Sunday, 19 October 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the eponymous "White Tiger", narrates this furious, blackly humourous, epistolary novel. Over seven nights, sitting beneath the chandelier in his Bangalore office, Balram dictates his life story in a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He wants to tell Wen Jiabao the "truth" about modern India, in advance of the premier's visit to the country. His journey from servant, living in the Darkness inhabited by India's majority underclass, to fully-paid up entrepreneur, part of the rich elite living in the Light, reveals the dark underbelly of the economic miracle of India today.

Born to a rickshaw puller in an impoverished rural village, where the water buffalo is the only member of the family to receive an adequate diet, Balram decides at a young age that he wants to escape his fate. He doesn't want to remain as poor as his father, scratching out a living in a village brutally controlled by the local landlords. His early childhood is marked by neglect - no one even bothers to name him until his first day at school, when the teacher bestows the name Balram - but he's an alert and bright child. He learns to read, a skill that instantly elevates him above most of his peers. When his schooling prematurely ends, because his family are too poor to afford his classes, he continues his education by observing and eavesdropping on the customers of the tea shop where he's put to work. Since he decided at a young age that good deeds are rewarded only with more suffering, he embarks on his career in the tea shop with "near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity" and therefore finds it "a profoundly enriching experience".

It's in the tea shop, after hearing a conversation between two customers, that he decides to become a driver. He wangles lessons from a local taxi driver and manages to secure a job as second driver in the city residence of a landlord from his local village (the risk of kidnap means most landlords prefer the security of the city over the dangers of their ancestral villages). Through yet more opportunism, he rises to first driver and is then taken to New Delhi, to drive for the American-educated son of the landlord. The master/servant relationship between Ashok, with his foreign ideas and foreign wife, and Balram is at the heart of the novel, reaching a bloody climax that provides the means of Balram's escape from his fate.

Adiga's novel is fiercely critical of a country where the only way to succeed is through the corruption that fuels the entire system. Families trade their sons for dowries, and expect every penny earned in the city to be sent back to the village. Businessmen flourish by providing constant bribes to politicians. Doctors are too busy treating rich patients to actually treat poor people, despite drawing salaries from the state to do so. Policemen "solve" crimes based on who pays the highest price. Politicians buy votes, making a mockery of the democracy India is so famous for. No part of society is free from the lash of Balram's tongue as he reveals the decay. Even his fellow servants are castigated for the way they keep each other down through petty rivalries and hierarchies. Having climbed out of the Darkness and into the Light, Balram tries to be fair to his workers, but he too is wired into the system. As a driver, he ferried his master to drop off bags of money to politicians. As a boss, he pays his way out of any trouble his drivers get into.

The relationship between the servant class and the rich masters is what makes this novel so interesting for me. Ashok is clearly uncomfortable with having to command a servant, and his wife is disgusted by it, wanting to return to New York as soon as possible. Yet it gradually becomes clear that he prefers India, prefers a society where the rich are pampered and spoiled by a whole raft of servants - drivers, masseurs, cleaners, cooks, gardeners - in a way impossible in America or England. Adiga brings this alive with small details, such as Balram scrabbling around the floor of the car for a one-rupee coin Ashok's brother claims to have lost, finally taking a coin from his own pocket to satisfy the master. Underlying Adiga's descriptions of the boom in outsourcing - Bangalore's gleaming call-centres - is the idea that India is making itself the servant of European and American companies. The call-centre workers meet their clients' every need in the same way Balram attempts to meet Ashok's every need.

I have some minor complaints about the epistolary structure - in spite of who the letters are addressed too, it reads too much like a standard first person narration and the epistolary structure feels artificial and unnecessary at times - but overall I liked this novel and I think it's a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2008. Adiga is definitely an author I'll be watching out for from here on in. If anyone would like to read a short story by him, check out this link to yesterday's Guardian Review.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

And the winner is...

I love brand new fiction. Each week I devour the book review pages in the newspapers and magazines I buy and daydream about what books I could read. I get excited when a blogger turns me onto a new author or book that sounds like something I'd love. Yet, in spite of this, I rarely read books in the year they're first published. This could be because I let my library membership slip years ago and don't generally like forking out for a hardback when I know the paperback will be around in a year or so. Or it could be that I tend to think "new fiction" means anything published in the last few years...anyway, back in September, I realised that the only piece of 2008 fiction I'd read was Preeta Samarasan's excellent Evening is the Whole Day. So when my birthday rolled around in I thought I'd treat myself to the entire Booker shortlist and try to read them all before the winner was announced. Well, tonight's the night the winner is announced and (drumroll please!) I've managed to read them (almost!) all of them (currently reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with only Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole left to go). Best laid plans and my defence, I'm not a terribly fast reader and the shortlisted books tend to be on the long side (Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is a stonking 738 pages long and the others range from about 300 pages to about 500 pages).

My reading's been influenced by the Booker shortlist for years - reading over the shortlists and winners from the last 40 years on Wikipedia (see here), quite a few of the books I've enjoyed most or that have stayed with my longest were either shortlisted or won. So while no list could define the best of what's on offer (how could one list that excludes US novels define something so subjective?), I was expecting it to be a good guide to cream of contemporary fiction in the UK. Now, after reading most of them, I'll be interested to see what finally wins. I didn't generally see the "extraordinary example[s] of imagination and narrative" the judges praised (see here for more from the judges). I'd be more interested to know what didn't make the shortlist (or even the longlist) in order to get a better sense of whether these really are the best of the 112 or so novels submitted for consideration. Perhaps that'll be the next step - we've got the longlist so perhaps it's a matter of time before we get a list of every book submitted...

Regardless, I've enjoyed my experiences. I loved Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and it's the one I'd like to see win. I also enjoyed Philip Hensher's marvellous The Northern Clemency (which I actually expected to hate!) and would be almost as happy to see that win. Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is a great read, though it wears its learning heavily (the details of the ship or the opium making process or life in that part of the 19th century in general were laid on thick and I kept thinking "yes, yes I can see you've done your research but please get your research out of the way of my enjoyment of your novel."). As it opens a trilogy, it didn't feel like a complete enough novel to me to warrant inclusion on the list (although Pat Barker's The Ghost Road won so being the start of a trilogy is no bar to winning). I'm afraid I intensely disliked Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, finding the characters cliched and hard to care about. Reading it was like wading through treacle, so even though it's the shortest novel on the list it's the one I laboured over most. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is enjoyable so far. It's a truly contemporary novel out of India, and is especially interesting to compare to the more traditional The Sea of Poppies. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole also looks interesting. I'd prefer if neither of the debut authors won, as I always feel a bit sorry for authors who scoop up big prizes on their debut - I worry that the critical expectation for all their subsequent work can hamper their development.

Anyway, I'm off to heat up some pumpkin soup made on Sunday and settle back down with The White Tiger.

...The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is this year's winner. Just announced live on the BBC's ten o'clock news. I do like when book news makes the headlines!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Booking Through Thursday (er, on a Friday), or how to break a blogual silence.

