourselves, what is a girl to do?  She is a realistic character in a very difficult and precarious situation. Rather than becoming a stereotypical heroine, strong and steadfast in her difficult position, she is quick to anger, quick to laugh and sometimes presents a cool detachment which could give us cause to wonder whether she does have it so bad and whether she does care about her lot and the fate of her fellow slaves after all. I believe she does. July suffers from the degree of physical and emotional turmoil in her life that you would expect from a book dealing with slaves and slave owners and, as you want from such a book, you put this down first of all wanting more (as a huge chunk of her life following the departure of the plantation owners and the liberation of the slaves is entirely missed out) and second of all realising that, whatever trivial things are bothering you in your life, things really aren't so bad after all.

I want to be inspired by the novels I read and the women I read about, and this certainly inspired me.


19 April 2011

To lend or not to lend...

About 3 months ago, after a friend who was feeling rather down thinking back to our glorious days in Paris paid a visit, I lent him one of my favourite books of all time; Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico.  Although I find all of his writing (that I have had the opportunity to read so far) charming, this is my absolute favourite. And I will never get it back.

Luckily (for him, that is) it was not the beautiful copy to the right, but I am still frustrated, more so with myself.  Although all of the key elements in the storyline were simply made for him; working class lady, travelling to Paris, buying a Dior dress...he has only read half of it and every request to have it back will forever more be met with 'oh, can I just read the rest of it first?' ....and the willingness within me to share a good story with anyone and everyone will win out every time.

So, should we lend the books we love or not?  Only to the people we know will give them back perhaps?  But who is to say they will? I suppose we can always buy them again, but nothing stings quite as much for me than losing a good book. Perhaps the way to eliminate any flight risk is to stamp our names in them so that the thief will one day be reminded of where the book belongs? (love you auntie :-) :-*)

I think I'll always be too keen to share a story with people to stop lending, and then gutted when the second reader doesn't get as much out of it as I did........*sigh* ... bye bye Mrs 'Arris, for now.....

17 April 2011

The TBR pile

Since I began this blog back in January I haven't really devoted much attention to my TBR pile; mainly, I think, because the mere thought of just how many books I have yet to read; particularly many classics I should have already read and certain genres (crime, for example) that I simply pay much attention to, is just too worrying for words. I have trawled my bookshelves and made a note of the surprising amount on them that I have never picked up. Hopefully this will help to direct my reading when I am in a mood for something in particular and embarrass me into making more time for my most favourite of pastimes. Over the next couple of months I hope to make a note on this blog of some of these neglected books and address the reasons why I simply MUST get around to reading them.....

Mini-list number one **Breathe deeply**

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry - readers coming to this book in the last week or so may have noticed this classic in the 'Now reading' section.  A dizzy, bewildering tale of one man's last day on earth, set against the macabre backdrop of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The first couple of chapters were exciting enough to tell me that this will be an enthralling read, just a little too much like hard work at the moment. 

Nana by Émile Zola - gay Pareee and coquettish prostituées, what more could you want?

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey - This book is another one that I started and never finished.  I bought it from the aladdin's cave that is Scriveners in Buxton, Derbyshire and carried it home with excitement.  Peter Carey does an amazing job of building this exotic world full to the brim with quirky characters and goings-on. It does take some doing to get into this and I will pick it up again.

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse - The first offering in Mosse's trilogy.  I have been told sooooo many times that I need to read this by my Mum after loving Sepulchre and her side project The Winter Ghosts, reviewed a couple of months back. I hear that the third book is due to be released very soon and we are very excited. The sense of history intertwined so naturally into her narrative is something that I absolutely adore, especially since she focuses on French history.    

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - recommended by my Dad when he saw me reading Kafka on the shore. Grotesque and obscure, this is the tale of a young man who wakes up to find he has transformed into a giant insect. This book sounds utterly bizarre, and completely wonderful. 

14 April 2011

Fanny Hill

We are watching Fanny Hill on BBC 4.  How kinky!  Another one to add to the wish list me thinks...:

Brick Lane

It appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding Monica Ali's well known novel (shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize)..... Why do I say unsurprisingly?  Well, in the eyes of the bog-standard reader, largely naive to the realities faced by our growing immigrant population; a novel that details the life of a young Bangladeshi woman living with her new (and much older) husband in the grey suburbs of London and witness to the sputterings of extremist behavior on the estate, born out of discontent with their lot in the UK, was always going to be a fair target for criticism.  Marrying the themes of Islam and extremism together always will be, but surely approaching this topic on occasion is essential, is it not?

