Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Library Loot

I am going to put this in writing: I will NOT request any further books from the library until I finish reading the ones that I already have. Today I had to return The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb without reading it and am most annoyed with myself; I stupidly thought I could renew it thrice, not twice. Anyway, I picked up my last batch of requests for the time-being:

Ulysses by James Joyce - this is for the reading Ulysses challenge and as my own copy is at home in Glasgow and I won't be visiting for a couple of months, I thought I would borrow a copy to see if reading it in book form was easier than in DailyLit installments. I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have read 65 pages/the first volume over the last two weeks.

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch - I fancied reading some Iris Murdoch for the first time. I do have a copy of The Sea, the Sea but, again, it's at home with the parents.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald - this is a title that has been on my wish-list for some time.

The Parasites by Daphne Du Maurier - I thought it about time that I tried another book by the author of one of my all-time favourites, Rebecca.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd - this book has recently won the 2009 Carnegie Medal, awarded posthumously, and I am enthusiastically looking forward to reading it.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - looking forward to reading this for my personal challenge to read more Man Booker winners.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - there has been much talk about this recently amongst bloggers and a good chance it will be nominated for this year's Booker.

Now to the outstanding library loot before making a start on these.

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"All of this he remembers and can see as plain as day - he just can't say when it happened. Like a photograph that cannot be placed anywhere specific in the album".
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

Monday, 29 June 2009

Snow, Glass, Apples

Image courtesy of J Dillon @deviantART

"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman is the last story to appear in his first volume of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors, but can be read online here. Although I am a Neil Gaiman fan (relatively recently; since late 2006) and have read most of the stories that feature in Smoke and Mirrors, I hadn't read this story before now. I have a funny process when it comes to reading short stories; I rarely read them in sequence but often dip in and out of volumes at random. Although I enjoy short stories (and have enjoyed reading some for blog posts), I find it difficult to read a lot at once and often have a novel on the go at the same time. It's not that short stories aren't substantial enough to sustain my attention but that my concentration lapses and I require the longevity of a novel to lose myself in. However, when I do pay close attention to one short story at a time (whether it be another by Gaiman or one by a newly discovered author), I usually find myself thoroughly entranced.

"Snow, Glass, Apples" is an ingenious reinterpretation of the fairy tale, "Snow White", of which the most famous versions are those by the Brothers Grimm and the animated adpatation by Disney. The closest variant to Neil Gaiman's version that I could direct you to for comparison would be Angela Carter's "The Snow Child" from her volume of postomdern and feminist re-tellings of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Carter's story is about a Count and Countess who are out riding one day in the snow when the Count wishes for a girl as white as snow, as red as blood, and wth hair as black as a raven. Upon her naked materialisation and the Count's fascination and desire, the Countess immediately hates her and plots her demise, "[s]o the girl picks a rose; pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds; screams; falls". Bereft, the Count performs necrophilia on the dead girl lying in the snow, who afterwards melts and leaves the rose she had pulled off the bush for the Countess. As the Countess touches the rose, she dropped it and exclaimed, "It bites!" So, not a fairy tale for children, then, and neither is "Snow, Glass, Apples".

In his introduction to Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman wrote that he liked "to think of this story as a virus. Once you've read it, you may never be able to read the original story in the same way again" and he certainly achieved it with "Snow, Glass, Apples", which takes the traditional tale and turns it on its head. Sharing Carter's motif of blood and snow, of vampirism and necrophilia, and of Carter's other popular motif, mirrors, which are lacking in her own tale, Gaiman re-tells the story from the persepective of the Queen, of Snow White's stepmother, whose reputation is as a jealous, wicked witch. Snow White, far from being as pure and innocent as snow, is a vampire who weakens her father by drinking his blood until his death (with a disturbing incestuous undertone) and who is cast out by the Queen and then later poisoned by apples the Queen poisons. Snow White is encased in a glass coffin by the "little men" of the forest and there she remains for two years until an impotent Prince (unless she resembles or is a corpse) performs necrophilia upon her body. Snow White and the Prince marry and burn her stepmother as a witch. Simply fantastical stuff.

Some of my favourite lines and passages:

"Her eyes were black as coal, black as her hair; her lips were redder than blood. She looked up at me and smiled. Her teeth seemed sharp, even then, in the lamplight."

"I would not close my eyes until the princess was ash, and a gentle wind would scatter her like snow."

"And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things that I saw. A landscape, unrecognizable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life."

"I saw one snowflake land upon her white cheek, and remain there without melting."

"I will not scream. I will not give them the satisfaction. They will have my body, but my soul and my story are my own, and will die with me."

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Everything Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a girl in possession of a book obsession, must be in want of a reading challenge. I have so many books to be read presently that I contemplated long and hard over committing myself to anything more than those and Ulysses. However, the Everything Austen challenge at Stephanie's Written Word isn't a testing of ability or endurance or an achievement of something insurmountable, but an enjoyable opportunity to read or watch six Austen-related things; how could I possible resist to take up that thrown down gauntlet? Between July 1st 2009 and January 1st 2010 I will engage in reading or viewing six Austen-related things; Austen-related things being completely open to interpretation and including Austen's own texts as well as those novels/biographies/reinterpretations/TV or film adaptations inspired by her work. Sounds tremendously easy, doesn't it? Not to mention a joy.

As yet in this blog I have not had the opportunity to share my love for Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice (it really is one of my favourite novels and has been since I was a teenager), which is clichéd but true). Reading the Vintage Reads blogs recently had already convinced me to reread some Austen, and to read the one novel of her six finished ones that I haven't yet read, Persuasion, and the Everything Austen challenge provides me with that opportunity; it also gives me an excuse to re-watch the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the recent 4-part series Lost in Austen, both of which I passionately adore. In actual fact, who needs an excuse? If you haven't seen these then you simply MUST!

I may deviate from this (as is my wont) and possibly add a couple of items, as the challenge progresses, but this is my provisional list:

Reread Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Read Persuasion by Jane Austen
Read Pride and Promiscuity: the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen ed. Arielle Eckstut

Re-watch Pride and Prejudice (the BBC adaptation, 1995)
Re-watch Lost in Austen (mini-series, 2008)
Watch Becoming Jane (film, 2007) or The Jane Austen Book Club or both.

I know a few of you are already participating in this challenge (and were the ones who brought it to my attention), but is anybody else? Do you have any suggestions for unmissable readings or viewings?

