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.