30 March 2011

Central Library

The Central Library in Manchester is undergoing a long awaited facelift at the moment:

This is a wonderful, exciting opportunity.  This building is really beautiful and I have always felt that it was rather.....well ...empty, and confusing to walk around. By the looks of things this should soon change and this might be somewhere not to just to wander in panic and despair (thinking back to dissertation times) and actually somewhere to wander by and peruse the shelves (I walk past every single day), have a coffee and generally relax and enjoy oneself.

I utterly support this refurbishment yet it did occur to me (and please don't mistake me for one of those busybodies commenting on government spending that we have to listen to every morning on breakfast television) that, as we know, there are currently hundreds of small local libraries closing down all over Britain......shouldn't we save some of this money for the little people or does the money to pay for the above come from a completely different place?  Is it essentially more important to preserve our historic edifices in the bigger towns and cities than preserve our local centres of learning?  Is it not essential to preserve the libraries in the more deprived/isolated/backwards areas of our fair isle?

So many questions .... so little time...

27 March 2011

Jane Eyre - part one

I have decided, quite unexpectedly, to tackle my thoughts on this classic in two parts as it is first of all much heftier (length-wise) than I expected and secondly, although I am certainly entertained, I am finding it more difficult to formulate my opinions than I ordinarily do. Like Sense and Sensibility, I was already vaguely familiar with this story before I started to read, no doubt due to the mini-series I seem to remember being played on the BBC when I was younger and I've started to notice the book appearing on more and more blogs, no doubt inspired by the pending release of the new feature film (which looks superb) later this year. I thought I should finally pluck it out of the depths of the TBR pile, filed under the section entitled Classics I am too ashamed to admit I haven't read yet.

I have to be honest, I have found the first half of this book to be a little slow in starting up. Although the lengthy account of her difficult childhood does, no doubt, set Jane up as the rather plain, overly-composed character she grows into, it is only yesterday that I felt I had read a chapter where something finally happened, and we are now hopefully on our way to unveiling the secrets lurking in the dark corners of Edward Rochester's Thornfield Hall, where Jane is employed as a governess to her new master's ward.

**Warning - contains spoilers**

Orphaned very early on in her life and, fulfilling her Uncle's dying wish, left to live with his wife and two children, Jane is mistreated from the beginning of the book, a scapegoat for her cousin's wrongdoings and receiving next to no support from any members of the household.  The climax of this entire episode is reached when Jane, after being falsely accused of yet another misdemeanor, is locked in the bedroom where her Uncle died as punishment.  After believing she has seen a phantom in the room and her pleas to be released ignored by her aunt, Jane collapses in a fit, an event that, whilst disturbing, ironically sets the wheel in motion for her to escape from her hellish home. Glad to be rid of her, the family send her to Lowood Institution, a charity school for orphans. Jane quickly adapts to the stark lifestyle at the school, building valuable relationships with her fellow pupils and teachers, eventually turning her hand to teaching herself. This whole portion of the book, as I've said, I have no doubt will become more relevant as I read on, but I have felt rather indifferent about it and nothing yet has inspired much emotion (although I have the inkling that is about to change.) 

That said, Charlotte Bronte writes very well and, although I feel this section has gone on a little too long, it hasn't felt like running a marathon. Advertising for a post in the local newspaper, Jane is sent to live at Thornfield Hall where she takes charge of the coquettish Adèle Varens, the daughter of Mr Rochester's former lover (although he insists she is not his own child). Mr Rochester, unlike the heroes of so many novels written around this time (think Mr Darcy, Willoughby etc) is neither handsome nor charming at first, until Jane begins to see something in him beyond his harsh exterior and provoking turn of phrase. The meeting of this unlikely pair is suitably dramatic (with Rochester falling from his great black horse and Jane coming to his aid) and I feel is an indication of events to come. Just as we cheered when the young Jane Eyre said her parting words of hatred and disgust directed at her Aunt Reed, we long her to repeat this act in adulthood as glamorous haughty women flit around the hall and around her as if she didn't exist, particularly Mr Rochester's supposed love interest, the beautiful but callous Blanche Ingram. 

I wonder if the expression plain Jane inspired Charlotte Bronte, or whether indeed, Jane Eyre inspired the expression? In her plain and unremarkable appearance we learn that you don't have to be a beauty to be a heroine, that your character alone can get you through life and perhaps (and I am assuming here as I have not read that far on yet) inspire love in an admirer.   I am intrigued now.  I am intrigued to see how Jane will fair in her new world and anxious to unearth some of the dark mysteries that seem to be lurking in the shadows of the old hall...........more to come very soon.... 

