Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Haunting of Hill House

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil.

Happy Hallowe'en! In preparation for the spookiest day of the year, I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Dark and oppressive, this haunted house story is a tense and thrilling study of fear. Dr Montague invites three strangers to join him one summer in the mysterious Hill House for an experiment that would explore potential paranormal and supernatural incidents. What begins lightheartedly soon turns malevolent as the personfiied Hill House begins to manifest itself in the house's inhabitants. The Haunting of Hill House is a deft and effective exploration of fear and how it changes people and guides their actions. More a subtle and disturbing haunting than an out-and-out tale of horror, this was yet another gripping read by Shirley Jackson.

Jackson is a master of suspense and weaves an intricate tale of creepiness. One wonders whether events actually occur or are manifested within the minds of the characters; there is an insidious undertone to the text where the reader does not trust what they are being told. To say any more would be to spoil The Haunting of Hill House, as saying much about any of Shirley Jackson's work is detrimental to their effect on the mind and senses. Suffice to say, this was the perfect reading material in the lead-up to today.

There is a short article online at Jezebel posted yesterday in praise of Jackson and her suitability to read during Hallowe'en.

This completes the R.I.P. IV challenge for me in which I read four books that could be categorised as mysterious, suspenseful, Gothic, thriller or supernatural reads (I apparently avoided Dark Fantasy and Horror). In terms of the fear factor I have ordered them from least to most frightening and, coincidentally, this is the order that I read them in:

1. The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
3. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackon

Thank you to Carl for hosting another deliciously creepy season.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Jane Austen's Emma

I first read Emma by Jane Austen a decade ago when I studied it in my final year of school. I have never seen an adaptation -not even the 1996 film version with Gwyneth Paltrow- but being a devout fan of the 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, I was intrigued as to how well they would treat my second favourite Austen novel. I was not disappointed. Although it will never surpass the Pride and Prejudice adaptation in my esteem and affection, I did enjoy Emma and found it, for the most part, well done. I did have initial reservations and mild criticisms whilst watching; I found it flawed in some respects but it is was a faithful adaptation if a little ... unreserved. The language was modernised, not fully but enough that it jarred, and there was an altogether looser tone to their speech, mannerisms and interactions with each other.

Romola Garai made a suitably flawed Emma, and was more mature than her portrayal of Cassandra Mortmain (another of my much-loved literary heroines) that I could separate them in my mind's eye. Her vanity and snobbery were well depicted and, as always, I had a soft spot for the well-meaning Emma. However, I did take issue with Garai's exaggerated facial expressions that did not seem fitting with the period; her eyes were far too wide and it began to irritate me some. I had misgivings about Johnny Lee Miller's suitability in the role as Mr Knightley and their relationship was more of a brother and sister one in the first episode, but he overcame my prejudices to fully embody the role, so much so that I developed something of a literary crush on him; oh how my heart ached for him during some scenes and fluttered when he gentlemanly saved Harriet Smith's shame at the dance.

The casting of Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse was inspired; he was lovably vulnerable, only slightly infuriating and shared a touching and tender chemistry with his on-screen daughter. Tamsin Greig played Miss Bates to an exceptional standard and I sympathised with her exceedingly whilst also finding her amusing. The other exceptional comical character, Mrs Elton, was unbearable and testimony to Christina Cole in the role (she also played Caroline Bingley wonderfully well in Lost in Austen). I wasn't too enamoured by the casting of Frank Churchill nor Jane Fairfax but I suspect that is due to my lack of affection for the characters.

Watching this diverting adaptation, although enjoyable, compels me to read Austen's own words again and I will seek the time for a reread of the novel at some point. I will probably rewatch this at some point but I doubt it has the longevity of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which I happily watch over and over.

This is the second of six Austen-related items completed for the Everything Austen challenge.

The scene I anticipated most to see acted was the one from Box Hill, where Emma is at her most flawed, and I share that below.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Are You Dreaming of a Grey Christmas?

Yes, Christmas will soon be with us and I know that I love nothing more than giving and receiving books as gifts. The only thing that can top that is a Persephone book. Book Psmith is arranging a very exciting Persephone Secret Santa, which I think is a wonderful idea and should be a lot of fun. I know that I will be participating, what about you?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Fun Home

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel is a memoir in the form of a graphic novel. I decided to seek it out after Audrey Niffenegger named it as her favourite graphic novel at a reading and signing a couple of weeks ago. I had read mention of it across the blogosphere prior to that but it was more a sense of it existing and being held in esteem rather than knowing anything about it. After reading it I then noticed that it was included in the family section of the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read and am I right in thinking that it is the only graphic novel to do so? I haven't read many graphic novels myself, only a handful (although I am beginning to incorporate them more into my reading lately), but Fun Home reminded me of one that I had read: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; both are memoirs of the female authors' coming-of-age in dramatic circumstances but both are recounted with wisdom and wit.

Alison grew up in a funeral home -known as a fun home- with her mother, brothers and closeted gay father who dies when Alison is at college, perhaps by his own design. Her father was a highschool English teacher who had relations with some of his male students and with his children's babysitter. This is indeed a tragicomic tale. I pitied Alison's father but I also found his betrayal of his family and the implied betrayal of younger boys abhorrent; curiously Bechdel doesn't comment (with hindsight) on her father's actions but through the book comes to terms with her own uneven relationship with him. Alison and her father connected via books and some of my favourite sections were those were literature was alluded to and employed as a means of commenting upon and making sense of Alison's upbringing and the poignant relationship with her father based on their mutual love for books. Meanwhile Alison is also coming to terms with her own lesbian sexuality and gender, often a source of contention with her father when she was younger but a subtle bond they shared as adults.

Fun Home is literally graphic in its occasional full-frontal nudity and not for readers with any qualms about forthright discussion of sex, sexuality and masturbation. Fun Home's frankness and intelligence should make it a recommended read for teenagers, especially those making sense of their own sexuality. It is also an exploration of death and grief and Bechdel uses it to come to term with her father's death and possible suicide. In appropriating her and her family's tragicomedy (which is ethically ambiguous, I feel) she produces a beautiful and touching deliberation on familial bonds and the pains of growing up. Incorporating the literature she and her father discuss and references to myth into the graphic novel imbues it with a richness that bibliophiles will adore and I found it highly interesting and educational as well as entertaining, at times morbidly so.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Hello Japan!