Also, as I am such a kind-hearted soul, I am including one of my favourite (and yes, the most famous) clips from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; it's the awkward exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy that makes this scene so delightful, honestly.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Children of Green Knowe

I have embraced my inner child again this weekend, despite the disappointment of revisiting What Katy Did, by picking up a copy of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, following an absence of at the very least fifteen years. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Worst Witch, and The Borrowers, what makes The Children of Green Knowe so vivid in my recalled imagination is the powerful adaptation for television that was made in by the BBC in 1986 (I believe that I must have watched a repeat viewing of it as in 1986 I was only five years old). It was a cherished and beloved book of mine and the revisit reminded me how good a children's novel it is.

A ghost story for children, the novel revolves around Toseland (Tolly) Oldknow who goes to live with his great-Grandmother in the ancestral family home, Green Knowe, that has been known as Green Noah for centuries. Tolly and his Grandmother see ghosts of their ancestors, primarily three siblings -an earlier Toseland (Toby), Andrew, and Linette- who lived during the reign of Charles II and died in the Great Plague. There was a curse placed upon a large (green) topiary of Noah in the garden by a witch, the resulting tree demon affecting the Oldknow males and the topiary is left to become overgrown ever since, and another supernatural element in the protective stone St Christopher who becomes animated.

The novel is supernaturally evocative; the reader is caught up in the magic and its charm was not lost on me as an adult. The more ominous, frightening, tension was less effective now but that is only to be expected. The writing is beautifully depictive, the descriptions poetic, and I found this line wonderfully expressive:

He heard no thunder. It was even unnaturally quiet. Perhaps it only seemed unnatural because he himself was brimming with excitement. He heard the weir pounding at the end of the garden. It only made the quietness quieter. It was rather like a heart that is only heard when it beats too loud.

Another favourite passage, a poignant one:

He must have known of course that the children could not have lived so many centuries without growing old, but he had never thought about it. To him they were so real, so near, they were his own family that he needed more than anything on earth. He felt the world had come to an end.

I remember the book being longer as a child! Although Puffin classics probably were shorter and thicker.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Recent Acquisitions...

Yesterday I splurged a little and bought one book I have been wanting to read for some time; another that it a previous Man Booker winner and a title that my friend raves about; and a third Pulitzer-winning novel that was marked down by 75%! Each in a different bookshop.

I visited the Persephone shop in Bloomsbury first of all and purchased Katherine Mansfield's Journal, which has been at the top of my wish-list recently. It was a fly-by visit (preventing me from splurging further) as I took the scenic route and managed to become somewhat lost; as I was late to meet a friend my visit was execution only and I found the book, looked for the Persephone bookbag and was disappointed to find a plain, beige, jute one rather than the pretty grey, paid and departed. Just as well because when it comes to Persephone books I resemble a child in a sweetshop.

Later on in the evening I popped into Foyle's on Charing Cross Road for a wander and to buy The Bone People by Keri Hulme. I had already checked that they had it in stock on the website as I am desperate to read this after discussing the Man Booker winners recently. This novel from New Zealand won the Booker in 1985 and my friend, who read it last year, really raved about it so I needed to lay my hands on it quickly (and the library doesn't have a copy).

Another friend and I then popped across the road and into Borders so that I could sneakily read the Johnny Depp feature interview in this month's US Vanity Fair (£4.50 for a magazine cannot be justified, even if it is imported and contains the luscious Mr Depp). As we entered I spied copies of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout with huge "75 % off" red stickers on the front cover; I calculated that the book would cost £1.75 and that was an offer I couldn't refuse. This novel in stories has been appearing across the blogosphere since it won the Pulitzer and I am looking forward to reading it.

Moreover, as I am discussing recent acquisitions, I should really show off the beautiful Viragoes I have managed to acquire over the last few weeks. My Virago collection has bred and spawned since last I spoke of it, mainly through immense generosity from members of the librarything Virago group and from eagle-eye spotting out and about and on ebay. Most of my Virago collection is shown in the photographs at the bottom of the page. The titles pictured immediately below are the ones I acquired recently, all ones that I was anxiously on the look out for and I can't wait to read them, but first I have to tackle and overcome the huge pile of library books calling to me, "read me, Seymour, read me".

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Chapel at the Edge of the World

Waterstone's kindly sent me a proof copy of The Chapel at the Edge of the World by Kirsten McKenzie to review. A competent debut, the literary premise is entirely original, albeit inspired by true events in Orkney, on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. During World War II a young Italian couple, Emilio and Rosa, are separated during the conflict; he is enlisted and then becomes a PoW, sent to Orkney where he and other PoWs built a chapel from salvaged materials and paint, whilst his fiancée remains on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, working in her mother's hotel and later becoming involved in the partisan resistance movement.

The narrative of the novel shifts between the engaged pair, with one chapter narrated by Emilio's fellow PoW, Bertoldo, and is framed by the couple making a visit to Lamb Holm -which is now a tourist attraction- many years later and being interviewed by a journalist. I found the introduction, with Emilio as an old man, the most thought-provoking part of the novel. Emilio is apparently suffering from dementia in his advanced age and I found the loss of his war memories tragic; once the keepers of memories forget or die then who is there left to remember? This is why historical documents and historical fiction are so important; although I did wonder at times how accurate the author's research was, especially when it came to depicting the actions of Italy's occupying German soldiers.

The novel's title is rather misleading, as it is less about the Chapel being built and the Madonna frescoes that Emilio paints -to alleviate the boredom of the PoWs and to provide colour and hope- than it is about the lives the characters lead during the War; it is however a romantic image. The principal characters could be more engaging, at times they appeared one-dimensional, especially in comparison to the more strongly drawn supporting characters of Bertoldo and Pietro, Emilio and Rosa's childhood friend who is heavily involved in the Italian resistance movement and whom Rosa falls in love with. Some of the themes could have better realised too; McKenzie had an abundance of good ideas but some of the threads didn't seem to lead anywhere, as in the fate of Rachele and her father, Jews attempting to escape across the border to Switzerland, and also of Henriech, the young German soldier.

