Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Complete Maus

If you read one graphic novel then let it be The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. Theordor W. Adorno wrote that to "write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric" but later retracted it by stating that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream"; Maus is not poetry, it is a graphic novel (well, two graphic novels), and a novel approach to writing the Holocaust. Cynics say that to win Oscars all you have to do is direct or act in a Holocaust movie and the same can apply to literary prizes; Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize (Special Mention) for Maus but I don't think he appropriated his father's experiences in Auschwitz for success and acclaim but in an attempt to understand and record.

Chapters one to six of Maus Volume I: A Survivor's Tale (My Father Bleeds History) and chapters one to four of Maus Volume II: And Here My Trouble Began first appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1991; Raw was an acclaimed magazine of avant-garde comics and graphics of which Spiegelman was co-founder and editor. Maus Volume I contained a graphic novel within a graphic novel, the short 'Prisoner of the Hell Planet', which originally appeared in Short Order Comix #1, in 1973.

Spiegelman employs an extended metaphor throughout The Complete Maus of anthromorphisation with Jews as mice (hence the German word for mouse as the title) and Nazis as cats; other cutesy animals appear but the horrific scale of the game of cat and mouse is pronounced in Spiegelman's use of literary device. Furthermore, mice represent the Nazi notion of Jews as vermin and this metaphor becomes more detailed and complicated in the second volume, eventually breaking down (Spiegelman intentionally destroying the separation of humans along race-lines) when he depicts himself as human wearing a mouse mask and self-consciously referring to his metaphor. To say that the account of Vladek's, Spiegelman's father, experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust and his recollections of his time is harrowing is an understatement. However, to my mind, Holocaust literature is necessary and The Complete Maus is highly effective in its juxtaposition of the graphic novel form and the events it is recounting in art.

Due to previous Holocaust reading, Spiegelman didn't inform me of anything new in the core subject matter but I greatly appreciated what he had to say in regards to the nature of guilt as both a survivor and the offspring of survivors. Artie and Vladek did not have the best of relationships but how can you connect with your parents when they have experienced the unfathomable? I also admired how Spiegelman portrayed his father as someone you didn't necessarily sympathise with, emphasising that it was not the worthy who survived the Holocaust but the lucky. To strip back such dark, essential themes to literally black and white boxes had me in awe of Spiegelman.

To say much more would come across as trite but suffice to say that Spiegelman never trivialises Vladek's experiences but articulates them with brutal honesty and creativity that emphasises rather than detracts from the horror whilst also presenting it through an accessible medium. The Complete Maus isn't entirely harrowing but does have moments of humour especially in Vladek's later life when he is remarried to Mala and living in New York; Vladek is an often stingy and once shockingly racist elderly man whose metabiography makes thought-provoking and challenging reading.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

Hi all! I took a long weekend off from posting as we had visitors and I was simply too busy. I could have scheduled posts but I needed a mini blog break. I'm off home this weekend for a long weekend and undecided still whether I will post or not; normal service will resume after that, if I do take another break. Sorry for not announcing it in advance but I temporarily lost my motivation. I'll also try and catch up on my Google Reader but I can't make any promises - especially next week! Anyway, you know how it is.

Today is another mish-mash of a post but I want to share this site for anybody seeking out literary-themed gifts, either to give or to add to their own Christmas wish-list. I am coveting the literary cats notecards.

Today marks the beginning of a new mini meme from me to combine with Teaser Tuesdays. A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers, or at least ask you a weekly literary question. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Beloved Children's Books section:

What animal does the Little Prince first ask the pilot to draw for him?

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

"She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us."
From "An Ex-mas Feast" in Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Recent Arrivals

I haven't bought a book for two months (and that one was a slip) as I am a) trying to conserve funds b) trying to get on top of my spiralling-out-of-control TBR piles and shelves and library. So there has been less recent acquisitions and arrivals to post about. However, a few books have made it into Paperback_Reader abode in the meantime, with a few more expected, and I thought I would share some of them with you. Two of these I mentioned in my post yesterday: Say You're One of Them and Manja, which very kindly came from Frances of Nonsuch Book and a LibraryThing member and reader of my blog, respectively.

The other two arrivals are another Persephone (Classic), The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein and Virago Modern Classic, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. The former book I used an Amazon US giftcard to purchase (the irony of purchasing a Persephone from across the pond does not escape me) and the latter was sent by the lovely Sophie of Virago at my request.

These books could not be more different: one is South African nonfiction that tells of the ordeal the author experienced when her husband was trialed (but acquitted) along with Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC in the infamous Rivonia trial of 1964; the other is a novel described as "salacious", "sordid" and "wicked" with an opening line that has the potential to make you blush. These two surely are proof of my reading eclecticism; I am at once excited about getting my teeth stuck into apartheid writing and an addictive soap-opera novel.