For the first of Tanabata's Hello Japan! monthly mini-challenges (where we focus on Japanese literature and culture) we were to read or watch something scary, spooky or suspenseful. I opted to watch Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, 2000, directed by Kinji Fukasaku); I fully intended to read the book by Koushun Takami and then watch the adaptation but the best laid plans of men and readers... Now I am not altogether sure whether I will read the book at all, or at least any time soon. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the movie because I did, a lot, but I'm no longer in the mood to read the book.

The premise of the book (from back-cover): Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of 42 junior high school students are taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are electronically collared, provided with weapons of varying potency, and sent out onto the island. If they are in the wrong part of the island at the wrong time, their collars will explode. If they band together to save themselves a collar will explode at random. If they try to escape from the island, they will be blown up. Their only chance for survival lies in killing their classmates. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan - where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller - Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, and a potent story of politics and survival in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic.

I can tell why this has become a Japanese pulp (and, I take it, cult) classic as it is intelligent and fun. Yes, I find ridiculously gratuitous scenes of blood and gore humorous rather than scary and the plot more socially interesting than thrilling; think of the staged bloodbath onscreen as Tarantino-esque (controversial, I know, as Tarantino has often been accused of copying Japanese film-makers, but he is the best mainstream example to indicate the style of the film). Classmates are pitted against one another and petty highschool jealousies, resentments and crushes are played out with weapons and subsequent slaughter. It is all about survival of the fittest injected with black humour and some oxymoronic kitsch (the scene where the government's experimental battle programme is explained to the teenagers forced to take part is explosively funny (literally). I enjoyed the running tally of kills plot device (subtitled onscreen) and found this film wonderfully hyperbolic in the tense circumstances; it is powerful in its subtleties and its cultural commentary on a Japan obsessed with youth, fashion and cuteness. Battle Royale should not be taken at face-value as an overblown violent film but as a fantastically exaggerated cultural comment.

Highly recommended.

I wonder how the book compares...

Monday, 26 October 2009

Unseen Academicals

A new Terry Pratchett novel is always an exciting thing and for the last few years I have always bought a copy for my boyfriend, the gift being a pretext for the opportunity to read it after (although once sneakily before) him. This year I actually received a review copy from Doubleday, which was very exciting; I had already pre-ordered and received (a day earlier) a copy but sold that on so a big thank you to Doubleday of Random House. Unseen Academicals is the latest novel in Pratchett's Discword series and satirises the game of football (or foot-the-ball) whilst focusing mainly on the below-stairs workers rather than the wizards of Unseen University. The introduction of these compelling new characters works mainly because they are supported by the wizards (Ridcully, the Librarian and Rincewind all appearing), the conniving Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Vetinari, and the obligatory cameo from Death in addition to a few other familiar faces. Glenda -cook in the Night Kitchen, maker of famous pies and a woman with a penchant for romance novels- and Nutt -a highly intelligent and articulate candle dribbler who is shrouded in mystery- join Discworld lore and its cast of other intensely well-characterised and amusing characters.

I know that not all of you are Pratchett fans and some of you have found the Discworld inaccessible. To discover what I myself love about the universe Pratchett has created then you can read this post. As for accessibility, I will share my boyfriend's experience: it took him until his sixth attempt at reading the Discworld series (a new book each time) until he was hooked; he now considers Terry Pratchett his favourite writer, has read and reread all of the Discworld novels and has read everything else he has written. For those of you who are completely averse to attempting to read any of the Discworld series then I would recommend Nation, which is a deeply intelligent and entertaining novel with one of my all-time favourite quotes across literature.

As always I enjoyed reading Pratchett; I find him very comforting and he brings me out of any book slump that I occasionally fall into. I find that he is exceedingly difficult to review; I've summarised what Unseen Academicals and my response but the joy of reading Pratchett is inexplicable to describe. You do not need to be a football fan to appreciate this novel as it is not so much about the cult of the sport but the societal observations surrounding the game; it is easy to see the humour in the making of the offside rule without the need to understand it oneself. It also isn't essential to have read any other Discworld novel previously although it is bound to help (the frequent "(no relation)" allusions after Bledlow Nobbs may be mildly irritating otherwise). I will leave you with two of my favourite quotes -both featuring Glenda, whom I loved- and the sheer intelligence of the first one in its allusion to Virginia Woolf is why I love Terry Pratchett.

A couple of graduate wizards were working in the university boatyard nearby. One looked at her and said, 'Are you supposed to be walking on the university lawns, madam?'
'No, it is absolutely forbidden to kitchen staff,' said Glenda.
The students looked at one another. 'Oh right,' said one of them.
And that was it.
As easy as that.

Very slowly, Glenda raised her right hand into a fist and lowered it into her mouth, and bit down very hard in at attempt to somehow retrieve the last fifteen minutes from the records of the universe and replace them with something far less embarrassing, like her knickers falling down.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody

Earlier this year I waxed lyrical about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. At that time I had found one of my favourite books of the year and was excited to discover that Gourmet Rhapsody (Gourmet here in the UK and Une Gourmandise in France) had a scheduled release a few months later. This is actually Barbery's debut novel, first published in French in 2000, and translated (by Alison Anderson) and issued by Europa Editions on the back of the runaway success of Elegance.

Not so much as a prequel to The Elegance of the Hedgehog but a companion novel, it takes the 48 hours preceding the death of food critic Pierre Arthens, the impetus of events in Elegance, as its premise. Events take place in the Rue de Grenelle, the same building setting as in The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the majority of the cast are the same; it was a pleasure to meet these characters again. An arrogant and worldwide revered food critic, Arthens, on his death-bed is seeking a memory on the tip of his tongue; literally on the tip of his tongue, Arthens is grasping for a taste and flavour from his past. Alternating chapters narrated by Arthens and by people -and a cat- from his life, those who love and those who revile him, recall his life. Arthens' memories take him through epicurean delights that he has sampled and indulged during his lifetime, predating is gourmet career, memories he recalls in search for the elusive taste.

I am going to die, but that is of no importance ... I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.

Particular episodes in his past recalled by particular foods and vice versa foods recalled via certain memories, which instantly reminded me of Proust and his madeleine; Barbery alluded to this a third of the way through the novella, "Like Proust's abominable madeleine, that oddity of a pastry reduced one sinister and drab afternoon into a spoonful of spongy crumbs -supreme offense- in a cup of herbal tea".

Rich and delectable things can be done with language when writing about food and Barbery exults in describing dishes. I am a definite foodie and enjoyed her vivid and rhapsodic descriptions; sashimi (especially tuna) is one of my favourite things to eat and her words made it even more appetising:

True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue. It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture. Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.

