Sunday, 28 February 2010

Paperback Reader has Moved!

Please join me here (

I hope you like and enjoy my new home and please update your bookmarks; readers; rss feeds; blogrolls etc. and follow my blog at its new address.

I actually moved earlier this month but I am calling any stragglers ... I miss you!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Paperback Reader has Moved!

Please join me here (

I hope you like and enjoy my new home and please update your bookmarks; readers; rss feeds; blogrolls etc. and follow my blog at its new address.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Reading Day

Only a mini-post today as I'm having a reading day/lazy day with my boyfriend. Tonight he is watching the Super Bowl with friends and I'm going for dinner with some of mine; we're also seeing one of the films showing as part of the Johnny Depp series at the BFI, the 1995 Dead Man where Depp plays a character named William Blake and one of the other characters believes he is the Romantic poet.

The lolcats image is apropos of nothing other than the fact that I found it funny. Personally I found the Twilight books addictive, like caffeine, but I know that they are not everyone's cup of tea. Moreover, when do I require an excuse to display my love of cats?!

Have a lovely Sunday.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Recent Acquisitions

I have a few books to share with you that have recently been acquired from publishers. I am keeping the receipt of review copies at a minimum as I find it rather overwhelming but these are all titles that I would have bought anyway and that were on my wish-list. My only issue now is where to start as I want to read them all immediately ...

Red Dog, Red Dog by Patrick Lane: I have loved the Canadian literature that I have so far read and this was longlisted for the Giller Prize there in 2008 and this week released in the UK in paperback. I read about this in the lead-up up to the Booker nominees announcement last summer, my curiosity was piqued and I have been wanting to read it ever since. Windmill Books kindly sent me a copy.

You may notice that the other titles on the list are all from Virago; as you will probably know by now, I cannot resist books from this publisher and the lovely Sophie at Virago sent me these. The first two on the pile are both Virago Modern Classics and the other two written by renowned Virago authors (who each have other titles which appear on the VMC list).

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: matching my other quirky re-issues of Spark novels this newest release is purported to be her best.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins: this VMC received a lot of attention amongst bloggers -and from some of my favourite ones at that- towards the end of last year as it was chosen for the Cornflower Book Group; I have been wanting to read it since then.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood: I love the new Virago issues of Margaret Atwood's books and it is all that I can do to replace my nearly-complete and mismatched collection of her books with the new ones. Cat's Eye of hers that I have been meaning to read for the longest; I recall attempting to borrow it from my school library many years ago and being refused by the school librarian as he deemed it "inappropriate".

Letter to my Daughter by Maya Angelou: this is a beautiful hardback edition of essays dedicated to the daughter the writer never had but sees all around her.

Okay, where do I start?

Friday, 5 February 2010

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I love Classic literature; I love books in translation; I love controversial novels with scandal and intrigue so when Polly of Novel Insights chose Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierra Choderlos de Laclos for the Riverside Readers to discuss, I was delighted.

An eighteenth century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses concerns two bored aristocrats in pre-Revolutionary France who are in dire need of the guillotine for the evil ways the employ to alleviate their ennui. The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, ex lovers, each enjoy the arts of deceit and manipulation, each wishing to excel over the other. What begin as acts of revenge and of sexual conquest evolve into intricate Machiavellian plans of diabolical proportions; Valmont and Merteuil embroil others into their salacious machinations and nobody comes off unscathed.

The structure of the novel celebrates what is now the lost art of letter writing; the letters back and forth between all the players serve to look at the deceptions from every available viewpoint and fully appreciate their well-thought-out wickedness. Despite the epistolary form, the characters each had distinct voices and the letters their own style and tone; each writer was easily identifiable and by providing the majority of the correspondence the reader gains an insight into the complex manipulations and behind-the-scenes workings that occur. The multiple ironies of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that the reader is privy to throughout make it compelling reading as did the insight into the other face and persona that each character showed depending on whom they were writing to. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is very witty and intelligent and where some readers find the Chevalier Danceny and Cécile Volanges, the piano teacher and the convent girl respectively, to be annoying, I found them exceptionally amusing in their naïveté and their hyperbolic declarations of love.

Madame de Tourvel, the sexual object of Valmont's whim, is exceptionally virtuous and pious but her letters display great intelligence and passion and Laclos's representation of women is very impressive for its time; the Marquise is a vividly-drawn alpha-female and her verbal sparring with Valmont is every bit as much about sexual politics as it is sexual attraction. A manual in seduction, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is salacious and sordid; sex sells and the novel was very ahead of its time in being very much a part of ours. The scandalous lengths that Valmont and Merteuil go to to gain revenge are quite something; the novel is enthralling (the second volume does admittedly drag in its involved scene-setting) and shocking. At the same time as attempting to seduce Madame de Tourvel -whose conquest will earn him a sexual reward from Merteuil- Valmont is playing older male tutor to Cécile Volanges, at Merteuil's request as she has a score to settle with Cécile's future husband and Valmont consents because he desires revenge on Madame Volanges, Cécile's mother, who is confidante to Madame de Tourvel; further pawns are the impressionable Chevalier Danceny, in love with Cécile and seeking advice and assistance from both Valmont and Merteuil, and Madame de Rosamonde, the matronly aunt of Vamont and friend of de Tourvel, as well as a couple of other by-standers who are caught up in the devilishly dangerous scheming.

I did not find Merteuil or Valmont at all sympathetic; they are thoroughly cruel and loathsome characters in their depravity yet they are fascinating, especially Valmont in his phallocentrism and boundless vanity. Les Liaisons Dangereuses in a study of Sadism and a play-by-play of how people deceive, seduce and manipulate others to their will; it examines the underbelly of human nature. Merteuil loves Valmont and Valmont de Tourvel love each other as much as vain, narcissistic people can love another, but they will not bend to the other and relinquish their power, which is why they can not, ultimately, co-exist; these odious characters will never submit to true feeling at the expense of their reputation and the face that they show to others.

I read the Douglas Parmée translation of the novel, which I found immensely readable; it gives a modern voice to the words, which never jarred for me but it may for some. I didn't lose any of the aristocratic language nor Laclos's deft and clever plays on language and innuendo to depict sexual liaisons. I also watched the Stephen Frear's 1988 adaptation of the novel and thought it wonderfully brought to screen; the editing that is lacking in the novel is brutal in the film but not to the detriment of the story. John Malkovich as Valmont is outstanding although I was disturbed by his sympathetic portrayal as I was vehemently opposed to the deeds he carried out -in relation to Cécile- but could not resist his charm. Frears achieved an impressive visual representation of Laclos's moral ambiguities and complexities that resonates; of the people at book group who had seen the film, none of us could separate the characters from their incarnations on-screen, that and it was far easier to refer to the Marquise de Merteuil as Glenn Close as none of us could pronounce her name.