The bleak landscape of both the Scottish archipelago and Lake Como in Winter are well conveyed and certainly contribute to the overall darkness of the time. Whilst reading I was reminded of both The Return by Victoria Hislop and Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, without the former's suspense and engagement and the latter's literary merits and great love story. I admire Kirsten MacKenzie's attempts but ultimately I found the novel to be lacking, but bearing in mind that it was a proof copy I read and flaws could be rectified before publication.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

What I Was

I wanted to say Jesus, Finn, didn't anyone ever talk to you? But I could imagine that no one had. People around her didn't wait waste words; language was a tool, not a treat. You didn't roll it around on your tongue, revel in it.
I sighed. And yet ... how was it that Finn's silences turned my words into dust? No matter how heartfelt my thoughts, the noises I made when I was with him took on the quality of monkeys jabbering in trees. While his silence had the power to shatter glass.

Above is a passage from What I Was by Meg Rosoff that I sampled yesterday in my teaser but that I wanted to quote in its entirety. In my opinion it demonstrates Rosoff's talent for her writing and her love for language and what often isn't said. What I Was is ultimately a novel about what isn't said, what isn't seen, and what we often want to say but don't.

I read Meg Rosoff's debut Young Adult novel How I Live Now a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely so when I read Nymeth's review last week of What I Was, I requested it from the library and put it to the top of the TMBTLT (too many books too little time - a term stolen from Verity) pile.

I am struck by its resonance and power. It has a twist and one unfortunately that I saw coming (keen eyes and a overactive mind) that changes one's perspective post-reading. It is a book of longing and loneliness and love. I admire how Meg Rosoff addresses her [target] young audience as grown-ups and tackles adult themes that are essentially teenage themes too. I didn't once feel as if I was reading a patronisingly twee book for children or that I was reading "beneath" my own reading abilities; instead I was engaged in an intensely poignant tale for young and old.

I highly recommend this book. It is about the friendship and love between Hilary (the 100 year old narrator who is recalling his youth in the early 1960s) and Finn, the friend he makes when he goes to board at St Oswald's and discovers the hut on the beach where Finn lives alone. Hilary admires Finn and wants to become Finn, or the constructed image that Hilary has in his mind of Finn. The novel is about falling in love with somebody without knowing fully who they are, and whether consequently you are in love with the person or with your perception of the person. Finn represents freedom to Hilary but it is a freedom at a cost.

As a complete aside: I enjoy reading about characters named Finn, as my mum goes by the name Fin and we once had an Irish Setter named Finn (previous owners -friends- were looking for an Irish name and opted for my mum's shortened version.)

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A Midsummer Night's Play

I seldom read drama anymore, not so much out of choice but impetus. I have a huge collection of plays however and love the work of so many playwrights including David Mamet, Marina Carr, Martin McDonagh, Brian Friel, Ann Marie di Mambro, Shakespeare... The last play I read (and the only one reviewed) was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, which I enjoyed. I intend to make a point of reading more drama.

I thought it would be apt to read a play famously set on Midsummer's Night (and yet not the one you think) on ... Midsummer's Night. I can barely recall why there is a copy of Miss Julie by August Strindberg on my drama shelf (I told you I have a number of plays) other than it being a recommendation from a Professor but there is and I hadn't read it until now.

Strindberg was a Swedish playwright (my copy is translated by Kenneth McLeish) who was a contemporary and competitor of Henrik Ibsen, with whose work this play shares similarities. Miss Julie is a naturalistic tragedy and is is rather brutal, savage even. In a coincidental thematic comparison to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which I am currently reading, it centres around Miss Julie (a lady) who is fraternising with the help and concerns class tensions between the ruling and serving classes. There is much resentment//snobbery/aspiration/power play between Miss Julie and the footman Jean; ultimately it is a battle between the classes and the sexes with Kristin, the cook, who respects her "betters" and acts as foil to Jean. Miss Julie and Jean begin dancing with one another at the servant's Midsummer Night's ball, flirting back and forth, acheiving and relinquishing the upper hand, seducing one another then consumating their love/lust, abusing and bullying one another, before devolving into a man and woman in mutual despair looking for escape.

The tragedy of this play is effective as is the power struggle between Miss Julie and Jean; both are emotionally charged and ultimately their battle for power is fruitless as they are powerless in the face of Miss Julie's father and Jean's employer, His Lordship, who does not appear as a character but whose control is sensed. Definitely recommended; I hope to see it performed one day.

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"[H]ow was it that Finn's silences turned my words into dust? No matter how heartfelt my thoughts, the noises I made when I was with him took on the quality of monkeys jabbering in trees. While his silence had the power to shatter glass."

What I Was by Meg Rosoff, p. 71

I cheated slightly by quoting three lines rather than two but I enjoy that last line too much, and the preceding paragraph, and many of the passages in the novel.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Ulysses Reading Challenge

A long time ago in a University far away in a seminar on Dystopian Literature for a Master's degree, a group of postgraduate students admitted to having successfully avoided reading Ulysses by James Joyce during their University career thus far; considering that for most of the group our alma mater had been the same University and Ulysses a set text in our second year, this was no mean feat (and no mean city). "How could you possibly not have read Ulysses?" asked the baffled Professor; "Just lucky, I guess" quipped I.

Not that I haven't attempted Ulysses, especially during that horrible second year, and I even managed some of it but gave up in the end and managed to fluff my way through. A few years later I even read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Künstlerroman of Stephen Dedalus, as an access point into Ulysses, but even though I eventually completed it I did struggle and ... gave up. I fared better with Dubliners for a Postcolonialism course but it still didn't inspire me to tackle the tome that I had experienced so little success with.

However, on Bloomsday I read dovegreyreader's post about her ambition to conquer her own personal Everest and decided to join her (as did many others) on the climb (specifics of the challenge can be found here). Why not? I thought. Another attempt, third? fourth? is long overdue and what she was proposing -two pages a day at least- sounded completely manageable to me. Saying that, I procrastinated over beginning it but today I caught up and read ten installments from DailyLit. So far I am pleasantly surprised at the ease of reading it although most of the content is going over my head.

My copy of Ulysses is currently residing at home with my parents; to be honest I didn't think I would be tackling it anytime soon so left it there (although, on the other hand, I brought Joyce's Magnum Opus, Finnegan's Wake, with me so there must be a suppressed optimist within my depths somewhere). Currently I am reading the DailyLit installments but I have requested a copy from the library to carry on with and, if I haven't given up yet again, I'll retrieve my own copy from home later this summer. I am confident that I will experience success this time but I make no promises. If nothing else this is a gap in my reading that seems like a gaping chasm to me and one that I am determined to fill in.

Is there anyone else joining dovegreyreader on this challenge? Are we all crazy?