Barbery said it best herself (through Paul) in describing Arthens' food writing:

His prose ... his prose was nectar, ambrosia, a hymn to language: it was gut-wrenching, and it hardly mattered whether he was talking about food or something else, it would be a mistake to think that the topic mattered: it was the way he phrased it that was so brilliant. Food was just a pretext, perhaps even a way of escaping, of fleeing what his goldsmith's talent might bring to light: the exact tenor of his emotions, the harshness and suffering, and the failure, in the end...

Ultimately it is the writing that matters and Barbery's prose is as rich as her protagonist's. This is a quick and beautifully written novella about life, death and our passions. It is not a literary experiment like The Elegance of the Hedgehog and does not taste as sweet or as rich in comparison but it is pleasant sustenance nonetheless.

A note on why I bought the North American edition of Gourmet Rhapsody (and why the quotes I use are missing the letter "u"):

1. I had an Amazon US giftcard to spend (as good a reason as any).
2. I far prefer the cover to the UK edition and fully intend to buy the matching copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Not only is it more aesthetically pleasing but the Europa Edition is beautifully published; usually I have an aversion to the paper used for the paperback covers in the US but this is a hard-wearing card with flaps.
3. I prefer the title!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

Let's Call the Whole Things Off: Love Quarrels from Anton Chekhov to ZZ Packer (notice what the title cleverly does?) selected and compiled by Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith and Sarah Wood brings together some of the best short story writers on the topic of lovers' quarrels. Some of the writers I am very familiar with (Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and Colette), others I had met but didn't know intimately or had been intending to seek out their work (Jhumpa Lahiri, Dorothy Parker and Natalia Ginzburg) and others I was completely unfamiliar with (ZZ Packer, Arnold Bennett and A.M. Homes). Some of the stories were in translation from Russian, Italian and Welsh, amongst others, and they were cleverly edited into sections -first quarrels, daily arguments, breaking up and the aftermath- and didn't quarrel but compromised and complemented each other.

The stand-out stories for me were "This Blessed House" by Jhumpa Lahiri, "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, "Lappin and Lapinova" by Virginia Woolf and "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" by Jackie Kay; it was difficult to narrow it down in such a strong anthology but these four stories were particular powerful and evocative of the soul-destroying nature of quarrels or a relationship's demise. "This Blessed House" (taken from Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Interpreter of Maladies) is unique in that it takes a newly married couple -Twinkle and Sanjeev- who barely know one another as their marriage was arranged and examines their early days quarrels through which they grow to understand each other. Natalia Ginzburg is an Italian writer whose work I became aware of through the book group that Simon and Kim run; Ginzburg's A Place to Live: And Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg is a favourite book of one of our members, Armen, and now that I have had a taste of her writing I shall be seeking out more. Ginzburg has a unique style that I instantly admired from the opening lines:

He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on in the evening.
He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages - in his own way - to speak even the languages that he doesn't know.
He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all. After one day in a foreign city he can move about in it as thoughtlessly as a butterfly. I get lost in my own city; I have to ask directions so that I can get back home again.

One could argue that this is a description of opposites attracting or of couples growing estranged and no longer having anything left in common, they are so different.

Woolf's "Lappin and Lapinova" is brutal in its portrayal of a married couple once the honeymoon period is over. The sweet, affectionate way the newly married couple engage with one another is endearing; they liken one another to rabbits named Lappin and Lappinova, which they use as pet-names, and when this is lost, only a few years later, it was "the end of that marriage", a closing line that seems to be at odds with the nuanced writing of the story and yet I found it to be flippantly fitting.

"You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" very funny also brutally truthful. I know Jackie Kay's work from her beautiful novel, Trumpet, which I highly recommend; of the writer I know that she used to be in a relationship with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" is about the demise of a long-term lesbian relationship which opens humorously "It is not so much that we are splitting up that is really worrying me, it is the fact that she keeps quoting Martin Amis"; Amis is used effectively for comic relief throughout.

Other highlights in the anthology were stories all by writers familiar to me; "The Gilded Six-Bits" by Zora Neale Hurston is a story in Ebonics that tells of a married couple's quarreling as foreplay until the wife's infidelity ceases their quarreling; "Pillow Talk" by the fabulous Alasdair Gray is short and bittersweet -a husband awakes to accuse his wife of leaving him and after she confesses that she wishes he could, he realises it was a dream; "Mr and Mrs Dove" and "A Letter" are written by two of my favourite short story writers -Katherine Mansfield and Colette- and, although not my favourites, each are perfected as always and evocative of playful quarreling; "Here We Are", written by the delightful Dorothy Parker, tells of the petty arguments and jealousies played out between a new couple on their wedding day.

I recommend this volume for its versatility in storytelling, its collection of highly-accomplished writers of the short-story form and its compelling subject matter of lovers' tiffs. This was one of the few short story anthologies that I have been able to read cover to cover without becoming frustrated by its contents.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Persephone Biannually

I am relieved that the Royal Mail strikes in the UK did not prevent me from receiving the Persephone 2009 Autumn/Winter Biannually as it allowed me to spend a pleasant hour yesterday perusing it whilst drinking a Chai latte in Starbucks (no cake, alas). I read the Biannually from cover to cover, flicked through the up-to-date catalogue (most of which I know by heart) and admired my pretty new bookmark; the bookmark matches the lapis printed cotton circa 1808-15 (from the Victorian & Albert museum) endpaper of one of the new titles, A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs Rundell.

The Biannually contains tempting information about the three new titles: the others being High Wages by Dorothy Whipple and To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski; I am most attracted to the latter (although I will undoubtedly also purchase the new Whipple novel). The Laski novel is primarily "about sex in wartime"; Deborah, the wife of a man posted overseas, takes lover after lover and provides a different view of life on the home-front. Apparently very funny as well as shocking, this is probably a realist work and one that intrigues me. The first scene of To Bed With Grand Music is described as a compelling one and is likened to "the five conception scenes at the beginning of Manja". Manja by Anna Gmeyer (mother of author Eva Ibbotson) was a Persephone title that had not stood out to me before but now the story of five children -all conceived on the same night in 1920- growing up in Weimar Republic Germany until the Nazis came to power, is at the top of my Persephone wishlist.

Within the pages of the Biannually is a short story "A Lovely Time" by Dorothy Whipple. In the vein of the two Whipple novels I have so far read -Someone at a Distance and They Were Sisters- the story possesses a rawness of emotion that is inexplicable in its effectiveness (what makes Whipple so readable and unbearably poignant?) A simple night out for innocent Alice Barnes, her first night out in London since moving there for work from a small town four months previously, evokes a sad loneliness; moreover there is a social embarrassment that we have no doubt all experienced at some point in our lives, where we don't fit in despite our best efforts. Dorothy Whipple doesn't do cheerful; she writes of the cruelty of life and we are left with pity for Alice.