Some key dialogue -through letters- between Valmont and Merteuil setting out their despicable plan :

Till now my thoughts were all of love; but it was soon replaced by rage. Who do you think is trying to ruin my reputation with the woman I adore? What fiend in woman's shape is evil enough to weave such an abominable plot? You know her, it's your friend and relative, Madame de Volanges. You cannot imagine the tissue of horrors that obnoxious old hag has written about me. It is she and she alone who has been disturbing my angel's peace of mind; it's her views and her pernicious advice that are forcing me to leave; in a word, it is she who has victimized me. Oh, there's no doubt about it, her daughter has got to be seduced; no, that's not enough. That woman must be smashed and since the old trout is too long in the tooth to be attacked directly, she must be made to suffer through someone she loves.

You may be a trifle annoyed at what I'm asking you to do but isn't it a very small return for all the trouble I've been taking over your affairs? Didn't I restore you to the judge's when, through your own stupidity, you'd been forced to leave her? And then wasn't it me who placed into your hands ways and means to settle your score with that mischievous old bigot Madame de Volanges? You're always moaning about the time you waste looking round for exciting things to do. Now you have a couple under your very nose. Love or hatred, take your pick; they're both sleeping under the same roof and you can live a double life, fondling with one hand and stabbing in the back with the other...

Thoughts from other Riverside Readers:


Novel Insights

Reading Matters

Savidge Reads

Thursday, 4 February 2010


Today I would like to welcome The Classics Circuit to my blog as one of the stops in the Harlem Renaissance Tour. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement of literary and artistic expression during the 1920s and 30s that sprang up amongst the African American population of Harlem, New York. I studied the period of "awakening" a little whilst at University and discovered Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay; Nella Larsen's novels, Quicksand and Passing, were (and remain) critically acclaimed and significant novels of the movement. I have had Passing on my wish-list for some time but as it was a popular choice for the tour and as the volume I have contains both of the short works, I decided to review her first novel, Quicksand; I shall post my thoughts on Passing later in the tour.

***warning: this review contains spoilers in last paragraph***

Loosely autobiographical, Quicksand tells the story of Helga Crane, a young mulatto (mixed race) woman whose Danish immigrant mother is dead and whose father abandoned her and her mother, when Helga was a baby. Helga has "no people"; she was uncomfortable with her resentful white stepfather and step-siblings; her uncle Peter who rescued her as a child and sent her to school, disowns her as he has taken a wife who will not accept being aunt to a girl of another race; her Danish aunt and uncle, whom she later lives with in Copenhagen, use her to elevate their social status, as she is unique and exotic amongst their society. Before Helga goes to Denmark she lives in Harlem where her friends are focused -often hypocritically- on the "race question"; Helga does not identify with this group, with this race, until she is later racially alone in Copenhagen (the quotes below demonstrate this shift in perception). Quicksand is about Helga never fitting in or belonging, from the Naxos school where she teaches in the novel's opening to the small Alabama town where her husband is Preacher, in its close.

Helga is not a sympathetic character and is quite unpleasant; she is impulsive and often takes offense to people in frustrating ways. What I became to understand though was that Helga's transitory shifts in emotion, often of anger and irritation, are representative of a woman guided by her passions. Quicksand is regarded as the first novel to give a voice to the sexual desires of a black women but this theme of the novel was too subtle for me -probably by today's standards- yet the passionate reactions, if viewed as representative of her sexual desire and discontent, can be charted throughout the novel. Other symbolism that stood out to me was Helga's desire early on to wear bright colours, to complement her skin, but she was told it was unbecoming for a black woman; later, in Denmark, Helga is encouraged by her Aunt Katrina to wear colourful dresses and at first Helga rails against it as she has been conditioned to dress and behave appropriately. It is Helga's defiance against any categorisation, as a woman or as a person of colour, that makes Quicksand a revolutionary novel of its time; she seeks fulfillment from each of the communities and roles that she moves through, finding none. Furthermore, there are some very interesting passages on race, miscegenation and eugenics that are insightful and challenging to read; in both its treatment of sexuality and race, the text reminds me of some of the short stories and novella, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.

Helga's finding -and then losing- of religion and her subsequent hasty marriage and new-found motherhood in the last chapters didn't originally work for me in relation to the other defined sections of the novel -Naxos; Chicago; Harlem; Copenhagen; Harlem- but the ending resonated. In Quicksand's close, Helga lies ill after the birth and death of her fourth child, planning her escape from this imprisoning life, but the novel suddenly ends with the pregnancy of her fifth child; it was in the closing lines that Quicksand truly became a novel about the women question as much as it was about the race one.

Outside, rain had begun to fall. She walked bare-headed, bitter with self-reproach. But she rejoiced too. She didn't, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people. She was different. She felt it. It wasn't merely a matter of color. It was something broader, deeper, that made folk kin.

Helga Crane didn't, however, think often of America, excepting in unfavorable contrast to Denmark. For she had resolved never to return to the existence of ignominy which the New World of opportunity and promise forced upon Negroes. How stupid she had been ever to have thought that she could marry and perhaps have children in a land where every dark child was handicapped at the start by the shroud of color! She saw, suddenly, the giving birth to little, helpless, unprotesting Negro children as a sin, an unforgivable outrage. More black folk to suffer indignities. More dark bodies for mobs to lynch. No, Helga Crane didn't think often of America. It was too humiliating, too disturbing.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Library Loot

I really must stop requesting books from the library ... but there are so many that catch my eye and it is better than buying them!

In this week's visit I collected:

Bone Black by bell hooks: a memoir by the famous feminist, I'm interested in hooks' thoughts on her growing up during racial segregation.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers: as soon as the Not the TV Book Group reading list was announced, this title caught my eye and I was delighted that my library had it in stock (I was able to pick it up from the stacks as opposed to requesting it, which happens less often than I would like). Published by the Two Ravens Press, this looks like a book that I will love and I'm excited to read it, being a fan of Virginia Woolf.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: I enjoyed The Icarus Girl and had Oyeyemi's follow-up novels on my wish-list but when Eva compared the psychological horror of White is for Witching with Shirley Jackson, I knew I had to read it immediately.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: who hasn't raved about The Help? It's about time that I read this one.