Have you received anything recently that excites you? Which of my arrivals are you most looking forward to reading about or reading yourself?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Trip home

I'm going home for a long weekend next week to visit family and friends; I have a friend visiting from overseas so it will be a busy time with a belated Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by lunches, coffees and drinks plus some quality time with my parents, sister and my cat, Mandoo. I probably won't have much reading time except for when I'm at the airport and flying up but nonetheless that does not prevent me from planning which books I am taking with me. Whenever I venture out, I have a book in my bag as I like to be prepared for all eventualities and potential reading time. For four nights at home I am conservatively packing two books -preferably chunky ones- but I have books at home, some of which I am planning to bring back with me.

Now this is where you come in. I have a shortlist of potential reads to take with me but I am having difficulty deciding between them. Which would you recommend/suggest travel with me?

What is the What by Dave Eggers: this comes highly recommended by Claire of Kiss a Cloud. The copy I have is from the library so reading it is time-sensitive. 560 pages.

Synopsis: At the heart of this astonishing novel is a true story of courage and endurance in the face of one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever known. Valentino Achak Deng is just a boy when conflict separates him from his family and forces him to leave his small Sudanese village, joining thousands of other orphans on their long, long walk to Ethiopia, where they find safety - for a time. Along the way Valentino encounters enemy soldiers, liberation rebels and deadly militias, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation. But there are experiences ahead that will test his spirit in even greater ways than these...Truly epic in scope, and told with expansive humanity, deep compassion and unexpected humour, What is the What is an eye-opening account of life amid the madness of war and an unforgettable tale of tragedy and triumph.

Manja by Anna Gmeyer: the latest Persephone to pique my curiosity, a reader very kindly sent me a copy of my own. 552 pages.

Written in London by a young Austrian playwright in exile, Manja opens, radically, with five conception scenes one night in 1920. Set in the turbulent Germany of the Weimar Republic, it goes on, equally dramatically, to describe the lives of the children and their families until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. 'What is so unusual,' wrote the playwright Berthold Viertel in 1938, 'is the way the novel contrasts the children's community - in all its idealism, romanticism, decency and enchantment - with the madhouse community of the adults.'

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan: Frances of Nonsuch Book sent me a copy of this collection of short stories after I won a give-away on her blog. This is garnering a lot of attention on the blogosphere and otherwise just now, not least because it is the latest choice of Oprah's Book Club. I actually had a copy borrowed from the library but was so glad that I could return it when I received my own copy. 384 pages.

Synopsis: 'Nothing interests Maman today, not even Jean, her favorite child ...She acts dumb, bewitched, like a goat that the neighborhood children have fed sorghum beer.' This extraordinary collection ranges from the depiction of a street family's poverty in Kenya, illegal trading of children in Gabon to inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria and Ethiopia and the terrible situation faced by a mixed Hutu-Tsutsi family in Rwanda. Say You're One of Them is fiction with real emotional punch and told from the viewpoints of children - the innocent victims - is powerful, vivid and deeply moving. Uwem Akpan's ability to capture a child's imagination and his skilful portrayal of the situations they have to endure makes this a truly compelling read.

This book comes with both a caveat and a concern. JoAnn of Lakeside Musing recommends taking this collection slowly, perhaps a story at a time, as it is emotionally draining so perhaps it is not the best choice for a short break. Furthermore, I would prefer not to read this consecutively with What is the What due to similar subject matter.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch: I have been meaning to read Iris Murdoch for some time and she comes highly recommended by Naomi of Bloomsbury Bell (the "bell" of her blog name is taken from this title) who suggested I start here. 352 pages.

Synopsis: Dora Greenfield, erring wife, returns to live with her husband in a lay community encamped outside Imber Abbey, home to a mysterious enclosed order of nuns. Watched over by its devout director and the discreet authority of the wise old Abbess, Imber Court is a haven for lost souls seeking tranquility. But then the lost Abbey bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered, and hidden truths and desires are forced into the light.

Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman: I have been wanting to read this book for several months and seeing as I am going home to Glasgow, it seems a perfect choice. 432 pages.

Synopsis: Rejected by his brother and largely ignored by his parents, Kieron Smith finds comfort - and endless stories - in the home of his much-loved grandparents. But when his family move to a new housing scheme on the outskirts of Glasgow, a world away from the close community of the tenements, Kieron struggles to find a way to adapt to his new life. Kieron Smith, boy is a brilliant evocation of an urban childhood. Capturing the joys, frustrations, injustices, excitements, revels, battles, games, uncertainties, questions, lies, discoveries and sheer of wonder of boyhood, it is a story of one boy and every boy. It is James Kelman at his very best.

There are a couple more contenders -including a book or two that may or may not turn up before I go- but these are the front-runners. Any opinions either way? If this is me planning for a long weekend, think what I'll be like in the lead-up to Christmas when I'll be spending two weeks at home!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


Bibliofreak is hosting an Everything Austen mini-challenge to win an action figure Jane Austen! The challenge is to write a six-word story (or haiku but I've stuck to story) describing any Austen novel or Juvenilia.

