27 February 2011

Kafka on the shore

After reading the fabulous Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb a few years ago shortly before moving to Paris, I was left in a ... well, a Japanese kind of mood.  Our frequent visits to the equally wonderful and historic Librairie Galignani (see below) on the Rue de Rivoli, saw me poring over their selection of Japanese Literature; most obviously the works of Haruki Murakami, whose black and white covers I found particularly attractive and intriguing. That said, I never did get round to picking one of these books up.  I didn't know anyone who had ever read any of his work and eventually became completely distracted reading other things. This, along with the rather elusive synopses on the back of classics like Kafka on the shore and The wind up bird chronicle meant that my original intrigue eventually became forgotten after a while.  Now, having read Kafka, I can completely understand why you simply have to read this book to understand and, as usual with most things, simply cannot believe I didn't pick it up sooner.

Murakami's work generally seems to get mixed reviews and although I readily admit I need to read more of his books to enable to me judge things from a more educated perspective, my gut tells me that you simply get it and can appreciate it, or you don't. Forget griping about the Americanisms (in principal I can understand the irritation caused but really who cares?  It doesn't take away from the fundamental aspects of the book) and, god forbid, a less than perfect translation.  I do not understand this personally. This book is the creation of a Japanese writer; it is surreal, exotic and foreign and the translation reflects this, and so it should! Reviewers are all to quick to criticise phrases that seem a little out of kilter when that is precisely the translator's intention! This is an out of kilter book, one that requires reflection and an immediate re-read, particularly on the part of the Western reader, who is sucked into the marvelous world of talking cats, ancient libraries and a good ol' walking, talking Colonel Sanders. 

We follow the respective journeys of two different men; Kafka Tamura (named in honour of Czech writer Franz Kafka), a fifteen year old runaway who eventually finds himself taking refuge in a private library in Takamatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku where he can attempt to separate himself from his psychotic father and his frightening prophecy that Kafka will eventually kill him and have sex with both his mother and sister. He is befriended and protected by Oshima, a hemophiliac who has almost as many secrets as Kafka himself, and the enigmatic Miss Saeki, the owner of the library who the teenager becomes increasingly attached to. The second story, which eventually links with the first (or so we think) follows the journey of Satoru Nakata, an old man who, although unable to read and write and thus participate in society in the conventional way his brother and sisters are able to, is immensely good natured and uncomplicated. He possesses the uncanny ability, most excitingly of all, to converse with cats and his own travels also take him, along with the likeable truck-driver Hoshino, who picks him up on his way, right into the heart of Takamatsu.

It is important to reign yourself in when discussing this book as almost every couple of pages you stumble across something completely unexpected and even to make an attempt at discussing the plot and main themes in detail would be incredibly difficult as it puts you at risk of ruining it for those who haven't read it. Many Latin American writers (and filmmakers) famously explore the depths of magical realism; the likes of Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the two most obvious that come to mind, and I am more than familiar with the way in which these writers play with the concept of space and time and the way in which 'reality' as we know it will suddenly slip into the surreal as though it is the most natural thing in the world.  However, I found the type of magical realism in Murakami's tale to be subtly different in a few ways.  Talking cats (I adore cats so this aspect of the book in itself won me over right away) raining leeches and ghosts aside, I found these aspects to be much darker than their Latin American counterparts; particularly the Oedipal fantasies that are explored that are a world away from the earthy, homespun magic found in the likes of Cien años de soledad (A hundred years of solitude - Garcia Marquez)  and Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate - Laura Esquivel).

I could take or leave Kafka as a character really, though he does the job, but I found myself  feeling a great deal of affection for and protectiveness over Nakata, who finds himself in a potentially very frightening and stressful situation from which I wanted to extract him immediately.  Although you do find yourself needing to put the book down for a few minutes after reading certain pages to soak everything in and link everything together as best you can, Murakami's writing is so evocative that it can often provoke physical reactions from reading.  Along with your rollercoaster of sadness and happiness there are moments were you can feel stressed, slightly aroused or even physically sick.  There was a certain moment where I literally had to close the book and put it back in my bag (I was however reading these gruesome passages at 7.30 am on the way to work, which was a little to early to say the least!) Don't let this deter you however.  This is an all-consuming, thought provoking tale from which hundreds of different conclusions can be made....or you may just leave feeling confused. This isn't your average read and I adored it for that very reason. Top marks.