Have you read any of these or intend to?

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

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

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 Book Bag section:
What three words begin Lilian Jackson Braun mystery titles: Said Cheese, Saw Stars and Sniffed Glue?

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

"The millions of eggs that we women begin with are cleanly destroyed through an innate cell program called apoptosis. The eggs do not simply die - they commit suicide."
Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier p. 3

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Rehearsal

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" is a well-known theme; a high-school sex scandal is not an original concept either and yet Eleanor Catton manages to blend both performance and controversy together into an accomplished and original début. The Rehearsal is a novel of extended metaphor where fact and fiction collide and you are left questioning was was real; I know that is oxy-moronic as the book is a work of fiction but the story you read takes on the mantle of performance.

Told in alternating chapters, The Rehearsal tells two stories, one -in chapters that move back and forth through days of the week- about high-school girls and saxophone students who are affected by the illicit relationship between one of their peers and (former) music teacher; the other story -that shifts between different months of term- about the local drama college where Stanley, in his first year, and his classmates use the local sex-scandal as the basis of their end-of-term production.

I was given the impression from early on that the high-school story -where the student, Victoria, and the teacher, Mr Saladin, were merely secondary characters in their own drama- was set and what I was reading was not what inspired the drama students but what they were performing. The three main characters of these sections, Julia and Isolde, Victoria's sister, and their nameless saxophone teacher who tutors them extracurricular lessons, are presented as characters who have no interior monologues but are lit and given detailed stage directions.

The lights change. The overhead lights and the bright overcast light from the window are doused; a template falls into place in front of a solitary floodlight and the attachment begins to rotate, so that the yellow light is thinly striped and ever changing, playing over the pair of them like passing streetlights striping the dashboard of a moving car. Julia sits down. The streetlights come and go, streaking over her knees and curving away over her shoulder to disappear, and she is dark for a moment before another streak of light rises up to replace the first, and then another, and another, all yellow and forward bending.

Julia is listening in a dreamy, sleepy way, the music drawing from her one slow, definite impression rather than a slideshow series of impressions that she can cobble together later and divide to find the arithmetic mean. She is thinking about Isolde. She can't quite see her past the stern unmoving profile of the saxophone teacher, just a flash of her knee every time Isolde crosses her leg, but even so she finds her left-hand peripheral vision is sharpened with a tense hyper-awareness whenever the younger girl shifts in her seat.

Are you given the same impression by the quotes that I am - that what we are reading and seeing on the page is actually being acted on-stage by the drama students? In my mind we are never presented with the true events that inspired the performance, the rehearsal, but are only provided with the students' interpretation of it and their subsequent dramatisation. I studied drama at school and I remember for exercises we were given small sheets with basic character profiles written on them, which we used to flesh out into a believable character; the snippets we are given of Julia, Isolde and Victoria are as if they are those character profiles.

Julia watches them slot into place around the current locus of popularity and wit with a feeling of contempt and mild jealousy. Most of the girls are seventh formers, contemporaries of the violated girl and infected only by vague proximity. The rest are the music students, more critically infected and so personally summoned by a solemn pink slip photocopied over and over and signed by the counsellor in a delicate whispery hand.

The Rehearsal removed me from my readerly comfort zone as it is not a passive reading experience; I was continually working out what was real and what was being performed (in the drama school sequences there are many "scenes" that you assume are part of the narrative before realising that it is an acting exercise) and if this sounds confusing then that's because it is. I chose this novel as my first read of 2010 as I had high expectations and anticipated a thrilling and salacious read; I struggled with it and read 150 pages over the first five days of the year before setting it aside and moving onto read other books; three weeks later I decided not to give up on it but sat down and managed the remaining 160 pages in one sitting. An exploration of the nature of performance, The Rehearsal isn't by any means an easy read; it it highly inventive but can come across as dense, pretentious and dryly high-brow. I admire its inventiveness and did find the latter half absorbing; I am relieved that I gave the novel a second chance as it possesses much to admire technically but it is more of a construct of literary artifice than an engaging novel.

'Because at the end of it everything collapses,' on of the girls said. 'For the girl, the victim, the one who was abused. It all comes down around her like a castle of cards.'

I predict that this interesting and erudite albeit not particularly enjoyable read will feature on the longlist for the Orange Prize next month.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

On the Bedside Table

Do you have several books on the go at once? I'm usually what you would consider a monogamous reader: a girl who is loyal to one book at a time; occasionally though I read a few books at once, especially longer classics and books that I am reading over an extended period of time. Books that I am slowly reading are kept on my bedside table (nightstand) as well as books that I plan to read next; my immediate to-be-read pile also lies in two stacks: one beside the bedside table and another in the living room, for ease of access wherever I happen to finish a book, depending on what I'm in the mood for reading.

Currently on my night-stand are two Japanese classics: I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, both of which are In Spring it is the Dawn read-alongs, one of which is coming to an end and the other about to commence. The other titles, To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski and Foe by J. M. Coetzee, are two that I am looking forward to reading and have placed within easy reach to pick up and read when the time is right.

Do you keep books by your bedside? If so, what do you have there at the moment?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Defined by Books

Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book tagged me in his ten books meme three weeks ago and I am only now getting around to posting; both another cookie crumbles and JoAnn of Lakeside Musings tagged me in the honest scrap "ten things" award so this is also a response to them with ten bookish things about me.

Simon's rules:

1.) Go to your bookshelves...
2.) Close your eyes. If you're feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or... basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself - where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc.....
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn't matter if you've read them or not - be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to...

Seeing as Simon fully sanctioned cheating ... I did. To be fair, I instinctively know where all of my books are so I couldn't have picked them unknowingly blind but I did choose them at random by looking at the bookshelves and quickly choosing ten books from ten different shelves, one or two of them as intentionally representative of something about me.

Everything I Needed to Know about Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume: this title is self-explanatory and true. I could have shared one of my Judy Blume books but instead I thought this was far more revealing about me. I loved Judy Blume as a girl and still hold a soft spot for some of her books (Just as Long as We're Together, Here's to You Rachel Robinson, Tiger Eyes, Deenie ...)

Trumpet by Jackie Kay: there are several books that I could have used to tell you that I am from Glasgow but none quite as beautiful as this one, in which the 1960s sections are set in my home-city (Kay also grew up there).