This was fun! I created five instead of one - can you guess which Austenite works these six-story lines each describe? Care to try yourself?

Gothic pastiche with love thrown in.

Epistolary freindship and parody; misspelling Austen's.

Universal truth: women seek rich husbands.

Matchmaking often results in broken hearts.

Pride and Prejudice for mature lovers.

In other news, I ordered my Persephone Secret Santa gift for me Santee last week and that should be winging its way to them now; I also received the name for my Book Blogger Holiday Swap recipient yesterday and planning what to send to them. I love planning bookish gifts for fellow bloggers! Choosing books for other people that you hope they enjoy is incredibly exciting.

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

"Belinda was thankful Agatha was out of hearing. 'Yes, I thought the cakes were lovely."
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym p. 34

Monday, 16 November 2009

I Am a Cat Vol.1

I am a Cat. As yet I have no name.

I Am a Cat by
Sōseki Natsume began as a short story, which makes up chapter one of Volume one, but due to its success was extended into a three-volume book that is now a Japanese classic. Highly readable, I Am a Cat is narrated by a nameless stray who observes human nature. Amusing and delightfully originally, the satire and allegory are presently beyond me after only reading Volume one but I am looking forward to delving in deeper and learning more about the history, culture and society of the Meiji era (the installments of I Am a Cat first appeared between 1905 and 1906).

I Am a Cat is a scathing, observed piece that is very much a comedy of manners and intellect. The narrator -let's call him Neko- ingratiates himself into the household of an English teacher and his family with many scholarly friends of the schoolteacher visiting regularly and telling tall tales that the cat recounts. The device of cat as narrator is used cleverly as he is omniscient in his pride of listening place in a lap, privy to household conversations, and also, as a cat, can sneak undetected into other houses to eavesdrop on his light paw-steps.

Of course I am a cat-lover and I love to read about cats. Truth be told, I am a little cat obsessed and I highly enjoy the cat's meanderings and antics. I thought that this book would be the perfect companion read to I Am a Cat and I am coveting it accordingly.

I am enjoying the accessible, gentle and witty style of I Am a Cat and look forward to the subsequent volumes. Discussion of the first volume can be read at the dedicated read-along page at In Spring it is the Dawn.

A particularly favourite quote from this volume:

"He has no secret vices, but he is totally abandoned in the way he buys book after book, never to read a single one. I wouldn't mind if he used his head and bought in moderation, but no. Whenever the mood takes him, he ambles off to the biggest bookshop in the city and brings back home as many books as chance to catch his fancy. Then, at the end of the month, he adopts an attitude of complete detachment. At the end of last year, for instance, I had a terrible time coping with the bill that had been accumulating month after month."

Sunday, 15 November 2009


... what do you think this pile of seemingly disparate books have in common with one another?
The person who guesses correctly will win a little something.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


I've just found out that on Monday of next week (17th) there is a 90-minute biopic of Enid Blyton starring Helena Bonham Carter in the title role airing on BB4 (apologies to those without access to the BBC or iplayer). More information about the programme can be found here. Enid Blyton's books were a huge part of my childhood and I would love to know more about the woman herself as I know little, if anything. I do know that I regularly pass a blue plaque commemorating her in Dulwich, South-East London, where she lived as a child. My first Enid Blyton books -the first few Famous Five- were bought by my aunt in the children's department of Harrod's on a visit I made to London many years ago, which is a fond memory. I am interested that this biopic focuses on her dual challenging roles of mother and writer, especially after having recently read a fictionalised account of that same struggle in The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. This biopic is part of a three-part series entitled Women we Loved devoted to iconic artistic females in Britain: Enid Blyton, Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn; I am excited to see how the careers of these women and the issues they face are conveyed onscreen.

I know that after viewing Enid I will be wanting to reread some of my beloved Blyton favourites, most likely the school stories.

The below still of Enid having a picnic with young readers makes me want lashings and lashings of ginger beer.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Well and the Mine

"After she the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash."

Earlier in the week I teased you with the above opening lines to The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. It's an opener that immediately catches your attention and Virago have marketed the book well by quoting those two effective lines on the front cover. Without knowing anything about the book, you're not sure what those two lines mean but you know it can't be good; you may even guess that the splash comes from the well referred to in the novel's title and you would be correct in your surmise. The Well and the Mine is about the closely-knitted Moore family in a small coal-mining town, Carbon Hill, in Alabama. The novel opens with a unknown woman throwing a baby into the Moore family's well whilst Tess, nine-year-old middle child, watches on from the back porch.

A shocking act of seeming barbarity is the impetus given to propel a novel about everyday family life and struggle in the Depression-era South into a novel that challenges the characters' perspectives and commonly-held beliefs. The Well and the Mine is an authentic evocation of the rural South that rivals the best-loved of Southern literature. Although driven by the opening event as the family come to terms with the tragedy, each in their own way, the novel is equally about their way of life as it is about the mystery of the woman at the well; it is a story about family and being compelled to think differently when confronted with an act of unfathomable inhumanity. Being set in the American South, the novel also predictably tackles themes of race and endemic racism in a way that, although unoriginal, was challenging to the characters and, in my opinion, beautifully done. The Well and the Mine is gently told despite the horrific opener and I enjoyed its period detail and focus on the cruelty and danger of the coal-mines. There are also some wonderfully crafted lines of prose with intelligent and imaginative insights that immersed me in the story; I enjoyed the conversational style of the writing as much as the illumination it provided.