  Other unfair criticism I felt seems to have been directed (at least amongst the good folk out there using Goodreads!) at Nazneen, through whose eyes we view this world of endless grey sky and concrete, quashed hopes and dreams. The main comments seem to focus on her somewhat stoic persona, that stands in stark contrast to that of her husband Chanu, whose lofty opinions and ambitions are placed right out in the open and who, for all his foibles, I simply couldn't help but love.  He is cuddly, he is a dreamer, he has a thirst for knowledge that is admirable and made him feel like a kindred spirit.  He is essentially a good man, if slightly misguided, and Nazneen rightly counts her lucky stars that her father chose to marry her off to such an individual.

Stoic she is, and I personally find that attractive.  Perhaps I am merely looking at her as someone who has little idea of the reality of what it means to be a Bangladeshi woman, married off to a stranger and sent to live in a foreign land with very little concept of the people, culture or language and perhaps she fulfills some kind of stereotype that I have in my mind. Deep down I hope that isn't the case, she is admirable as a woman alone, regardless of her culture and background.

I found it incredibly interesting to see how Nazneen's inner monologue alters as the story develops.  From her solitary musings on the glamourous ice skaters gliding across her television screen, the walls of her gloomy flat and the life of her obese, sedentary neighbour across the way, her thoughts, hopes and plans quickly snowball as she begins a passionate affair with Karim, a young and radical young man who heads a local group of Muslims anxious for change; the Bengal Tigers. She is an adulteress, she is going to hell and, as there is not much she can do about her fate, Nazneen has nothing left to lose. Spurred on by the letters her sister sends from Bangladesh where her life has been one of extreme hardship and toil, Nazneen begins to earn her own money, gaining a certain amount of independence, sending money home and standing up to her husband, the local usurer and her thuggish sons and, eventually, her lover.

This is a positive and subtly empowering novel. It is extremely realistic and doesn't suppose that our heroine, having experienced a degree of liberation is suddenly going to throw her knickers in the air and bound off into the sunset. It is essentially a love story; of one woman and her love for her family, her lover and her community.  A tear came to my eye at the end of this book and I realised that the frequent clashes between the immigrant and white communities serve, for me at least, as a mere backdrop for this very simple, very human story.

10 April 2011

Living with books

The boyfriend and I spent a few days in Gothenburg last week, on the West coast of Sweden. As well as the wonderful food and fantastically friendly people, some of the best attractions are the city's art galleries and museums. As well as visiting the Röhsska design museum we also swung by the excellent Konstmuseumpurported to be one of the best art galleries in Sweden.  The building was fabulous and we wiled away a good few hours strolling around looking at some fantastic artwork from each and every period. (Including a huge  dancer on a rotating pole that the bf wasn't too keen on.) Amongst various other books on art, design and architecture in the shop on the way out we stumbled across Living with books by Dominique Dupuich and Roland Beaufre and the photography, which basically takes a peek at personal libraries and the way the people choose to display their books. It got me thinking about books as aesthetic objects. I have admitted that I like to own the books I read because I think they are wonderful things to be treasured and displayed with pride, but why display them?  Is it because I like to put out the image of being a well-read, educated individual or because I simply like to drool over them and dream about what I'm going to read next and keep them out on display because they simply look so nice and colourful?  I'd like to think that the latter is more true in my case.

We live in a modest one bedroom flat where we squeeze in as many bookcases as we possibly can here and there, there is barely any room to think about aesthetics. However, our books are by far my favourite objects in any room. One day, when we have a house, I plan to have a cosy room that we can use as a library, stacking books even above the doorways, like the picture above, using them as lampstands and in all other manner of imaginative ways.

How do you like to display your books?

8 April 2011

Jane Eyre - part two

A week of work, a holiday in Sweden that happily seemed to last forever and 400 pages of Monica Ali's Brick Lane separates me from these final thoughts on the latter half of this classic novel so please do forgive me if my thoughts on this book are all over the place. Re-reading my first post I'm fairly disappointed with myself as 70% of it seems to be merely relaying the plot. 'I could have told you all of this myself' I hear you cry... The reason for this is that, although I have found this book to be enjoyable, I also found it to be rather tiring. Why? Perhaps I wasn't in the mood.  Perhaps, although I found the likes of Sense and Sensibility a welcome change from my usual fare and relatively easy to get into, my 21st century brain kept saying 'get on with it woman!' For the majority of the second half I felt I was merely waiting (with a great deal of impatience, I might add) for the inevitable to happen, which it did.