To anyone who's not heard of Booking Through Thursday, it's a weekly meme that's almost always about books and reading. It's great fun to read through people's various responses, as it highlights one of my favourite things about book blogs: how different people respond to the same thing. I'm not usually tempted to answer the memes myself, but this week's is too appealing. Answering it also helpfully breaks my blogual silence, which should give me the kick I need to finish off the stack of unfinished reviews I've got in draft form!

This week's BBT is:

Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

My reading habits are definitely influenced by the seasons, in that I find that June & July are the months I read the least. Sunny weather makes me want to be outside - be it for walks, picnics or drinks after work - and I'm terrible at reading out of doors. The newspaper or the New Yorker is about all I can handle when sitting in the sun. So I relish the start of Autumn, which I count as from August (if you want to learn a bit more about the Irish seasons check out the Wikipedia entry), as my rate of reading begins to pick up. This August had some gems in it, mainly Michael Pollan's excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma and Nicola Barker's equally excellent Darkmans (more on both soon). But September is my favourite month of the year - I love the back-to-school atmosphere (although I'm glad to not be actually back to school this year!), the renewed sense of purpose. For me, September is Autumn at its best: the fruit is ripe and the leaves are slowly changing and the days are getting just a touch shorter. I love it. It makes me want to read more than any other time of year. And this year I craved fiction. I craved fiction to the point where I looked at all of the new-to-me authors on the Booker shortlist and thought about how much I'd love to read them. I usually try to read the favourites on the Booker shortlist before the prize is announced, to have some sense of what the judges are deciding between, but I've never before had the time nor the inclination to read the whole list. But this year, my craving was enough for me to treat myself to the entire shortlist (so many hardbacks! Such a treat!). I've finished Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies (again, more on that later) and am now on Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. So far, I'm enjoying my newly reinvigorated autumnal reading habits.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Ramblings of a kitchen revolutionary

As I'm sure you know by now, the Man Booker longlist was announced earlier this week. As usual, it provoked quite a reaction, especially because of the inclusion a thriller (Tom Rob Smith's Child 44). For anyone who's interested, the full list is:

Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold - Girl in the Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry - The Secret Scripture
John Berger - From A to X
Michelle de Kretser - The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies
Philip Hensher - The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill - Netherland
Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith - Child 44
Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

I've not read any of them, yet, which is unusual for me. From these, The Secret Scripture is the only one I'm definitely planning to read. I'll probably add The Sea of Poppies (I've wanted to read Ghosh for a while and this is the opening book of a planned trilogy) and Netherland (which I've started to notice around the book blogs I read and is apparently already the bookies' favourite). I must admit that Rushdie leaves me cold - I overdosed on Rushdie about 10 years ago and have been unable to summon the energy to read any of his new books since then. The mixed reviews The Enchantress of Florence has received turns me off even more - there are too many books I want to read this year than feeling like I should read this one.

I'd be much more interested to read the list of books submitted and called in by the judges (103 submitted and 9 called in), as it would be interesting to know what didn't make it on. However, the longlist is a means of generating publicity, both for the prize itself and for the actual books in the running. A publicity tool like this can save a book from sinking without a trace. Check out this article in the Bookseller for some sales stats about the numbers of copies sold of the longlist so far. Unsurprisingly, Rushdie leads the pack but the 363 copies of de Kretser's The Lost Dog since its May publication shows the sorry state that hardback literary fiction in the UK. If publishing a long list helps that in some way, then I'm happy with that.

In other bookish news from chez Logophile, I have fallen head over heels for a new book. I can safely say that the wonderful The Kitchen Revolution by Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron is transforming my life (check out the excellent website here). I'm not generally a fan of cookbooks. I've had my fingers burned in the past (mostly metaphorically!) trying to cook from cookbooks I quickly realised were duds, so these days we tend to stick almost exclusively to an old 60s edition of The Joy of Cooking. But The Kitchen Revolution is something special, and since I've been recommending it to friends and colleagues in real life I thought I'd blog about it too!

I first noticed The Kitchen Revolution when the Guardian wrote it up a couple of months ago. The whole premise is to maximise the choice of meals in a given week while minimising time in the kitchen and reducing food miles. This is music to my ears - my new commute is a whisker short of 20 hours a week, so the less time shopping and cooking the better and I'm always interested in ways to cut our carbon footprint. Each week features a big meal from scratch (this week we had duck breast with cherry sauce, roast baby veg and a salad - it was delicious!); something for nothing (two easy and quick meals that transform the leftovers from the first night into yet more delicious food); a seasonal supper (last night we had chilled courgette & avocado soup that honestly tasted like it came from a restaurant despite taking only minutes to make); a larder feast (using only store cupboard ingredients, for when the fridge is bare - tonight it was braised lentils with herb cream cheese); and a 2 for 1 meal (something that freezes well, so half can be eaten straight away and half can be frozen for future enjoyment). The website also features the recipes and shopping lists, so it's easy to print out the shopping list in advance.

This book has totally changed our cooking and eating habits, as well as reducing the amount of money we spend on meals out or takeaways. The weekly meal plans make it possible to enjoy a variety of meals without any stress, as well as expanding the range of food we're eating. What amazes me about it is that I'm spending less time than ever actually cooking yet eating excellent home cooked food every night (my husband enjoys it even more, since he was the chief cook in our household but I love this book so much I'm doing most of the cooking at the moment!). Now I just wish somebody would do a vegetarian version, so that I could make an even smaller impact on the planet...

Friday, 25 July 2008

1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
Magna Carta, clause 39.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
Magna Carta, clause 40.

The nobility of the ideals expressed in these two clauses has echoed down the ages, elevating Magna Carta, a piece of 13th century English legislation, to iconic status. It is now revered as the well spring of modern justice, particluarly because of its influence on the authors of the US Declaration of Independence. I debated whether to reproduce these quotes here, as this delightful book is about far more than how we view these two particular clauses nearly 800 years after the rebellious barons forced King John into signing Magna Carta. Danziger and Gillingham wear their learning lightly, resulting in an illuminating and enjoyable read that lifts the veil (or should that be pulls back the tapestry?) on life in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Each chapter opens with a quote from Magna Carta, setting the theme for the pages that follow. Themes range from the domestic (castle building and castle life, family life and family strife, education) to warfare (the role of hunting and tournaments in preparing for war, how battles were conducted and the crusades) to the Church (the Lateran Council and Pope Innocent III's conflicts with King John) and England's place in the wider world. King John, that legendary villain, comes across as perhaps the first "English" monarch (as his brother Richard Lionheart/Coeur de Lion and the rest of his ancestors were essentially French), despite his scheming and overbearing style of leadership that provoked the rebellion that led to the signing of the charter. The breadth of themes covered allows the reader to get a firm hold of both the complexities of Plantagenet kingship as well as the ups and downs of everyday life.