Structured through alternating passages told from the perspective of each of the five members of the Moore family, insight is given into the different compartmentalised areas of family life. The narrative didn't always work for me as I found some characters better characterised than others and found that one narrative strand did not fit (the character's perspective is given from the future so their reminiscences are outwith the time period of everyone else and when something happens to that character you know they are going to survive). However, I particularly enjoyed seeing events through the eyes of Tess, a child, and her older sister, Virgie, who is on the cusp of womanhood; I also thought that some of the passages from the point-of-view of their father, Albert, were the most beautiful, juxtaposed against the backdrop of an uncompromising life in the mine. Phillips is economical in her use of emotionally-charged scenes; the opening scene is intense enough to resonate throughout the novel with subtler, tender moments of realisation. instead. This is a novel very much about the best and worst of human nature and of people doing their best in harsh times.

The Well and the Mine is a well-written and engaging debut novel that, at first, struggled to be published; publisher after publisher in the U.S. rejected the manuscript until small-press, Hawthorne (in Oregon), published it. Gin Phillips has since won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, with Penguin US subsequently picking up the paperback rights and Virago printing it here in the UK. I predict hearing more about this novel, potentially when next year's Orange Prize for Fiction longlist goes to press.

Favourite passages:

My mama died when I was four, and I remember her laying there with blood soaking the sheets and the sweat not even dried off her face. I saw the baby she'd had die two days later, its face blue and its body shrunk like a dried peach. I've seen men carried home from the mines with eyes torn out and arms just about ripped clean off still hanging by pieces of skin. None of it stuck in my head like that little swollen thing that used to be a baby hanging over the side of our water bucket.

But you work shoulder to shoulder with a man, push his cars with him, he pushes yours, that changes how you look at things. A few years back, five men were burned to cinders in a gas explosion, and when the bodies got brought out, they was all black as coal. There'd be a Negro woman and a white woman staring at the same body. When your wives stand next to each other trying to sort out if one of those charred logs is their husband, that means something.

I was not happy with that baby for turning me inside out, and I wasn't really inclined to help him out none. It seemed like he might be nicer to me - maybe give me dreams of soda crackers and peanut butter and lemonade - if he wanted me to comfort him. But then again, maybe if we gave him a name and a mama and a house and a life, maybe he would let go of our well. And then it would be mine again.

Little, Brown (of which Virago is an imprint) approached me a few months ago about reviewing The Well and the Mine and sent me a proof copy and updated it this week with the published edition (released November 5th); I am so very glad that they did.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Will Blog for Comments

Today's blog post is somewhat of a departure for me and the title very much tongue-in-cheek. I have noticed recently that there has been a decline in the comments I receive but that the number of visitors I receive daily has increased. I find this curious and intriguing; I wonder how many readers I have that don't comment and whether there is anything I can write or do that will induce them to introduce themselves. I also worry that I am somehow losing regular commenters through something that I am writing or not writing, as the case may be. Now I know that some of the familiar faces amongst my readers are no longer regularly blogging due to life commitments, which is perfectly reasonable but I do worry that I am engaging others less in recent Paperback Reader posts, hence the lack of impetus for them to comment.

As an example, yesterday I wrote a post on Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which promptly garnered a response of seven positive comments that were enthusiastic about my thoughts but those were the only seven comments that I received to date... Now I know that this could have been for a variety of reasons: the subject matter of the text, the fact that many people have reviewed it previously, that it is a book-review as opposed to bookish chat post but I am concerned that I am not engaging my readers enough and this is reflected in the lack of interaction. I chose the Wolf Hall post because the feedback I received complimented me on the review I wrote but I also know that one of the posts I have received the most comments on was my most controversial (and negative) post yet. There seems to be no correlation between popular posts (in the terms of writing and promotion of a book) and the number of comments received - is this normal or coincidental?