25 February 2011

I love French.....

and New Zealand.......and this is why :-)  A bit of a giggle for a drunken Friday night where my fingers simply won't work enough to type!!!

20 February 2011

A Bookish Weekend

My parents have such a decent collection of charity shops in their vicinity that they are now reluctant to buy a book for more than 50p! So why oh why can I not find such bargains up north? Don't get me wrong, we do have some nice little charity shops and some real gems of second hand bookshops in the local area (though you do have to search for them) but it would be nice to have at least one little charity shop with some super-bargains for the occasional smash and grab primark-style book shopping. I became very excited upon seeing a '50p each or £1 for 3' sign on a little shelf in the basement of one little local charity shop I had never noticed before yesterday but unfortunately, for the first time in months, there was literally nothing I would even consider reading. No obvious classics, not even any semi-trashy but reasonable looking chick-litty books by modern authors.  Just Catherine Cookson and rather informative looking books on fishing.  What a shame I don't fish.

However, I really shouldn't moan as I did dig out my first, yes first, Virago book from the shelves in Oxfam; The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty, which looks just my cup of tea.  I had never really been aware of the Virago books until I began reading book blogs and I always now keep an eye out for those special little green spines. I love the ideas behind this publishing house and how it started out.  As well as promoting women's writing there are many authors I have never heard of and paying more attention to these works seems the perfect way to broaden my horizons a little.

In other book news, I managed to catch the first episode of the The Beauty of Books series on BBC 4; on ancient bibles.  Although I certainly can't enthuse about them quite as much as the 'Medieval masterpieces' shown in the second episode; mainly because I don't know quite as much about the subject, anyone with a sense of history and a passion for art and the origin of the book cannot fail to be impressed by the Codex Sinaiticus; thought to be the oldest surviving complete copy of the new testament and perhaps even one of the earliest examples of a 'book' as know it.

We are also shown the magnificent illuminated bible at Winchester Cathedral, which even gives the later manuscripts a run for their money.

Watching television isn't normally the most thrilling of activities for us, but I have to admit, bookish telly is receiving top marks at the moment as I managed to catch the third installment of Faulks on Fiction, which I intend to discuss once the series finishes next week.

I will also most likely reluctantly be finishing Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami this week. A surreal yet moving book that I have really enjoyed. I cannot wait to read the last few chapters....

19 February 2011

The English Patient

**Warning - review may contain some spoilers!!!**

I have read a few reviews and spoken to people who found this beautiful novel quite difficult to read; finding Michael Ondaatje's narrative fairly unconventional and therefore difficult to immerse oneself in. I however, for whatever reason, did not encounter any such obstacle as I explored a rich, atmospheric world inhabited by four fascinating, complex and widely different characters.

We meet Hana, a Canadian nurse working in Europe towards the tail end of the Second World War, insisting on being left in an old monastery in the heart of Florence where she cares for her English patient; a man who has been badly burnt in a plane accident over the desert and rescued by a Bedouin tribe. Intelligent and deeply enigmatic this mysterious character, despite his terrible injuries, coherently relates his tragic tale of love and loss in the desert, a tale that punctuates the separate stories of the three other main characters in this novel.

As well as Hana, two other distinct men come into our picture, albeit from completely different directions.  First of all comes a man called Caravaggio, an old friend of Hana's father and a thief, who has come a cropper working for the British Intelligence Service, resulting in having both of his thumbs cut off.  Upon hearing of Hana's situation, he walks all the way into Florence to find her. Like the English patient, he is addicted to morphine and spends a great deal of time speaking with the burnt man, revealing him to be László Almásy, the Hungarian desert explorer.  It turns out that Ondaatje actually plucked this name from history, after hearing the story of the real Almásy, who helped German spies to cross the desert during WWII. (This man had no particular affiliation to either side during the war, it seems he took on contracts from whoevers proved to be the most lucrative.)  The story we see here however, of him falling in love and having an affair with the English Katherine Clifton, is completely fictional.

