26 August 2012

Literary Relish has moved!!!

Yes, shock horror! Literary Relish has finally took the plunge to Wordpress:

Please kindly amend all readers, bookmarks etc and join me over there! Posts will continue as usual as I try and get used to the more involved Dashboard and hopefully tweak and twist the style of the new site in the process. I'm not quite there yet so am welcoming all tips and suggestions (some of you have been so helpful and encouraging since my moany post of the 6th August). Cheerio Blogspot!

22 August 2012

The Master and Margarita

In part three of the Manchester Book Club catch up reviews I tackle Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece; The Master and Margarita, thoughtfully selected by Alex in Leeds for June/July's 2012 reading. She certainly didn't let the group down. After spending an entire month carefully devouring and endeavoring to understand each and every 'scene' of this classic, I finally (just about!) feel ready to commit my thoughts to the blogosphere....

The premise for Bulgakov's novel lies around two main story lines that very cleverly intertwine. The first tells the tale of Woland; otherwise known as Satan, who is paying a much belated visit to a deeply atheistic Moscow and, along with a madcap band of freakish sidekicks, is reeking complete havoc on the lives of its largely unattractive inhabitants. The second takes us all the way back to the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and plays out the brief period leading up to the crucifiction of Yeshua Ha-Nostri - Jesus of Nazareth and the inner turmoil Pilate battles with as a result of this pivotal event. Expertly weaved in with these two narratives, though much more involved with Woland and his extraordinary allure, comes the love story of the Master and his Margarita, a relationship between two individuals stifled by circumstance; Margarita by a stale marriage and the Master by the rejection of what has become his life's work - a narrative of Pontius Pilate's life.

Bulgakov's writing of this seminal book was, in the style Woland & Co, fraught with trouble. Like The Master of his imagination, the author became deeply troubled and stifled by the Soviet Union and its strict control over any creative output. Famously burning his first manuscript, it took decades of draft upon redraft for an eventually heavily edited manuscript to make it into the literary underworld. This early censorship, along with the pure surrealism and complex political satire, makes the various translations out there all the more significant, lending particular weight to Alex's suggestion that we read the version above, translated by Diane Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. Although this is by no means the 'prettiest' edition available, my language student-geekiness came to the fore whilst comparing the first paragraph of this with Daddy Relish's Penguin edition. The more natural style and clarity of the Picador copy is obvious and helps the reader make sense of what is, essentially, a difficult read.

The curtain opens (as this novel seems very much at times to be laid out in theater 'scenes' or circus performances rather than your bog-standard chapter) onto academic Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov laying out a spiritual discussion for themselves. Is God real? Is man in control of his own destiny or are we all at the mercy of fate? Enter Woland, disguised as a 'foreign gentleman' to argue against their atheistic viewpoints and, along with our first portion of Pontius Pilate's story, begin a bewildering, fast-paced tale, dripping with symbolism and themes that are frankly too hot to handle. Truth, freedom, love, history, faith, good and evil all get a look in here, and that's just in the first two pages....

Flitting between Moscow and Jerusalem, I accepted after the first few chapters that this was a book that, although I can recognise its beauty now, will certainly need a good re-read in 20 years' time; when portions of text I could only enjoy for the simplest of satires/political points and the sheer theatricality can be returned to with a bit of life experience, in a much more considered, well-informed way. For now, Bulgakov's unflattering, often slapstick portraits of the bureaucrats and self-important elite of the day proved to be both hilarious and timeless. Burlesque, fantastical scenes such as Satan's ball and Margarita's escape into the night on an enchanted broomstick (don't ask!) whisked me away from reality completely, perhaps reflecting the escapist ideals of the the author himself:

'Margarita bent the bristle of the broom downward...The earth was moving toward her, and Margarita was already bathed in the scent of the greening forests. She was flying over the very mists of a dewy meadow, then over a pond. A chorus of frogs sang beneath Margarita, and from somewhere in the distance came the inexplicably heart-rending wail of a train....After overtaking it, Margarita passed over another watery mirror, in which a second moon floated by beneath her feet.  Descending even lower, she flew along with her feet nearly grazing the tops of enormous pines.' 
p. 207

The Relish family's very own Behemoth
With a sophistication rarely found in the novels we read day in day out, The Master and Margarita can clearly be appreciated on various different levels and, this being my very first read and with a limited understanding of Russian politics, history and cultural peculiarities, I found myself focusing quite happily on character and colour alone. Gone were any concerns of who was who (Russian names all appearing to be very long, complicated and similar) along with any concerns for grasping the deepest meaning from the text. Hurrah.

