A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 13 May 2012

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac was the 1984 winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, a slim, deceptively lightweight novel which is totally captivating and more complex than it first appears.

The story follows the character Edith Hope who is taking an impromptu vacation at the Hotel du Lac after some unnamed event in which she has somehow embarrassed herself and her friends. The hotel is in Switzerland in an unnamed place on an unnamed lake and this very lack of naming serves to highlight the exile to which Edith has been subjected. The hotel itself does not advertise, but relies on word of mouth to fill its rooms. It is the end of the season. The hotel is beginning to run down, the town is quiet, its residents are either locals or exiles like Edith. Not surprisingly, the hotel residents are mainly cast off women.

Edith, back in London, is a successful writer of romantic fiction (under a pseudonym, of course. One cannot, as a single woman of this era, be both free and successful) and approaches her exile in a defiant spirit, intending to work it out whilst working through her next novel. Instead she finds herself drawn into observations of, and the lives of, her fellow cast-offs serving their own exiles in the hotel. This includes Mme du Bonneuil, an elderly widow moved from hotel to hotel, cast off by her son. Monica, a beautiful aristocratic woman with a troublesome dog, cast off by her husband for failing to produce a child. Iris and Jennifer Pusey, less cast off than cast adrift, rich soulless women enraptured by their own self-absorption. And then there is Mr. Neville, an irreverent and somehow enticing man who offers Edith a way out of her imposed exile and isolation. Through the hotel residents Edith finds herself drawn into their small dramas, and through their dramas we come to understand Edith’s own.

This is a book of contradictions. Edith is presented as a woman who is quiet and timorous, lacking in boldness or direction. And yet she retains a core of defiance, an unwillingness to change in order to achieve that mythical, fairy tale ‘happiness’ that all women are supposed to desire (marriage). You get the impression that Edith is neither sad nor regretful of her actions, and that where she is happiest is living in her own space according to her own routine; the only thing which causes her regret or sadness is the way others expect her to do and be something different.

Don’t expect a lot to happen in Hotel du Lac, it is a book full of melancholy and grey reflections. Much of the action is ‘told’ by means of letters from Edith to David (a man with whom Edith has been having a secret affair), or through conversations on long, sad walks or over coffee and cake at the quiet local cafe. And yet in these quiet reflections there is a powerful message, a surprisingly unexpectedly feminist novel, expressed in the manner of passive resistance rather than direct action. In Edith we find an unapologetically individual woman, uncompromising in her own way, unwilling to sacrifice herself for the sake of expectation. It is a story I am sure many women will relate to. Perhaps it will make some readers mad, perhaps the slow pace and quiet resistance will be a bit frustrating. But in its quiet, withdrawn way this is a magnificent book. Lightly told, deceptively simple, and beautifully written. A joy to read, and a future classic in the making.

Hotel du Lac receives a stately 9/10 Biis.

Friday 27 April 2012

State of Happiness by Stella Duffy

Never before have I been so lied to by a title. About to embark on what turned out to be a sub-zero camping trip, after the heaviest, most stressful beginning 3 months of the year of my working career, I bobbed down to the library and saw this lovely looking book – State of Happiness – with a lovely blue sky, sea, sunshine and flowers cover and thought ‘that’s it!’. I’ve read something by Duffy before (Theodora – see earlier review) and as one of those great female contemporary writing gems I discovered last year, I felt assured that this was the book that would soothe me into a state of relaxation in those long days lounging around in the tent.

How wrong I was.

State of Happiness follows the story of Cindy, a New York mapmaker and writer, who falls in love with Jack, an Englishman in New York, who she meets through her friend Kelly. Cindy is enjoying some success from the publication of her thesis and is a minor celebrity, as well as teaching on the side. Jack is a newsmaker. An unlikely pairing that surprises them both. Aside from mapping her own life, Cindy begins to map her life with Jack and finds it to her liking.

Then Cindy suffers an unexpected health scare, a sudden collapse whilst teaching. At the time nothing was found and Cindy and Jack continue their life together as normal. A minor bump in the road, that’s all.

Then Jack is offered a job in California. Cindy, a New York natural, has some questions about following, but after some soul searching and sage advice from her friend Kelly, decides to take this new fork in the road and follow him out there. After a short period of disappointment she, and Jack, begin to settle into their new life together. Cindy embarks on a project she’d been thinking about for some time, exploring the link between memory and maps, personal maps. Then one night she wakes to a pain in her chest and a new knowledge that the truly undiscovered country is the one we carry around with us, that the map of ourselves is inside us and as out of our control as the country around us.

After such a lovely start we then follow Cindy and Jack on their new path, a journey with terminal illness. An uplifting story, this is not. Poignant, sad (I actually cried when Cindy told her friend Kelly that she was dying) and written in a starkly unsentimental way, State of Happiness forces us to face the reality of what it means to lose the battle for life. Working with a subject which could all too easily becoming cloying, over emotional, sentimental, cliché ridden, Duffy manages to bring both clinical examination and raw emotion into the mix. Juxtaposing Cindy’s scientific, slightly obsessive mapping techniques and the stripped-painful reality of facing the uncertainty of facing a future which offers only pain and death, if anything, heightens the emption of the story, stripping it raw.

It’s not an easy read, and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting (never judge a book by its cover, my son sagely reminded me) but it is an excellent book. Painful, certainly, but also enlightening and perhaps just exactly what I needed to read. Because as Cindy marches on her journey towards her end we are reminded that we are all on that journey but, unlike Cindy, we just don’t know it, or perhaps recognise it. And we should, wherever we can, live for the moment and enjoy what we have because the future is uncertain and unknown and we never really know how long we have or how our story, the map of our lives, will end.