NB: I am also reading an old hardback copy of this book with no sleeve or images on the front which, coupled with its length, I feel makes me look rather scholarly on my way to work in the morning. :-) 

23 March 2011

Good Reads

Abridged versions of my reviews and reading lists (under development) can now be found at:


Please join and share your thoughts and own TBR lists.  (A big thanks to a certain barrister at work who introduced me to this marvelous website!)

20 March 2011

La neuvième art

Thanks to the bf taking a last minute dip into the newsagents as we waiting for our flight at Geneva airport I managed to snap up number 8 in The Adventures of Tintin; Le Sceptre d'Ottokar. Any of you who have set foot in a French household (particularly those with children) or bookshop will have no doubt come across their passion for les BDs (bandes-dessinées) that often cover half the shop floor and range from the classic albums (such as the adventures of Tintin and Milou - or Snowy) childrens stories to the very adult and fantastical artwork.  Although my interest in these comics really only extends to the classic stories that, as well as being entertaining, I find particularly pleasing to the eye, the French go mad for their 'neuvième art.'

My interest in these albums began when I was living in Strasbourg and in desperate need of some entertainment. After visiting a colleague's house and seeing the colourful collection his children had amassed I decided to have a read myself. Although they are of course widely available in English, I do buy the Tintin adventures in their original French which gives me the opportunity to learn as well as be entertained.  

Tintin is of course a popular childhood character for many people, but we mustn't be deceived.  It is impressive how complex plot lines and characters can be forged out of a comic strip format and added to this is the often very political and historical context. What many fail to realise is the fact that Tintin and Snowy were originally created by Belgian artist Hergé as part of a series in a children's newspaper commissioned by the fascists as anti-Marxist propoganda.  The result is glaringly obvious, as we can see below:

This was eventually made into a book and Hergé continued with the, now decidedly racist in our modern eyes; Tintin in the Congo:

I heard a couple of years ago that the authorities were considering taking this book off the shelves due to the racism that was unfortunately quite characteristic of society at the time.  I frankly found this proposal ridiculous.  The sheer amount of novels I have read where the racism is almost palpable is ...well, innumerable, but nevertheless an unavoidable sign of the times.  How can we possibly learn from the mistakes and misjudgments our ancestors made if we censor everything into oblivion?

Anyway, rant over, I love Tintin all the same, I'm on my way to collecting all twenty-four.  Most importantly, they're just a bit of fun and look brilliant on the shelf!

19 March 2011

Superb shopping spree!

My intention was to write about something sensible and cerebral but I had such an itchy purse today and a frenzy of bookish spending that I just had to share.  First of all, the gorgeous John Rylands Library where I work at the weekends are selling fantastic bags that I just had to buy to cart all of my rubbish *ahem* important material around in:

Next came Cancer Research where I picked up The Island by Victoria Hislop and Brick Lane by Monica Ali. The former is one that has caught my eye for a while and I have been looking to pick up for the right price as I remember reading and enjoying The Return (more than I thought I would) a year or so ago. I would describe it as a definate sun lounger read, but with an intelligent edge and a great deal of research into the relevant area of history that made it all the more engaging.  I am hoping that The Island will be similar fare, the leprosy theme strikes me as quite dark and I am looking forward to getting tucked into something that will be a fairly easy read. The latter is a book I have seen on my parents shelves and reviewed a million times but have never, for whatever reason, bothered to pick up.  After seeing elements of it examined on Faulks on Fiction however, I thought it was about time to have a read.

Intending to move on to the next charity/individual bookshop this afternoon, I felt a rare tug whilst passing by Waterstones and went in.  After reading about the closure of Borders stores on various blogs across the water, it got me reflecting on my own book-buying habits.  Myself and the bf have always been more comfortable buying our books from charity shops or from independent retailers.  The price, overall experience and feeling that you are not merely filling the pockets of some faceless chain-store being just three of the reasons why I buy books in that way.  Having said that, I do buy books from Amazon, but I would justify this by saying that I simply can't always find everything I want in the independents and I always, always buy used books from individual retailers who just happen to be selling on Amazon.  However, I did do the 3 for 2 today, for the first time in years and I have been wondering what indeed compelled me to do so. Sure, the smell and look of a brand new book is just....well, as sad as I am, mouth-watering (!!)  And you also get the lovely, newly designed jackets and all the other fantastic things that come with new books. I suppose the idea of, on occasion, actually paying what the book is worth is also a decent thing to do.