Our final main protagonist, and my favourite, is Kip, an Indian sapper working in bomb disposal.  We are at first cautious of the soldier, as his appearance at the villa whilst Hana is playing the piano seems such an intrusion on her, although quite bittersweet, beautiful and almost peaceful world.  However, we soon learn that the Germans have a habit of placing bombs in objects like musical instruments and, upon hearing her playing, he became fearful for her safety.  Kip swiftly becomes a welcome presence in the house; his strong, calm demeanor proves to be something that Hana is in dire need of and they quickly become lovers. All of the characters experience flashbacks in this novel, and although I found Almásy's to be a little confusing at times as they leaped from the most recent events to the earliest and back again, Kip's clearly recounts his experiences training to work in bomb disposal in England. 

When we reflect on WWII, do not the majority of us purely think of the English/German/American/French men who put there lives on the line? India, as part of the Allied Nations, officially declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, and thousands of Indian conscripts began to fight in Europe on behalf of the United Kingdom, along with people from many other different cultures and races that we rarely consider when studying this period of the 20th Century.  Ondaatje's inclusion of Kip within this environment I therefore found very important.  I will not go any further into the story as I wouldn't want to give anything away, particularly regarding the again, bittersweet and thought-provoking end to the book in which Kip has a significant part to play.

Although I can identify the parts of this book that some may find difficult to follow (mainly Almasy's musings on his former life) I think the style of and ideas behind this novel perhaps fit with the way my own mind works, meaning that I could appreciate the book to its very fullest.  This story is not a linear one, we are constantly thrust backwards and forwards in time, essentially so that we may understand the characters as fully as possible.  There is less 'action' than a traditional novel and more.....reflection, I suppose, and emotion. The meeting of four war-weary people in this beautiful, yet damaged, villa in a beautiful, yet still dangerous, part of the world.  The writing is extremely evocative and the imagery vivid, a particularity that made even more sense upon discovering that Ondaatje is primarily a poet.  I also discovered, upon listening to a short talk on The English Patient on the BBC World Service that both Hana and Caravaggio are characters who Ondaatje had actually used previously in his novel In the Skin of the Lion, which I would now like to read as I think it will add an extra special element to The English Patient:

László Almásy

15 February 2011

Medieval Masterpieces

I caught a brilliant little treat on BBC 4 last night; The Beauty of Books, a half hour snippet on the beautiful works of art that sprung up from, without a doubt my favourite period in history; the medieval period. After studying this era intensively at University, I have still managed to maintain a passion for the fantastical legends and Hieronymus Bosch-style trippy artwork that characterised much of the period; an escape from the doom and death of everyday life I suppose.

Michelle Brown; Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the University of London takes the time to take us through the Luttrell Psalter (above); an illuminated manuscript containing script of a predominantly religious nature, commissioned by a wealthy English landowner in the fourteenth century. The creatures depicted in the margins (I think) are simply exquisite and, as the kind narrator explains, most likely a reflection of not only a deeply superstitious society, but also the diet of beer and hallucinogenic rye bread the population consumed at the time.

The second work that gets a look in is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, a collection of stories that, thanks to a chap called William Caxton, became the first major publication written in English and printed for the masses. Despite my passion for this period in literary history I have surprisingly never picked this up; despite having devoured every other epic and legend going.  Fellow pupils at school bemoaning having to study this may have had a subconscious affect I don't know but it is definitely on my shopping list. (The library I work in I believe actually has one of the original manuscripts - why I haven't taken the opportunity to go and have a peek is beyond me really...) 

I am now off to watch the first episode of this series that I originally missed ...on ancient bibles ...whether I will be running down to my local Christian bookshop tomorrow remains to be seen!

12 February 2011

Enduring Love

After giving my best friend a 15 minute lecture on some of my favourite reads a few weeks ago, he suggested I read Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (much to my surprise because, although he would like to think of himself as the dreamy academic type - forever with his nose in a book - the reality is he often doesn't have the attention span for it!) His suggestion was prompted by my comments on Atonement; that I read and absolutely loved about a year ago and whose adaptation for the screen was shown on ITV1 recently. (Will have to try and catch in the future as it looked good.. as irritating as I find Keira Knightley...)