A beautifully written, unflinching examination of one woman’s battle with terminal illness.

State of Happiness receives a brave 8 Biis.

And Stella Duffy – well, I’m definitely becoming a fan!

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Rape a Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

So, you may be wondering if I have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder to return to an author I've read only recently so soon, but when I find a new author I like I like to read their other stuff too, and having read something by Joyce Carol Oates and enjoyed it I really wanted to read something more. So if that's OCD so be it. I liked her work. I wanted more.

So when they had a copy of Rape: A Love Story in my local library I figured 'why not' and so I did and with an intriguing title like that it was an easy grab off the shelf moment (I didn't steal it, just loaned it. Honest). And I wasn't disappointed. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one. Well I think so anyway.

Rape: A Love Story follows the story of Teena Maguire, a single mother, slim, young, attractive, sexy if you like, and her 12 year old daughter Bethel and the 4th of July night when Teena decides to walk through the park to get home, rather than take the long way around. It's a nice night. They've been to a party. It's late. The decision is made.

In the park they run in to a gang of lads who have also been partying. Drunk, high on drugs, they drag Teena and her daughter into a disused boat house. They then gang rape Teena and beat her daughter who, fortunately, is too young to take their interest and instead merely has to listen to her mother being repeatedly raped and beaten while she hides behind some disused boats. When the boys have finished they leave Teena for dead.

And then the story starts. Because in spite of the evidence, in spite of her injuries and the testimony of her daughter, many of the townspeople turn against Teena. Teena the tart. Teena who dresses too provocatively. Teena who was asking for it, who wasn't raped but who was only assaulted when a deal to prostitute herself and her daughter went bad.

And this is the uncomfortable part of the story, because through her delicate, beautiful prose Oates leads us into the minds of a town torn apart by this terrible crime. Into the minds of the rapists whose only regrets are that they didn't kill Teena and her daughter, that they left them alive in order to identify them. Into the minds of the parents of the boys who raped Teena who don't want to believe their sons did this terrible thing, who also maybe know that they did but will do anything to stop their sons' lives being destroyed by terrible, expendible Teena, that floozy woman who is trying to ruin their sons' lives.

Into the minds of Teena and Bethel, especially Bethel, whose childhood ended in that park. Who lost a mother and instead...found love?

Because there are two sides to this story, two sides to the title in fact. This is Rape / A Love Story. And the love story is Bethel's. Bethel falls quietly in love with her rescuer, the police officer who was first on the scene, the strange, enigmatic Officer Dromoor. Not that she ever mentions how she feels.

As the court case begins, and the families of the rapists collectively hire a shark lawyer who twists the events to make them sound innocent, and make Teena sound guilty, Teena withdraws into depression. She refuses to take part in the case, in spite of her terrible injuries, the fact that she only just survived, in spite of her attackers continuing to threaten and harass her, she is portrayed as the villain. And at this point she walks away.

And then her attackers start to go missing, one by one. The first one is openly killed by Dromoor, apparently in defence of another after Teena's ex-boyfriend was attacked in a pub car park. Then two others go missing. Then another appears to commit suicide. The remainder confess. And Bethel knows why. The town moves on.

Rape: A Love Story is a difficult read. It reminded me of a time when I was a much younger woman and I first saw the movie The Accused and felt horrified that beyond the terrible experience of rape was an even worse experience. That after the violence and violation comes a further violation - the trial, in which a woman's whole character, her appearance, her behaviour is measured as justifiable reason for rape. And I can understand how women can choose to turn away from that. Having suffered a terrible, dehumanising assault, to then suffer the psychological damage of being subjected to accusations that the crime had been caused by you, because your skirt was too short, you dressed to provocatively, you 'came on' to someone, you lead them on, you asked for it. Well I can see how in some ways that can be worse.

And this book confronts that fact. That people can be faced with a terrible truth, that terrible violence can be done to a person and it is still preferable to think that the attacker is somehow the victim, the innocent one. Oates, with her beautiful prose, is unflinching in her approach to this subject, forcing us to see the victim, forcing us to see into the minds of the attackers. It is a short, but breathless book and one well worth reading.

If I had one criticism of this book, it would be that it felt rather rushed. And I would have liked to have understood Teena more, but then her very withdrawal is perhaps the thing that brought home how terrible the crime against her had been.

A terrible reminder of the soul destroying, unjustifiable crime that is rape. Please spare a moment to think of the many victims worldwide, and if you can spare a few pennies perhaps make a donation to one of the charities listed below.

Rape: A Love Story receives a stunned 9/10 Biis.

Joyce Carol Oates, you are my hero.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

By now you must be thinking that all I ever do is read books written by ladies. Whilst it's true that I have spent some time shifting the balance to incorporate more works by my fellow female I do, in fact, also read books written by men. And I'm here to prove it. Because as part of my mammoth reading challenge, I read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

So, what's to say about Midnight's Children? For a start off, Midnight's Children was a Booker Prize winner and then the Booker of Booker's prize winner (being the best Booker of Bookers...or something along those lines) so you can feel reassured that it's a pretty good book. And it is. It is an excellent book. Well written, engaging, funny, massive in scope, crazy-confusing-andabitmad. But I didn't like it. Does that make any sense? Not really. Read on and see if you can figure it out.

So the story of Midnight's Children follows the life of Saleem Sanai, a boy who was born on the stroke of midnight on the day of the 'birth' of new India, India's independence from Britain. And later in the novel, but not much later, we learn that Saleem, like all the other children born between midnight and 1am on that day, has special powers, special powers that are a threat to Mother India.