The most exciting part of reading the latest Biannually, however, was skipping to the Bloggers Review section and finding myself quoted! It was a definite narcissistic highlight of the reading experience for me. If you click on the photograph below to enlarge it you can not only read the excerpt but you will notice that I am in very good company and surrounded by some of my favourite fellow bloggers; on the next page (not photographed) Rachel of Book Snob, Lynne of dovegreyreader, Claire of kiss a cloud and Naomi of Bloomsbury Bell are all quoted from and I was happy to see so many familiar bloggers! A good few of these quotes were taken from Persephone Reading Week posts and I am so pleased that we were able to provide them with so much material to choose from, albeit too much to use all. A big thank you to Persephone for recognising our efforts.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Library Loot: the scary

In honour of upcoming Hallowe'en my library loot takes a distinctly horrific hue this week. The Virago Book of Ghost Stories is of course intended to scare and The Complete Maus has a terrifying subject matter (the Holocaust) whereas Fun Home is a family tragicomic set in a funeral home.

Wolf Home is a book that I have been dreading recently and belongs aptly to a season of horror; moreover, the cover lends itself dramatically to the blood-red tinge the photo has taken, as does my sofa.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg encouraging library use and its promotion.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Even More Recent Acquisitions...

Over the last week a few packages have arrived from various publishers and one newspaper (and a little one from ebay).

Verity's posts about the Chalet School series of children's books have been tempting me to reread them for a number of months; when I came across an inexpensive Armada copy of the first book, The School at the Chalet, with this beautiful cover the same as the Girls Gone By edition, I could no longer resist. I imagine myself curling up with this and a mug of hot chocolate on cold afternoon soon.

The Telegraph kindly sent me a copy of Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith. The follow-up novel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, is currently available online in installments. I am hopelessly behind, having not read the first one (and waiting for the hopeless Royal Mail to deliver it), but home to catch up soon.

I also received beautiful copies of The Bell by Iris Murdoch and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (look at the beautiful cover) from the very generous Vintage Books. The Bell will be my first Murdoch novel (although I also have a copy of The Sea, The Sea); I am very much looking forward to my first encounter with Murdoch as it is long overdue. Every Christmas I re-read A Christmas Carol and you can look forward to sharing that with me this year.

From the lovely Sophie at Virago Press I received a copy of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages in Literary London 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe. The seven relationships given insight into are between H.G. & Jane Wells; Katherine Mansfield & John Middleton Murry; Elizabeth von Arnim & John Francis Russell; Vanessa & Clive Bell; Ottoline & Philip Morrell; Radclyffe Hall & Una Troubridge; Vera Brittain & George Gordon Catlin. This novel excites and intrigues me; I had forgotten about it until I came across it again in Foyles bookshop with Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book a few weeks ago.

Lastly, I generously received copies of the latest Bloomsbury Group titles, Mrs Tim of the Regiment and A Kid for Two Farthings (released early November), which gives me a complete collection of the imprint (although I own a Virago copy of The Brontës Went to Woolworths in a Virago edition).

I look forward to reading and reviewing all of these. What about you - what books did you acquire this week? Which of mine are you most curious about?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

I Am a Cat Read-along

I am joining in Tanabata's first Japanese literature read-along over the coming months. We will be reading the three volumes of I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume, one volume a month. This is a book that I've been wanting to read for the last couple of years and was intending to read it anyway for Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge so this is the perfect read-along for me join in.

The synopsis: Cat lovers will delight in the thoughts of a cat whose particular joy in life is commenting on the folly of human beings. Based on a nameless cat's observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji era, the essence of I AM A CAT is its humour and sardonic truths. Written over the course of 1904-06, this book is full of acerbic wit as it follows the whimsical adventures of a world-weary stray kitten.

For anyone who wishes to join in or wants to follow my progress, the schedule is:

Volume One by November 15th, 2009
Volume Two by December 15th, 2009
Volume Three by January 15th, 2010

These are the corresponding page numbers in the Tuttle Classics edition: Volume One (p. 3 - 156), Volume Two (p. 159 - 355), Volume Three (p.359 - 638).

Do you like the bookmark I am using? This was handmade and sent to me a few months ago by the lovely Nymeth. She knew I was a cat-lover and it is the perfect bookmark, of course, to use for this book!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Howards End is on the Landing

I love books about books; you probably know this about me but it bears repeating. I love books about books and yet I did not love Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I enjoyed parts but this did not live up to the hype for me and I was very disappointed. For the most part though, I was annoyed; I felt deceived -wait, deceived is a strong word so make that misled. The book is subtitled "A Year of Reading From Home" and I expected discussion of books that Susan Hill had discovered on her shelves and finally read, providing her impressions of that first read, and embracing those books on her shelves that she found and greeted like a long-lost relative, rereading and loving them all the more but there was very little -arguably none- of that and instead I read a memoir of a writer who, up until that point, I had only read one book by and honestly didn't have much invested interest in.

Granted, Susan Hill is a bibliophile and as a fellow bibliophile I nodded my head along in agreement at times and shook it at others but for the majority of the time I did not play the part of a nodding dog; Susan Hill and I do not share similar reading tastes and I was bored reading about most of the writers she professed love for (a whole chapter in a short book devoted to WG Sebald, really?) I do share her passion for Virginia Woolf and I found those parts interesting; the small section on Iris Murdoch was exceptionally poignant and I agreed with her point that she has sadly fallen out of fashion and almost into obscurity. After reading a particularly frustrating section (of which I will write more about in a moment) Susan Hill redeemed herself when she credited "A Doll's House" -my all-time favourite Katherine Mansfield short story- as "one of the best stories ever written about childhood" but the redemption was short-lived.

She came across as a book snob, in my opinion, in the below passage and I was very annoyed with her. We all have books that simply don't work for us but this is rather disparaging of entire genres.

But it is not only older books which shiver together, unread, unloved. Here are three books by Terry Pratchett, and I really have tried but it's no good ... stories of wee small men ... I can't. I bought several to see if they were any different but they're not. It scarcely matters. Terry Pratchett can do without me, so can every other fantasy writer and historical novelist who ever wrote.