I particularly enjoyed the authors' placing of England in the wider world at around the time of Magna Carta. In Asia Minor, the crusades were reaching their bloody climax in the decades on either side of 1215. The Muslim warrior leader Saladin captured Jerusalem, marking a turning point in the struggle for control of the city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims (the struggle that is still being felt today). Meanwhile, in China, Genghis Khan and his armies captured Beijing in 1215 after breaking through the Great Wall of China. In the years that followed, the Mongols moved through Central Asia before terrifying Europe with their speed and ruthless methods. Back in Europe, St Francis of Assisi was founding his mendicant order of monks, revolutionary in its austerity and detachment from worldly wealth. Pope Innocent III, by presiding over the Fourth Lateran Council, gave lasting shape to the subsequent structure of the Catholic Church as well as influencing justice throughout Christendom.

If you think this all sounds a little staid, the style is really quite funny at times, especially when quoting from The Book of the Civilised Man, an etiquette guide by Daniel of Beccles (sample advice: don't scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches or chest in public). Daniel seemed to be swimming against the tide in a society where Roland le Pettour (that is Roland the Farter) was rewarded with a country estate for entertaining the Royal Court by "leaping, whistling and farting before the king"!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Friday Notes

The move to Brighton went really well, I can see the sea as I cook in the kitchen and so far I'm coping with the much longer commute. It's funny, I keep getting sympathy from colleagues about the length of time on the train and I keep responding with "well, yes, it's certainly longer but I get a seat and I can read uninterrupted the whole way". I'm enjoying it a lot more than the scramble for space and jostling for elbow room that was the central or northern lines at rush hour!

The downside to moving house is that all of my books are still in boxes, which has thrown off my reading plans for the month (I'm especially conscious that time is a-tickin' on the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge and if I don't get myself sorted soon I'll be way behind!). Luckily some books I mooched arrived the day before we left London, so during my train time this week I've finished a popular history book (about 1215, the year of Magna Carta) and am currently devouring Margarent Laurence's The Stone Angel. We're planning to search around the flea markets of Brighton tomorrow to see if we can find some shelves so that my books can escape their temporary cardboard prisons and breathe again.

The other major downside of moving is that we don't have internet at home yet. On the one hand it's quite nice - much easier to focus on unpacking when not tempted to wander through the blogosphere! - but it does mean I'm also falling behind (again!) with keeping up to date with the book blogging world. Am trying to fit it into my working day (not working so well at the moment as I am busy busy).

I did notice that the Society of Authors' Translators Association has released a list of the 50 outstanding translations from the last 50 years to celebrate its 50th anniversary (see here for the full list). It's an interesting selection, with much that's brand new to me. My irresistible urge with lists of any sort is to check off how many I've read. I'm rather ashamed to admit that I've only read 12 of these 50 titles!

The first thing I noticed is that Seamus Heaney is the only author to translate his own work (for his marvellous Beowulf). I've always wondered about the relationship between a translator and an author, what "belongs" to the author and what "belongs" to the translator (a great writer who also translates can be found at the excellent blog Incurable Logophilia)...Another interesting thing to note is the spread of the titles throughout the decades - there are 11 titles from this decade but only 9 from the 60s and a paltry 6 from the 70s. I wonder how much of this is accounted for by changing fashions in the world of translating. I admit to ignorance on this but I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks.

Anyway, I've got to rush off as I have a train to catch.

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

There is, stretching delicate as a bird's head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird's head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour...

With this opening, EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY swept me up into the muggy climate of early post-colonial Malaysia, the first stop on my journey around the world as part of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Samarasan skillfully weaves the personal life of the one Indian family with the public stories of the birth pangs of modern Malaysia to create a lush, multi-layered tapestry of stories.

Set mainly in 1980, but using flashbacks to dart throughout the proceeding decades, this novel follows the fortunes of the Rajasekharan family, of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, along with their servants and neighbours. As the novel progresses, and secrets are revealted, relationships strain and cracks appear. There is 6 year old Aasha, heart sick for the love and attention of her older sister Uma and so lonely that she plays with ghosts. As Aasha tracks Uma's every move through the house and garden, the once charming and exuberant Uma has locked herself away, shutting down on her family as she plots her own escape by means of a college scholarship to the US. The mother, a woman who married above her class and suffers the consequences of her own emotionally bereft upbringing, is locked in a loveless marriage with the father, a successful and influential lawyer but a distant father and ineffectual patriarch. The aging grandmother turns her physical decrepitude to a sort of tactical advantage, using her ailments and physical frailty to control the dynamics of the household.The middle child, a boy named Suresh, uses humour to swim through the emotional currents around him.

Aasha, an unwilling pawn in the power play going on above her head, is a wonderful character. While she is too young to understand all of the struggles going on, she is sensitive and perceptive. Samarasan's descriptions of the six year old orbiting around her older sister had me laughing sometimes (it must be irritating for the teenage Uma!) and sighing at other times. The author really captures the way that children too young to understand what is really going on can blame themselves or make warped decisions about the truth. I also think the author perfectly captures the way people are products of their upbringing and past, especially the mother. She wriggles uncomfortably in her skin, despite having the nearly perfect veneer of the groomed and perfumed rich society wife. She in turn passes a hollow legacy to her children.

EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY is a compelling read. The large cast of characters and mixture of public and private histories reminds me of a sweeping 19th epic, but even cameo or minor characters are rendered so humanely that none of the characters felt superfluous. The overall effect is that this novel is a page-turner, the sort of book I didn't want to end (I read those last 50 pages as slowly as I could!) and definitely my favourite contemporary novel of the year so far. What's even more impressive is that this is a debut!

With regards to the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, this novel captured the sense of place so well that I have a much better understanding of Malaysia now, especially the complexities of three races finding a place in society alongside each other. It is one of the best post-colonial novels I've ever read. If I were given to ratings, then this novel would be five stars for me.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Reading (and blogging) in my real life

In the last week, two close friends have asked if I've given up blogging. And while the answer's a resounding no the question has made me step back and think about why I've been so silent on here in recent weeks. And why I've been so absent from my favourite blogs.

Initially, my law revision suffocated my reading. It was a gradual process, starting back in April when I'd feel guilty for enjoying fiction when I should have been revising acquisitions law (or some other such topic). By May, I was struggling with books I'd expected to love - books that had sat in my tbr stack next to my bed exuding "read me"-ness, books that I'd read great things about and was excited to pick up (step forward Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles). When I picked them up and turned the pages I knew I was physically reading, I mean my eyes were following the words, but nothing was happening. No veil was descending. Something was blocking me from entering the worlds unfolding on the page. I felt like I was locked out of my favourite place - I could see the good times to be had behind the gate but I just couldn't get in. Reading Lolita was particularly galling, as I could see how much Nafisi loves reading and just knew how much I'd love this book if only I could find the key. Of course, it was my mind's way of telling me that I needed to stop procrastinating and buckle down to some serious revision! Which is exactly what I did. I set aside all the juicy fiction I'm planning to read and kept my reading strictly to the work- and study-related variety.

But no reading meant no blogging as I felt I just had so little to say. And working and studying meant time was at a premium - no time to be browsing happily through the blogosphere reading reviews by bloggers whose taste I've come to respect and admire.