On a grander scale; I live in Manchester, and in these parts I have a variety of bookshops to go to (although let's not get overexcited, it could be better) however, what happens to the vast majority of people who don't live in larger cities and only have the bog-standard high street to choose from? Yes, there is the internet, but it hardly flies the flag for literacy and learning like a good solid bookshop (however chainey) does sitting on your local high street next to Primarni.

Yes, I do blanch at the idea of paying more than five pound for a book, yes, I often only use the likes of Waterstones for drooling and window-shopping, however, as with the libraries, if I do dread the possibility of our own staple high-street book retailer going into administration, shouldn't we cease to be such hypocrites and contribute from time to time?

I bought (rather unimaginatively but what is one to do?):

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro (on the TBR list for far too long, I absolutely loved Remains of the day and, although I have heard it is very different, I hope to love this just as much)

South Riding by Winifred Holtby (this caught my eye as I walked in; I haven't even seen the BBC series but it struck me that it must be worth reading and I should really start building up a decent Virago collection afterall- I bought the version with the nice cover not the rubbish 'televised series' copy)


17 March 2011

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Reading this book has been a long time coming, partially due to the unfortunate fact that the well-known film adaptation was released before I got around to it, a situation that typically puts me off picking a book up. However, after reading Louis de Bernières brilliant The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts whilst camping in Scotland I began to realise that I could be missing out on something very special indeed.

How naive I was to proclaim just a couple of weeks ago that I was picking this book up because I was in need of some romance and sunshine! Romance there certainly is, but, given the setting, this is a tale of love set in very grisly and gritty times, please banish all images of Penelope Cruz reclining on sunbaked beaches and frolicking in the crystal clear water from your minds if you're able (clearly I haven't seen the film either!)

Village sweetheart Pelagia lives a peaceful life on the island of Cephallonia with her beloved father; the local Doctor Iannis. This happy existence is disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the inevitable invasion by Italian and German troops. The heavy historical setting serves as the backdrop, as we see in many novels, for the moving stories of the individuals caught up in it; in this case the unexpected and controversial romance that blossoms between Pelagia and Antonio Corelli, an Italian officer garrisoned in her humble home. Despite her reluctance to feel any affection for this invader and his troop of fun-loving, singing soldiers (nicknamed 'La Scala') coupled with her engagement to local fisherman Mandras, this unlikely pair form a deep bond that truly stands the test of time. 

De Bernières has clearly done his research here and it is pleasant to come away from a book knowing that you have not only enjoyed the fictional story but also learnt something as well.  Although my shame at my complete ignorance of important historical events is certainly not as great as it was when I finished reading Wild Swans, I am utterly appalled at my ignorance of the atrocities that were committed on that tiny island in living memory. These harrowing accounts make the more everyday, tender aspects of the book all the more touching and I particularly enjoyed the way in which each and every character was given the chance to tell his/her story apart from the main narrative. As in Don Emmanuel, the style of writing is quirky and has something decidedly 'foreign' about it.  Whereas his earlier novel betrayed a solid understanding and immersion in the world of magical realism and showed us an author who is clearly well-versed in Latin-American literature and the styles and techniques of the great masters such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Captain Corelli is so utterly evocative of the Mediterranean landscape and peoples that is very hard to believe that it is the creation of a Sandhurst-educated philosophy graduate.

My only complaint about this novel would be the unsatisfying ending (not to be discussed and thus spoilt here) and the handful of chapters that seemed to clash somewhat with the rest of the novel. Although the reader becomes accustomed to making great leaps in space and time, moving from one character's experience of the war to the next, every few chapters or so we are presented with five or six pages of quirky, yet somewhat tiresome tirades against the likes of el DUCE (i.e. Mussolini) that although relevant and lending colour and context to the novel, simply went on for too long and left me looking at the words on the page but simply not reading them.  I have no time for chapters like that whilst reading on the commute to work when it is difficult enough to concentrate as it is. 

That said, this is a beautiful, often harrowing story that is full of colour and a joie de vivre that is second to none. That said, it simply doesn't quite beat Don Emmanuel and I can't wait to now crack on with his novel Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord and enjoy shenanigans from continents further afield.