There's so much packed into this novel that it's hard to know where to start to tell you about it. So I don't think I will. Suffice to say that this novel is jam packed full of information, characters, events, thoughts and circumstances. From Saleem's Grandfather Aadam Aziz's hole in his chest where God used to be, to the massacre of hundreds of innocents by the British Army, to Tai the boat man and his unwashed, mad, ravings, to Mumtaz Aziz and her secret fantasies of a lanky haired, podgy poet, to prophesies, to Pakistan, to coups, to pickles and child swapping, this book has pretty much got it all. If you enjoy reading novels which are clever, well written and dizzyingly complicated, this is definitely a novel for you.

And I like all those things, but for me the storytellery approach just made me feel excluded. I felt like I was watching a play that was put on for the benefit of the actors, and as a consequence I just felt a bit left out. And maybe not clever enough to understand it (though I could follow the story well enough). There's a lot to take in with this novel. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of history. There are allusions to the 1001 nights (which I wish I'd read all the way through...maybe this year?) and Indian history, hinduism. The main character, Saleem, talks of himself in the third person, as though he is mythologising his own history. And he's an unreliable narrator, he admits as much. So we're left, at the end, wondering if we've been conned, or whether we've witnessed the inevitable fallability of memory. I don't know. I'm still not sure what to think.

I'm sure I missed 1001 things from this dense, intelligent and well written book. I was left in no doubt of Salman Rushdie's superior intelligence, his skill in story telling, his imaginativeness and brilliance. But it was all so shining I guess it left me feeling a bit dull and grubby. And contrasted with the equally skilled but inclusive writings of, say, David Mitchell (who I totally love, I'll get to him eventually) it just didn't do it for me.

So, in the end, Midnight's Children gets a conflicted 9/10 for skill and imagination, it's definitely an excellent book but 4/10 for enjoyment.

Weird, I know.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

When I was first researching great female writers, the name Marilynne Robinson came up. Her catalogue is small (she's written a mere 3 books) but all the vibe suggested that those three books were like diamonds in paper form. So, last year I read Home which is a beautifully written, sad story. And then a kind friend bought me a copy of Housekeeping for Christmas. I finally got around to reading it.

There's not a great deal of story in Housekeeping. Primarily we follow the fortunes of two sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, and the story is told from the perspective of Ruthie and it's a story of loss, of transience, and the tenuous links of family. We begin with the death of Ruthie's grandfather, a man she'd never known, who was claimed by the lake in the town of Fingerbone, a town he'd moved to from the flatlands of the Midwest in a search for mountains. Fingerbone, in itself, is a transient town. Transient in the sense that it's subject to the vagaries of nature: fire and flood, the swamping weight of snow and ice. But also in its position on the railway, which attracts people who are only ever passing through.

Ruthie and Lucille's own story begins when their mother, Helen, about who they knew so little, drops them off at her mother's house in Fingerbone then drives her borrowed car into the lake. Ruthie and Lucille are then brought up by their grandmother, then after their grandmother's death by her sisters Nona and Lily who in turn brought in their Aunt, their mother's sister, Sylvie then left them to her. And Sylvie in her own right is transient, transient in body and spirit, an unconventional guardian for two small girls.

It is, quite simply, a beautifully written book. It has a delicacy, like a thin film of ice, and the prose is simply drenched with poetics. At times it feels like you're reading your way through a long, mystical dream, but don't be fooled by that. Housekeeping is rooted by strong themes, themes of family and loss, the links that bind us to a place, to a set of people who may not be our choice but who are our family. Throughout the upbringing of Ruthie and Lucille, their lives have been punctuated by loss and yet each guardian tries, in their own way, to bring a kind of solidity, a fake solidity, to their lives. And each guardian fails, until, surprisingly, Sylvie. It is her very transience, her gossamer-like grip on what is 'normal' that creates a sense of permanence in both children albeit in slightly different ways.

There is wisdom in this book. You have to grasp a bit for it, it isn't easy, and I can see how it could be accused of being a book which is about nothing, because it does have this sense of being thinly stitched together, but to me this was the strength of the book. If you don't like poetically written fiction, then this book is not for you, but for me it was beautiful. At a time in my life when I feel like reality has me in an iron grip, this was exactly the book I needed. Because in its dreamlike prose it reminds us that 'reality' is only what seems normal, and that normality in itself is an image, a thin veil which can be torn aside to reveal something more true underneath. That beneath respectability is at worst violence and at best habit. That what is deemed 'abnormal' is merely different and is threatening only in that it makes us challenge our own habits and find them questionable, that it makes us question the solidity of our own lives, the rocks on which we lean, and find them resting on surface tension alone over the waters of a great lake.

After reading Housekeeping I feel as though I have been steeped in a lake filled with beautiful language ,and a quiet wisdom that is ever so slightly out of my reach. Ghostlike. And stunning. A beautiful, transient read.

Housekeeping receives a stunning 9/10 Biis.

Friday 9 March 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Given the hype surrounding the movie, it was fairly inevitable that someone, at some point, was bound to offer me a read of Susan Hill's said-to-be spooky novella, The Woman in Black. So when a friend offered to lend it to me I thought 'hey, why not?' After all I quite like ghostly stories and it's been a while since I read anything genuinely scary, and in advance of watching the movie (we'll wait for DVD) I would prefer to read the book. So I said yes, and she gave me the book and after I'd finished reading something else which I haven't blogged about yet I picked it up and started reading.

Phew! Took me a while to get going there didn't it? And that was my experience with reading The Woman in Black. It's only a short book, a novella really, around 200 pages long. So when, after getting about 50 pages in, I was still waiting for something significant to happen it got me a bit worried. And to be honest, throughout this nicely written gothic-Victorian style (whilst being neither Victorian nor gothic) book not much really did happen. He saw a woman at a funeral. He heard some noises, saw her again, heard some rumours, got a bit stressed. But as I was expecting a spine-chilling ghostly story what I got fell a little, or rather a lot, short. And the ending felt a bit rushed, and a little forced too.