The Collected Stories by Katherine Mansfield: I was first introduced to Katherine Mansfield by a beloved English teacher at school who gave us "The Doll House" to read, which remains one of my favourite short stories because of its apparent simplicity yet also inexplicable quality. This book reveals not only a cherished bookish memory from school but also that I own a replica Victorian dollhouse (I used to own two, but my sister now has my first one) and collect miniature furniture, including books, a Swan Lake screen, a tiny Tiffany lamp (post-dating Victoriana but too cute to resist). Furthermore, it reveals my obsession with silver Penguin Modern Classics, of which this one is a favourite.

Bold Girls by Rona Munro: another set text from school (for Higher English), Rona Munro is a Scottish playwright although this play concerns four women in war-torn Belfast. I loved this play when I studied it and a friend bought me my own copy and wrote a dedication inside likening me to one of the characters (whose part I had read in class). I am a huge fan of drama; I don't read or see as many plays any more as I used to but I have a full shelf on my bookcases dedicated to plays and that doesn't include my numerous books by and about Shakespeare. I forget that readers of my blog probably don't know that I am an English Literature graduate (I also have my Master's) but it is an intrinsic part of me.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter: I couldn't define myself using books and not include Angela Carter. Anyone who doesn't know that I am a Carter devotee hasn't been reading my posts closely enough! Nights at the Circus was the first book of hers that I read and hence meaningful.

Mog's Christmas by Judith Kerr: along with Dogger by Shirley Hughes this was my favourite picture book as a child. My much-loved and dog-eared copy was handed down to my sister and is still at home but my boyfriend bought me a lovely mini hardback copy a few Christmases ago.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose: another perfect gift choice by my boyfriend, this book is indispensable and I love close-reading a chapter at a time over and over. The subtitle is revealing as I am both of those people; the book sits on my writing shelf, where I have writing style handbooks, creative aids, and a number of short story volumes by writers included in the book.

The Brons Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson: I began to consciously collect the original green-spined Virago Modern Classics in April 2008 and very early on I coveted an elusive copy of this book. Shortly after looking at expensive copies online, I went into an Oxfam Books in Glasgow, purposefully seeking a copy; I instantly honed in on a green spine (a skill known by all that collect these editions) and it was the one I was looking for! Priced at a wonderful £2.49. Very surreal and quirky, this book bears re-reading but I know that I am never going to part with it, even if Bloomsbury have re-issued it in a particularly lovely ice-cream copy.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf: I adore this essay by Woolf and love to pick it up and luxuriate in her words and thoughts. As a feminist I love to read about Woolf walking on the lawn of Oxbridge and adore her creation of Judith, Shakespeare's sister. Although I am attached to this Penguin edition I am somewhat obsessed with the earlier purple and cream striped one; I own most of the Penguin merchandise that imitates the iconic edition: the bookbag, the notebook and poster and I covet the postcard and mug.

Love by Toni Morrison: this is the book I'd rescue from a burning building, not because of the book itself but the inscription inside; my boyfriend bought me this for our first Christmas together and wrote something beautiful to me. This is one of several books that have something meaningful written to me inside but this one, above the others, is incredibly special; if I shared it online, it would betray my boyfriend and I would never do that.

Did you learn anything new about me from this meme and did you notice that all of my books are written by women?

Friday, 29 January 2010

To the Lighthouse

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have
a central line down the middle of the book to
hold the design together. I saw that all
sorts of feelings would accrue to this but I
refused to think them out, and trusted that people
would make it the deposit of their emotions - which they
have done, one thinking it means one thing another another.
I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way.

So said Virginia Woolf of her novel To the Lighthouse. "[O]ne thinking it means one thing another another" is the essence of the Woolf in Winter read-alongs, where we read a Woolf novel (or two, or three, or all four) and "make it the deposit of [our] emotions". To say what Woolf means is reductive, I find, and I approach her emotionally; I savour her beautiful prose and I connect to the words, the representative -as opposed to symbolic- images and the tone. I don't read Woolf to understand but to appreciate; her books are not the type that are easy to review and I'm not going to attempt to but give my impressions instead.

Starting in medias res, Mrs Ramsay tells her son, James, that they will go to the lighthouse tomorrow if it is fine; a page later Mr Ramsay says that it will not be fine and by the end of the first volume they do not go to the lighthouse; in the third volume, years later, James and his father and his sister take a boat trip to the lighthouse. A basic premise, the lighthouse itself signifies nothing but is representative of so much emotion and history; the first volume, 'The Window', is a glimpse into one day of the Ramsays' lives and those of their guests; the lighthouse is one single memory (of various people) acting as a cohesive idea holding it all together. With its occasional twenty-seven line sentences containing such resonant images of beauty, "so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again", the stream-of-consciousness 'The Window' volume was by far my favourite and a reminder of why I love Woolf.

To the Lighthouse is an elegy to Woolf's parents and contained in it is such a sense of palpable, heartrending grief and pain. At many points, I found rage in the tone, in the pounding of the waves (the recurrent water imagery of Woolf at play), and the bitterness of the characters. There is a violent potency to the masculinity presented in the novel, a hyper-sexed desire to produce and a fear of barrenness and failure, and the calming, maternal, female influence at its centre; To the Lighthouse is a precursor to Woolf's feminist polemic, A Room of One's Own and in it I see a man who is lost without the strength of his wife and the feminist Lily Briscoe who rails against Tansley's accusation that as a woman she cannot write or paint, both lost without Mrs Ramsay and one finding her way.

I read "The Fisherman and his Wife" by the Brothers Grimm, the story Mrs Ramsay read to James, in an attempt to find some illumination; I wonder if the tale of a bullying, greedy wife who railroads her husband was arbitrarily chosen or is another of Woolf's representations ... can it be reduced to the age-old phrase that behind every great man there is an equally great woman?

Structurally I found the first volume the strongest and I preferred its style; I would have enjoyed To the Lighthouse more -as opposed to enjoying the first volume and appreciating the second and third- if it had all been in the stream-of-consciousness style of the first but, as it was, the technical 'Time Passes' stunned me in its beauty and mastery and 'To the Lighthouse' resolved the novel for me. It wouldn't be Woolf though if it was a simply an enjoyable novel, something profound is always at work and I come away wowed. Of the Woolf in Winter choices, To the Lighthouse was the one of the four novels that I hadn't yet read and had always wanted to; I also intended to read it for my Bucket List and for the Women Unbound challenge. It has been some time since I have read any Virginia Woolf and I have missed her; I am now wondering where to now ... do I reread Orlando for the next volume of the Woolf read-along or do I attempt one of the three novels of hers I have not yet read, the early The Voyage Out and Night and Day or the later The Years? Alternatively I could read A Writer's Diary or the Hermione Lee biography, both of which I have only dipped in and out of so far.