Bulgakov has undoubtedly created a masterpiece, a word I hesitate to use for fear of cliché, though there simply is no other that can be used. Despite certain concepts/jokes/cultural nuances potentially becoming lost in translation this book clearly contains some of the most fundamental assertions about human existence ever to be seen in literary fiction and it has, as a result, been a review that I have approached both with trepidation and, no doubt, much inadequacy. A re-read is already on the cards for 2032.  I never re-read books.   

12 August 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Yet again last month the Manchester Book Club came up trumps with, if not the most gob smackingly fantastic book in the world, at least one that I wouldn't have bothered to pick up otherwise and we all need to shrug off our bookish comfort blanket from time to time and try something brand new, especially with a hot, graphic front cover like this one <---------------------

The Sisters Brothers intrigued me first and foremost as a book that, although not my usual fare, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. Since blogging I've found myself honing in a little more on the big literary prizes and, although I certainly don't pressurise myself into reading them all, it does make a book all the more intriguing.

In an imagined west coast of the mid 19th century, Patrick deWitt places Eli and Charlie Sisters; professional killers hired by the elusive 'Commodore' to dispatch of prospector Herman Kermit Warm, for reasons that are not made immediately obvious. Set against the volatile backdrop of the California gold rush, I came away from book group feeling rather excited at the prospect of a cowboy tale with an edge.

As I explained to the group at our meet this week, the most telling sign of the conclusions I came to about this novel could be clearly seen from the fact that, by the end, I hadn't bothered to mark any one of the 328 pages. (I have a habit of sticking little coloured tabs where I see anything that captures my imagination/a passage that I particularly love or even dislike) This indifference is a bit of a shame really, I always think it's better to really hate something rather than feel completely indifferent about it, particularly with a book. A word I found myself using a lot was 'flat'. Although a couple of people felt very differently and discovered something they absolutely adored (which is wonderful as, had it not been for the book group, they may not have picked it up otherwise) it seems my expectations were so high that perhaps very few authors could have lived up to them.

The deadly pursuit is narrated by Eli Sisters; relatively mild-mannered and someone who seems ill-suited to his role as a hired killer, in stark contrast to his insensitive, impulsive, cold-killing older brother. Eli longs for a quieter life and I felt sympathetic towards the brief, domestic portraits of the small towns they visit and the glimpses we see of an alternative lifestyle; i.e. the lives of the dentist or the shopkeepers they run into. However, this sympathy is short lived as we only glimpse inside the heads of our characters for a matter of pages before the narrative becomes flat and our brothers become dull. Although a lack of emotional response to events does suit the role of hired killers, I eventually found the almost complete lack of depth extremely frustrating. Eli is soft, Charlie is petulant, and they are both DULL. *Yawn*

This pattern of teasing the reader with glimpses of something interesting only to snatch it away continues throughout. Intriguing cameos that I'm sure carried heaps of underlying meaning along with them were barely revisited; i.e. a witch-type figure who traps Eli within her cabin and a random weeping man the brothers bump into on a couple of occasions on the road... but what do they represent!? What does it all mean?! The most sympathetic, meaningful characters actually turned out to be the animals. Eli's horse Tub is a tragic character and it is through the killer's genuine care and concern for his well being that we are drawn about as close to our narrator than we will probably ever get.

A victim of my own expectations, more disappointment lay with the lack of focus on the setting. Part of what I was looking forward to about this book was the backdrop of the California gold rush. Although I wasn't expecting this to be the focus of the novel in any way, the two brothers pass through this exciting setting and it's fascinating characters at breakneck speed and I came away with precious little to enlighten or intrigue me.