Sunday, 21 June 2009


I love Terry Pratchett. I seldom read Fantasy as a genre but Pratchett is more satire and social commentary. He is also possibly one of the funniest and wittiest novelists I have ever read (although admittedly I haven't read P.G. Wodehouse as yet). It really is difficult to sum up the genius of Pratchett and do justice to his satirical mastery of humour. Over the years I have read all of the Guards novels (one of the Discworld arcs), the younger Discworld series, and a few other random ones here and there. However this year I decided to begin reading my boyfriend's copies (above) in chronological order and in doing so I reached the first Death-related novel, Mort, the fourth novel of the series. It is now possible that Death has pipped Sam Vimes (head of the Watch) to be my favourite Discworld character although my boyfriend assures me that I will become attached to Death of Rats (also known as the Grim Squeaker) who appears in later novels, in due course.

Death is the only character to appear in each and every Discworld novel; the Orangutan librarian of Unseen University cameos in a fair amount, as does Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpok, and other characters, but Death is the only one who is guaranteed a role -as he is in everyone's life- however brief an appearance it may be. Death speaks in CAPS (outwith quotation marks as his words are inherently sensed rather than heard) and has an exceptionally dry wit; in Mort he hires an apprentice named Mort, the eponymous hero.

"THANK YOU, BOY, said the skull. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
'Uh,' said Mort. 'Mortimer ... sir. They call me Mort.'
WHAT A COINCIDENCE, said the skull."

"It is a fact that although the Death of the Discworld is, in his own words, an ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION, he long ago gave up using the traditional skeletal horses, because of the bother of having to stop all the time to wire bits back on."

Skeletal with pin-pricks of blue fire as eyes, deep in the sockets, his fully-fleshed horse is named Binky, and he has a soft spot for cats (Death, not Binky). The anthropomorphic personification of death draws upon symbolic representations within culture from the Grim Reaper and Father Time (with Azrael appearing in the joint novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens) to Greek myth. Creating Death, a fate so feared, into a lovable and highly amusing character is no mean feat; I really think that Pratchett has made Death his own. Markus Zusak failed in my opinion with death as his narrator in The Book Thief; I was left feeling as if the effect was gimmicky and I haven't read The Sandman to comment upon Neil Gaiman's personification ... do you recommend any other successful literary characterisations of Death? I think that Pratchett's monopoly on the character and his extraordinary achievement is due to his Death being a parody of other representations and because, ultimately, he is FUN; although, granted, Death doesn't himself quite grasp the concept of fun.

'I thought I was,' said his lordship uncertainly. The voice by his ear was vaguely worrying him; it appeared to be arriving directly into his brain.
'This is!'
'Well, part of the fun. Kick!'

The above quote is taken from a party scene where partaking is the Conga - how can you not see the genius in that? Death is so funny in this section that I found it difficult to stop there and could have easily quoted a few more lines of dialogue as it is a hilarious exchange.

Upon hiring Mort, Death takes a holiday; intrigued by humanity he travels to Ankh-Morpok to explore human experience and hilarity ensues. Mort, in turn, gradually loses his human traits and becomes more like Death, complete with speaking in capital letters, which he becomes conscious of and other characters comment upon.

"Mort laughed mirthlessly. THAT WON'T BE NECESSARY.
'I wish you'd stop talking like that.'"

Pratchett is insightful and highly observant of the nature of humanity anyway; his acute awareness of the foibles of people is something that makes the Discworld one of the best rendered literary universes. I immediately wanted to read Death's next novel-length outing (as opposed to a cameo), Reaper Man, but I am sticking to my project of reading them chronologically.

I should also comment upon Pratchett's lack of chapter breaks, as I have seen this mentioned often in other reviews. The majority of the Discworld novels are written in continous prose but for someone who usually prefers relatively short chapters to read for a sense of achievement, I wouldn't say that Pratchett's lack of them concerns me (on the other hand, I have read books where I have been irritated by fifty page long chapters) as I have difficulty putting them down anyway without stressing out about the lack of an obvious stopping point.

This is my fantasy book chosen for Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Clothes They Stood Up In

After discovering JoAnn at Lakeside Musing's blog and her mention of The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett, I requested a copy from my library (included in the volume Three Stories, along with two other novellas). Reading JoAnn's teaser last Tuesday persuaded me to read it immediately upon collecting it on Thursday. I adored The Uncommon Reader (reviewed here) when I read it a couple of months ago and I was hoping for a similarly witty, original, and enchanting read. Certainly The Clothes They Stood Up In is witty and its premise original -the Ransomes return from the Opera one evening to discover their flat has been burgled of every last item- but I wasn't enchanted; parts were definitely amusing but it didn't hold the same magic for me as The Uncommon Reader, although to be realistic, I suppose it couldn't have.

The opening deserves quoting as it is delightful:

The Ransomes had been burgled. "Robbed," Mrs. Ransome said. "Burgled," Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though "burgled" was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what buglars can take; they seldom take chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.

The first half or so of the novella is wittily engaging and wryly amusing but from there it departs in a direction of something slightly disturbing and even dark. I'm not sure what Bennett's intention was or his overall message but I found the latter half weaker and less enjoyable. I intend to read the other two novellas in the volume to compare. The Ransomes and their foibles, however, are an amusing pair of characters and the burglary an interesting plot device.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Man Booker

Don't you just love lists? I adore making lists of books that I want to read although I seldom stick to the rigidity of a list and often deviate from it. Stay tuned in the coming week for my summer reading list, which thus far only appears in my mind.

This year I am steadily progressing through the list of the Guardian's 1000 Books You Must Read and by year's end I should have completed one fifth of it, so that list will be taking me some time. Another list that I will probably want to embark on later this summer is the Man Booker Prize longlist, which will be announced at the end of July. So far I have dabbled with longlists and shortlists for the main literary prizes and only read ones that appealed to me but now that I am blogging I may make a conscious effort to complete the entire longlist, or at least the shortlist.

Thinking about the Man Booker prize and having requested J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace this week from the library I thought I would list the Booker winners that I have read (and those I own but have not yet read). There's a possibiility that I may try to read all of them - are there ones you have read that you particularly recommend or ones that you are wanting to read?