I am sure that Susan Hill did not mean for this to come across as thoroughly condescending but it did. It angers me when readers discount entire genres; it is pretentious. As a Scot I should also point out that "wee" means small so why use a synonym in addition to the word itself and misquote the title and characters? It scarcely matters. Terry Pratchett has surely outsold Susan Hill numerous times over.

Hill certainly evoked the power of books to transport the reader back in time "in the most extraordinary way - the way of the Proustian madeleine"; this is one of a few pleasant turns of phrase that a fellow book-lover will love but Howards End is on the Landing had the potential to provide so much more. Why couldn't it all have read like the following passage? If it had, this would be an effusive review.

I love the book. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the compactness of it, the shape, the size. I love the feel of paper. The sound it makes when I turn a page. I love the beauty of print on paper, the patterns, the shape, the fonts. I am astonished by the versatility and practicality of The Book. It is so simple. It is so fit for its purpose. It may give me mere content, but no e-reader will ever give me that sort of added pleasure.

I don't think that Susan Hill had anything new to say. Her book didn't read as a book at all with any cohesion to it but more as unconnected essays on books; some of her subjects have been covered as Booking-through-Thursday blog posts and other bloggers have brought up "Things That Fall Out of Books" and "A Book By Its Cover" (amongst other individual blog topics or series). The year of reading at home may have been the pretext for the book but instead of giving an account of her project it took backseat to her recollections of various encounters with other writers and people she thought worthy of note; it then built up to a list of forty books that she could not live without, which I didn't think was ever properly addressed and who hasn't compiled a desert island list at some point? On mine though I have The Complete Works of Shakespeare as it is one physical book and belabouring the point for a number of pages unsatisfactorily (in my opinion) to whittle it down to one play was pointless; goodness, her husband is an eminent Shakespearean scholar, couldn't she have just packed one of his volumes? Basically I think that Howards End is On the Landing was a cop-out and Susan Hill published thoughts on books that book-lovers and bloggers have been articulating for years and bound it in a beautiful cover with a catchy title. Fine, someone paid her for it and she has the reputation that gives authority to those thoughts but her book ultimately did not do what it said on the cover.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Other Green Shelf

I have previously shared my bottle-green Virago shelf but I had many other lighter green books on my shelves and I brought those together to create the other green shelf.

First of all, there is NO Angela Carter book! I think this is the first shelf, other than the white one (and I do have a white Angela Carter book, but not on that shelf) that doesn't include a book by my favourite writer. There are, of course, the obligatory Virago Modern Classics; this time they are both Barbara Pym novels and are new additions to my shelves this year. Penguin are as always well-represented in classics (one read and loved and the other currently unread), beautiful John Wyndham novels, and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez one (also a regular feature amongst the colour-themed shelves); Vintage also sneak onto the shelf yet again with another Rushdie novel.

The Rebecca Wells novel is also a new addition and is a vile shade of lime. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is my all-time favourite Children's novel and this is a beloved copy and one of the oldest books in my collection with Wild Swans by Jung Chang a close second (a fabulous autobiographical family history that has had a place on my shelves since 1997).

I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume is a Japanese classic that you will be reading about soon on my blog and the green Jasper Fforde books belong to great literary crime/fantasy novels and I adore the covers with their spoof beat-up appearance. Lastly on the shelf there is another vividly coloured TC Boyle spine.

I love green as a colour and like the freshness of this shelf, what about you?

I have exhausted the range of colours in my possession, covering the spectrum of the rainbow as well as some other core colours, so this will be the last in my colour-themed bookshelves series until I acquire more books! In the meantime, if the voyeur in you is seeking out then you can watch a vlog tour of Eva's new rainbow bookshelves.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Three Incestuous Sisters

At the Audrey Niffenegger event earlier this week, she answered the question of what her favourite graphic novel was with Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I have read about Fun Home on a couple of occasions across the blogosphere and was excited to discover that my library had it in stock; however, when I went to borrow it, I couldn't find it, but I found The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger instead.

Although shelved in the graphic novels section, The Three Incestuous Sisters isn't actually a graphic novel. On the front cover, the sticker proclaims it a "Novel in Pictures" (that would be a picture-book, yes?) but in her afterword Audrey Niffenegger coins the term visual novel, to differentiate her book from a graphic novel. She does this because her book does not consist of graphic images but aquatints. Another description to the coffee-table art is "labor of love" because it took her fourteen years to produce as she did it all by hand (even designing and binding the book before modern printing technology published in in mass quantities). During those fourteen years she also wrote her first "real" (her word) novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, which was originally a project and outlet that she indulged in whilst procrastinating over The Three Incestuous Sisters.

Not so much a novel -the story doesn't flow- but a storyboard with etched images across from one line of text, almost a heading or description of action to accompany the aquatint i.e. beside this image are simply:

The Naming of things:

The text in this image is unclear but it was by far the most detailed and one of my favourites. As you can see the images are quite dark (literally and figuratively) and are bold and striking in their lack of too many colours; the colours that do stand out are those of the three sisters' hair:

Clothilde with red hair, Ophile with blue, and Bettine with blond hair, all of them with hair down to their buttocks.

The story is dark and are more linked images strung together. There is a fairytale element to them and I wonder whether the storyboard would work better -or in addition- as a film. Audrey Niffenegger explains this work to people unfamiliar with it as similar to "a silent film made from Japanese prints, a melodrama of sibling rivalry, a silent opera that features women with very long hair and a flying green boy."

I don't pretend to understand its meaning or be struck by its brevity but I appreciate the aesthetic, the beauty and starkness of the aquatints and those will remain with me even if the words do not.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry is in essence a ghost story. Audrey Niffenegger started out writing a book about Martin, the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter for The Guardian; Martin's wife has left him and he has a neighbour Julia who has an annoying roommate. I learned that this was the original premise for the novel at the Audrey Niffenegger reading and signing earlier this week, written about here; it intrigued me to discover how far her original intent deviated into a novel about a ghost and two sets of twins and to observe that Martin -the original protagonist- remained the more engaging, sympathetic, and well-characterised of the characters. Moreover, Martin's flat was supposed to be beside a graveyard known as Graceland, in the Uptown area of Chicago, until Niffenegger decided to set it in the most memorable cemetery she had been to: Highgate Cemetery in North London. Julia's roommate became her twin, Valentina, and then Niffenegger questioned how two twenty-one year olds could afford to live in a flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery so she created an aunt, Elspeth, who died in the opening line of the novel and bequeathed them it; however Elspeth as a character took over and didn't stay dead (the way Audrey Niffenegger put it) and around sixty pages in, she returns as a ghost.