And whilst I write this, I have to admit that it all sounds a bit negative and perhaps, just perhaps, I am being a little unfair. The thing about this story, and the hype that currently surrounds it, is that I had expectations of it. I had heard from reviews elsewhere that this is a scary story. And I had seen from the billboards for the movie, and people who have seen the movie, that this is a scary movie and therefore must be a scary story. And when it wasn't. When it failed to elicit even the slightest rumblings of nervousness from me, I was disappointed.

There is a lot to like about The Woman in Black. It's nicely written for a start, and the characters (perhaps excepting Stella) are well drawn, authentic and believable. The setting is beautifully described, and you really get the sense of the house and its surroundings, the creeping, unexpected fogs and the desolation. The local characters come across well, and in general it feels like an authentically written period book, with a bit of a ghostly overtone. And if you read it with that in mind, it's a decent book. Easy to read and engaging, if a little slow paced.

So forget that it's supposed to be as scary as scary and you'll probably find The Woman in Black a nice read. As for me....

The Woman in Black receives a disappointed 6/10 Biis.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Books that are just plain nice

Following on from my last post about The Housekeeper and the Professor it got me thinking about books that are just really nice reads. You know those days where you just want to read something uplifting, something that's not filled with drama or sadness or vampires or violent death, but that carries you along on a rainbow coloured cloud into the warm arms of happiness and leaves you feeling refreshed with a sense of peace and bliss? Those kinds of books. They do exist, though they are as rare as the Kitti's hog-nosed bat. Let me tell you about a few that I have found...

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
This is the first book I always think of when I think of 'nice' books. The story of four women, at first strangers, who together hire a castle in Italy for a month and over the course of the month are changed, casting off their fears and the troubles that plague their lives. And in the process discovering love, not just of Italy but of each other. After reading it, you feel like you've had a month's holiday yourself.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha, as were many of Hesse's books, is heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and as a result it's definitely zen-like. Following the life of Siddhartha Hesse explores human development; how we go through love, trials, we gain friends, family, knowledge and how the acquisition of knowledge in itself is not enough to bring us peace and enlightenment. How there is more to it than that, but how it is all within our reach. If we are just willing to trust and love and try. A beautiful, profound and inspiring book, Siddhartha is a book to read once a year just to remind yourself that enlightenment, however you see it, is possible.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
What is it about Italy? Another story that starts in Italy, this time Florence, and follows a young woman, Lucy, on a path towards love of a young man, George, who 'insults' her by kissing her in a poppy field on a day trip to the countryside outside Florence. Of course the path is not smooth. Lucy's concern for 'appearances' and George's apparent lack of self-control (or perhaps openness) which Lucy's conservative upbringing had not prepared her for. But it all comes good in the end, of course. Another sweet, uplifting book.

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan
I could have picked just about anything by Richard Brautigan barring In Watermelon Sugar which, whilst strange, errs on the depressing side. The Hawkline Monster is an odd story about two criminally minded cowboys hired by Miss Hawkline to hunt down a monster she believes has killed her father. And what is it about that umbrella stand that's so strange? A seriously odd but fun book-child of the 60s summer of love.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
There's a Grandmother and her six year old granddaughter, an island, and lots of strange Scandinavian wisdom. Like everything written by Jansson this has a kind of strange bohemian beauty to it. Not much happens, but there's a lot of love and sweetness and a kind of old, profound type of wisdom. Indescribably lovely.

If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor
Okay, there's maybe some drama here and I have to admit this book does make me cry, but there's an ordinary street in an ordinary summer, a lot of love, a lot of self discovery, a bit of tragedy, and a whole load of poetically beautiful writing about traffic lights.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
There's a little tragedy in this (isn't there always!) but mainly it's a beautiful love story told through a series of emotionally charged recipes. If nothing else, it'll make you want to eat!

Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino
I don't think this little book is quite loved enough. A series of stories about the part-time philosopher, Mr Palomar, and his musings and experiences of the world. Not a novel, but a series of interlinked stories which get you thinking about what's good and curious about the world. I love Calvino's mischievousness and his keen eye. A beautiful book to dip into and out of.

What 'nice' books have you encountered?

Saturday 3 March 2012

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Not a great deal happens in the story of The Housekeeper and the Professor, a short but definitely sweet book by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Now I have a bit of a fondness for Japanese fiction, which you might gather over time, as Japanese fiction tends to speak to my feelings about the world: it's lonely, overcrowded, people are a bit mad and sometimes strange and sinister things happen. Not so, however, in this lovely story of a single mother who is given the job of housekeeping for the former professor of mathematics who, following a car accident, has been left with a memory span of only 80 minutes.

Primarily this is a story about relationships and how they grow, in spite of the challenge of the professor's short term memory issues. And there's mathematics in it too, enough and put plainly enough that even I could understand it. And this is the fascination, for me, with this story. Not much happens. The professor never remembers the housekeeper or her son, who he nicknames 'Root' because of his slightly flattened head. Outside of her time with the professor we learn nothing much of the housekeeper's life, not even her name, just a little of the back story about how she ended up a single mother and working as a housekeeper for the agency and how it lead to her working for the professor. But we learn about prime numbers, perfect numbers, Fermat's last theorem, and the general beauty and perfection of pure mathematics and number theory. Oh, and there's a little baseball thrown in.

There's not a great deal to say about this short novel, but I can highly recommend it. If you're looking for a nice, gentle read which opens up the subtle beauty of a subject which confuses many and turns it into something amazing, then give The Housekeeper and the Professor a try.