I had a few McEwan titles in my mind to read afterwards; Saturday and Solar being just two, as I loved his writing and was intrigued by all the hype. For some reason however, Enduring Love had escaped my attention, not helped by that fact that I rarely go to the cinema these days and don't follow the latest releases too closely; meaning that the film also completely passed me by.

Following a terrible ballooning accident at the beginning of the novel which result in one man's death; bystander Jed Parry, a religious zealot and apparent sufferer of de Clérambault's syndrome, becomes obsessed with fellow survivor Joe Rose; a writer who, along with his academic wife, live a privileged life in their smart London flat. This obsession leads to deep paranoia and anxiety on Joe's part, particularly in the wake of the accident and sows the seeds of doubt and apprehension which almost leads eventually to the complete breakdown of his marriage.

This book is deeply disturbing and I certainly jumped more than once at the phone ringing/click of the radiator coming on/the bf coming home, etc, etc. However, I have been left a little cold and I'm finding it difficult to put my finger on exactly why.  Perhaps I was expecting an Atonement-esque extravaganza with sex, drama and all the rest, perhaps Daniel Craig put me off, perhaps I simply can't concentrate enough at the moment to appreciate the issues this book clearly intends to explore; mental health and the clash between religion and science being just two of them. The reader almost suffers as much doubt and suspicion as Joe's partner Clarissa as to whether this Parry character does really exist as, until the very end of the book, he is the only person who interacts with him - perhaps, we tell ourselves, this man is merely a figment of the main character's imagination, born out of some form of post traumatic stress. 

I find myself feeling rather indifferent (which is far worse than hating a book surely?) There seems to be such grand and great ideas present here, just not enough time taken or the right kind of characters created to express and explore them.  The opening scene is suitably dramatic and commands your attention immediately, leaving your hopes high for the rest of the book, but the ensuing story simply doesn't live up to expectation.  One key factor in really appreciating a book is the ability to sympathise with your 'hero' and I found it very difficult to feel protective over a couple of uppity academics in their fancy apartment being harrassed by a poor individual with some very serious mental health issues. Joe Rose, rather than taking what I would see as the correct action and immediately seeking out help for this man, allows the situation to affect his own state of mind and get completely out of hand. An additional niggle, and quite amusing at that, in scenes involving Joe and his girlfriend, Clarissa, was the tendency to suddenly leap out of serious discussion to the likes of; 'and then he reached out and grabbed her breast' and such forth.  The inappropriately timed nature of these interjections (although I understand the importance of establishing these characters attachment to one other) were fairly ridiculous and caused me to laugh out loud and snort once or twice (not great on the quiet train home) and I thought out of place given the enthusiasm I felt for McEwan's mature, evocative writing whilst reading Atonement.

I don't think this book is bad, just lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.  Perhaps my expectations were far too high and I am merely a little disappointed. This should however be read, if only to superficially explore the issues surrounding conditions such as erotomania (de Clérambault's syndrome.)  The final blow came whilst charity shopping with the bf the other week and coming across a much, much prettier copy (see above) than my own which would have at least meant that this book can dress up my bookshelf - alas, it shall now be resigned to the back row along with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  .....The Girl who ..(ran with scissors? I don't know) and other such toshy looking books. 

9 February 2011

Save our libraries

It has been my intention for a week or so now to comment on the fate of our poor libraries, which, like almost every other institution out there, are set to suffer under the spending cuts the Tories are implementing at the moment in order to address the national deficit.  I don't want to delve too deeply into politics here (although perhaps that's hypocritical of me considering the fact that, with this post, I am approaching decisions that have emerged from that very arena) I do understand the need to make cuts, etc, and it certainly isn't merely our libraries that are facing the chop. However, as a book fanatic and a lover of anything in the community that promotes knowledge and learning, when I heard the tale on the breakfast news of a small local library facing closure at the hands of the local counsel, it made my heart sink.