11 March 2011

Tintin et Milou

Phew! Thank god that week's over! A few days holiday skiing should do the trick to blow the cobwebs off and relax a little bit.  A short post this week as I wonder whether I will get time to nip into the French bookshops and get some new Tintin comic strips!  Collecting these fantastically entertaining and colourful books is a guilty pleasure of mine and I am hoping to pick up numbers 8 and 9 whilst in France....more to follow soon....À toute!!

6 March 2011

Paperback Writer

Although I have managed to catch all of BBC 4's series on the Beauty of Books and all of them have captured my imagination in one way another, the final installment; detailing the rise of the paperback book and the importance of cover design and the effect it has on the reader, was particularly great.  So much so in fact  that I watched it twice yesterday, even if it was just to show the bf what it looks like behind the scenes at the British Library. (Oh my god I think I would have a meltdown full stop, just look at the foyer!...and to think I've never been...)

The programme identifies the turning point, some time at the beginning of the 20th century, when book covers shifted from existing purely to hold the pages together ('the bread of the sandwich' is a metaphor that one expert so neatly uses) to something all together more dynamic. Any of you who are used to trawling second hand bookshops will no doubt have come across the colourful embossed Victorian covers that eventually morphed into the eye-catching and varied paperback books we see on the shelves today.

I often automatically comment on the cover of a book as a starting point for discussing the story that lies within. This is something that comes naturally as the aesthetic aspects of a book strongly affect any preconceptions I have, whether I like it or not.  I often feel slightly shallow and guilty about this as there are books I haven't touched because the cover has put me off.  However, this feeling has been eradicated since listening to the views of experts who understand how the physical appearance of the book can really make or break your impressions, and how, if an artist/designer hits the nail on the head, a good cover can lend even more weight to a novel.

George Orwell's masterpiece 1984 is used to chart the changing trends in book covers since it was first published in 1949, having had at least 15 different cover designs; from the classic old-school penguin model we all know and love to the innovative design above; clearly displaying the novel's now iconic status by being confident enough to omit both the author's name and the title from the front page. (Inspired, the bf picked up one of the more abstract designs seen in the programme today, despite the fact that we already own a couple of copies of the novel.)

One of the most interesting points I felt was the comparison made between the austere, post-war penguin novels and their glamorous American cousins, whose image makes Winston and Julia look like they should be on the red carpet rather than living under Big Brother's harsh regime.  I found the reasons for this (e.g. the prosperous and Hollywood-conscious society at the time being just one of them) particularly interesting as I often see these quite tacky, almost always unrealistic covers in book shops and dismiss them as bad - now I understand the historical context behind this style I feel much more informed and much more likely to pick them up as a result.

The second design studied is the hugely iconic cover for A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, a design that was apparently hastily done in time to re-release the book to coincide with the film and disliked by both the artist, and, rather sadly I think, Burgess himself. The famous 'cog eye' image was largely inspired by Stanley Kubrick's vision and includes other details, such as a bowler hat and braces, that aren't present in the book. The blank, inhuman face with the psychotic-looking eye is now so well-known that it joins the ranks of the Andy Warhol soup can and we can't imagine popular culture without it. The symbolism represented by the 'cog' (i.e. in the machine) is superb and what a shame that Burgess disliked it enough to deface his copy of the novel, adding facial features to the image, perhaps to reclaim the book as his own and to make the main protagonist appear human after all.

As well as feeling that comments on book covers are now more than justified, my final moment of triumph came as, on the mention of e-readers and the like, all of the scholars/experts on the programme declared that, although convient and no doubt an impressive bit of technology, they would never ever replace the physical book, an object which, as far as I'm concerned, is one the most precious and powerful we can own (forgive me if I too am getting a little precious myself here.)  If you're travelling then great, take your e-reader, if you're a student and have a lot of books to lug around during the day then great, use your kindle, but these machines can never replace the feeling of holding a book in your hands and turning the pages, of seeing all of those lovely volumes on the shelf in your library or living room. Most importantly...it is much safer to take your beloved paperback into the bath. Happy days!