The Housekeeper and the Professor receives a cleanly 9/10 Biis.

Monday 27 February 2012

My top 5 favourite books of all time

 The other day I was thinking about a plan we had to sell our house and live on a narrowboat. It was a great idea, a big part of me would love to do it, and downsizing wouldn’t be a major problem; when it comes to possessions I’m not that attached. Except...well of course there is the book collection and with something in the region of 800+ books (I’m still cataloguing) clearly any move to a narrowboat would result in a severe slimming down of the collection. Either that or we’d need 2 boats – one for us and one for the books.

So it got me to thinking, if I really had to distil my collection down to the absolute favourites, the books from which I could not bear to be parted. And I’ve racked my brains, and weighed and measured and examined the pros and cons and listened to the innermost workings of my heart and here, with some trepidation, is my list of the top 5 books I couldn’t bear to live without.  

In no particular order (goodness, selection was hard enough. Ordering? Impossible):

Grendel by John Gardner
Grendel was recommended to me by a particularly literary friend. Not being familiar with the Beowulf story, the name was not immediately known to me but, in the end, it didn’t need to be. Grendel is a lushly written re-imagining of the Beowulf story, told from the perspective of the monster which Beowulf kills to cement his hero status. Here we find the ‘villain’ coming to terms with his role, his ugliness, his hatedness, his realisation of the power of words in spinning a role for us all. That in order for there to be heroes, there must first be villains. I wouldn’t like to give away too much about this one, but I think it’s close to the most perfect book ever written. Beautiful and diamond sharp. Poetic. Magical.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
I discovered the work of Angela Carter by accident. I was studying English Literature at Sixth Form College and one day we had a trainee teacher and she got us to study an extract of a story about a female vampire. It was gothic and atmospheric. Dense and richly written. A few weeks later I tracked it down in a short story collection by Carter and there followed a life-long love affair with the faded decadence of Angela Carter’s writing. And in particular The Magic Toyshop. Perhaps I was just the right age to pick up this short, coming of age story of the pampered Melanie, brought to poverty by the death of her parents and sent to live with an unknown uncle, the sinister Philip, and his Magic Toyshop. And Philip’s wife, Aunt Maggie and Francie and the dirty, degraded, sullen and somehow most marvellous of all, Finn.

As with all of Carter’s work, there’s a sinister undertone, an enveloping sensuousness, almost like a discovered velvet chair, dust laden, languishing past its prime in a second hand shop. Beauty beneath the degradation. A stunning tale of a girl’s growing up, first love and, perhaps, a first connection with the realities, pain and joy, of human life.

Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom
Another chance find, and another real beauty. Aside from the prologue and epilogue (which to this day I still don’t quite understand) this is a shot of ecstatic self-discovery told through two disparate but linked tales. The first tale follows a German-Brazilian girl who, prone to fits of black moods, drives one day into a rough part of town and ends up being gang raped. Following the attack she and a friend decide to go to Australia, a place they had both longed to visit, and whilst she is there she has an affair with an aboriginal man, becomes an angel and discovers how to live with herself in peace.

The second tale is that of a man, a journalist who writes book reviews, who is suffering from a mid-life slump. His girlfriend sends him to a private sanatorium to recover himself and, whilst there, he revisits in his mind his own trip to Australia and the source of his discontentment.

The first time I read Lost Paradise I found myself in a state of near ecstasy that lasted three days. Then I read it again. And again. A sparsely written but amazingly effective little book that will stay with me for all time.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Or did I mean The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Or Ghostwritten? Or Number9Dream? Oh, with Mr Mitchell it’s so hard to choose but if limited to one, to only one, it would have to be this, the sweeping, time travelling, interlinked story Cloud Atlas. With a dizzying range of styles and a skill which is almost inhuman and therefore cruel, Cloud Atlas is the book that convinces me, always, that I’m never going to be a writer. Because who can measure up to that? It’s an historical drama, a detective thriller, science fiction, futuristic dystopia, post apocalyptic western and gosh-darned clever all the way through. Whatever you like to read, this book has got it.

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
Is it cheating to choose 5 books as one item? Oh well, consider me a cheat then. I first read Greenwitch as a teenager and then, in no particular order, The Grey King (still my favourite, if I had to pick one), The Dark is Rising, Under Sea Under Stone, Silver on the Tree. It’s a story for young adults, but great for adult readers nonetheless. Drawing on Arthurian legend and British folklore (or primarily English and Welsh anyway) it also carries all the hallmarks of a good fantasy novel and a classic childhood adventure story. There’s mystery, magic, lots of darkness, sinister forces, heroic children, adventure and running like a current through it all this timeless wisdom that makes it more than a mere child’s book. I re-read The Dark is Rising a couple of Christmases ago and resolved to read it ever year. Don’t be put off by that dreadful movie adaptation (The Seeker – honestly, I nearly cried), it doesn’t come close to doing anything resembling ‘justice’ (though shooting whoever made it might...only kidding). A great, entertaining read for readers of all ages.

 So, what would you choose?

Sunday 19 February 2012

The Tale of Genji

Back in the 11th Century, at the same time the English were just about getting over the Battle of Hastings, a Japanese lady was writing a book which has been called (though this is subject to debate) the first ever novel. And that novel was called The Tale of Genji.

Weighing in at a massive 1169 pages long, this is not a book for the faint hearted. But to my surprise, despite its length, it's actually quite an easy read.