My exams finally finished two weeks ago. After four years of full-time work and part-time law school, I've been more than a little demob happy. I've crammed more socialising into the last two weeks than I did in the previous six months (weekends in Dublin and Edinburgh, a night and day in the Lake District, concerts, drinks & dinners with friends). While slightly dazed (I'm off to Dublin again tonight for another weekend away - my little sister's hen weekend!), I feel like I've emerged from black-and-white into full technicolour splendour, with the colour the exams had leached out of my reading well and truly returned.

The first post-exam novel I finished was With My Lazy Eye by Julia Kelly. While the cover blurb had my hopes high ("the freshest voice in Irish fiction" - John Banville), I enjoyed this less than I was expecting. This first novel follows Lucy Bastonme from childhood to womanhood in 1980s Ireland and London, particularly her relationship with her ever receding father. It's enjoyable, but mainly because it evoked the flavours and sounds of an 1980s childhood so well (reminding me of my own childhood - nothing like a nostalgia read every now and again). Some details niggled me, particularly the use of email in the late 80s and early 90s London office the character works in, but overall an enjoyable read.

The most recent book I've finished is the excellent Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan. I loved this book, becoming fully immersed in the world of the Big House with its characters (six year old Aasha in particular). I ended up reading this as slowly as I could, eking it out as I just didn't want it to end...I'll write up a full review soon but this is definitely one of my favourite books this year, and certainly the best debut novel I've read in a long time. It's been the perfect re-introduction to the joys of reading - savouring the experiences contained between the covers - and there were lots of new words for me to look up too as Samarasan uses language to stunning effect.

So while the last couple of months have presented the biggest challenge to my attempts to find a balance between the demands of work and reading and the choice of blogging - it's a dilemma that I'm sure every blogger faces - it's actually been interesting. It's forced me to think about why I'm doing something, or rather not doing something. There's still a lot of upheaval in the Logophile household - we're moving from London to Brighton next weekend - but now that my reading is back in rude health I'm sure my blogging will follow.

My hand luggage for Dublin has The Dubliners tucked in - a re-read but I've never read it while actually being in Dublin. And Nabokov's Lolita is coming up. In fact, there are too many books I want to read at the moment!

Saturday, 31 May 2008

American fairytales

I have been almost non-existent on this blog for the last month, mainly because my reading has temporarily paused. Well, I'm reading plenty it's just that none of it is interesting enough to share (unless anyone wants to hear my thoughts on the UK's Companies Act 2006?). Yes, my final law exams start next week and my reading for pleasure has been subordinated to my reading for necessity. With work being more than a little hectic at the moment, I haven't even had any time to read through the blogs I regularly visit! I've been feeling quite deprived...but the prospect of just a couple of more weeks of slog before being free to read without guilt for the first time since I started working full time/studying part time four years ago is the light at the end of this particular tunnel. I shall soon be able to read not just books but all my favourite blogs (my unread posts on Bloglines are at a crazy level, though I have promised myself that I will read them all properly soon!).

In the meantime, it's time to catch up just a little on some of my pending reviews, starting with my Reading Dangerously April & May titles.

This collection of poetry is short but no less formidable for that. Sexton reimagines (transforms) 17 fairy tales originally told by the Brothers Grimm. Starting with The Gold Key (a rather obscure tale that I had to look up in my Grimm collection), Sexton introduces her role within the poems as that of a "middle-aged witch", with her face in a book and her mouth wide ready to tell a story or two. This poetic witch wants to make us remember what it was like to be read to as a child, to make us reimagine these fairy tales ourselves, to remind us that the sanitised, Disneyfied tales we tell our children today are at some distance from the strangeness and violence of Grimms' original tales.

I particularly enjoyed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As with all of the tales, Sexton includes an introductory verse framing the poetic retelling:

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhone,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say,
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.

I had forgotten quite how shocking this fairy tale is. The stepmother, still clinging to the glory of her youthful beauty, ordering the murder of her stepdaughter, and competitor, and setting out to do the job herself when she learns that the girl has survived to keep house for the seven dwarfs.

For me, Sexton succeeds in reminding me of the strangeness of fairy tale by conjuring the feeling of reading these tales for the first time. There are no simple happy ending heres, like Cinderella, and her prince living as "they say, happily ever after, like two dolls in a museum case never bothered by diapers or dust, never arguing over the timing of an egg, never telling the same story twice, never getting a middle-aged spread, their darling smiles pasted on for eternity."


Joel Knox, thirteen and still reeling from his mother's death, is despatched to live with his mysterious father in the crumbling mansion in Alabama where he now lives with his new wife. On arrival, the hero father he has imagined is nowhere to be found on, as his eccentric stepmother and her even more eccentric cousin Randolph, steer him deftly away from questions about his father.

I enjoyed aspects of this novel. Joel is believably on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, especially the way he still retreats into the childish imaginative world of his hero Mr Mystery when real life gets too painful. I liked the interaction with the astoundingly tom-boyish Idabel and the general Southern Gothic atmosphere (the sonambulent mansion, Miss Amy and her obsession with the past, the wonderfully named Jesus Fever) but I was left a little cold overall. I had realised almost instantly who the mysterious lady at the window was, and found the layers of backstory revealed in Randolph's rambling stories overlong.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Can we find the world's favourite book?

I'm not usually one for lists of best books - y'know, the endless lists of books you must read before you die or the best books of all time or the best books of the 20th century or whatever. While I secretly like checking how many I've read (don't we all like a little validation of our reading choices?), I usually don't pay them much heed, reflecting as they generally do the particular tastes of whatever literary editor put them together to fill the pages of the books section in a paper or magazine. .

But I've come across a fun new site Its modest aim is to the find the world's favourite books, films and albums by polling people globally. The fun aspect comes in because of the social networking element - you can find people with similar tastes to you and rate their lists.

I'm terrible at restricting myself to just a top five, but I decided to sign up anyway (I can change my choices at any time) and you can check out my list here. I'd love to know what your top five would be!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Happy world book day!

I've returned from my travels around Ireland but the demands of work and study have kept my blogging (and my reading!) at bay these past few days. But now that my assignment is in and my group report is moving along nicely, I thought I'd snatch a few minutes to wish everyone a happy Unesco World Book Day! I've never understood why in Britain & Ireland World Book Day is celebrated in early March, when the rest of the world is celebrating in different ways on the 23 April. And since the full title is World Book and Copyright Day (clunky I know) and since I work in the copyright/IP sphere, I also like to mark that.

As well as seeing too many amazing things in Ireland to list (the beehive hut on Inis Mór, which we explored on a sunny day, alone but for a white pony looking over the dry stone wall from the next field, and Newgrange, which I've wanted to visit just about all my life, were real highlights), I picked up some excellent books too, including Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin Bo Cailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). The Táin is the centre piece of the 8th century Ulster cycle of epic tales. These stories, with Cuchulainn as the star of the show, are familiar to me from childhood but I'm excited at the prospect of reading Kinsella's attempt at creating a living version of these ancient myths.