The Woolf in Winter discussion for To the Lighthouse is being hosted by Emily today.

Some favourite passages:

For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men.

Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.

It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life - the drawing-room; behind the drawing-room the kitchen; above the kitchen the bedrooms; and beyond them the nurseries; they must be furnished, they must be filled with life.

She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Flowers for Mrs Harris

Mrs Ada Harris (pronounced Mrs 'Arris by the lady herself) is a London charwoman and a widow; at the outset of the novella Mrs Harris is on her way to Paris to buy herself a Dior evening gown. Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico (who I have waxed lyrical about once before) is a charming read; Ada Harris is vivacious and determined to fulfill her dream of acquiring couture whilst brightening up the lives of those she meets in the city of Dior. A light, frothy book, Flowers for Mrs Harris is about achieving one's dreams, the dedication that requires and, ultimately, the things that matter in life above material possessions.

Flowers for Mrs Harris could have been overly saccharine but its sweetness is well-balanced; in essence it is a sweet novel but it also comments on snobbery, on appearances being deceiving and of the friendships that arise out of surprising situations between disparate people. Mrs Harris has gumption, says what she thinks and goes for what she wants; I was reminded somewhat of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winfred Watson although Gallico's Mrs Harris didn't enter my heart like Miss Pettigrew did. However, my heart did break for Mrs Harris towards the end of the novella and the sudden poignancy turns an otherwise comic -Flowers for Mrs Harris is at times very funny and dryly witty- tale into a heartwarming one.

Published as Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris in the US, it was the first in a series of four books; I was delighted to discover that Bloomsbury are publishing the first two, Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris AND Mrs 'Arris Goes to New York, as one of their forthcoming Bloomsbury Group novels this summer. I look forward to discovering what the antics of Mrs Harris are in the Big Apple and the impression she makes.

Favourite quotes:

[F]or she understood the fierce, wild, hungry craving of the girl to be something, to be somebody, to lift herself out of the rut of everyday struggle and acquire some of the good things in life for herself.

'Lady Dant 'as one of them in her 'er cupboard. She brought it up for the charity ball tonight. I've never seen anything like it in me life before except perhaps in a dream or in a book.' Her voice lowered for a moment as she became reflective. 'Why, even the Queen ain't got a dress like that, ' she said, and then loudly and firmly, 'and I mean to 'ave one.'

Mrs Harris's lip began to tremble and her little eyes screwed up as the implications of the disaster became clear. Here, in this apparently empty, hostile building, before cold hostile eyes, the unimaginable seemed about to happen. They didn't seem to want her, they didn't even appear to want her money. They were going to send her away and back to London without her Dior dress.

She found herself in a curtained-off cubicle on a corridor that seemed to be a part of an endless maze of similar corridors and cubicles. Each cubicle held a woman like a queen bee in a cell, and through the corridors rushed the worker bees with the honey - armfuls of frilly, frothy garments in colours of plum, raspberry, tamarind, and peach, gentian-flower, cowslip, damask rose, and orchid, to present them where they had been ordered for trial and further inspection.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Meeting Jasper Fforde

Last week I attended the UK launch of Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde at Foyles bookshop. For two hours Jasper spoke to a packed gallery (it was standing-room only!) and regaled us with a humorous talk, interspersed with some short readings from his new novel, before opening it up to the audience for Q&A. Fforde comes across as a comedian doing stand-up, complete with opening gag to size up the room, which was an approach to a author event that I found worked exceptionally well. The talk was balanced between amusing and interesting and was engagingly entertaining enough for those attendees who were not already Fforde fans (i.e. my boyfriend, who is now even more interested in reading his books). Fforde was self-effacing, charming and exceedingly funny, of which I had no doubt considering the wittiness of his work. Moreover, he also provided insightful commentary into his new book whilst reading us extracts; it was clear that Fforde doesn't enjoy reading aloud and I think he has handled this aversion in the best possible way, by playing to his strengths. The Q&A ranged from his new work; existing work; future work; writing style, routine, influences; film adaptations; he answered all with humility and hilarity and a very fun evening was had.

Of the author events I have enjoyed so far, Fforde can be best compared to Neil Gaiman, who is also memorable; in contrast, Gaiman is an assured and eloquent orator but both writers are very enjoyable speakers and the most charismatic authors I have yet met. Each of these authors' events are successful, in my mind, because they both appear to enjoy them and fully engage with their fans; I have always had the utmost respect for Neil Gaiman's work ethic when it comes to signings and the way he repays his fans' support; I am pleased to discover that Jasper Fforde is of a similar mindset to one of my other favourite authors. If you are also a fan of Jasper Fforde then I would highly recommend attending any of his signings if you ever have the chance to do so; he is very friendly when signing and also provides promotional postcards and, in the instance of Shades of Grey, a special stamp (as seen above).

What do you enjoy about book signings? If you haven't had a chance to attend one, which writer would you love to meet in person and what would make a successful signing for you?

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

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 Children's Literature section:
What milestone does a ghost at Hogwarts celebrate in lieu of a birthday?

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

"In the days before a loaf of bread cost half a million dollars, he said, one hundred cents made one dollar. He took down an old tin and said as he opened it, 'We used the coins as recently as 2000'."
From the title story of An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah p. 32

Monday, 25 January 2010

The House-Keeper & the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a tender exploration of the relationship between a housekeeper, her client the maths Professor and her son, Root, who is so-called by the Professor because his flat head reminds him of a square root sign. The Professor suffered brain-damage in a car accident seventeen years previously and lives with only eighty minutes of short-term memory, which is both a problematic and poignant factor in their day-to-day lives together.

Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a lyrically touching novel. Very gently told, Ogawa uses maths to create heartfelt connections between the Housekeeper, her son and the Professor. I enjoyed the simplistic style to the story and how it broke down maths to connect these disparate people together; the Housekeeper becomes interested in maths, on working out problems and noticing patterns whilst the Professor sees the world through numbers. Using complex equations metaphorically throughout the novel was effective for me; I didn't think that it was simply a vehicle but was an interesting means of connection between an employer and employee in a subservient role who may have otherwise been unable to communicate. It has been a long time since I studied maths and I liked the refresher course and enjoyed seeing how Ogawa, through her characters, drew links between maths and life.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a gentle novel, simply rendered with only four nameless characters and an unseen baseball player. It is beautiful meditation on the nature and limitations of memory and also on what can make familial relationships and what they can teach us; it is subtly written and the sadness of the Professor's short-term memory is never overwhelmingly tragic or trite but resonates in its understated form. Culturally, the novel taught me the Japanese fascination with baseball; educationally it made me appreciate maths once more; emotionally it touched me.