2008 - White Tiger by Aravind Ariga
2007 - The Gathering by Anne Enright
2006 - The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (own)
2005 - The Sea by John Banville
2004 - The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (reviewed here)
2003 - Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (own)
2002 - Life of Pi by Yann Martel
2001 - True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
2000 - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
1999 - Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee 15/07/09 (reviewed here)
1998 - Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (own)
1997 - The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
1996 - Last Orders by Graham Swift
1995 - The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (own)
1994 - How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman (own)
1993 - Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (own)
1992 - The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
1992 - Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (joint winner)
1991 - The Famished Road by Ben Okri (own)
1990 - Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (own)
1989 - The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
1988 - Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
1987 - Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1986 - The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
1985 - The Bone People by Keri Hulme (own)
1984 - Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner 29/07/09 (reviewed here)
1983 - Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
1982 - Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally
1981 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
1980 - Rites of Passage by William Golding
1979 - Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
1978 - The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (own)
1977 - Staying On by Paul Scott
1976 - Saville by David Storey
1975 - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1974 - The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
1974 - Holiday by Stanley Middleton (joint winner)
1973 - The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
1972 - G. by John Berger
1971 - In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul
1970 - The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens
1969 - Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby

Nine -soon to be ten- of forty two winning novels is not great but neither is it woeful. Funnily enough I haven't read anything that won before the year I was born and wonder if this is telling at all or just coincidental? As an aside: Midnight's Children (the Booker of Bookers and the Best of Booker) is one of my favourite novels; I love its lushness and epic, grand scope, and continually discover new gems upon re-reading. Anyway, best get back to reading as I have a lifetime of reading lists ahead of me.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Fahrenheit 451

Last November I visited the TH.2058 installation by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster in the Tate Modern, London.

The concept behind this temporary exhibit was a dystopian post-apocalyptic haven. From the brief (which appeared on the wall before you entered):

It rains incessantly in London – not a day, not an hour without rain, a deluge that has now lasted for years and changed the way people travel, their clothes, leisure activities, imagination and desires. They dream about infinitely dry deserts.

This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. As well as erosion and rust, they have started to grow like giant, thirsty tropical plants, to become even more monumental. In order to hold this organic growth in check, it has been decided to store them in the Turbine Hall, surrounded by hundreds of bunks that shelter – day and night – refugees from the rain.

It sounds somewhat like a John Wyndham book, doesn't it? The rain, of which there was audio, also reminded me of post-nuclear black rain. Dystopian literature lay on the bunkbeds so that voyeurs could participate; the artist's vision was for people to lie down and read the books (not steal them, as happened). The photograph above is one I took but there were many books (apparently to begin with one on every bunk) including The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; We by Yevgeny Zamyatin; The Drowned World JG Ballard; Hiroshima mon amour Marguerite Duras; The Man in the High Castle Philip K Dick. A number of these books -or the subsequent movie adaptations- I studied in the Writing the Disaster topic module I completed for my Master's course, but Fahrenheit 451 was one I hadn't yet read.

"FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns".

The above quote appears before the opening line, as a preface and introduction. The opening line reads "It was a pleasure to burn". Both lines ignite the imagination and desire to read more. Further down the page ... "He strode in a swarm of fireflies". Such poetry in a dystopian future where poetry is forbidden and books burned, incinerated by people themselves in the incinerators that each house contains, or by the subverted firemen who ignite fires rather than put them out. We are given insight into his totalitarian pyromania by the "He" in "a swarm of fireflies", the fireman with the symbolic 451 on his helmet, Guy Montag, who does not consciously question the burning of books, knowledge, and power, until he meets his neighbour, Clarisse McClellan, whose influence turns his world upside down within a week.

Conceptualised in the years following the A-bombs and written during the early years of the Cold War this Science Fiction classic is an actualised study of nuclear paranoia. Written on a pay type writer in the basement of a UCLA library, Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about his love of books. Completed during the era of McCarthyism, no publisher wanted to take the risk of publishing a book that they thought was about censorship until a visionary editor bought the manuscript for $450 (all that he could afford) to serialise it in his new magazine; the young editor was Hugh Hefner, the magazine was Playboy, and as Bradbury says in his preface to the novel, "The rest is history."

Fahrenheit 451 is a quick read -172 pages- and I read it overnight, in three sittings, and it is fairly accessible; some of the post-apocalyptic visions confused me and the fourth wall dimension of television -where the "family" appear in your "parlour"- blew my mind but overall it is an enjoyable futuristic study of dystopia that ranks up there with 1984 and Brave New World as a dystopian classic. The crux of the novel is that television has destroyed any interest in reading literature, a concept that is as pertinent -and even prophetic- now as it was almost sixty years ago. This was an enjoyable and rewarding read.

I would also like to leave you with a question: if you were fleeing a burning house but had the chance to save one book, what would it be? Would it be a rare, priceless and irreplacable one; a signed copy; a favourite; a sentimental choice? For me I would hate to lose my collection but material possessions can be replaced and however much I adore my books, sentiment and memory take precendence. I would grab my copy of Toni Morrison's Love from the shelf, a hardback copy that my boyfriend gave me for our first Christmas the year it was published, and which he beautifully inscribed.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A mish-mash of book related things

I hate hay fever. My head hurts and I haven't made much headway in my leaning tower of to-be-read books this week. I could catch up on some overdue reviews but my thoughts are too fuzzy. I am struggling with two books that I do need to finish: one is Lady Chatterley's Lover for book group next week and the other is a review copy that I need to finish reading and write up for the end of the month; the former I have barely made a dent in and the latter I am enjoying but do not seem to be progressing with at any great rate.

To give myself some semblance of reading achievement this week I have started to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a book that I have been meaning to read for some time. When I read "breathing the finest pollen in the world, book dust, with which to develop literary allergies" in Bradbury's preface to the novel, I knew I had made a good choice. Fahrenheit 451 immediately ignites the imagination and I look forward to reading more and sharing my thoughts. I need to finish it quickly so that I can return it to the library and collect a few requests but I don't think that will be much of a problem, providing my head allows me. Perhaps I should be relieved that I only have hay fever and not a bout of Swine Flu since it seems to be spreading at an almost alarming rate in my home city...

Season 2 of the HBO series True Blood based on the Sookie Stackhouse Vampire Mysteries series began this week and upon watching the premiere I tried to request the second book in the series (I read the first at the beginning of the first series last Autumn). Regrettably the library don't stock it but when lamenting that to a friend he very generously offered to post it down to me and it arrived today along with the next two in the series! He thought that they would keep me occupied and they certainly will; this series is my guilty pleasure and pure addictive fun (um, a bit like Twilight ... so you could say I have two guilty pleasures). This is also the friend who introduced me to the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series two summers ago so you could say that he is a great friend indeed, and he really is. He is also off to San Franciso tonight, of which I am very envious, and will be taking photos of famous locations from Tales of the City.