I feel like I've come across having a real downer on this book and I really don't. It isn't a bad novel per say; it is simply written, well designed and, as I mentioned before, some members of the book group clearly found something very genuine within its pages. I just came away with the feeling that there wasn't enough of much really; hardly any characterisation, precious little plot and any focus solely on a couple of dullards who I really wasn't too bothered about. I wanted excitement, I wanted energy but instead I got a degree of tedium that made The Sisters Brothers position on the Man Booker shortlist a bit of a shocker; really making me wonder whether it relies far too much on a well designed front cover/typeset and not enough on content.

Mediocre. 5/10.

6 August 2012

Moving House!

A few weeks ago some of you may have noticed that I rather dramatically announced a move to Wordpress.  Since then, although I have had time to toy with various designs, I simply haven't had the serious chunk of time required to design a brand new website and make it work the way I want it to.

Wordpress seems to provide so much for bloggers yet it is a darn site more complex than Blogger and, above all, although I favour a more professional design, I don't want to lose the 'Literary Relish' identity which, at the moment, my standard Wordpress template does! Is it worth investing a little money on the design? Does anyone have any advice/experience of moving house yet wanting to retain their identity at the same time?

5 August 2012

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V

I am very naughtily behind on my reviews at the mo (taking the delay caused by the Paris themed month into account of course!) and, a whole three months since Simon selected The Dubious Salvation of Jack V by debut author Jacques Strauss for the second meeting of the Manchester Book Club, I am finally getting round to reviewing it because, frankly, it was all a bit 'dubious' really!

Jacques Strauss' novel sees apartheid-era South Africa through the eyes of Jack Vilijee; a mollycoddled, middle class and thoroughly muddled up eleven year old boy. With a Boer Father, English Mother, a sexually confused best friend and a black maid called Susie to whom he devotes as much love and reverence as he would his own mother, Jack, a boy who has never been completely comfortable with the idea of having black servants (unlike his Boer friends), is thoroughly confused. Confusion that, upon the arrival of Susie's troubled son Percy into his world, threatens to bubble up and reek havoc on his peaceful existence.

The beauty of running a book club full of completely diverse and intriguing people will always be the opportunity to try books you may not have picked up otherwise. I am not, unlike my other half, adverse to picking up brand new authors and approaching something without many expectations and I did initially get excited about the South African theme. Beyond the obvious facts, I have read disgustingly little account of life in apartheid-era South Africa and, although I understood from the cover alone that the story would probably be restricted by the white, child narrator, I was at least expecting something and, sadly, came away with precious little to enlighten me.

The 'coming of age' element to the book is utterly convincing and hilarious in places; with the frantic 'skommel'ling (i.e. masturbating :-)) in various different places and into various household objects punctuating childish portraits of friends and family and juvenile problems blown out of all proportion. However, despite my appreciation for Strauss' sympathetic young narrator and his universal trials and tribulations, certain elements left me mightily confused. The story is supposedly narrated by Jack as an adult yet there seems to be no hint of retrospection and the South African world ceases to be the deeply troubled place it was at the time and remains viewed through the tunnel-vision of an eleven year old boy. Let me be clear that I didn't want to read an 'apartheid' book, which would perhaps have been just a bit too obvious, however, I would have liked to learn much more about what life was like in the country at that time for everyone.

Although the clearly dramatic events occurring just out of our vision did become frustrating at times, it did help add a film of darkness over this otherwise innocent account. Racism, pedophilia and all manner of other evils lurk in the background to threaten Jack's bubble and gave the book a little more depth than it might have had otherwise. Jack's friend Petrus; who wants to be a mermaid or an air-hostess when he grows up, adds amusement and tragedy to the tale and his Boer family and their apparently wild differences from 'English' South Africans was something I had never considered and would certainly like to explore in the future.

This is Strauss' debut novel and I'm intrigued to see what he offers next; whether it will be more South African tales or whether he will branch out somewhere entirely different. This book, interestingly enough, completely divided the boys and girls at book club, with the boys seeming to gain much more from it...perhaps recognising a bit of themselves in his quite ordinary (servants aside), boyhood.

A mixed review all in all!

31 July 2012

Paris in July - Le Scoop!