First thing to consider before you decide to read The Tale of Genji is which translation you want to read. There are merits and demerits for each of the translations in terms of accuracy, but as a non-Japanese speaker (well I'm working on it, but ancient Japanese is probably as difficult to decipher to a modern day Japanese speaker, as Anglo Saxon would be for a modern day English speaker) my primary concern was around how the writing flowed and how easy it was for me to read. So that would be my advice, always, when you have a number of translations to select from: read an extract from each of the translations and pick the one that best works for you. There are three main translations of Genji, being (in chronological order) the Arthur Waley translation, Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler. In terms of accuracy I believe the Tyler translation is said to be the most accurate, Waley's the most beautiful and Seidensticker's a bit somewhere in between the two. Just looking at a single passage, you can see the difference:

Waley translation:
'Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall--audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.'

Seidensticker translation:
'Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.'

Tyler's version:
'Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.'

Now, for me after considering all the texts the Seidensticker translation worked best, but that's just my choice. If you want to read Genji, I'd suggest you have a read of all three versions and pick the one that works best for you.

Once you've decided on which version to read it's time to get reading! So, a little about the story. Genji, of the story's title, is the favoured son of the Emperor by his favourite lady (though not the Empress). Because Genji is born to one of the Emperor's lesser ladies which generates much jealousy, and because he is so handsome, the Emperor decides to make him a commoner minamoto rather than according him princely status. On account of the extreme jealously towards his mother, she falls out of favour in court (though not with the Emperor) and the effect of the jealously eventually brings about her death.

The Emperor is disconsolate until he discovers the beautiful Fujitsubo who rivals Genji's mother in beauty. As Genji grows older, he falls in love with Fujitsubo and as a result of an unfortunate encounter (unknown to the Emperor) he fathers a son by  Fujitsubo. The child is brought up as Genji's brother and later becomes Emperor.

The story follows the 'shining Genji' through his romantic exploits, his pursual of ladies of rare and singular beauty. And through these exploits we learn more about Japanese courtly culture in this time period. And it is a story told beautifully, with seductions carried out through poetry, with distinction being measured by familiarity with the classic Chinese poetry and the delicacy of the writer's calligraphy. Refinement is measured by the length of their sleeves, the careful selection of their dress, the quality of their gifts. 

One of the things that comes through the story is the slightly unhappy treatment of the ladies. For example, Genji, being obsessed with Fujitsubo, finds a young girl who is related to her (her father is Fujitsubo's brother). The girl, being underage, is effectively kidnapped by Genji and taken into his house. She becomes, after a time, his principal lady, his Murasaki (namesake of the writer I think) who is in all respects the perfect lady, distinguished, beautiful beyond compare, delicate of mind and deed, patient in spite of Genji's many infidelities. Aside from this kidnap of a minor, the violation of a lady's honour (a 'gentleman' forcing himself upon her) results in dishonour for the woman but not, it seems, for the man. If Murasaki Shikibu wants us to see how women are mistreated this comes through quite effectively in the novel. 

Genji is certainly a novel of two halves. In the first part we see how the shining Genji goes through his life, his trials and tribulations, his affairs, his great successes. It is a shining time, and whilst it is not without difficulties there is little criticism of the behaviour and character of Genji and his cohorts. However after Genji dies (yes dies!) half way through the book we follow the lives of Genji's son Kaoru (who is not his son but the son of Cho no Chujo's son Kashiwagi following an affair between him and the Third Princess who was Genji's wife - complicated much?) and Prince Niu who is Genji's grandson. There's a certain darkening to the second half, the exploits are not so forgivable or laudable, their poetry not so refined, their mastery of the arts (music, dancing) not so complete. Their behaviour results in the possible suicide of a lady who is almost literally torn apart by their 'affections'. It is a dark time and all that is good and valued, all that was shining has become tarnished.

And this is one of the most interesting things about The Tale of Genji, how it tells us that whilst the specifics, the details may have changed, some things are eternal. The feeling that we are living in a declining age is a feeling which spans back through the centuries, back to the early writings of an 11th Century Japanese lady, writing the first novel. A reminder, perhaps, that whilst things may change, human nature stays the same.

I could have gone on reading Genji forever. It is a sad, beautiful, exciting, passionate and enlightening story. Not without its flaws; it takes time to get going (the first few chapters are a bit meh) and there are bits in the middle that feel kind of wrong and disjointed, but at its core it is a love story and the object of love is Genji. 

The Tale of Genji receives an historic 9/10 Biis.

Monday 6 February 2012

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I'm not American and I didn't grow up in the 60s so the story of Mary Jo Kopechne and her accident with then US Senator Ted Kennedy, and all the controversy that surrounded it. So I don't know if I was missing something or not, not knowing the history on which this story was (loosely) related. But on finishing the book, and reading the history afterwards, I don't think I lost out in any way and, perhaps, untainted by expectation or opinion, it was actually beneficial.

So after that long-winded introduction which tells you nothing, let me tell you a little about Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates.

The story traces the death of Kelly Kelleher, a young journalist/teacher/political activist who meets The Senator (unnamed throughout) at a Fourth of July party, sparks up an attraction with him, and leaves the party with him. The Senator has been drinking, and they're driving to the ferry terminal when the Senator takes a wrong turn. Down a dirt road they spin off on a turn, the car pitches into the water. He gets out, she doesn't.

Using starkly poetic prose Oates explores those key events: Kelly's first meeting with the Senator, her decision to go with him, the accident, her death. In repetitious detail and circular timeframes she goes over and over these events. Kelly's motivation, her fears, her feelings, her disappointment, her vulnerability. The Senator's attractiveness. The opportunity. The dark road, the black water. Over and over, in a short novel with short chapters, with repetition, we go over and over the points that led her to here, to her death. There's a real strength in Oates use of language, in the poetic devices she employs to tease out the terrible realisation, that we're watching (reading) a girl's death. That this is a real girl, with real feelings. That she expected to be saved. That in the end, she believed he would save her when in fact he let her down, he let her die in the black water.