I do not blog for comments. I blog for myself as I enjoy a personal-space to write and to share my thoughts on books but I also enjoy being part of the bookish community. Am I alienating myself from that in some way? I suppose I wouldn't have a high readership if people weren't enjoying what I had to say but I would like to hear from you and what you do and don't like about my book blog. I will not compromise the content as I write honestly about books and bookish matters that interest me but I am willing to read constructive criticism and learn why you do or do not comment on my blog. Feedback of any kind is always accepted and if you are too shy to comment then feel free to email me.

eta: I'd like to say a big HI and thank you to Diana who sent me a lovely email to say that she enjoys my blog. I am thankful to everyone who takes the time to read my posts daily or saves them to read later, whether they comment or not.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wolf Hall

I will hold up my hands and admit that I had preconceptions about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The Tudor period of history was not one that I had much prior knowledge of, excluding the names involved, nor one that interested me; truth be told, I expected it to be as turgid a reading experience as The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (my thoughts on that book can be read here). Although big books don't normally faze me, I found Wolf Hall daunting; I tried to put aside my negative feelings towards the book but from the outset -and the seven pages of the cast of characters and family trees- that appeared to be a challenge. However, a few pages in and I had set my prejudices aside and was engaged in the story of Thomas Cromwell, protagonist of Wolf Hall. Cromwell is not often portrayed sympathetically but Mantel creates a compelling hero in him and conveys a loyal man and subject. The novel, although preliminarily beginning with his early life, follows his rise from Cardinal Wolsey's man to confidante of King Henry VIII; chiefly Mantel charts the years 1527-35 and Cromwell's influential hand in the annulment of the King's marriage with Katherine of Aragon and his subsequent union to Anne Boleyn as well as the early stages of the Reformation.

Wolf Hall is overly-long; I state the obvious about a heavy 650 pages tome but it does drag and lag in parts. Some of the dialogue could definitely have been cut without detracting from the plot but the minute attention to detail weaves an intricate tapestry of the time. I was fully immersed in the period and have gone from having no discernible history in the era to now seeking out The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl to fuel my need for more.

Set in a period where flesh burns and heads roll, Wolf Hall has an engaging plot to propel it forward although I found it lost steam during the last 150-pages or so; once Anne had been installed as (current) consort and the attention was on the imprisonment of Sir Thomas More, my attention waned. The historical events are meticulously researched and often the prose became bogged down in the sheer wealth of information presented; I preferred the less rigid factual detail and instead the insight given into life at court. The bawdy (sixty years at least before Shakespeare) was entertaining with a lot of sex and sexual gossip or innuendo; everyone was apparently sleeping with everyone else, extra-maritally or occasionally incestuously (not incest as it is considered nowadays but the morally ambiguous sleeping with the sibling of a dead -and sometimes living- spouse or the wife of your son). Many parts were humorous with jokes about everyone being named Thomas and if they are not then they are seemingly named Henry I thought that this brought out Mantel's love for the period yet also a sense of humour about the historical facts she was presenting.

I have seen across a number of reviews people's issue with Mantel using "he" continually as a pronoun and confusion over whom she was referring to; I had no problem with this and found it obvious that it was Cromwell, unless otherwise stated. I find it curious that this was not apparent to more people but perhaps I had a better understanding of her style being forewarned. As for the writing itself, the prose is not glowing but it does transport and convey. However, if unlike me, you are aware of the story being told, then the book may fail to captivate you. I seem to enjoy historical fiction when I have no -or little- knowledge of the facts unveiled; I may have enjoyed The Children's Book more if any of what Byatt had told us had been new to me. Mantel was instructive in my case and she intrigued me. My only other criticism is that the title Wolf Hall shifts focus from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour, but that I am sure will be taken up in the intended sequel.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

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

"After she threw the baby in. nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash."
Opening lines of The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Babysitters Club

My Friend Amy is hosting a week's events in honour of The Babysitters Club series of books written by Ann M. Martin. I signed up to post today as the series of books were integral to my reading experience as a child. Between the ages of ten and twelve I devoured all of the books that were then published, which added up to seventy of the core series (funnily enough, they were ghost-written from just before that time) and ten of the Super Specials, which I adored. The only other series that I was likewise addicted to was the Sweet Valley Twins series by Francine Pascal, which I read at the same time, before I moved into my teens and onto Point Horror and the logical progression into Stephen King novels and my adult reading.

Regrettably all of BSC books that I owned as a child were left in a huge box in the attic of my old family home when my parents moved house along with almost all of my other books from childhood; if I had had any to hand I would have reread a couple in preparation for this week but I suspect that they would have lost the magic they held for me and perhaps it is better to cherish the memories. I read the books at a formative time but gradually grew out of them although I will always be attached to them.

I came across this fascinating article dedicated to the books on Mental Floss a few months ago, which was a lovely trip down memory lane and quite intriguing. I pity the poor intern/editorial assistant at Scholastic who had to create each handwritten BSC notebook entry for each individual member! For a while I too dotted my "i"s with hearts like Stacey to the chagrin of my teacher that year.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters and although I couldn't compare myself in entirety to any of them, I most identified with Claudia and Stacey, who were my favourite characters. I think that the appeal of the babysitters was their universality; there were attributes of each that one could recognise in oneself and I don't think that any of them was solely a "type". Claudia Kishi's artistic creativity and her funky wardrobe were things I aspired for myself but not her atrocious spelling! Another fun BSC-themed Mental Floss feature is this diverting quiz: Kishi Creation or Fashionista Flop? I did quite well, even sixteen years on from reading the books!