I'm a realistic individual, and as I have said, I do genuinely understand that cuts need to be made; the spending cuts that the likes of our hospitals and schools are facing are frightening (though also unsurprising as it seems clear to me that these institutions must utterly devour finances.) I have trawled the internet for information as to how much it costs to run a library, and, although I have found plenty of articles declaring how much planned library closures will save (millions here and tens of millions there..) I have seen little to convince me, layman that I am, of how terribly, how awfully expensive it is to run a small local library with a couple of members of staff (more often than not individuals who are as valuable as  the literature on the shelves; on hand to share their passion and knowledge with readers.)

I live in a country where knowledge is not something exclusively reserved just for men or the upper echelons of society.  I live in a country where, whatever your material circumstances, you may, for a minimal fee, join your local library and read.  Not just read.......conduct research......socialise....look for jobs...surely activities that our government must want to encourage and that can only help to drag us out of the economic minefield we are navigating at this moment in time?

My parents took myself and my brother to the local library on a regular basis when we were children and the sheer joy in selecting something brand new to read has, and will never, abandon me. Even if I only managed to read just one book a month, I would insist on taking out as many as the library would allow (8 or 9 at a time I believe) just to sit and stare at them looking so very pretty on my bedside table (bearing scary resemblance to my TBR pile nowadays!) Imagine if that had never been an option?  If my nearest local library had been too far away?  Although my parents certainly bought us books as children, would I have been able to sub-consciously develop that love and respect for the written word that I have today without the introduction of a library? Would I have merely been exposed with English literature lessons at school and the dry teaching and over-analytical approach that discouraged many of my friends from ever really developing an appreciation for books into adulthood?

The wonderfully creative Phil Bradley and his photoshopped World War Posters in support of the Savelibraries campaign can be bought on Zazzle http://www.zazzle.co.uk/philbradley 

I volunteer at a library at the weekends; albeit of the large, gothic, academic variety, one that is (hopefully) protected by its affiliation with the University and its Grade I listed status. A beautiful building and an important part of our cultural heritage and history in Manchester that is worlds away from her little local brothers across the UK who are under threat.  My desire to be surrounded my books left right and centre and to own them means that, apart from a quick nip in during a few days of unemployment after university, I barely take note of my own little local library (literally two minutes walk from the front door) that I walk past every day on the way to work. The precarious position of this institution today can perhaps coax the worst of us (clearly myself included) out of our exclusive Amazon bubble and consider our local library in the future; next time we reach for that book on the shelf that 'I've heard good things about but I'm not really sure if it'll be my thing'......how about borrowing for a change?  One thing is for certain, and that is that our libraries need us, as a future without the option to study and read at one's leisure is a bleak prospect indeed.....

1 February 2011

Sense and Sensibility

It is of course awfully embarrassing that, up until two weeks ago, I had never read this classic by Jane Austen, at least not beyond perhaps the first three chapters, however I am consoling myself with the fact that there will always be too many books to possibly devour in a lifetime and I am aware that I am not the only booklover/blogger out there who has some surprising and blush-inducing titles in their TBR pile...

As I began to read I had a very strong sense of déjà-vu which I instantly attributed to my general familiarity with the story and the fact that, as mentioned in my last post, I have seen the film (the version starring Emma Thompson et al) at least half a dozen times. However, upon reflection and considering my instant familiarity with Jane Austen's prose and certain aspects of the book that perhaps aren't as prevalent in the screen adaptation, I suddenly remembered that I did start to read this book a number of times in my teens, but was unfortunately thwarted by the early nineteenth century narrative that can often seem convoluted to the 21st century mind, and was thus practically impenetrable to a sixteen year old without a great literary back catalogue to prepare her for tackling such a novel. Therefore, my intimate knowledge of the first three chapters was second to none, made for very easy reading and got me into my stride for the rest of the tale.

Many of you will no doubt be very familiar with story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and their respective trials and tribulations in love... After their father's death and the subsequent power over their inheritance afforded their half-brother John, the sisters and their mother are left in reduced circumstances that lead them to take on a small cottage in the heart of Devonshire where they meet with acquaintances both new and old and are encouraged by all and sundry to establish a connection with a wealthy suitor and set themselves up for the future.