And the prose is the real strength of this novel, that while Oates labours the point it doesn't feel laboured, it feels delicate, vulnerable. And you feel like you're right there with Kelly, experiencing her last moments. A painful read, especially in light of the true events which inspired them. She is at once beautiful, innocent and tragic 'You know you're someone's little girl, oh yes' and yet a sharp political activist with keen views and a determination to make a difference 'There is no such thing as 'my' generation, Senator. We're divided by race, class, education, politics - even sexual self-definition. The only thing that links us is our - separateness'.

And in the end it is the separateness that counts. He survives. He survives by using her face as a stepping stone to push himself to safety, while she dies slowly, revolving around the circumstances that led her to her death, sucking on a tiny, shrinking pocket of air.

A short but affecting novel. My first Oates. The first of many.

Black Water receives a slippery 9 out of 10 Biis.

Saturday 7 January 2012

How to make your book budget go further

If, like me, you have a bit of a book buying habit it’s always good to find ways to make your book budget stretch just that little bit further. With new fiction novels retailing at, on average, £6.99 per book it’s pretty easy to sink upwards of £25 per month on books, and with salaries being squeezed by pay freezes and increases in prices of necessities (food, fuel, energy) book buying can become something of a luxury. So I thought it might be useful to share a few ideas about how you can make your book budget go further. I hope you find them of some use.

1. Use the library
If you’ve got an idea of the book you want to read the library is a great way to enjoy that book without spending a penny. When you see a book that you think you might like to read, make your first port of call the local library and if they’ve got the book in stock you’re laughing. Simply make one little trip with your library card and voila! You have your book for free. Many libraries hold their library catalogue online so it’s becoming increasingly easy to search for the book you’ve got in mind, and some libraries even invite you to suggest books for them to add to their catalogue. If they get enough people wanting a book they’ll add it to their stock so it’s always worth asking if you can’t find it.

In UK now it’s fairly easy to join a library and there aren’t restrictions on you living in the area in order to use the library’s services. For me this is great as I work in Manchester but live in Lancashire, so I use both library services – if one hasn’t got the book I want the other might have so this increases the likelihood of accessing that must read book for free. And in a time when libraries are threatened with closure due to council budget cuts, increasing the use of the library makes it more secure so you’re doing a public service too.

And if you’re not sure what book you want to read the library is great too. It’s like a giant bookshop you can walk around and browse for as long as you like, but without you being tempted to buy something. Libraries also offer additional services like internet access and you can borrow music and DVDs too. It’s all good.

In terms of saving you money whilst giving you access to books the library is the best option. Just avoid the late return fines and you’re laughing.

2. Mine your friends
The great thing about having friends is being able to borrow their books. Okay, well maybe that’s not the greatest thing about having friends but it is an excellent extra benefit particularly if you share a love of books. Okay, your friends might not necessarily read the same types of books that you read, but you’d be surprised what people have in their libraries and trying something new is always good. So if in doubt, ask. I love lending books to my friends (providing they return them, of course).

3. Swap
Swapping is something you can do for free with your friends (see 2. above) or there are now websites which provide a book swapping service. It’s not a free process (although the websites themselves are generally free) but the cost of your book is usually limited to the cost of postage. This means that you can swap books fairly cheaply providing you can find someone on the site willing to swap with you.

The website I use is Read It Swap It which is a UK only swap site. Registration is free and the website is easy to use and intuitive. You simply log the books you are willing to swap into your ‘library’ (using the book’s ISBN number) and then you can browse the library and request swaps from other people. Setting up a wish list makes it easier for other people to see the kinds of books you’re looking for and once you’ve started swapping your fellow swappees will rate you on a star system out of 5 to let other read it swap it members know you’re a trustworthy swapper.

Another book swapping site I’ve heard about is Book Mooch. Book Mooch is an international site so has the advantage of carrying a larger selection of books, but works on a slightly different basis than Read it Swap it in that you earn ‘mooch points’ by sending your books to people and you use those points to ‘buy’ books from others. I haven’t used Book Mooch so I can’t say if it’s any good, but it is a well established site and looking at the reviews on the Which magazine site it sounds fairly good.

A word of advice when deciding which books you want to give away, the smaller/thinner/lighter the book is, the less it will cost in postage. If you’ve got a copy of War & Peace you don’t want in your collection, I wouldn’t recommend posting it for swapping as the postage cost alone will make it a much more expensive proposition.

4. Buy secondhand
If you have to resort to buying the book you want then it’s always worthwhile shopping around for a secondhand copy. Although the secondhand bookshop is a dying breed if you haven’t got a secondhand bookshop nearby it’s worth checking out the local charity shops as they will usually carry a stock of books. Oxfam is particularly good and in some places (for example Preston and Lancaster) they will have a dedicated Oxfam bookshop. I’ve found some real jewels in secondhand shops and prices are generally around £2.99 - £3.99 for most books.

Online offers additional options for secondhand books. Amazon marketplace enables the sale of secondhand books, as does and It’s always worth checking out the marketplace options, but it’s worth checking the seller ratings on there if you want to avoid a bad experience. I’m a fan of Abe Books, and have used Amazon extensively for book buying (my desire for books overrides my philosophical doubts on that one!).

5. E-readers
I’ve put this one last as when weighing up the value of e-readers you need to really factor in the cost of buying the device in the first place. But if you have a device already, or you really, really want one or even if you’ve just got access to a PC then electronic versions of books can be a really cheap way of getting hold of the books you want.