Some favourite and/or key passages:

I happened to glance at some of the notes to his suit: " ... the failure of the analytic method...," "... the function of the elliptical curve...." Shuffled in among the fragments of obscure numbers and symbols and words was one scrap that even I could understand. From the stains and bent corners of the paper and the rusted edges of the binder clip, I could tell that this one had been attached to the Professor for a long time: "My memory lasts only eighty minutes," it read.

I don't know what the evening star meant to him, perhaps finding it in the sky soothed his nerves, or maybe it was simply a habit. And I don't know how he could see it so long before anyone else-he barely noticed the food I set right in front of him. For whatever reason, he would point his withered finger at a single spot in the vast sky-always the right place, as I eventually discovered-and that spot had significance for him and no one else.

Euler's formula shone like a shooting star in the night sky, or like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave. I slipped the Professor's note into my wallet, strangely moved by the beauty of those few symbols. As I headed down the library stairs, I turned back to look. The mathematics stacks were as silent and empty as ever-apparently no one suspected the riches hidden there.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Library Loot

I've been meaning to post my latest library loot for a while but erratic blogging and internet problems have prevented me until now. Furthermore, I realise that my last three posts have been stacks of books but 1) I know how much you like looking at books 2) I have a few reviews scheduled for this week and a few more in the bag.

My last Library Loot post was in 2009 and I suggested that it may be my last for a while as I resolved to read more from my TBR; that's still my intent but the lack of borrowing has fallen by the wayside a little as I looted for a few challenges and read-alongs that I am excited about (although ultimately I am reading more for myself and have been enjoying the freed0m to read books on a whim).

I still have a few outstanding library requests but on my last visit I came away with:

Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen: these two texts are for The Harlem Renaissance tour for The Classics Circuit in February; I'll be picking up Quicksand later today and I am really excited as I've been wanting to read both of these novellas for some time.

Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-siècle ed. by Elaine Showalter: this collection of short stories -written by "new women" about "new women"- has been on my wish-list for the longest time, since I studied Modernism. Including one of my favourite short stories "The Yellow Wallpaper" as well as a couple by the wonderful Kate Chopin, I'm looking forward to reading this collection for the Women Unbound Challenge.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: I borrowed this to read for the Japanese Literature book group at In Spring it is the Dawn and you can read my thoughts tomorrow.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: I requested this on a whim at the beginning of the month and now I can't really recall why ... perhaps to see what all the fuss is about? Now that I have it, I'm feeling less inspired to read it. A reviewer for The Guardian is quoted on Amazon as saying it is a mixture between I Capture the Castle (a beloved book of mine) and The Addam's Family; I'm going to love it, aren't I?

Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier: another book for Woman Unbound, I read about this on Eva of A Striped Armchair's blog and she completely sold me with this paragraph:

To say that I loved this book feels like a horrible understatement. I believe every single woman should read this book. If I were a billionaire, I would buy a copy for each woman who could read English, and press it into her hands with fervent good wishing.

High praise indeed (although to give credit where it is due, it was Nymeth who recommended the book to Eva); I've been awaiting a special inter-library loan request for this book since November and I hope it is worth the wait.

Have you read any of these or do they appeal?

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

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Purple Shelf

It's been a while since I featured a coloured bookshelf but with the acquisition of Inkdeath I finally accrued enough purple books in London to make s shelf of their own (some of these were on the pink shelf so I may recreate that at some point; I have a copy of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño that should easily replace them).

Reflective of my collection as a whole, this shelf contains the obligatory Angela Carter texts as well as some secondary material. Frances Hodgson Burnett appears in duplicate as does Colette (I adore Colette and I adore the Vintage editions of her books). Armistead Maupin is given a place as is another beautifully-written (and Scottish) LGBT book, Trumpet by Jackie Kay. For the first time, I think, in my bookshelves series we have a biographical work, Captivated: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland that lends its hue wonderfully well to the shelf. I shall leave you to browse the other titles but I will point out that the pale lilac of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may be at the lighter shade of purple but for the title alone had to be included.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Recent Acquisitions

Here they are, the first books of 2010. I've even read one already and began another!

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Canongate declared this "the decade's best unread book", I popped it on my wish-list and when Frances of Nonsuch Book was cleaning out some book, I took this one off her hands; Frances describes it as "Spare and dark and unsentimental treatment of caring for a cancer patient not viewing their illness with much realism. Quick and memorable read."

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski: As you know I acquired several Persephone Books recently when I visited the shop with Verity of The B Files but this is the one I purchased and that I am most excited about. I intend to read this soon not least of all because I know many of you are tempted by this one yourselves.

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace was one of my favourite reads last year and Coetzee an amazing new-to-me author discovery. I couldn't resist his other Booker winner when I found a new copy for £2 and I'm tempted to go on a bit of a Coetzee binge this quarter.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: this is the book that I wish I had read last year. The film adaptation was sublime and I am excited to finally read this, more so as Rachel of Book Snob is hosting a Season of Yates and has some lovely things to say about him (but then she has lovely things to say generally).

Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos: Polly of Novel Insights chose this as our next Riverside Readers book group read and I purchased it immediately, I was so excited. This is a French classic that I have been wanting to read for some time, I have never seen the film (I intend to before we discuss the book) and I have started to read the book and I am enjoying it immensely.

The Passport by Herta
Müller: until Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I knew nothing about her and this was something that I sought to rectify. The Passport is a slight novella by her, which seems to be touted everywhere as the book of hers to read, so I thought it was the one to go for; Simon of Savidge Reads implies that it is a challenging and unique reading experience, which makes it sound as if it could be inaccessible but I'm up for a challenge! Ultimately he enjoyed it though so that's all that matters.

Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett: a good friend wrote her Master's thesis on the works of Ivy Compton-Burnett when we were at University together and that was going on four years ago ... I have been reading to read Ivy since that time and Simon of Stuck In A Book has been another advocate. Simon recently reviewed Pastors and Masters and conveniently I had just won a copy to review from Hesperus Press (via LibraryThing). Simon classes it as "ICB-lite" so I'm thinking it is a good place to start.