3 March 2011

Queen of the Elephants

I explained in my last post how I had felt a little drained after reading Kafka on the Shore and therefore needed something completely and utterly different to wipe the slate clean and allow me to carry on  reading as I ordinarily would.  Mark Shand's Queen of the Elephants is a book that my Dad pressed upon me and the bf last time we went around for dinner that follows the story of writer, conservationist and jollyniceallroundstandupBritishchap Mark Shand. I know I'm terrible but I suppose the whole posh boy look going on on the front cover with his pink pashmina (I mean scarf! ;-)) put me irritatingly in mind of Charlie Boorman on his travels across the globe sans Ewan McGregor. However, it has become very clear that you should not judge a book by its cover, or indeed a man by his pashmina.  Shand is indeed rather posh but I found both his writing and the honesty and humility with which he approaches the subject of this beautiful, bewitching yet persecuted animal rather refreshing. Their life, as he readily admits, is a world away from his privileged one back home in Britain.

Inspired by his previous travels across India on the back of his beloved elephant Tara; Shand returns to the heart of Assam to learn from the real master.  Parbati Barua is the daughter of legendary mahout (elephant driver/keeper) Laljee Barua who has spent all her life living with, working with and caring for elephants and is a woman on a mission to protect the species that, although once revered throughout Indian, have now become a symbol of terror for many people, particularly those working in the tea plantations. The elephant's natural habitat is slowly disappearing all together and these starving animals, roaming the villages and plantations at night for food often unwittingly cause the death of many human beings.

Parbati, although physically tiny and battling not only for her elephants but to maintain her place as a Chief Mahout in an exclusively male world, is revealed by Shand to be an absolute pillar of strength and almost animal-like with her strong natural instincts and deep knowledge of the wild. She is hard, but she also has a great deal of heart and allows this man, who by his own admission knows much less than he previously thought about this beautiful species, and a film crew (this book accompanied a BBC Documentary of which I frustratingly can't find any clips) into her circle in the hope of showing the world what dangers this animal faces; a species that often plays second fiddle to their African counterparts whose endangered status is frequently highlighted by the ivory trade.

If someone had told me about the precarious situation of the Indian elephant (is Asian elephant more correct?) before reading this book I, sadly, wouldn't have been surprised.  Many beautiful animals are in this day and age. However, I was completely ignorant of the details and I am glad that this book grabbed our attention.

Apart from the most important and overriding messages present in this book, I also simply like the way it is written.  For an account of a real-life trip across India, with all of the quotidian, mundane details that lugging cameras around with you inevitably involves, I found Shand's writing to be quite literary in style, so much so that the mythic character of Parbati could easily have been revealed to be a figment of the writer's imagination by the end of their story.  The bf and I have already declared, after only snatching a week away camping last year, that this year will be the year of the holiday, and for someone who has spent a fair amount of time living and working abroad, I have surprisingly never set foot out of Europe (!)  This year we would like to take two weeks somewhere further afield and, inspired its colour, vibrancy and a little blue steam train, Darjeeling will hopefully be our destination.  I would love, between cups of tea and walks in the beautiful countryside, to have the opportunity to meet some of these awe-inspiring animals. This book will now hopefully enable us to look at them out of the tourist mindset and imagine ourselves in their perilous world.

              To do your bit to support the Asian elephant visit:

1 March 2011

I'm stumped!

Oh no....the reader's block finally got me.  The first block of the year and I was doing so well!  I suppose 2 whole months is pretty good going......
I enjoyed Kafka on the shore so much I was utterly transported to another world and now I've come back down to earth with a horrible bump and can't find anything appropriate to read. That and the fact that I have been absolutely shattered and so busy lately that I simply can't zone out of what I'm doing to sink into something properly. Anyway, enough of my chuntering and complaining, what to read next? I had a nice little read of Mark Shand's Queen of the Elephants (soon to be reviewed once I get the chance) which was a heart-warming little stop gap to read over the weekend that I thought would sufficiently diffuse the situation in readiness for something else. No such luck.  I began my first Virago book (well...actually that's a fib as my mum pointed out the fact that all of our Margaret Atwood books are Virago the other day...much to my delight) my first green spined Virago; Mary Lavin's The House on Clewe Street ...but I am simply not in the mood.  Too lazy and too tired to take it all in I'm afraid, and also in need of further escapism rather than further drudgery in rainy Ireland. That said, my decision to finally  pick up good old Captain Corelli and have a read is hopefully a wise decision to make.

I need a bit of a romance and a bit of sunshine.  Let's hope I can sink on in and lose myself on my way to work on these dull dreary mornings....