By far I enjoyed the extended Super Specials more than any individual book and I reread these over and over. Oh how I wished to be an American middle-schooler from Stoneybrook, Connecticut, going to summer camp and ski lodges! The Babysitters Club books undoubtedly began my long obsession and love affair with Disneyworld and New York City; last year I finally visited Disneyworld for the first time but NYC still remains destination number one (the first special featured the babysitters on a cruise to Florida and the Bahamas and the sixth, New York! New York!, saw them visiting Stacey's father in her home-city).

I noticed recently that Graphix, a division of Scholastic, have produced graphic novels of four of the earliest TBC titles. Apparently these are contemporary yet faithful illustrated versions of the books, beginning with Kristy's Great Idea. This modern update of a series that defines part of my childhood intrigues me; I approve of attempts to bring the series to the bookshelves and library loans of a new generation of young girls.

One last point: I LOVED the UK cover-design of the books! The logo for which I had included above but here is a link to one of my favourite Super Specials (the quality is quite poor, otherwise I would have included it in post); each of the covers provided the window-glimpse into a scene from the novel, whether it be the group or the individual babysitter the book revolved around.

Were you a fan of The Babysitters Club or were your children or siblings? What was your favourite aspect of the series?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Penguin Modern Classics

Do you remember my silver bookshelf? If you do (or if you click on the link to refresh your memory) you will know that I possess silver Penguin Modern Classics in abundance and have more than an entire shelf-full. Of the newer white Penguin Modern Classics I have only added three -photographed above- to my collection this year and two only because they are new releases and unavailable in the silver.

I do like the new white Penguins but mainly for their tactility; the paper is pleasant to the touch and I like the matte finish. Aesthetically though I prefer the glossy silver Penguins. I have tried to convey with my choices above the richness and diversity of the cover art (photographs and paintings) available in the silver; in my opinion the bottom Penguins pop more as they are vivid and striking whilst the white ones above are muted. Granted, the white ones have a more classic and uniform design and I do like the boldness of the author and title. I'm not sure ... is it change that I am averse to? I admire Penguin's development through the years and their trailblazing progress in book cover design but are the white Penguins really more modern and fresh than the silver? Are we as consumers more attracted to an understated, classic design nowadays or do we not judge by the book cover at all?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Anyone for Pyms?

I have discussed Barbara Pym and the funky new Virago Modern Classics editions of her work in a previous post. Since then I have accumulated two more titles, Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings (the latter forthcoming in December), which Virago generously sent me. I now have a lovely little stockpile of Pym novels, which excites me as I have the feeling that I am going to love them and delight in Pym's ironic tone. What does concern me, however, is that I don't know where to start; I fully intended to read Excellent Women during November as I have heard that this is her best book but do I really want to start with the best? Isn't it more enjoyable to build up to the best novel in an author's canon and start with her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, instead?

Please help! I desperately want to read one novel at least from the those above this month and value your input. This doesn't have to be based on personal experience, if you have none, but from the synopses below please vote which one you would read if given the choice.

Jane and Prudence: If Prudence Bates and Jane Cleveland seem an unlikely pair to be walking together at a reunion of old students in Oxford, neither of them is aware of it. Born a decade apart, their pupil and tutor relationship has circumscribed their lives and cemented their friendship.

No Fond Return of Love: Dulcie Mainwearing is always helping others, but never looks out for herself - especially in the realm of love. Her friend Viola is besotted by the alluring Dr Aylwin Forbes, so surely it isn't prying if Dulcie helps things along? Aylwin, however, is smitten by Dulcie's pretty young niece. And perhaps Dulcie herself, however ridiculous it may be, is falling, just a little, for Aylwin. Once life's little humiliations are played out, maybe love will be returned, and fondly, after all...

Some Tame Gazelle: 'It was odd that Harriet should always have been so fond of curates. They were so immature and always made the same kind of conversation. Now the Archdeacon was altogether different ...' Together yet alone, the Misses Bede occupy the central crossroads of parish life. Harriet, plump, elegant and jolly, likes nothing better than to make a fuss of new curates, secure in the knowledge that elderly Italian Count Ricardo Bianco will propose to her yet again this year. Belinda, meanwhile has harboured sober feelings of devotion towards Archdeacon Hochleve for thirty years. Then into their quiet, comfortable lives comes a famous librarian, Nathaniel Mold, and a bishop from Africa, Theodore Grote - who each take to calling on the sisters for rather more unsettling reasons.

Excellent Women: Mildred Lathbury is one of those 'excellent women' who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, 'capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather'. As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people's lives - especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest and most touching.

A Glass of Blessings: Wilmet Forsyth is well dressed, well looked after, suitably husbanded, good looking and fairly young - but very bored. Her husband Rodney, a handsome army major, is slightly balder and fatter than he once was. Wilmet would like to think she has changed rather less. Her interest wanders to the nearby Anglo-catholic church, where at last she can neglect her comfortable household in the more serious-minded company of three unmarried priests, and, of course, Piers Longridge, a man of an unfathomably different character altogether.