I am being unfair I know, this is an absolute classic and rightly so.  I enjoyed Bronte's writing, I enjoyed the development of the unusual relationships between the extremely varied and compelling characters (the cast expands in a rather interesting direction once Jane leaves Thornfield Hall) and I could appreciate the vivid, wild English landscape within which this drama unfolds.


Whilst the high and mighty flounce around her new home and her new master, what Jane crucially fails to realise, being partially blinded by Blanche Ingram's silk skirts and sharp tongue, is that all Edward Rochester really desires is her. The reader is swept along with the rose tinted wedding plans and dreams of an exciting, happy future for this previously downtrodden young woman gradually begin to materialise before we are met with undoubtedly one of the most exciting and equally terrifying portions of the book. Shouts, screams and bedsheets bursting into flame in the middle of the night lead Jane to rightly suppose that something is indeed afoot in the depths of the dark hall.  Her anxious thoughts all point towards a servant named Grace Poole, feelings that are further compounded when a strange visitor of Mr Rochester's is supposedly attacked by this troubled woman.

To follow is one of the most effective scenes in the book, when Jane is visited in the dead of night by a specter who tears the wedding veil hanging in her closet. I love it when books are even more vivid than the most troubling dreams. Certain sections of The Shining by Stephen King come to mind. I read this scene in bed late at night and it was so affective that when the bf decided to spill water over himself and squeal as soon as I turned the light off I was utterly petrified and was convinced that Jane Eyre's unwanted visitor had come into my very own bedroom.

This grotesque figure and her binding relationship with Mr Rochester, revealed on the wedding day, drives Jane away from her love and into utter destitution. This is where I began to get frustrated. Jane makes herself homeless and wanders around the wilds for days without sustenance, only to collapse at the door of some, fortunately for her, benevolent young women. Along with their utterly humorless pastor brother ('St John' - whose odd manners Jane eventually warms to but that I did not, making the plot a little harder for me to believe) she is nursed back to health, a position as the mistress of a local school is found and Jane resigns herself to a life of loneliness in a solitary little cottage.

However, fortune soon falls in her lap when it is discovered that, thanks to a distant uncle whose existence had been hidden from her all of her life, Jane becomes the heiress to a great fortune and, in the process, discovers that the bearer of this news, St John Rivers himself, is, along with his kind sisters, her cousin.........

I run out of puff here, this entire episode dragged on far too long for me. Jane's domestic bliss setting up home for her new found family is pleasant but the over riding sense of dissatisfaction due to the absence of Rochester was far too frustrating for me, though I realise this was probably Bronte's intention.  This is followed by a bit of an odd portion where the irritating pastor character attempts to take Jane off to India on a crusade of some kind, making her his wife in the process to do so. **Yawn**

By the time all of our dreams come true and our heroine is finally reunited with her love (all be it in his bruised and battered state), well, I was a bit tired to be honest, meaning that my reaction was a little lacklustre and that's a shame.  This isn't a bad book, it is an absolute classic BUT (and that's a big but) it is too long. This isn't any ordinary 500 pages, this is 500 pages of tiny type. I began to do that really terrible thing where every couple of chapters or so I would start to flick towards the end to see how far I had to read. Terrible. This size type is hardwork isn't it!!!!

A book has to be absolutely phenomenal to hold my attention for this long. This is a very good story, an extremely important piece of literature historically with some timeless characters but 'good' + really long just doesn't cut it and unfortunately the degree of early 19th century digression just wasn't my mood this time around.  Never mind ey, I'm still looking forward to the film :-)

A good 7/10. I'm intrigued to know what everyone else thinks about this classic.....

In other news, I have introduced a section called 'Seeds Reads' (please see right hand column) showing what the bf has decided to pick up and stick his nose in.  (He doesn't get to read as much as he would like to these days.) He recently read, and re-read, and re-read the first ten pages of I like it here by Kingsley Amis, which he thought was rubbish and unfortunately had a cover that made it look like a rudey nudey book that meant he couldn't read it in public.  I therefore finally persuaded him to read some good ol' Laurie Lee and guess what?  He loves it. Now there's a surprise.