In reading about Her Fearful Symmetry, I never realised that there was an actual ghost; yes, I knew it was a ghost story but I didn't realise that there was a non-fully-fleshed, non corporeal real-life yet dead ghost. The chapter in which Elspeth Noblin (isn't that a ghostly name?) reappears is incredibly amusing; it is entitled "The History of Her Ghost" and below I have quoted the opening and closing lines, which highlights Niffenegger's dry humour and what particularly amused me abut the situation.

Elspeth Noblin had been dead for almost a year now, and she was still figuring out the rules.

She wondered if someone who was already dead could kill herself.

In beginning life as a plot-device, Elspeth propels the plot forward and in many respects it becomes about her life in death; her relationship with her grieving partner; her relationship with her twin nieces; and the mystery of why she and her twin sister -Edie, mother of Julia and Valentina- have not seen one another or spoken for twenty one years. The first chapter of Her Fearful Symmetry, in which Elspeth dies, is entitled "The End" and so too is the final chapter.

Twins intrigue me and this novel has two sets with strained relationships; although I never warmed to the characters of the twins themselves (Elspeth the ghost I enjoyed but she isn't that likable), I was engaged with their struggle for individual identity and freedom; I was also interested in the mirror twin phenomenon of Julia and Valentina (they were not identical twins but mirror images of one another and Valentina was internally reversed). I thought that their twin nature was well-evoked but a twin in the audience at the event this week said that she was somewhat sceptical going in then found it to be the most uncanny, accurate description of twins that she has yet found. Now this is where I may alienate any twin readers ... I think that identical twins -and mirror twins takes it to a new level- lend themselves to the supernatural, creepy, and mysterious genres; Audrey Niffenegger mentioned at the reading that she was somewhat influenced by The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and the phenomenon of the "double" and mistaken identities pervades that text.

It has been several years (at least five) since I read The Time Traveler's Wife and I barely recall it, except for the overall plot, some specific scenes and my overall enjoyment of the novel; I haven't yet seen the recent film adaptation so it is far from fresh in my mind and it would be reductive of me to attempt to compare Niffenegger's runaway successful debut novel with her much-anticipated follow-up but what I will say is that I enjoyed it. It took me a couple of chapters to properly immerse myself in it and I found that the product placing jarred but that could be because this is the first novel that I've read with a modern setting for some time (shockingly so); I find that present-day product names and specific names for places date it very quickly and even cheapen it. I think that Her Fearful Symmetry was far more successful in its Highgate Cemetery setting and its ghostly plot than its up-to-the-minute overview of London; one anachronism I noticed -not historically inaccurate but something already out-of-date- shows how dangerous it is to set a book in a modern time period that is at once not timeless nor definitive. This was the one main flaw that I had with the novel but the lack of likability of the main characters was another; Martin I found truly likable and also Jessica, the figurehead for the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, whom I had the feeling was based on the real-life Jean Pateman, Audrey Niffenegger's boss at Highgate Cemetery and the person to whom she dedicated Her Fearful Symmetry.

I mentioned yesterday how well I thought Highgate Cemetery was incorporated into the book. I thought that the physicality of the cemetery was well depicted as was its essence; I wasn't bored at any point with the historical details and have the utmost respect for Audrey Niffenegger's research skills and how much detail she packed into the novel without it being, in my opinion, detrimental to the plot. The sheer magnitude of knowledge about Highgate Cemetery was the strength of the novel as was the supernatural route the plot took, especially as the author is admittedly a sceptic. Someone at the reading event aptly described Niffenegger's novels as studies of other ways of being and it is a term that she instantly liked and said she would begin to use herself; other ways of being can indeed be applied to Her Fearful Symmetry as it is very much about being and existence: how to exist as a twin; how to exist as a ghost; how to exist with a debilitating mental illness; how to exist when the person you love has left/died.

This was my 3/4 read for the R.I.P. IV Challenge.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Tour of Highgate Cemetery

One of the chapters in Her Fearful Symmetry is entitled "A Tour of Highgate Cemetery" so how apt that just after reading the novel I was given a tour of the cemetery by the author, Audrey Niffenegger; such an experience certainly brought the novel's events to life.

First things first, I attended an Audrey Niffenegger event on Tuesday night with Jackie and Rachel and had a lovely time. After I became hopelessly lost (Rachel had to phone me as she looked at the funny girl directly across from the venue look bemusedly at her map before walking off in the wrong direction yet again), we entered the auditorium of The Bloomsbury Theatre and snagged three seats that were at the very end of the front row. Now I would like to say that it was some foresight on my behalf that these seats were directly in front of the signing table and beside the stairs leading up to it but it was blind luck; regardless though, it still placed me at the front of the queue to have my copy of the book signed (many thanks to Jonathan Cape for sending me a review copy) and gave us time for a coffee and book/blogging chat afterwards.

Both Rachel and Jackie have posted their accounts of the night (I linked to both above) so have a read if you haven't already. It was an interesting evening and Audrey Niffenegger comes across as a very likable yet eccentric woman with a wonderfully dry sense of humour (she is easily the type of person I would love to sit down to coffee with and randomly discuss books and things that interest us). I like writers who are foremost artists and embrace other mediums to tell stories as well as the written word (Neil Gaiman is another who instantly springs to mind); Audrey Niffenegger seems to enjoy numerous creative pursuits and in the Q&A explained that her cure for writer's block is to go and draw a picture on indulge in another creative output. Her attitude, in my opinion, is laidback and philisophical; in response to the question about writer's block she hypothesised that the block often occurs because you are going in the wrong direction so she'll veer off rather than try to crash through. As someone who is interested in writing and how people practice their craft, I found the writing responses and insights into her processes fascinating. Before the Q&A she read from Her Fearful Symmetry and I was delighted that she had chosen to read the chapter "The History of Her Ghost", as I had found it incredibly amusing (her dry sense of humour suiting the reading as well as being conveyed on the page).

Two of the most intriguing facts I learned on the night were 1) Her Fearful Symmetry was written in British English as opposed to Americanised English, which was far more difficult than she originally conceived; it was not just an issue of exchanging nouns as they have evolved into two differently spoken and written languages in terms of sentence structure; 2) She has not yet seen the film version of The Time Traveler's Wife (nor have I) and has no immediate plans to do so; she was not involved in the creative decision-making at all and was most upset that filming location was in Toronto instead of Chicago; she is clutching the film rights to her latest novel "to her bosom" for the time being and any future selling of the rights would depend on whether the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (the charity who care for Highgate Cemetery) would be amenable to a film crew.