Audition by Ryu Murakami: another writer that I've been wanting to read for some time and one I was discussing with Jackie of Farm Lane Books in relation to gritty Japanese thrillers last month. Ôdishon was a Japanese film released over a decade ago based on Ryu Murakami's novel; Bloomsbury released the novel in translation last year and kindly sent me a copy.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez: this novel was cited in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and I wanted to read it from then and when Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it shortly after, I purchased it. I am trying not to plan my reading but it is all I can do not to score out a couple of days in my diary in early February so that I can curl up and devour this book.

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde: I have already read and reviewed this acquisition (because I couldn't wait!) Many thanks to Steph of Steph & Tony Investigate for sending me a copy of this book when I won one of their generous bloggiversary give-aways. I loved this book and have no qualms in declaring it my favourite and most enjoyable read of 2010 so far.

Wild Child by T.C. Boyle: Bloomsbury also sent me the latest collection of short stories by T.C. Boyle, which I am looking forward to savouring. T.C. Boyle is a writer I admire a lot, whose works I plan on reading more of this year and that is thanks to JoAnn of Lakeside Musing and her enthusiasm for him. It's been a few years since I read any of his novels but read his short story "Chixiclub" recently and he can write short fiction along with the best of them.

Just as I was about to post this yesterday my internet died. We have an engineer coming to fix it tomorrow but until that time I will be offline.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

Those readers who mark memes as unread in their Google Reader probably won't read this, which makes it somewhat pointless to ask, but do you enjoy my teaser and trivia Tuesdays? I added my own feature to Teaser Tuesdays as I wanted it to be original and also fun; I partake in this particular meme to give me one day where I can concentrate on reading and preparing other posts and I also occasionally -like today- use it to update you on me and/or my blog and use it like a salon in miniature. However, if its not working for my readership then I will happily re-evaluate. There is never a dip in my visitors on Tuesdays but I do enjoy feedback, so what do you think?

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 Book Club section:

What Louisiana Creole term did Rebecca Wells redefine as "a person who is afraid and still drinks of life very deeply"?

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

"Fermat and Descartes were only able to find one pair each. They're linked to each other by some divine scheme, and how incredible that your birthday and this number on my watch should be just such a pair."
From The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa p. 19

Monday, 18 January 2010

Shades of Grey

A future world, Chromatacia, after the "Something That Happened" is run by the Colourtocracy and the collective are ordered into chromatic hierarchies, based on the limited colour that they can see see. Eddie Russett, nineteen years old, is a Red and there is nothing that he can do to change that; the test, your Ishihara, doesn't lie and you can't cheat the Colourman. Reds are only one shade above Grey, the worker bees of the collective, and it is crucial to Eddie and his family's standing to marry up within his part of the colour spectrum; some people marry for love but more often marriages are arranged or auctioned and nobody ever marries a complementary colour. Eddie is on a "half-promise" to marry Constance Oxblood until he and his father, a Swatchman (medical man who heals using swatches of healing hues applied directly to the retina) are sent to East Carmine on the Outer Fringes, for Eddie to attain humility. In the Outer Fringes Eddie falls in love with a Grey named Jane, a tempestuous revolutionary who hates you mentioning her nose, and begins to question the Rulebook. Questioning the Rulebook could earn a Reboot in the Emerald City but exactly what does that involve and are inquisitiveness and applying logical theory to queueing systems so harmful to the chromatic collective? Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde opens with Eddie about to be eaten by a carnivorous plant, an attempt by Jane to kill him, and his narrative recounts the previous four days' events that brought him to the deserted village of High Saffron and this inconvenient state of impending death.

In essence, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde is a Dystopian novel that contains, well, shades of classic Dystopian literature such as the futuristic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the nightmarish The Wizard of Oz and shares its carnivorous plants with John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids; however, where Fforde's other series of books are rich in literary allusion, he relies for the most part on his own inventiveness. Fforde has boundless creativity and imagination and his chromatic dystopia is highly original and intelligent. To begin with the detailed intricacies of this futuristic world and its dictionary of terms and Rules are a little hard to follow but it is such a vividly rendered world and engaging plot that one begins to see things the bursts of synthetic color and realise that things are not simply black and white, that there is a sinister undercurrent to the Colourtocracy, especially when you do not conform and exhibit any curiosity. Despite the departure from Fforde's usual alternative realities, that are a little more fantastical, and its more serious tone, Shades of Grey is hilarious; I love Fforde's satirical humour and often think that I am missing some of his intelligent jokes.

As well as immensely absorbing storyline and many laughs, Shades of Grey also contains moments of intense pathos; the last few chapters of the novel left me feeling unsettled yet also excited for the sequels and the last page had my heart in my mouth. For those who enjoy their Dystopias with a heart (think The Hunger Games) then read Shades of Grey; I also recommend it unreservedly to those who may not have been impressed by The Eyre Affair (I wasn't blown away by the debut but adored the remainder of the series), new to Fforde readers who enjoy witty original fiction and those readers who think they don't enjoy sci-fi.

But all doubts came to nought on the morning of your Ishihara. 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 position within the Colourtocracy, and assiduously followed the Rulebook. Your life was mapped. And all in the time it takes to bake a tray of scones.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

On the Other Side...

... It is always greener, or so they say.

Are you ever green with book envy? Do you sometimes think that people are reading better books than you? Not in a sense of the book being high-brow but that it sounds more exciting that what you yourself are reading? With freedom of choice over books I am usually very happy with what I'm reading and this month I've read some great books but every so often I see a book on somebody's blog where I think "Oh, I wish I had the time just now to read that" or "I covet that book" or "so-and-so is going to read Fingersmith and I wish I could have the first experience of that book over again".

I've been jealous of my boyfriend's reading material (um, maybe because I bought them all...) lately and some days I wish we could swap; I'll read on the commute alternating with playing with my iPhone and he can read the disparate texts and blog about them. Perhaps those thoughts mainly occurred earlier in the month whilst I was in a book slump and sought a comfort read and/or a gripping one but now I'm very happy to read my own choices, thank you very much; sometimes though the thought still lingers and I wish he'd hurry up with a book so I can read it too.