Although, as per usual when I try to give myself any blog 'challenges', I haven't really achieved half as much as I would have liked with Tamara and Karen's 'Paris in July'. A wonderful theme for a particularly blustery, rainy month. As I concede that I have again failed to live up to (at least my own) expectations on the book reading/film watching/croissant baking front, I am devoting this little 'à bientôt' post to a few frenchie titbits I have been considering this month...
The first is a guidebook to Paris that, I must admit, I purely picked up due to the beeaauuttiful, art-nouveau style front cover that Alex so proudly showed off at the Manchester Book Club following her second book haul from Sharston Books. (Read her review here).

Metrostop Paris by Gregor Dallas is a pleasant guide to the city for someone who already knows it very well - like London, you do tend to navigate yourself around in relation to which metrostop you're closest to - however, I found myself wondering how those who don't know Paris so well enjoy Dallas' frequent tangents off into realms of time and space unknown that veer wildly away from the metro stations themselves. I personally enjoyed reading a little fact for a change, bombarding the boyfriend with particularly fascinating snippets and thoroughly enjoying the random points, obscure characters and themes in the city's history. However, I am, I have realised, a literary fiction girl through and through and I very naughtily skipped one chapter towards the end, desperate to leave the real world behind and return to some make believe instead......tralala.

My second mini-tangent comes in filmic form; Le hérisson, directed by Monica Achache, the beautiful screen adaptation of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I enjoyed reading earlier this year.

Josiane Balasko stars as Renée and delivers a completely authentic, heart-wrenching portrait of the lonely concierge, superbly supported by child actress Garance Le Guillermic and the chap of the Go Cereal Bar advert! (Togo Igawa :)). The film, quite necessarily, ditches the over-your-head philosophical, slightly narcissistic french musings and thus compliments Barbery's novel wonderfully. It is also far funnier; with Paloma's old fashioned video camera replacing her 'Journal of the Movement of the World' and her 'life through a lense' view on the people around her is both more amusing and far more intense. Paris is beautiful, and this film makes it all the more real and beautiful....I really should make the time to watch more french film...


The all important conclusion to my bitsy post today comes in the form of my very best friend Joe who has taken the idea of 'Paris in July' quite literally and moved back there for good this very weekend! Utter envy aside, I will miss him very much and wish him the best of luck....but no better excuse to visit I say!  

29 July 2012

Les Aventures de Tintin

At the age of nineteen, in a desperate attempt to improve my French, I spent two months working as an admin assistant in a gas bottle factory on the outskirts of Strasbourg; capital of the Alsace-Lorraine region of Northern France.

Despite the pretty scenery you see to your left, times were tough. My French was too rusty to communicate properly with the Alsatian (the Germanic local language) speaking natives and my British approach to life (fairly free and liberal, partying into the early hours of the morning, etc ...) clashed with the deeply traditional Alsatian attitudes.

However, like any self-respecting bookworm I found salvation at FNAC; a European bookchain that, although rather pricey, is so aesthetically pleasing, with a great selection of both French and foreign literature and deliciously effective air conditioning. It is here, and in the homes of my work colleagues, that I became acquainted with Les BDs or bandes-dessinées; comic strips of all shapes, sizes and genres that both young and old go crazy for over there and that has become a huge feature of French and Belgian cultural tradition, your typical comic section looking something like this:

It is in corners like these (being careful to avoid young 20-something geeky men reading the kinky adult comics in public..a w k w a r d) that my love of Hergé and his wonderful Tintin comics blossomed and, since then, I have made an effort wherever possible to expand on my collection of colourful, entertaining, sometimes slightly racist books (a sign of the times I assure you! - see Tintin in the Congo :-O); where promising young reporter Tintin, his dog Milou and a hilarious cast of characters and companions travel the globe in search of adventure, mystery and magic. Although his creator faced many obstacles throughout his career including the Nazi occupation of Belgium that severely restricted the scope of Tintin's adventures and harsh criticism leveled at the overly political and colonial flavour of his earliest works, these stories and characters have endured and been translated into countless different languages for publication across the globe. With an international presence and now a Hollywood 3D extravaganza courtesy of Stephen Spielburg, Tintin's stories are still very much alive and I love him. Beautifully crafted illustrations and an excellent way to practice French, I am determined to collect them all!