Oh, that reminds me of one of the most obscure book-related anecdotes that I have to share... as I was reading one of the books from the series, on a train home after work one night and immersed in the fun of 28 Barbary Lane, I was interrupted by somebody asking "are you in love?" I looked up startled to find the train conductor looking at me oddly and as I was too busy checking for the exits and calculating my chances of survival if I jumped from a moving train I didn't answer in a hurry (even though, yes, I am very much in love). Perhaps noticing my panicked state he elaborated, "I mean with Michael?" Ah... strange conductor on train is actually engaging me in literary conversation and is asking if I am in love with the main protagonist of the series, Michael Tolliver, I realised and sighed with relief. I managed to find my breath and squeak "Yes". Later on as he passed through the carriage again he apologised after realising that he had freaked me the hell out.

Lastly, did anyone read this article on today's Guardian online? I actually have a copy of ANONthology that I picked up from my local bookshop recently but you can download a copy for free from the website. This makes for an interesting experiment and I look forward to participating. Now back to the reading and taking of painkillers.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"Instead of men kissing you, and touching you with their bodies, they revealed their minds to you. It was great fun! But what cold minds!" Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Call of the Weird

I am attempting to read more non-fiction and I'm averaging about one book a month so far this year, which I'm happy with. When I spied Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures in the library last month I knew it was the perfect choice as my boyfriend and I were conducting a Louis Theroux marathon and watched all of his documentaries back-to-back. Once we had finishied our viewingI read this follow-up book by Louis where he sought out some of his subjects -sometimes up to seven years after they had been interviewed- to discover how they were faring and if they were still involved in the subculture that made them "weird".

Louis Theroux is a British-American journalist, son of travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, who was given his first TV break by the political and often controversial filmmaker, Michael Moore. Louis has a smiliar style to Moore, of quasi documentary and Gonzo journalism. His travels in American marginalised subcultures, on the fringes of society, were aired in the UK with the title "Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends" and featured groups of people ranging from UFO hunters to Porn Starts to White Supremacists.

The documentaries themselves were eccentric, as well as the subjects, and his approach ironic, witty, and often introspective. I was curious how this would translate to written form but it was as if I was reading Louis's own voiceover script for one of the episodes. He is even more introspective in words and meditates upon the nature of weird and how his and our voyeurism and consumption of weird contributes to society's overall weirdness.

Some of the subject matter and the people are far from just a source of amusement but are intensely thought-provoking. The book delves deeper into the disturbing nature of these subcultures and the harm done to the participants. Often the people Louis has gone to seek out are the ones he was most concerned by and their follow-up stories are sad; Louis documents and evokes the decline of their lives, their loneliness, their disturbing beliefs. Not only are these -the TV documentaries and book- an insight into fringe societies but they are a comment upon society as a whole, as a composite of weirdness.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

For the Hours After Midnight

Sarah Waters, whose own ghost/haunted house story I reviewed here, wrote about her favourite ghost stories on her website. I found the list and insight into the writer's own literary loves fascinating. Of the top ten I had read half when I first read the list but have now read eight of the ten; the short stories I found online (I would provide links but I downloaded them in pdf format and no longer have them) and have still to read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (as previously mentioned) and Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills (I have never read any Ishiguro).

Of the ten my favourites are photgraphed above.

Beloved was my first Toni Morrison novel almost a decade ago and the one she is most known for, seeing as it won the Pulitzer Prize and was likely the contributing factor to the author winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the first time a black woman had ever won it. I loved that Sarah Waters included it on a list of ghost stories; it is intensely haunting and does include a haunted house, 124 Bluestone, and its own "little stranger", the ghost of murdered infant, Beloved (so named for the inscription on her headstone). It is also haunted by the sins of the past and I love Waters' eloquent description, " [o]ne of the great fictional studies of slavery and its scars, Beloved is also a sublime literary ghost story: a meditation on the ways in which individuals and communities – ultimately, an entire nation – can be haunted by the violence and injustice of the past. A breathtaking book." It is indeed breathtaking -you gasp in shock often- and somebody or something's breath is perhaps the sensation you feel on the back of your neck.
Beloved is the type of terrifying story that the short story "The Lottery" is, more disturbing and sickeningly shocking than sensational terror.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is also a haunting novella of another kind, a psychological and claustophobic study of mental illness. A spare and essential feminist text, I have read and reread "The Yellow Wallpaper" often. I have the beautiful slim volume (Virago Modern Classic) above as well as a couple of anthologised copies but you are able to read this on Project Gutenberg. Follow it up with Persephone's The Victorian Chaise-longue, which is similarly themed with a trapped and stifled woman.

My impressions of The Woman in Black have recently -and enthusiastically- been given. The building of palpable tension in this short novel still resonates with me.

Coincidentally I paired "Carmilla" by Sheridan Le Fanu and "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (both novellas) in a Victorian Literature essay many years ago. The latter lauded the former with the praise that he was "the ideal reading ... for the hours after midnight" and indeed Le Fanu's Vampiric tale, which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is deliciously atmospheric. As a prototype for lesbian vampires, as well as female, it is also probably of historical as well as literary interest to Sarah Waters. "The Turn of the Screw" is the original rational v. supernatural tale and at the forefront of the genre.

Of the short stories, "The Monkey's Paw" was the most sensational and one I had never come across mention of before (nor the others). Its "be careful what you wish for" motif is blended into a theme reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, a monkey's paw talisman that will grant you three wishes - no matter the cost. Its climax is chilling and emphasises that what is unseen and left to the reader's imagination is frequently effective.

Elizabeth Bowen is a favourite writer of Sarah Waters and one of the few female writers of War-time fiction. "The Demon Lover" is subtly creepy.

Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat" bears re-reading as I haven't fully formed an opinion. It is quite poignant but I didn't find it particularly scary.

As I seem to be on a mission to scare the bejesus out of myself, do you have personal favourites in the genre of ghost stories and the general disturbing that you would like to recommend?