My boyfriend is an avid reader, not a voracious one, but he does love to read. A busy new job with long hours hasn't allowed him to read as much as he would like recently as he is either too busy on business calls to read whilst commuting or too tired to read in bed at night but he still reads when he can. In 2009 he read around fifty books, not that he counted. He reread all of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, read a lot of the Marvel Civil War graphic novels he is collecting and then the Penguin Sherlock Holmes boxset. Over Christmas he read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll on his iPhone and now he is about to venture into both the Fables series of graphic novels by Bill Willingham and the Mary Russell mysteries (featuring Sherlock Holmes) by Laurie R. King; these are both series of books that I would love to read and will more than likely pick them up after he does. Our reading tastes overlap here and there and he would like to read my Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde and John Wyndham books, all of which I know he will enjoy (he's a big fan of Gaiman's Sandman, so much so that he carried hugely heavy leather-bound volumes of the graphic novels to be signed, at a Neil reading). This year he also has new books by favourite authors to look forward to: Terry Pratchett, George R. R. Martin, Trudi Canavan (writer of "wizards in woods" type of books - a phrase coined by Jackie that I love!)

Does it sound as if I'm planning away my boyfriend's reading? I seem to be living vicariously through his choices by making them myself! No, seriously, I simply pick out books that I have read myself or have read about that he would like rather than impose books onto him although if I can read them myself then more's the better!

Do you have a loved one whose reading excites you or that you influence?

Thursday, 14 January 2010


The above book arrived (thanks, Steph!) and I'm hibernating today until it's finished. Do you do that too? Count down the days until a book is released and then drop everything else until you have read it? I am often incommunicado for a book and I wouldn't have it any other way.
See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


When I read The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi a couple of years ago, I found it illuminating and a good access point into the form of graphic novels but I didn't fully enjoy it and found parts dry. However, this didn't discourage me from seeking out Embroideries when I learned that it was also a memoir about women's issues; as my graphic novel experience is still slight, I was excited to read one that dealt with a subject that I am most interested in as well as making a non-fiction contribution towards my Women Unbound challenge reading.

One of the things that I did enjoy about Persepolis was Satrapi's art and that is continued in Embroideries so I felt that it was almost one continuous story set in the same policed world albeit with a far less dry installment. I thoroughly enjoyed Embroideries and its insights into the lives of multi-generational women in Iran. Marjane and her family members gather with friends and neighbours for an afternoon samovar, the function of which was discussion; although the afternoon of tea and chat is translated as "discussion" I think it is more literally "gossip", or as Marjane's grandmother describes it, "To speak behind others' backs is the ventilator of the heart." I love that image and it is one continued later, where one of the neighbours is crying and another says "let her air out her heart. There's nothing better than talking". I respond well to female company, to good chats over tea or coffee and find it often immeasurably cathartic, illuminating or plain entertaining and Embroideries is all of these things. The discussions often involve sex and the experiences of the women discussing it; some have had horrible experiences with marriage and men and others entertaining ones or the women are recounting stories of women they know. From the childhood friend who razor-bladed her husband's testicle on their wedding night in an attempt to recreate the loss of her virginity (already lost) to the married woman who had never seen a penis or knew what the "white stuff" was that another story referred to, the discussions that take place around tea are highly amusing. Not all the stories are entertainingly shocking or amusing, however, but all deal with women's issues and the positions of women being forced to married the wrong man, the lengths they will go to keep a man, the steps taken to leave a man, in a culture that value men over these courageous, intelligent, witty women.

Some of the women who surround Marjane are strong and subversive, resilient and positive role models for a young woman and I am not surprised that Satrapi chose to write about them. I was entertained whilst being given insight into a cultural tradition that, albeit not very different in nature from Western women meeting up for coffee, is conducted behind closed doors. The stories recounted are rich in humour and experience and my only complaint is that Embroideries was so slight as I could happily have read something longer and more substantial, rather than barely a glimpse.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

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 Non-Fiction section:

What straightforward title did New York Times science writer Natalie Angier give to her best-selling "intimate geography" of the female body?

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

"I had no sense of foreboding, when we sat talking together that last evening, before Ambrose set out on his final journey. No premonition that we would never be together again."
From My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier p. 8

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Tin-Kin

I read The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom at the tail-end of 2009 and it squeezed into my Best of 2009 post. An accomplished and resonant début, The Tin-Kin is set in 1990s Northern Scotland. Dawn, a single mother of a young daughter, Maeve, returns to her stifling home-town upon the death of her aunt. Dawn hasn't been home for years, leaving her violent ex-husband before Maeve was born; she has barely been in contact with her family until news of her aunt Shirley's death. Dawn lived with Shirley from a young age, was close to her and inherited her flat (apartment), in which she is presented with the cupboard that Shirley kept locked and told inquisitive child Dawn that in it were all of her aunt's secrets; now Dawn has inherited those secrets and in the revelation of these, her family history is re-written.

And somewhere she would find the key to the cupboard. If there was a secret, maybe it was supposed to be discovered like this, only after Shirley was gone.

Alternating with the modern-day narrative are first-person narratives from the 1950s; these narratives are told from the perspectives of three members of the one indigenous Scottish Travelling (tinkers) family: Jock, Auld Betsy and Wee Betsy. The shifts in time are never disorientating nor is the Scottish dialect, although being a Scot I probably have less trouble with it than most.

Pity, whit the settlin's done. It maks fowk bitter. Ye dinnae see wan another. It sits fine wi some, an others tak tae the drink. It's nae a lie.

Thom uses her own family history to tell an imaginative tale that she thought should be told; in the second chapter we learn that Jock is left to die on the floor of a cell, after being arrested for apparently being drunk and disorderly and the basis of that tragedy is that of Thom's grandfather whilst Uncle Jock the character is based on her great-grandfather.

This is a moving story and I was fully immersed in the lives of the family of settled Travellers; Wee Betsy's voice was particularly resonant and emotive. I was less engaged with the main character of Dawn but I suspect that she was intentionally two-dimensional to evoke her own sense of not belonging. Although the story -not a mystery as it is rather predictable- of the photographs from the 1950s that Dawn finds in Shirley's cupboard and the connection they have with the Travellers, is central to the modern premise, it is the 1950s story that had me enthralled; I would have preferred less balance and more focus on the crux of the novel. The story of the settled Travellers fascinated me; I knew little about the history of indigenous Scottish Travellers but now I am intrigued. Whilst reading, I remembered some experiences of Travellers from my own childhood, when "tinkers" came along the streets in pony-and-traps singing for "any old rags or iron" or older women who came to the door offering fortunes; I am now interested in learning more about this forgotten history and agree that Eleanor Thom told a story that had to be told.