Said mention of Highgate Cemetery makes a appropriate segue into the second part of my Audrey Niffenegger event post; as mentioned yesterday, I was one of a handful of lucky winners of a Waterstone's loyalty cardholder's competition of a guided tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London, given by the author. To enter, one had to write why they should win and I remember vaguely saying that Audrey had given Neil Gaiman a tour of the cemetery when he was researching The Graveyard Book and that I wanted to walk in their footsteps and feel similarly inspired by the atmospheric and evocative cemetery; I may also have written something about the season being appropriate and contributing to the creepy and ghostly ambiance. All of which is true now that I have been. Our party was a small one of eight and was made up of four winners, two guests (including my friend), the representative of Waterstone's and one from Jonathan Cape; a photograph was taken of us with Audrey and I will link to that when I have the details but in the meantime here is Audrey as guide:

I had intended to visit Highgate Cemetery preferably before reading Her Fearful Symmetry; it certainly helps to imagine events in the novel now that I have seen them in person. The Noblin family mausoleum (Elspeth Noblin is a character who dies in the opening line of the novel and later returns as a ghost to the flat she has bequeathed to her twin nieces) of course does not exist but I could envisage its position, "just past Comfort's Corners, near the middle of the cemetery". So much of what Audrey Niffenegger learned as a tour guide of Highgate Cemetery, in the years she spent researching the novel has been weaved into it; much of what she has written, she incorporated into her tour narrative yesterday. As we were walking from site to site in the West Cemetery I chatted to my friend Rebecca about some of the things I had learned from the book (such as Highgate Cemetery being one of the "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries built in disparate London suburbs during the 1830s as a means to combat health concerns surrounding the inner-city overcrowded graveyards) only for Audrey to then repeat what I had plagiarised from her in the first place.

The Noblin family's mausoleum features "a bas-relief of a pelican feeding her young with her own blood, a symbol of the Resurrection"; this mythological symbol appears on the gravestone below and was the inspiration for the fictionalised burial site.

Christmas was three weeks away - but the cemetery was green. Highgate was full of holly bushes, sprouted from Victorian funeral wreaths. It was festive, if you could manage the mind-flip required to think about Christmas in a cemetery. As he tried to focus on the vicar's words he heard foxes calling to each other nearby.

Our famous guide pointed out a patch of holly and reasoned that it probably wasn't the best time of year to see or hear the foxes. As holly is incongruous in a graveyard so too are a blanket of daffodils, which Audrey informed us surround the Cedar of Lebanon that grows out of the dug-out Circle of Lebanon in Spring.

Trees are prolific in Highgate cemetery and roots are uncompromising and powerful; we heard (also mentioned in Her Fearful Symmetry) of two trees whose roots grew up and under a grave stone and lifted it off the ground. The cemetery still works as a Christian graveyard and parts of it, including the Egyptian Avenue, are listed buildings that have to be preserved; the Friends of Highgate Cemetery manage its neglect (they invented the term "Managed Neglect"), allowing it to at once evolve naturally whilst also keeping it safe. We took a slight detour because there were some dangerous trees being cut down whilst we were there. In Her Fearful Symmetry, the presence of Highgate Cemetery as a natural site and a living (excuse the oxy-moron) museum is well depicted.

We were able to enter the catacombs beneath the Victorian Terrace and it was so eerily cold; the coldness is evoked well in the novel, like a chill from a mortuary, "Robert fancied that cold emanated from the inside of the mausoleum, as though it were a fridge."

By far the most atmospheric part of the cemetery for me was the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue below, which looks anciently exotic. Egyptian because in the 1830s all things Egyptian were popular and it became one the most desirable locations for burial of the eminent deceased of Victorian society); some of the tomb doors even have the prior upmarket addresses of some of its inhabitants. The Circle of Lebanon was the most coveted area of the cemetery to be laid to rest and it is here that the writer Radclyffe Hall is interred with her first lover (her second lover was supposed to be buried with them but she died in Rome).

Skimming back through the parts of Her Fearful Symmetry about Highgate Cemetery it amazes me how much it exists there in the book to experience, to see, to hear, to sense; Audrey Niffenegger has personified Highgate Cemetery so that it is a character and the book is as much about the cemetery as it is any of the people connected to it.

In the chapter "A Tour of Highgate Cemetery", the twins Julia and Valentina are part of the guided tour given by Robert (their deceased aunt's partner and their neighbour, with whom they have not yet been formally introduced) and all of the graves they saw I saw (the Rosettis are buried in a claustrophobic space that we didn't visit). The Julius Beer mausoleum built purposefully to obstruct the view from the roof of the Terrace Catacombs that Victorian society promenaded on (as a Jewish, self-made foreigner, Beer was never accepted) was of particular interest especially as we were able to look inside to the bas-relief of marble angels that Beer commissioned when his daughter died. Below is a photograph of the Beer Mausoleum (it is huge) with Audrey walking away after locking the door.

The tour was a fabulous experience and Audrey Niffenegger was charming, engaging and thoroughly informative. I highly enjoyed myself and fully intend to go back to visit one day as well as the Eastern Cemetery which you can tour at your own pace and freedom (and where many famous novelists are buried and Karl Marx). I would definitely recommend booking the tour if you ever have the opportunity and please feel free to ask any questions as I haven't covered everything (Darlene, there were no animals except for a lovely robin and a dozen squirrels in Waterlow park).

This week will be somewhat monopolised by Audrey as my review of Her Fearful Symmetry is scheduled for tomorrow and another related post will follow at the weekend. Below is the first photograph I took upon entering the path into Highgate Cemetery with one of many Victorian symbols; this one shows an empty chair, the vacancy of which signifies death (surely the gravestone signifies that but the Victorians liked their symbolic memorials).

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Teaser Wednesday

Last night and today I attended two Audrey Niffenegger events; one was a reading and signing event at the Bloomsbury Theatre in conjunction with Foyles bookshoop and the other was a guided tour of Highgate Cemetery by the author herself, which was a prize I won via Waterstone's bookshop. A written account will follow tomorrow but for just now I will tease you with a photograph from each.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

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

"In a nutshell, let's see Battle Royale is-you know how your usual pro wrestling match is one on one or between paired up partners, well with Battle Royale, ten or twenty wrestlers all jump into the ring. And then you're free to attack anyone, one on one, or ten against one, it doesn't matter."
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami p.12

Monday, 12 October 2009

Recent Acquisitions...