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Book-centric Memories

Do you ever recall particular events like pleasant weekends, holidays, or special occasions in relation to books? I do. Memories for me are often intrinsically made up of the event influenced by the book I was reading at the time or books I bought. Perhaps that takes my Bibliophilia to new, obsessive levels but it is true. The photograph above was taken exactly a year ago, on a lovely day spent in the West-end of Glasgow at the West-end festival and a visit to the Botanic Gardens. I am reading Sophie Dahl's (grand-daughter of Roald and inspiration/protagonist of The BFG) Playing with the Grown-ups, an eccentric coming-of-age novel; in the bag beside me is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I had purchased from Fopp that afternoon and ended up giving up on half way through later that month; and in my handbag is a rare Virago copy of The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which I pounced upon in Oxfam Books for the amazing price of £2.49, and read a few months later in tribute to Woolworths and its demise in the UK.

Before I moved to London to live I visited a lot and many of the memories of my visit involve books. One visit in June 2006 involved a Southbank Centre calendar of events in tribute to Angela Carter, where writers including Ali Smith and Sarah Waters spoke; I was writing my Master's thesis on Angela Carter at the time so this was highly interesting and beneficial as was the premiere at the Royal Court Theatre of Marina Carr's (absurdist and mythological Irish playwright whose drama I was also working on) new play Woman and Scarecrow starring the wonderful Fiona Shaw. At the beginning of that journey I was reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters in time for the Guardian's book group discussion with the author, which I attended; I remember buying a copy of Affinity so I could have them both signed (a few months earlier I attended a reading of The Night Watch in Glasgow and had both that and Tipping the Velvet signed). It was quite the literary-centric visit to London and on the journey home I began reading my new Vintage edition of Angela Carter's Wise Children, set in East-end London and concerning the bizarre and theatrical Chance twins, Dora and Nora, in a hysterical Shakespearean romp.

Later that year my boyfriend and I went to London to see Wicked: the musical as a graduation celebration. On an excursion to Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road with a friend I bought Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, at her suggestion. I had only recently discovered Neil Gaiman (well I had known who he was for a long time and my boyfriend read The Sandman but I had discovered that I enjoyed him too) and had read American Gods the previous month and loved it. Neverwhere was an apt purchase as it is set in a real and fantastical London known, respectively, as London Above and London Below. The subterranean expanse of the London underground allows limitless imagination and Gaiman capitalises on it. It is so refreshing to read a book where places you know and places you have recently been are mentioned. For instance, I opened the book to read on a jam-packed tube after leaving Emma and eventually obtaining a seat at St. John's Wood tube station and the opening page of the book is a quote which reads "I have never been to St John's Wood" - how uncanny is that? Hardly surprising that it sticks in my mind. I am in dire need of a reread of Neverwhere now that I live in London Above nearly three years later. For that matter I desperately want time to reread Wise Children around Midsummer's Day (a key section of the novel is about Dora and Nora starring in a Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer's Night Dream). For the sheer joy of it I should also reread Fingersmith too as it is another fantastic novel.

This is somewhat of a non sequitur post, a departure from the norm, but I have some blog posts in mind of literary experiences, places and bookshops, and favourite writers and books that I would like to share.

Friday, 12 June 2009

A Lottery I Wouldn't Want to Win

I am left feeling traumatised after reading Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery". I knew there was a reason that I wanted to read Shirley Jackson and that I also wanted to know as little about her work as possible before reading it. She terrifies the reader in this story and builds suspense in such a way that I read with a looming sense of dread and a tummy that was feeling decidedly uneasy and still is, for that matter.

The volume pictured isn't available until October and along with We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House is on my wishlist. "The Lottery" though is readily available online and is only five pages long; I urge you to read it but beware of losing your wits and perhaps your breakfast.

I cannot reveal much about the plot -nor do I want to- but suffice to say it is set in small-town America, concerns the yearly, ritualistic Lottery that occurs amongst the townspeople, and is a deeply unsettling exam of barbaric inhumanity. Upon publishing the short story in 1948 The New Yorker received a virulently negative response from its readers with hate mail and subsciption cancellation in abundance. To illicit such a strong response over a short story was unprecedented.

It is a long wait until October to read Jackson's other works.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Julie & Julia

Anybody who knows me will tell you that I love food. I have also recently developed a passion for cooking. I have always enjoyed cooking but without my own kitchen I seldom had a chance to partake in the pleasure but now that I live with my boyfriend I am experimenting more and more in the kitchen (even though he is the one with culinary aspiration who has all of the fancy kitchen doodahs and sharp Global knives). I've even been known to watch a few cookery shows on TV here and there. However, other than the shelves of cookery books I don't know much about cooking in literature, exlcuding reading Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (sumptious book) many years ago or having the non-fiction of the delicious Anthony Bourdain on my Amazon wishlist. Julie and Julia (subtitled "My Year of Living Dangerously" in the paperback edition) by Julie Powell about her year of cooking all 524 recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the disasters and successes that ensue definitely appealed to me and was a departure from my normal reading habits (which are usually quite eclectic anyway). In Julie's own words:

"I'm a foulmouthed hysteric with misanthropic tendencies for whom things are constantly going terribly, terribly wrong."

Although non-fiction -it is based on real events in Julia Powell's life in the year 2002 when she embarked on the Julie/Julia project- it reads like fiction with an informal narrator who has a highly irreverant humour. It could be classed as chick-lit, to an extent (which is why it is definitely a reading departure for me), but although neurotic to the extreme, Julie attempts to cook more than Bridget Jones's stringy blue soup, although she does imbibe about the same amount of alcohol, smokes numerous cigarettes, and sprinkles as many -if not more- f**** in the mix.

Despite my love for food and quality eating I sometimes found the description of the cooking dry and I would skim through the ingredients and cooking processes to the funny bits (and there are many). Perhaps it is because rich French cooking doesn't excite me all that much and the French dish titles were too much for my rudimentary grasp of the language. Sometimes, I admit, I was more excited about the mention of Domino's Bacon & Jalapeno pepper pizza. The convoluted nature of MtAoFC (be prepared for that acronym often if you read it) didn't lend itself often to basic description in Julie & Julia although occasionally the insane expectations of culinary skill are highly amusing (as in the chapter "They Shoot Lobsters, Don't They?") It is Julie's warmth, her uncompromising pursuit of her project, and her neuroses that made this an enjoyable read; although the cooking aspect at its base is the vehicle for the book it is not a culinary expert's read but a layman's one. As a sometimes disastrous cook myself I willingly laughed along in empathy with Julie and as a bibliophile commiserated when she recounts the time in her youth that she attempted to cook a recipe -quail in rose petals- from Like Water for Chocolate.