If a book is outside copyright then the likelihood is, unless it’s something very obscure, there will be an electronic version available for free somewhere online. Project Gutenberg is one such organisation who have made electronic versions of classic books extensively available for free and e-books are available to anyone with a PC or any device which can read pdf files. Other websites such as may make texts available to read online.

A word to the wise about downloading novels which are translated, often the freely available version will not be the best translation available and if you want the best reading experience then e-books might not be the best solution for these types of novels, but anything written in your native language, whilst not pretty, is likely to be sound and it’s worth checking them out if you’re happy reading books on screen rather than paper. It’s not really for me, but I know many people who are very happy with their e-reading devices and the availability of free, classic books is a big benefit of ownership.

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

I think I've mentioned before my fondness for the small independent publishing house Persephone Books who produce these wonderful, very stylish, gret bound books mainly, though not exclusively, by female writers. I'm building myself a small collection and recently acquired a copy of Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing and just before Christmas I decided to give it a read.

Still Missing tells the story of Susan Selky, a university lecturer recently separated from her husband, Graham, and mother to little Alex Selky, a very confident nearly seven year old boy. One ordinary morning Alex sets out to walk the three blocks to school and never arrives. Susan discovers that he is missing only after he fails to come home from school; by then the trail is already cold.

With the assistance of her friend and the dogged assistance of Detective Menetti who is himself father to seven children, Susan searches for Alex. The novel closely follows Susan's trials and tribulations in the desperate search for her son.

The novel stays close to Susan's story, taking us through her terrible emotional journey. Her grief, her desperation. It exposes Susan's flaws and uncovers terrible secrets about her friends, her neighbours. No one is outside suspicion and the investigation causes irreparable breaks in some of Susan's closest relationships. You follow Susan's agony; the possibility of Alex's death, the seedy criminal world which is right outside her door which she hasn't seen, and never believed in. Her isolation, her guilt. The unforgiving nature of others, the quickness of those unconnected to the events (and even close friends) to judge. I won't tell you how the novel ends, that would truly spoil the story, but I will say that sitting on the train that day, as a parent of two small children myself, I shed a tear or two. Whether that's of grief or relief, well you'll have to read the book to find out.

Still Missing is an excellent novel, painful in its examination of the terrible truth of losing a child. Those who have followed the terrible story of Madeline McCann might uncover a nugget of truth in themselves by reading this book. The story is well written, the pace never waivers and neither does Gutcheon's eye for uncovering all the painful details. There is always enough unknown to keep you guessing, but just enough uncovered to keep you reading. A painful read for any parent, but a worthwhile one certainly.

Still Missing receives a tearful 8/10 Biis.

New Year, new reads

Happy New Year blog readers! I hope you had a nice book-rich Christmas and are looking forward to an exciting reading year in 2012. I've had a nice break, read some great books and am looking forward to my challenge for 2012.

So, what books did you get for Christmas? Mine were:
The Bees by Carol Anne Duffy
Runaway by Alice Munro
Selected Stories by Alice Munro
Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust (book 2 of In Search of Lost Time)

These were great acquisitions for me as they support my reading goals for 2012. This year I'm aiming to go short and long; I want to read more long fiction - books with a page count of 600+ - as I feel like I'm in the right sort of place to absorb those kinds of books, but I also want to explore the short story a bit more. I'm hoping that by examining shorts a little more I'll maybe be inspired to do more short story writing myself. And then maybe some longer stuff. Maybe.

For my 'long' reading list I think I'm going to try and do one per month. I've started already, being ambitious as I am, and leapt in with the behemoth The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shibuki. Weighing in 1184 pages it's certainly a whopper, but already I'm finding it an excellent read. If I'm not in love with 'The Shining Genji' by the end of the novel, there's probably something wrong with me. Watch this space for more thoughts as I read through the book.

Other 'long' reads I'm looking at are:
A Winter's Tale - by Mark Helprin
2666 - by Robert Bolano
Anna Karenina - by Leo Tolstoy
Infinite Jest - by David Foster Wallace
In Search of Lost Time - by Marcel Proust
Ulysses - by James Joyce
The Old Curiosity Shop - by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch - by George Eliot
Kristin Lavransdatter - by Sigrid Undsert
The Magic Mountain - by Thomas Mann
Gravity's Rainbow - by Thomas Pynchon
Mickelsson's Ghost - by John Gardner

I have others (I've gone ever so slightly mad this past couple of weeks book buying) which may creep in if I find the time, though I'd like to save myself some whoppers for the rest of my life too. No good doing it all at once.

One major 'long' read which I'm also hoping to work my way through in stages this year is Don Quixote. For some reason, and I really don't get why, I have real trouble reading Don Quixote. It doesn't make a great deal of sense. I enjoy reading it, it's a good book. I love the characters. It's pretty easy to read and it's funny. But for some reason it's a real effort to pick it up and keep going. So my plan for this year is this: last year we bought a tent and we went camping quite a lot and we want to do the same this year, so I take Don Quixote as my 'camping book' and whenever we camp that's what I'll read. And that way I'll work my way through it. It's a plan anyway. I'll let you know how it goes.

For the short stories, wow there's a lot of scope! I hadn't realised there were so many excellent short story writers out there. So I have in mind that I'll read some Angela Carter (she's my favourite) but also some Cees Nooteboom, Alice Munro, Kate Chopin, Robert Coover. I've also ordered a compendium of stories called The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories which is going to take a little while to arrive but which looks really good. So I've got a lot to be going on with. Plus I've got other books too that I keep meaning to get around to: The Leopard by Leopardi being one of them, and I want to keep reading the Icelandic Sagas - I recently ordered Njal's Saga - and also reading up more about the Norse myths. So I've got my work cut out this year, but it's been fun already.

Here's to a 2012 filled with fun, inspiring and excellent reading.