I'm also happy to see that Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who killed Bishop Gerardi? won Index on Censorship's TR Fyvel Book Award 2008. I've not read this yet, but it's been on my list since Index announced the shortlist back in March. I hadn't heard of it before the shortlist but a bit of digging turned up reviews that make this book sound not just important for freedom of speech but an excellent read at the same time (check out this review from the NYT).

Goldman's book is on an ever-expanding list of non-fiction books that sound interesting. I really want to check out Torture Team by Philippe Sands. There's an excerpt on the Guardian's website (see here) that shows what a gripping and important book this will be (it's not published until 1 May). The fact that a TV show (24) inspired interrogators at Guantanamo to use torture is horrifying. Another hardback that's caught my eye is Bruce Dover's Rupert's Adventures in China, about Murdoch's quest to conquer the Chinese media market.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Speaking (of) poems

I've been thinking about poetry these last few days, since reading Verbivore's thoughts on e.e. cummings over at Incurable Logophilia. I'm also still reading the biography of John Donne and I'm dipping into Transformations by Anne Sexton. All in all, poetry seems to be in the air.

For Verbivore, poetry is a private and intimate thing. As I turned this over in my mind I've realised that I enjoy poetry most when it's spoken aloud, either by myself or others. Poetry spoken out loud gives me a level of enjoyment I don't always get from silent reading. Perhaps the roots of this lie in my childhood, when reciting poems was a significant part of my primary schooling. Or in secondary school, when memorising poetry and other quotes was necessary for exams (no books allowed, which means I can still quote whole chunks of things like Macbeth and Hamlet!).

Reading Verbivore's thoughts reminded me of poems that I've carried with me since my childhood. Like Austin Clarke's The Blackbird of Derrycairn:

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God's own shadow in the cup now
Forget the hour bell. Mournful matins
Will sound as well, Patric, at nightfall.

Faintly through mist of broken water
Fionn heard my melody in Norway,
He found the forest track he brought back
This beak to gild the branch and tell there
Why men must welcome in the daylight.

He loved the breeze that warns the black grouse,
The shout of gillies in the morning
When packs are counted and the swans cloud
Loch Erne, but more than all those voices,
My throat rejoicing from the hawthorn.

In little cells behind a cashel,
Patric, no handbell has a glad sound,
But knowledge is found among the branches.
Listen! The song that shakes my feathers
Will thong the leather of your satchels.

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling . . .

I still hear these words when I hear birdsong in the morning. And it still makes me forget the hour bell! But it simply must be recited out loud, that opening ("Stop, stop and listen...") demands nothing else.

I hear the words of William Allingham's The Fairies whenever I find myself walking a shore. I learned this poem at a very young age from my father, it was my first experience of poetry beyond nursery rhymes. The rhythm almost stomps along and I still get such a kick out of it. Here's the first verse:

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather.
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

I love the crispy pancakes of sea foam and the watch-frogs guarding the fairy folk as they go about their mischief. For a poem written in the mid-nineteenth century this still strikes me as remarkably fresh.

I'm currently on holidays in Ireland, with my husband and parents-in-law visiting my own family in Cork as well as touring around a little. My access to the internet is sporadic, so I shall have to catch up on everyone's blogs when I get back to London next weekend. At least I shall have some good time to catch up on reading!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Indy bookseller soon to be no more

I've just found out that the excellent Metropolitan Books in Exmouth Market, London is sadly closing down. I'm not sure why owner Phil Griffiths has decided to shut up shop after ten years of business, but it's going to be a real loss for the readers who live or work around Exmouth Market (it's the nearest bookshop to my office, so shall have to head further afield to get my bookshop browsing fix now). This small bookshop always felt more like a front room in someone's house, so much cosier than the big bookshop chains.

Metropolitan Books will be selling off its stock at a 50% discount this Saturday 12 April. Unfortunately, I'm going to be back in Ireland as otherwise I'd be there.

I think independent bookshops are important to give a diversity of choice, and that's why I'll go out of my way to support them. Publishers pay such huge amounts to the big chains as marketing spend, ensuring that their "big" books are featured in 3 for 2 and BOGOF promotions or get window displays. I personally trust a recommendation from an independent bookseller, who loves books and understand his or her customers' needs, far more than from a chain bookseller who is promoting a book because they've been paid thousands to do so...

A very handy website for this is Local Bookshops Online. It allows you to search very easily for your nearest independent bookshop, via postcode or by the map.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

World Literature Forum

Finally, translated literature gets a proper online home for discussion! Stewart over at Booklit has created the rather brilliant World Literature Forum , a community for interested readers to discuss, review, recommend, publicise and generally rave about translated literature to their hearts' content. I've just signed up and I hope lots of you do too, as I've know there are so many lovers of world literature in the blogosphere (thanks to Mark over at ReadySteadyBook for bringing this to my attention).

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence, but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
Cat's Eye, p118

Elaine Risley has returned to Toronto, the city of her birth, for the first retrospective of her artwork. As she wanders around present day Toronto she embarks on a parallel retrospective of her own, unleashing a flood of memories of her family, her first friends, her first lovers and her first steps in art. Elaine's narration moves fluidly between the Toronto of her present and the Toronto of her childhood, with this narrative structure serving as a reminder that the undercurrents of the past constantly move beneath the smooth surface of the present.

Most of Elaine's early childhood in the late 30s and early 40s was isolated but for her older brother Stephen and her loving but remote parents. Her family led a nomadic life, traveling around the forests of northern Canada to allow her entomologist father to conduct field research. This rootless existence restricted Elaine's ability to form friendships; the Risley family were never in one place long enough for friendships to bloom. From what she gleans from magazines and other snatched glimpses, little girls are as exotic as unicorns, with their dresses and ribbons and pink cheeks. They are far removed from her life of canvas tents, camping stoves, insects and lakes. She instinctively understands boys, as Stephen and his games and casual physicality teach her all she needs to know. When she's 8 her life is transformed as her father finally accepts a professorship at the University of Toronto. The Risleys move to the suburbs, furniture and the trappings of a middle class family life come out of storage and Elaine finally has her chance to make friends of her own age. Unfortunately, as she falls under the spell of Cordelia, her best friend and eventually chief tormentor, it's clear that Elaine is woefully unprepared for the manipulation, hypocrisy and bullying that soon becomes her daily reality.

Atwood captures the torment and complexity of childhood so well. The quote above leapt out at me, as it's a distinction many adult writers fail to make. The writing is nuanced, so that Cordelia and her associates are not starkly bad - they have parents and problems and motivations of their own. Elaine's parents and the other adults are kept to the peripheries, in the way that adults actually are for children, yet they emerge as distinct characters. Elaine's mother is particularly well drawn, with her slight bohemian air and ambivalence about the stay at home life of the typical mother and her struggle with knowing that Elaine is suffering but not knowing how to help her.