The one thing that struck me above everything else whilst reading this book is that, whatever the period in history and whatever the circumstance of the individual, there is very little to separate fundamental human interests and passions of the 21st century with those of our ancestors. The monologues given, more often than not by the male characters in the book (a reflection of the times perhaps?) in relation to wealth and status and its importance put me in mind of the countless individuals I encounter on a daily basis whose sole preoccupation in life is money money MONEY and stuff stuff and more STUFF! In my reality, this attitude bores me and often makes me feel increasingly isolated from the crowd (not such a bad thing?) as I place little importance on material assets other than having a home where I can be comfortable with the people I love. Musings on this aside, as I could easily rant for hours, I found my concentration waning during these mini-monologues, though I understand that the value placed on an individual's personal wealth is merely a reflection of the society and times in which Jane Austen herself lived and indeed, is a key factor in this story.

Closely tied in with this preoccupation are the romantic attachments of Marianne and her older sister Elinor; the former with a new suitor (John Willoughby) who bounds onto the scene and rescues Marianne when she falls and twists her ankle whilst playing in the rain with her younger sister Margaret and the latter with family friend; Edward Ferrars. Marianne, who wears her heart on her sleeve and is wont to speak her mind at all times, even in the most inappropriate of circumstances, falls for Willoughby almost immediately and the two spend almost all of their time together. This honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end when Willoughby leaves with almost no explanation and does not reappear again until the two Miss Dashwoods visit their friend Mrs Jennings down in London. After countless letters sent to the object of her affections, Marianne and her sister stumble across Willoughby at a party where, much to the their horror, he snubs her completely.  This painful event, coupled with the return of her correspondence and the discovery that he is engaged to another, considerably wealthy, woman, results in a period of great distress, illness and despondence for Marianne.

Whilst this drama unfolds, Elinor, unbeknownst to even her sister, is subjected to her own dose of heartbreak and confusion as she is informed of Edward's secret, four-year long engagement to Lucy Steele; a cousin of their neighbour Lady Middleton. We are also introduced to another acquaintance, and I feel, one of the most likeable and noble characters of the book; Colonel Christopher Brandon, whose affection for the two sisters; particularly for Marianne, deepens throughout the book as he becomes an important source of friendship and comfort, particularly for Elinor during a bout of illness that almost leaves her sister dead.

These central events/relationships are surrounded by dinner after dinner, meeting upon meeting and is generally reflective of what we understand society to have been like at that time. The dialogue is generally interesting, at times amusing (moody Thomas Palmer is particularly hilarious) the storyline touching and the characters diverse. We are treated to a wholly satisfying ending as our heroines find love; Elinor with Edward, whose engagement to Lucy is broken off and Marianne, rather unexpectedly, with Colonel Brandon, whose unflinching loyalty and love is finally rewarded, leaving Willoughby to wonder what could have been if he had married for love rather than following his shallow instincts.  The sisters love trysts and engagements, sorrows and joys again show that there is little difference between their lives and our own. These women fall in and out of love and are subjected to the same disappointments as the 21st century girl - only perhaps in prettier dresses and expressing themselves far more eloquently.  The effect is a true feeling of solidarity with the main protagonists and genuine satisfaction when all ends well for them.

My intention with this post was to complain about how the adaptation of books into well-known films can colour your reception of a book. After writing and reading this back I have realised that, in this case, I have little reason to complain. Yes, I found it impossible to take Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and co out out of the equation when visualising the characters in my minds eye, however, in this case I feel that my familiarity with the screen adaptation (helped by the fact that it is a very good one) has merely enriched the experience, rather than marring my understanding. Whilst writing the screenplay, Emma Thompson apparently protested that she was too old to play Elinor, who is supposed to be nineteen years old in the book.  They therefore changed Elinor's age in the film to 27. Now, whether I have been too affected by the film remains up for debate here but, I felt that the gulf between 'sense' and 'sensibility' in the novel was such, that, it made more sense for Elinor to be quite a bit older than Marianne, particularly considering her comparative maturity in handling the trials and tribulations of life...

All this debate aside, I am so glad I finally picked this up. A satisfying read and clear to see why this is such a classic.....