One of my favourite passages:

"I felt like a Jane Austen heroine all of a sudden (except, of course, that Jane Austen heroines never cook), confusedly looking on at all the people she loves, their myriad unpredictable couplings and uncouplings. There would be no marriages at the end of this Austen novel, though, no happy endings at all."

If you don't enjoy a Bridget-Jones-esque light read with filthy language, sex, irreverance, and pop-culture references to Buffy then this is not the book for you. I also wouldn't recommend you read it if you are a Republican as it may offend. For me, it was a dollop of good fun and amusement with a peppering of interesting facts and anecdotes (I didn't know that Julia Child's kitchen had been transported to the last spoon to the Smithsonian, for instance).

The book is more Julie and less Julia (despite her influence) but the movie adaptation seems to have fleshed out Julia's part and made it an equal story about two intriguing women with a love for cooking. It also comes across in the trailer as being more chick-lit than the book, presumably in order to appeal more to a core market; I don't have a problem with this as I'm sure the film -like the book- will be entertaining.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Belated Birthday Gift

On Friday evening I received a welcome and wonderful surprise in my e-mail inbox. An exceptionally generous friend had sent me an Amazon gift voucher as a belated birthday gift with apologies for forgetting. I jumped up and down in glee. Large Amazon purchases of books used to be a regular feature in my life but it's been over a year since I'd placed an order of more than one book at a time that was for myself. I've been trying not to buy as many books and, to be quite honest, my current economic situation doesn't allow me to, so you can imagine how ecstatic I was to be able to SPLURGE (guilt-free) on books. Even though Amazon sells more than just books it was only for a fleeting moment that I considered buying anything other than them. I also decided to buy items from my wish-list that I had been coveting for a while, books that I had never read before, and ones that would be a welcome addition to my library.

For most of Saturday I added and removed and added again and amended and evaluated my Amazon basket until finalising upon these (collectively photographed above):

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Couples by John Updike
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Of Human Bondage by William Somerset Maugham
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

So, one writing handbook, one Finnish Children's book, two English classics, one French classic, one Russian classic, one German classic, and one American classic. Those six classic novels are all ones that the Guardian recommend that I must read. Cumulatively I have 2882 pages to read. Have you read any of these? Are you wanting to read any of them?

I have overdone it with the photographs a little but in my enthusiasm I wanted to show you some of the lovely covers; my particular favourite is the Penguin edition of The Day of the Triffids to the right. The cover art is by Brian Cronin and I covet the entire set. I already have the similarly striking copy of The Midwich Cuckoos, which was a novel I enjoyed earlier this year.

Now I am off to admire my books for a while.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

I have noticed teasers on Tuesdays across many blogs but have never participated until now. The principle of Teaser Tuesdays is to quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt other readers. As the book I am currently reading originated in blogging, the quote I have chosen concerns blogging, then blogging about this for my first teaser Tuesday seemed quite apt.

From what started as a blog, is now a book, and is soon to be a Nora Ephron movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams:

"Nowadays anybody with a crap laptop and Internet access can sound their barbaric yawp, whatever it may be. But the surprise is that for every person who's got something to say, it seems there are at least a few people who are interested. Some of them aren't even related."
(Julie & Julia by Julie Powell, pg. 96)

Thank you for being interested, and for being interested when those who are related aren't!

Monday, 8 June 2009

What Katy Did

So embracing my inner child at the weekend wasn't entirely successful. Re-reading What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge I was wishing that I hadn't. Much as Hilary Mantel did I found Katy's story to be pious and moralising. Is this really the Katy Carr I loved as a child? Post accident she is so saintly saccharine that I felt the need of a visit to the dentist.
I was a good child and I am sure that I looked to Katy as I did Anne Shirley and Mary Lennox and Pippi Longstocking as a means of escape. I certainly preferred the Katy Carr who got herself into scrapes earlier in the children's novel and not Saint Katy that she later became.

What Katy Did at School was my favourite of the What Katy Did trilogy (What Katy Did Next I can barely recall) and I approach re-reading it with trepidation ... what if all my wonderful childhood memories of reading and re-reading it are shattered? It is a school story, one of my favourite children's literature genres, and therefore full of promise but I am still nervous. I don't think I'll be able to bear the disappointment of now hating it.

Far more successful were re-readings of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Although not a revisit to childhood memories for me as I first read about Harry Potter and -at that time- four of his magical adventures in 2002, it is certainly embracing my inner child. I am an unashamed and avid fan of the Harry Potter books and films and I am still waiting for my letter to say that I am going to Hogwarts.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Summer Book

I liked The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) but I didn't love it. I enjoyed its gentle simplicity and its understated beauty. I also enjoyed the fact that each chapter was a vignette and that the book had no actual plot - the events of each section take place during one Summer spent on a Scandinavian island but are stand alone occurrences - which lends itself to a subtle wisdom but overall the book didn't captivate me. Don't get me wrong, I don't require gripping plot to enjoy a book, and I did enjoy this book, but I was left feeling a little ... underwhelmed. Perhaps I will grow to fully appreciate its understatement and discover its literary merit and understand why it is a Scandinavian Classic upon further reflection.

The exchanges between Sophia and her grandmother fall between poignant and humorous; their close -but sometimes guarded- relationship is well conveyed. The evocation of Summer is well done. The meditation upon death is bittersweet. The whimsy is whimsical. I preferred the witty exchanges and found the darker ones heartbreaking sometimes.

My favourite Sophia/Grandmother exchange was when Herdice/Berenice, Sofia's new friend, came to visit and was afraid of everything.

"On the third day, Sophia came into the guest room and said, "Well, that does it. She's impossible. I got her to dive, but it didn't help."
" Did she really dive?" Grandmother asked.
"Yes, really. I gave her a shove and she dived."
"Oh," Grandmother said. "And then what?"
"Her hair can't take salt water," explained Sophia sadly. "It looks awful. And it was her hair I liked."

The dry wit of this thouroughly amused me. The pithy dialogue between Grandmother and Granddaughter is the best part of the book for me. All in all, I think I am disappointed because I didn't immediately love this book and I wonder whether that was my failing.

I read The Enchanted April in April and in the flourishing of Spring; the Summer Book in the outset of Summer (before the sun stopped shining here); Autumn reading will hopefully include The Autumn of the Patriarch; any suggestions for Winter? It could well be Tove Jansson's The Winter Book; I certainly won't be giving up on her work through a little disappointment and I am even waiting as we speak for a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll to arrive in the post.