Best of all, Atwood skillfully shows how childhood traumas percolate through adulthood. Elaine may have been a victim as a child, but she goes onto form unhealthy relationships where she has a lot more power to hurt. She emerges into a successful artist, producing some of her best art from her childhood pain. There is no simple tale of the good girl versus the bullies, instead Atwood explores themes of female relationships, mother/daughter relationsips, male/female relationships, memory and the experience of aging.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

The armchair traveller

I feel like I've been travelling back in time recently, mostly thanks to John Stubbs' excellent Donne: The Reformed Soul but also thanks to the wintry weather that London woke up to this morning. I've been enjoying all the signs of spring - tulips, cherry blossom, budding leaves - but I felt like I'd travelled back to the depths of winter when I opened the blinds this morning! Check out these pictures from our garden this morning.

I'm still wandering the streets of Elizabethan London courtesy of John Stubbs' ability to bring John Donne's world vividly alive. Here's a description of Lincoln's Inn Fields, right outside Lincoln's Inn, where the teenage Donne is studying law:

Beyond the calm college enclosure lay Lincoln's Inn Fields: a large, open, rather dowdy space, yet an arena for a bit of everything in Elizabethan London. It was the rubbish-strewn site of public executions and discontinued building projects, a venue for all kinds of exercise, haggling, get-togethers and theatricals. Horses were taken there for a runabout, clopping perilously close at times to passers-by. Cripples and beggars assembled at their stations. Some of the city's pricier brothels and gambling dens were located in the lanes around the Fields, and prostitutes would come to take some air and loiter for early trade. The district grew livelier as the day wore on. Mountebanks would arrive with their cures and aphrodisiacs, set up their stalls, and crowds would assemble to heckle them. Puppet shows would open and throttled bears would dance on chains.

With such a world jostling for his attention it's a wonder that Donne got any study done!

Meanwhile, Eva, over at A Striped Armchair has led me to an excellent new challenge - Orbis Terrarum. This whole world reading challenge is being hosted by the foreign literature lovers over at B&bexlibris and is incredibly flexible, asking only that 9 different books, by 9 different authors, from 9 different countries are read in the 9 months from April to December 2008. Since Eva's post about her bookish jaunt around the world have given me itchy feet of my own and since my tbr stack is currently loaded with an interesting mix of international books (and there are some other international books I'm looking for an excuse to buy!), I'm packing my bags and signing up for this challenge myself.

I'm going to start off my armchair journey in Europe, with a trip to Albania courtesy of Fatos Kongoli's The Loser. This came to my attention via Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression 2008 shortlist. According to its blurb, The Loser is a moving portrayal of the suppression not just of art by a controlled press and other repressive state mechanisms, but of a whole people denied the freedom to express themselves but is also a moving novel of love and loss. This sounds like just the entrance into contemporary Albanian literature that I need!

From Europe, I'm going to head to Iran with Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. I recently picked this up in a charity shop, after a fellow book browser interrupted me with the words "I'd never normally do this, but you simply must read that book - it's excellent". Since it takes a lot for most English people to break their reserve and speak to strangers, I'm thinking this book will be real treat.

From Iran I'm hopping over to Sri Lanka with A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies. I love epic novels about families, and this novel about 3 generations of a Sri Lankan family, searching for coherence and continuity in a country broken by colonial occupation and then riven by ethnic wars, sounds excellent.

From Sri Lanka, I'll be heading further east, to Japan with Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go. Go is a game of strategy, and like all the best games, it's simple in its fundamentals but infinitely complex in its execution. This novel follows a competition between an older Master and younger challenger, a competition that turns into an elegy for an entire society. I've not read anything by the Nobel laureate Kawabata, but reading about Snow Country over at Verbivore's Incurable Logophilia made me resolve to read him this year. This challenge is the perfect chance to make good that resolution.

While on my travels, I'm going to bend the rules slightly so I can visit a place I've wanted to visit ever since reading Sara Wheeler's remarkable Terra Incognita several years ago - Antarctica. While Antarctica is actually a continent, rather than a country, I'm making this challenge flexible enough to allow me to include it. Terra Incognita is an exceptional book, chronicling Wheeler's experience as the first woman selected by the American government to be the "Writer in Residence at teh US South Pole Station". Luckily for me, I've got another of Wheeler's books lurking in my tbr pile: Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Cherry (author of The Worst Journey in the World ) was one of the youngest member's of Captain Scott's final expedition to the Antarctic. I've also got Granta's beautiful anthology The Ends of the Earth , a collection of writings about the Arctic and Antarctic, to dip into for more about the frozen polar worlds.

From the icy landscape of Antarctica to the sunnier climate of Malaysia via Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan. This debut novel isn't published in the UK until early June (it's out in mid-May for you lucky Americans), but I first heard about this novel from friends, as the writer is an old school friend of some of my closest friends, and have been planning to read it ever since checking it out via Amazon.

From Malaysia I'm going to journey to Australia via Sally Morgan's My Place. I spotted this novel in the sidebar of Antipodean Owl's blog and it seems Morgan's story of uncovering her family's suppressed Aboriginal heritage is a landmark in Australian literature.

I'm going to journey onto the Carribean, specifically the Dominican Republic, via Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I read (mostly) excellent reviews of this when it came out in hardcover and am looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about!

The last stop on my whole world reading adventure will be Iceland, where I'll travel thanks to Halldor Laxness's Independent People. Iceland fascinates me, perched as it is in the no man's land of the north Atlantic between North America and Europe. I'd love to visit some day but, for this year at least, visiting via the Orbis Terrarum challenge is the best I can do.

In other blogging news, I've finally succumbed to BookMooch after reading Heather's post about going green over at this month's Estella's Revenge (and have added a little widget to my sidebar). I signed up on Friday night and I can see it's going to be seriously addictive! I've already got seven books to send, and have mooched my first book and am sure I'll be mooching plenty more in the future.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Revising my reading dangerously plans

I recently started The Divinersby Margaret Laurence, as part of my Year of Reading Dangerously. The "official" title for March is Cat's Eyeby Margaret Atwood, but I decided to push beyond my Atwood comfort zone with another Canadian author. Since I'd only discovered Margaret Laurence in January, when I started my adventures in blogging, it seemed appropriate to include one of my first blogosphere discoveries in my first reading challenge!

Laurence's novel The Stone Angel was featured as the February title over at the Slaves of Golconda (see here for Stefanie's thoughts). Following the Golconda discussion really whet my appetite for this author and the first pages of The Diviners, as Morag Gunn delves into the recesses of her early childhood memory, have not disappointed. But I've decided to set this book aside for the time being. This is totally out of character for me - I usually finish what I've started, even if I really dislike the book (see my thoughts on Then We Came to the End for the latest of example of my chronic inability to put down a book once I've started even if I'm not enjoying it!). I've decided I want to start with The Stone Angel and work through Laurence's work in a roughly chronological order. The Diviners will be enriched by reading at least some of the earlier novels and stories.

Since I read Cat's Eye in March anyway, I'm substituting that as my Dangerous book for March (my thoughts on Cat's Eye will be posted this weekend). I've ordered Transformations by Anne Sexton, my April title, and am looking forward to continuing this challenge.