Books seem to be rapidly arriving in Paperback_Reader abode despite having a book-buying ban in place. I have been good though and only purchased one of the books above myself and that was a pre-order declared in my previous related post. In the interest of full disclosure, however, there is one little book that I did splurge on, which will appear in my next acquisitions post once it arrives (although to be fair it was a) very cheap b) a collector's item c) all Verity's fault...)

So, thank you to bloggers and publishers for funding (and fueling) my seemingly at-least-four-per-week book habit! This week I received:

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood was kindly sent to me from Alice at Bloomsbury, and is my first review copy from them, which is very exciting. I am undecided whether to read Oryx and Crake first of all as they are set in the same world; I have been assured that they work independently from one another but the dilemma remains.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon was sent to me by the lovely Nat of In Spring it is the Dawn for successfully suggesting the name of her new Japanese-orientated project, Hello Japan (an allusion to Hello Kitty as well as embracing the concept of discovering all things Japanese each month). Nat kindly offered me a Japanese book of my choice and although tempted by many I settled on The Pillow Book, which is "one of the greatest works of Japanese literature". Aptly I learned about this book on In Spring it is the Dawn, the blog name coming from the opening lines of the classic title.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë was a fabulous surprise from Annabel of Gaskella for suggesting the name of her "Season of the Living Dead" theme (I've been lucky with suggesting names this month!) Wuthering Heights is a classic that I have never read and I have mentioned recently here and on other blogs my intent to at long last read it; this season is perfect for doing so and the edition that Annabel sent me is certainly topical. Have you seen it? If you zoom in on the cover you will see the stamp-of-approval that reads "Bella and Edward's Favourite Book", alluding to the lovers from the Twilight series. I have seen outraged posts and comments about this marketing ploy but I actually think it was a wise way for HarperCollins to use the cult vampire franchise to boost their own sales. My reasoning is that if it encourages devoted fans (especially those of the romantic teen girl variety) to pick up a classic and read it because Bella and Edward like it, then at least they are reading something well-written and less vapid (and before any of you try to stake me, this is from the mouth of a Twilight afficionado who read the books like they were oxygen).

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson was sent to by the lovely Julia of Lady in the Dark (do have a read of her blog; it is lovely). I took an interest in one of Julia's recent posts about Eva Ibbotson as I have been meaning to read her for some time and very kindly sent me a duplicate copy of one of her books so now I can. Madensky Square, which appears to be out-of-print, sounds enchanting and I am looking forward to reading it. Is anyone else an Eva Ibbotson fan?

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill - which should be subtitled "beware the superfluous apostrophes when writing about this book"! Lastly we have one of the most anticipating books of this half of the year (at least across the blogosphere!) and one that I first learned about -and then a couple of times more, and once in person- from Simon T of Stuck-in-a-Book (his review of the book can be read here). I coveted this book instantly, as I do most books about books, but the premise is one that I am sure as bibliophiles with excessive amounts of books in our book-loving homes, we dream about. The actual subtitle of the book is "A Year of Reading From Home"; Susan Hill embarked -beginning one afternoon when she could not locate an elusive book on her shelves but managed to find many more that she had intended to read but hadn't yet and some she had desired to reread but hadn't done so- "on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again." Doesn't it sound delightful? Here is a wonderful quote from the inside dust-jacket that sums up my expectations for this book, "A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life." I know that this book is going to enchant but regrettably -due to outstanding reading commitments this week- I am not going to read it yet but will hold it tight at the end of the week; my boyfriend will be away from home this weekend and I simply can't think of a better way to console myself (unless it also involves wine and chocolate).

Have you received anything as exciting over the last week?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Quickening Maze

Of the 2009 Man Booker contenders, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was the book that I anticipated the most and I left reading it until last. The blending of fact with fiction and the literary appropriation of history excited me; although historical novels were a recurring feature on this year's Booker lists, The Quickening Maze was the one that initially appealed.

Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum - an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum's owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen. [from dust-jacket]

I knew little of Tennyson and even less of Clare before reading. This is a creative and deft exploration of madness. In nineteenth century Epping Forest, the lives of the great poets are imaginatively vividly rendered and Clare's insanity most of all. Rewriting the poems of Byron whilst in the asylum, Clare -in the novel- believed he was Byron and in his mind's decline confused his child love, Mary, whom he hallucinated, with the many Marys that Byron loved.

Foulds is a poet himself but I never found the prose overly-poetic; beautiful words, yes, but accessible, simple, and a demonstrable love-affair with language. Structured through seven seasons with short vignettes and shifting narratives, the novel is very accomplished but I was never fully engaged; I enjoyed the novel but I wasn't captivated. The characters, although interesting, didn't gel for me. The Quickening Maze is a very subtle novel that intelligently blurs the lines between fact and fiction; it is beautifully written and crafted but some of its genius and strong themes could easily be missed in its gentle style. Its power though lies in the raw and intense evocation of the peasant poet's descent into madness and the other characters movement into futility and hopelessness. For fans of Clare and Tennyson and of course those of beautiful prose then this will be a flawless and enjoyable read but for those of us who enjoy compelling narrative and characters, this is somewhat lacking.

[Tennyson upon being asked his opinion of Byron's poetry] 'I remember when he died. I was a lad. I walked out into the woods full of distress at the news. It was the thought of all he hadn't yet written, all bright inside him, being lost for ever, lowered into darkness for eternity. I was most gloomy and despondent. I scratched his name onto a rock, a sandstone rock. It must still be there, I should think.'

The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.

She lay in her open grave, miles down, with the sharp voices of the places like dim clouds far above. She lay as still as she could. Her heart kept up its hateful slow tread in her chest. Warm tears that gave no relief now and then rolled into her ears, stopped, started again.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Beige Shelf

The beige shelf is just for fun; I noticed that I possessed a number of beige and cream books in my collection and I thought it would be interesting to see how effective they were en masse.

Penguin seem particularly inclined to use this shade for their books, single editions as well as the inexpensive classics and the Shakespeare series. Virago apparently like to employ a range of rainbow colours in for their covers, which explains why I have a couple of Viragoes on each rainbow shelf so far (well, that and the fact that I love Virago titles). On this shelf there is also the obligatory Angela Carter novels (this time edited by her); a seminal piece of feminist fiction, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong; some more drama (Irish as opposed to Shakespearean); a beloved Children's literature classic; and a good selection of modern literary fiction including works by two of my favourite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. I also have to make special mention of one of my best reads this year: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice; I read a library copy but managed to pick up a pristine copy for a very good price in a remainders shop a couple of months ago.

Does this shelf pop for you, do you find it striking or altogether too beige?