A blog for everything bookish

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.