Friday, 28 March 2008

My blogual silence for the past week is because I've just returned from a short Easter holiday in Languedoc. We're lucky enough in Britain to get both Good Friday and Easter Monday as bank holidays, so only two days off work allowed us to have almost a week's holiday. In spite of the weather (snow, rain, sleet, hail, the odd spot of sunshine), we had a glorious time. Eight of us, ranging in age from 9 months to 35, stayed in an old house in the village of Caunes Minervois in the foothills of the Montaigne Noire, about 20 minutes outside of Carcasonne. We were lucky enough to be staying right next to this boulangerie, so plenty of fresh bread and croissants.

Carcasonne was just as stunning as I'd heard, wandering around the mediaeval city was amazing. This picture capures a fraction of its splendour.

Of course my best laid reading plans were foiled by the good food, good wine and good company so I actually read practically nothing (though have made a good start on both A Life Reformed and Half of a Yellow Sun for the Chunkster and African reading challenges respectively, so not feeling too guilty!). It was also great fun to read books with my niece (she's literally devouring books - I suppose chewing cardboard helps with teething!) and nephew.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Richard Yates - Revolutionary Road

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1955, this novel charts the ultimate unraveling of April and Frank Wheeler's suburban family life in the Revolutionary Hill Estate in Connecticut.

From outside, the Wheelers are happy and successful. Frank, with his stories of soldiering in Paris during the War, maintains ironic detachment from his New York job which means he keeps his air of an intense young man destined for great things. Beautiful April, with her flair for the theatre, her immaculate home and her two pink-cheeked children, is the envy of her friends. Their active social life revolves around cocktail parties with like-minded couples, who also happen to live in the suburbs but who remain passionately interested in the arts, the ills of contemporary society, the usual themes for intelligent adults. These conversations are essential for Frank and April, as they are their link to the bohemian life they had in New York City, before adulthood and responsibilities got in the way.

But April and Frank are not happy and successful, in fact their unhappiness is hardening into desperation. Frank is suffocating in the boredon of commuting and office routine. April, with her inability to love unconditionally, is drowning in domestic drudgery, her mind rotting. So April hatches a plan to rescue them from the brink: the whole family will relocate to Paris, where she will work as a secretary while Frank "finds himself". This plan, with its details (like passports, visas, beginner French lessons, selling the house), quickly takes over as the euphoria at the prospect of escape infuses everything. And so the novel builds to its painfully inevitable climax.

This book made me cry at times, as the world Yates weaves is unbearably sad. The optimism of post-war America, when the rise of the suburbs, that transitional limbo between the crowded city and the empty country, was wonderfully innovative, but crushed individuality and the human spirit along the way. The transition from footloose young adult years, when potential means the world is wide open, to the gradual constriction brought on by the responsibilities of parenthood is made all the harder for the Wheelers because their love for each other has dissolved in a mist of bitter arguments and white lies.

I loved this book. It evoked a world that's recognisable, but also alien, with the male and female characters equally well drawn. I was sucked in, and didn't want it to end. I'm now looking forward to when I inevitably re-read this book.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Index on Censorship TR Fyvel Book Award 2008 - shortlist

I've just been sent the shortlist for Index's 2008 book award, part of the Freedom of Press Awards 2008. All of the titles look interesting:

The Loser by Fatos Kongoli, published by Seren

Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism by Edna Fernandes, published by Portobello

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman, published by Atlantic Books

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, published by Penguin

The Reluctant Fundamentalist has the highest profile but I think The Loser looks interesting. I had spotted it on The Complete Review (see here for the review) and added it to my mental tbr list. I'm now hoping to read it before the prize is announced on 21 April.

Reading Notes

I'm in the midst of Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood. It's a book I didn't plan on reading, but since I'm still waiting for The Diviners by Margaret Lawrence to arrive from Amazon it's a book I thought I'd read to pass the time...but it's such a powerful evocation of what it's like to be bullied by fellow children that I feel I must share some of it. From around page 138:
I see there will be no end to imperfection, or to doing things the wrong way. Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face or stupid act, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face or stupid act, somebody frowning.
I didn't think I'd be so moved by Atwood's book, but I'm gripped. My husband is away with work, leaving me with the time and space to explore some of the books on my TBR list, but all I can do is continue to read Cat's Eye, as I think I shan't be free to enjoy any other book until I've finished it. This Atwood book has me under a spell and I shall be writing about this more fully once I can get my head around it.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

5 kind things

The lovely Verbivore has very kindly tagged for this meme. And since it's the perfect way to round off the weekend, I thought I'd respond to it quickly!

The rules are simple:
- list 5 kind things you do for yourself
- list five kind things you do for your closest friend, partner or child
- list five kind things you have done for a stranger
- have fun!
- tag five people

5 kind things I do for myself

1. Read. As reading is my chief means of making sense of the world, and my place within it, I become anxious and irritable if I don't read enough. So reading - books, newspapers, blogs, journals - is definitely the kindest thing I do for myself!

2. Walk. I love to walk. Solitary walking is when I do a lot of my thinking. The rhythm of my feet, the very physicality of it, seems to help me think. But I also love to walk with others, as talking complements the rhythm of walking so beautifully. Walking gives a conversation space. London is tremendously walkable - a series of villages strung together with plenty of green spaces and history oozing out of the seams. Since I don't drive, I'm the quintessential pedestrian!

3. Keep this blog. Embarking on this blogging adventure has enriched my reading, by helping me to read more thoughtfully and opening me up to the vibrant world of litbloggers. I love reading other people's thoughts on books, as it provides a layer to my understanding and enjoyment of books. By blogging I've reminded myself that I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading!

4. Watch the birds in the back garden. We moved into a house with a garden last summer, and we hung a bird feeder on the washing line. I get such pleasure from watching the birds. The blue tits with their lovely colours. The pair of robins who I sometimes think would come right into the house, so inquisitive are they. The jays, the blackbirds, the wood pigeons, the sparrows, the starlings. I especially like when there are a few types of bird feeding at the same time. I even like watching the lengths the squirrels go to to get at the seed.

5. Eat in restaurants as often as my wallet allows me. I love restaurants, and the satisfaction I get from an excellent restaurant experience is akin to the pleasure a good play gives me. I waitressed all through university, so I appreciate the team work and performance behind good service.

5 kind things I do for my partner

1. Encourage him. I do my utmost to be supportive and encouraging of my husband, as I know he's brilliant and I know that my support and encouragement helps him to think he's brilliant too!

2. Iron his shirts. This is a new one for me, as I've only just started doing it. I've always been quite anti ironing - why can't society accept wrinkles and release people from the drudgery of ironing?? - but have recently started ironing my husband's shirts. And the funny thing is I'm quite enjoying it! I even looked up how to iron a shirt on youtube this evening, and it really helped me get through the pile faster. And I enjoy knowing that I'm saving my husband a chore.

3. Make him laugh. My husband has the best laugh, and I can listen him laugh all day, so making him laugh is perhaps also an act of kindness for me!

4. Keep track of his stuff. I have a good memory, so this is pretty easy for me, but I try to keep an eye on his stuff - the shoes, keys, wallet, oyster card and other paraphernalia of daily life - so that he doesn't lose things.

5. Pick him flowers. We planted spring bulbs together last autumn so I've been picking him daffodils from the garden. I can't wait for the tulips to bloom so I can pick them for him too!