What do you think? I'm at a loss and may resort to playing eeny meeny miny mo without your assistance... Which -if any- are you most intrigued by and does Barbara Pym appeal to you as a writer?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Animal Farm

These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them into rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak, as she had protected the lost brood of ducklings with her foreleg on the night of Major's speech. Instead-she did not know why-they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.

I didn't read Animal Farm by George Orwell at school nor did I manage to fit the novella into my reading in the ten years since so when Nineteen Eighty-Four was chosen for this month's book group, and I had an opportunity to re-read it, I seized the opportunity to read Animal Farm at the same time as a companion piece.

The satirical allegory of Communism and the scathing attack on Stalin in literary form is an intelligently crafted piece; it is also blackly humorous in parts, which I did not expect. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four it is dystopian fiction at its finest but I would say that Animal Farm is better done. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is terrifying in its nighmarish future imaginings, the totalitarianism of Animal Farm is brutal in its portrayed corruption of the greedy, myopic leaders of Animal Farm, the pigs.

The Manor Farm run by the cruel farmer Jones is subject to rebellion when the farmland animals rise up against their dictator. Upon the success of their revolt, the farm is renamed Animal Farm and the animals live in harmony for a little while working the farm under the leadership of two of the pigs, Snowball and Napoleon (Trotsky and Stalin, respectively) but with the philosophy that all animals are equal. Napoleon overthrows Snowball with the help of the army of dogs that he has raised from pups and quickly becomes tyrant of the farm. Napoleon has the support of the other pigs, notably Squealer who acts as propagandist and manipulator; Squealer's twisting of the truth are the parts that I found most alarming and yet conversely also the most amusing as he is a typical political spin-doctor.

This is an intensely clever novella and I am glad that I finally read it. Until now I knew the premise of Animal Farm and its cultural significance but did not fully appreciate its historical -as well as literary- importance. This is a skillful and powerful political satire and I urge you to read it if you have not already.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I was in a bookshop with Simon T of Stuck in a Book last month and one of us picked up or pointed out the newly reissued, latest dust-jacket art of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I commented that I read it about a decade ago but that it was fairly fresh in my mind. The following evening, at book group, it was suggested as November's book. I decided to reread it for the less salient details but I found that the majority of it had remained with me.

Tonight is our book group meeting but due to a sudden family event I am unable to attend; instead, I am scheduling this post to publish whilst the others will be discussing the book. I look forward to reading what the others think and how the discussion went from tomorrow onwards. For most of us it was a reread so it will be an interesting dynamic. I didn't think that Nineteen Eighty-Four suffered any reading it second-time-around although I did find the first half of the third section quite dry although Room 101 was just as effective (albeit without the shock-factor).

I love Dystopian literature and the Orwellian model is the father of the Science Fiction sub-genre; I recall it as the first Dystopian novel that I read and it still resonates, especially as it has been immersed into popular culture and contemporary vernacular (which we should just call everydayspeak and have done with it). Orwell's nightmarish vision of the futuristic totalitarian government, the oligarchical inner party of Big Brother with their oxymoronic party slogans, may be outdated in the age of technology but its claustrophobic society of surveillance, where not only Big Brother via the telescreens but everyone else is watching you and waiting to betray you by accusing you of thoughtcrime, is still effective and disturbing.

Winston Smith, protagonist of Nineteen Eighteen-Four, is a member of the outer party who perpetuates party propaganda by altering historical documents so that the past becomes fiction. Meanwhile Winston is in inner turmoil, rebelling against Big Brother without actually doing anything until he meets Julia. Winston is not an orthodox party member, devoted to Big Brother; nor is he an acute threat to Big Brother. His passivity infuriates me but what could he have done? Was Julia right when she asked him if it mattered the evidence that he found -but destroyed- as what could he have done with it anyway? His helplessness is well-evoked and it is that which makes Nineteen Eighty-Four so powerful and terrifying: the inability to act against a totalitarian regime even if you wanted to.

I was struck whilst reading this time by the portrayal of women in the novel, or more strictly their treatment by Big Brother. Women are denied their femininity, they are made to dress asexually and forbidden to wear make-up or fragrance; males and females are sexually repressed with relationships between party members outlawed. Julia regales in her sexuality, she is proud to enjoy sex and embraces the opportunity to be free and wear what she likes beyond the view of the telescreens. Feminism is freedom of choice, not what you wear or how you look.

I enjoyed rereading this classic; it was a welcome revisit and one that reminded me how good a book Nineteen Eighty-Four is. Tomorrow I will have a follow-up post on Orwell.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Waiting On...

Earlier I read this latest post by Mrs. B. of The Literary Stew, which is a Waiting on Wednesday post, a weekly event hosted at Breaking the Spine. Waiting on Wednesdays spotlight forthcoming releases that we are anticipating.

I thought this would make a fun post today. I am most excited about the publication of Jasper Fforde's latest book -and the first in a new series- Shades of Grey, due to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in January 2010. I have been waiting for this from early last year when I finished reading his Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes books and now the end is sight.

From Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey

Eddie's world wasn't always like this. There's evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.

Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk.

Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.

From No one could cheat the Colourman and the colour test. What you got was what you were, forever. Your life, career and social standing decided right there and then, and all worrisome life-uncertainties eradicated forever. You knew who you were, what you would do, where you would go, and what was expected of you. In return, you simply accepted your rung upon the Chromatic ladder, and assiduously followed the Rulebook. Your life was mapped. And all in the time it takes to bake a tray of scones . . .

Eddie Russett lives comfortably in a world where fortune, career and ultimate destiny are rigidly dictated by the colours you can see. Until he falls in love with a Grey named Jane, and starts to question every aspect of the Rulebook. Why are spoons illegal? And what actually happens to all those people who are sent to the Emerald City to Reboot? tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Which book are you most looking forward to?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Blueberry Girl

Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman is a poem illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess. Ostensibly a picture-book, the poem was originally written by Neil for his friend Tori Amos and her daughter, Natashya (Tash), Neil's god-daughter. Written the month before she was born, when she was known as "Blueberry", Neil was asked to write her a poem and/or prayer, the hand-written version of which was hung by her bed once she was born; Neil kept a copy that many friends requested and which he copied out for them. He never intended to publish it, he intended to keep it private but the Blueberry Girl took on a life of her own and became "a book for mothers and for mothers-to-be. It's a book for anyone who has, or is, a daughter. It's a prayer and a poem, and now it's a beautiful book" (a quote from Neil's online Journal).

It is a truly wonderful book, beautiful and inspirational and something to cherish. As a daughter I appreciate that. There a couple of imminent babies entering my life and if either of them happen to be a girl then I will be gifting the proud parents and their new daughter with a copy of this book. It is uplifting and it makes me happy, as does this video of the illustrations from the book with Neil Gaiman reading his poem and lyrically lulling us into peacefulness with his dulcet tones .

Blueberry Girl is rich in wonder and dreams for the future daughter, who should be blessed with the freedom to pursue her dreams.

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,
free from unkindness and fear.

Whimsical, sweet and moving, this is a book for blueberry girls everywhere. May we be free to fulfill our dreams.

Blueberry Girl is published by Bloomsbury in the UK and I thank them for sending me a copy for review.

I am considering this my first book read for the Women Unbound Challenge as I cannot think of a children's book more hopeful of equality and the fulfilling of potential.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Rockin' Around the Swaps

Nymeth brought to my attention the annual Book Blogger Holiday Swap and I've signed up. This seems like a wonderful way to spread the holiday spirit, participate in the blogging community and discover new bloggers. Besides, I LOVE Christmas. Even though I am taking part in the Persephone Secret Santa and also a Virago one on LibraryThing,
I couldn't pass this one up; I love choosing and or making gifts for people and the delight of giving. I love to give books and playing Santa to a book blogger will probably allow me to do that! That's a good segue into mention an other holiday and blogging initiative run by My Friend Amy: Buy Books for the Holidays. I often do give books as gifts and this year is no exception. Giving (and receiving) books is wonderful and I encourage you to treat any readers in your life with a well-intentioned read this Christmas.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Women Unbound

During the week, I briefly joined in a Twitter conversation originating with Eva about a potential Women's Studies challenge. I commented that I would enjoy reading more nonfiction in this field and that the choice of fiction to meet the challenge, which is wide but subjective, could be justified in the participant's review. I then went to bed and when I woke the challenge had been defined, named and a website had been set up complete with buttons, readings lists, rules etc. That's women unbound for you!

The Women Unbound challenge runs between this month and November 2010 so that is a whole year to read any book that focuses on women and their issues. As Nymeth pointed out to me, Virago and Persephone books more than meet that criteria and when do I need an excuse to read those? This challenge will allow me to finally read books of my one that have gone unread and potentially reread some feminist favourites. I have decided to participate at the Suffragette level, which involved reading eight titles, three of which have to be nonfiction. A list of potential reads is not required but I have compiled a pool of potential reads but not some of the rereads I may embrace.

Also, if you are joining in and seeking out titles (and even if you are not) then I cannot recommend The Group by Mary McCarthy highly enough. I read and reviewed it a few months ago and it would be the perfect read for this challenge.


Bluestockings by Jane Robinson (I don't have this one of my shelves but it is already on request from the library after reading Nymeth's review).

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Primer for the Buffy Fan by Lorna Jowett

Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio

Everything I Needed to Know about Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume
ed. by Jennifer O'Connell

Married Love by Marie Stopes

Women in the House of Fiction by Lorna Sage


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter (one of only two books by Angela Carter that I haven't yet read; I have been rationing them).

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (third time lucky?)

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir

Carol (The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith

St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A number of Colette, Anais Nin or Jean Rhys novels on my shelves.

What do you think of my list? Have you read any? Which are you looking forward to reading about? Do you have any further recommendations?