5 kind things for strangers

1. Give directions. I love to help people with directions, and sometimes numerous people ask me for directions on the same day (I must have a sort of "ask me for directions" face!). Last week, I actually overheard a tourist mum say to her tourist daughter to keep an eye out for Holborn tube and I pointed them in the right direction (they were heading towards Russell Square instead of Holborn).

2. Respond to people making friendly conversation in bank queues, bus queues, etc. I like to respond if someone makes friendly chit chat of the weather variety in lines. It seems to happen mostly at the bank or post office. I think it helps break up the monotony of queuing!

3. Greet the bus driver. I get the bus from Kings Cross to work and it never ceases to amaze me how people just file on and don't even make eye contact with the driver as they swipe their oyster card. I like to greet him or her, as I figure that's the least I can do for the person who ferries me through rush hour London traffic!

4. Pick up litter in parks etc. I hate wind-blown litter, so I like to pick it up when I can so that it doesn't annoy anyone else.

5. Offer my seat on public transport to people who need it more than me. This is such a simple thing, but it happens less that it should.

So I enjoyed this! But it's late, and my husband is thinking the kindest thing I could do for him is to go to bed, so I'm tagging anyone who reads this and fancies answering the questions!

Friday, 14 March 2008

When has spring sprung?

I have fallen for a new word: phenology. It’s the observation and recording of recurring natural phenomena and has the rather charming etymology of phenomena + -logy (see here for the OED definition). Suddenly, an activity I’ve enjoyed all my life has a name! All these years of noticing the firsts of the year – the first snow drops or daffodils brightening up the garden in early spring or the first strawberries of summer or berries of autumn or the first frost as nights draw in – qualify me as an amateur phenologist of sorts. Apparently, this simple activity that so many can enjoy is becoming an increasingly important means of charting the impact of climate change on our environments. And to think I thought it was the study of bumps and lumps on the head when I first heard it today lol (because of course I was mixing it up with phrenology)

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Discovering new worlds - Richard Yates & Richard Dawkins

Richard Yates was one of those gaps in my knowledge that had become a little embarrassing (Carson McCullers is another - though at least I know I'm not alone after reading this post by Ann over on Table Talk the other day!). I vaguely knew of Yates as a writer's writer, one of those talents that had fallen out of fashion (at least in Britain and Ireland - I'd love to hear how popular/unpopular he is elsewhere). My book-loving friend Vincent raved about him. I heard rumblings that Sam Mendes was working on a film of Revolutionary Road. Then I read this article in the Observer and finally on a day trip to Ely and a visit to the marvellous Topping and Company I came across such a comprehensive selection that I had no choice but to begin at the beginning and buy Revolutionary Road.

It turns out that's the best £7.99 I've spent in a long while. I'm not going to put pen to paper (or rather finger to keyboard!) and write up my full thoughts until I've let this book percolate for a while. But what I can say is that it dazzled me, leaving most of what I've read recently in the shade. To anyone who says Then We Came to the End nails the office working experience (like this recent post on the Guardian books blog) I can now say “but have you read Revolutionary Road?” as it captured so perfectly the realities of the daily office grind.

A bit of digging showed me that Vintage are in the process of reissuing Yates as Vintage Yates. Initially dropping the first name seemed gimmicky, but the more I think about it the more I think that this is one writer who more than deserves to be known by surname only, up there with the Updikes and Bellows and the rest. And I think the covers are just so beautiful, so evocative. Check out Easter Parade:

Or Cold Spring Harbour:

Or Eleven Kinds of Loneliness:

Just gorgeous. Now that I’ve realised what a gem of a writer he is, I’m delighted that Yates has been given the full Vintage classics treatment. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. Expect Yates to pop up regularly on here from now on.

I’m also romping through Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion at the moment. I must be one of the few readers left in the UK who hasn’t read his spirited attack on all things supernatural. I’m an atheist who had a religious upbringing, and there are many people in my life still with strong faith as well as just plain loyalty to religious traditions, so I appreciate both the disadvantages and advantages of religion. So far, I’m finding it thought-provoking and interesting, even if the style is a little shouty (or “passionate”, as the cover blurb so helpfully describes it) at times.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Salt & Honey by Candi Miller

This is a beautiful written, powerful portrayal of Southern Africa in the middle of the Twentieth century, when apartheid was warping the morals of ordinary people. Koba is a sensitive young girl from a Kalahari desert tribe, a member of the Ju/hoansi, or the harmless people, in her own tongue. Her hunter-gatherer life, of family and tribe and ancestors, is torn apart when her parents are murdered by white Boer hunters in front of her. The very men who slaughtered her parents then take her away from her desert home, to live in exile alongside a white family - Marta Marais, her husband Deon and her son Mannie.

I was swept up by Koba's story. Her journey into and out of exile, with the different types of love that develops with the Marais family, is gripping. The book was literally unputdownable. Miller spent a decade researching and living the Ju/hoansi, and her dedication has paid off. This book is full of issues - apartheid, violence, politics - yet is so deftly written that the issues never get in the way of the story and the characters.

I studied a San tribe in an anthropology class as a teenager, so I knew a little about the culture and beliefs. However, I'd never considered their place in the apartheid system and entering this world through fiction was, in a way, more rewarding for me. The desert, its plants and animals, the stars and sky, was made alive to me in a way that a text book alone just can't do. So I'm planning on sending a copy to my old anthropology teacher. And I'm planning to give a copy to my sister (she's planning her honeymoon to South Africa and Namibia at the moment). In fact, I think I'll be recommending this book to all of the readers in my life!

Finally, I'd like to thank Juliet over at Musings from a Muddy Island for bringing this book to my attention. It was her great review (see here) that led me to this book and I'm so glad it did. It was also the gorgeous cover, as good cover design can often sway me.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Monday, monday

How on earth is it Monday already? The weekend whizzed by, with just not enough reading, either of books or blogs, to keep me happy. My mind is still on law study so I've been flitting around since I finished Then We Came to the End. I'm counting the minutes (well, almost!) until next Saturday afternoon, when my Litigation exam is over and I can enjoy some guilt free reading. Happily, I'm now 100 pages into The Crime of Father Amaro by Eca de Queiros. He's a brand new author for me, and I'm enjoying it so far. The themes of hypocrisy and romantic love are deliciously rendered, with some of the characters just hilariously drawn. It's set in Portugal in the 1880s, which is an almost utterly unknown period for me and it's interesting to contrast it with the 19th century British and American novels I've read. At this stage, I feel sure that I'll write up my thoughts more fully in due course.

I was also lucky enough to have an excellent brunch yesterday, hosted by a dear friend who lives in the most amazing flat just steps away from Borough Market. She's a voracious reader, with such a wide and interesting taste. I can spend hours gazing at her shelves and asking for her thoughts on the various books I stumble across. I trust her recommendations a lot, so there was much opinionated discussion of what we loved and what we hadn't. Pretty much the ideal way to spend a Sunday morning at a time when I just don't have time to read as much as I'd like!