Sunday, 8 December 2013

Things you learn on a Sunday morning

Living in a B&B is possibly not the most ideal housing solution, but it can have its benefits.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A Quick Review of 'Jude the Obscure' by Thomas Hardy

Jude the ObscureJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This still comes in as a 5-star, even after the 4th reading. Hardy was not prone to writing cheery novels, and this is no exception, but it is a work that carries you along at a good pace. There is little of the description of Wessex that readers of Hardy would recognise from his other novels such as 'The Return of the Native', instead you walk through the fields of Jude's mind with its furrows, stones and seeds of a better life.

Jude's position in society is the stones that prevent the germination of the seeds of a better life. For a short while, though not as he would have envisaged in the beginning, Jude is happy with his love and his life. However, Hardy would not be Hardy if this continued. 'Jude the Obscure' is a vehicle for Hardy's views on marriage and divorce, and it is not just Jude and Sue who were at least 'fifty years ahead of their time'.

This is beautifully written and for all its doom and gloom, it is thought-provoking and enjoyable. The contemporary reviews of this work were initially so scathing that Hardy did not write another prose novel, focusing on poetry thereafter. Mrs Oliphant et al should have been placed in the stocks for their behaviour as this is arguably Hardy's greatest work and we may have been robbed of the chance of something even greater.

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Review of 'Something of Myself: Friends Known and Unknown' by Rudyard Kipling

Something Of Myself: For My Friends, Known And UnknownSomething Of Myself: For My Friends, Known And Unknown by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a shame that those who have little of interest to tell us release the third volume of their biographies by the age of 30, whilst others with a fascinating history leave it until the final countdown before starting their first volume. Such is the case with Kipling who did not leave enough time to complete his auto-biography before being called onto a greater place.

Where that greater place would be is difficult to say. From the first paragraph Kipling invokes Allah,and later states that as Islam was his first taste of religion he found it the sweeter taste. And so begins the slim volume, contradicting the racist colonialist impression that many post-colonialists force upon him and any of their readers.

Kipling was a product of his time, and a staunch colonialist but that does not mean that his works represent any race that is non-white, European as second class. Kipling had a genuine love for India, though his views of Hindus were negatively influenced by the Islamic outlook of his early life, and this is reflected in his works.

Kipling lightly touches on each of his works showing how his experiences shaped them, leaving some legwork for the reader. He met Hardy, Theodore Roosevelt, Cecil Rhodes and many other lumninaries of the time and the insight into their worlds is enlightening.

This is a witty, light-touch biography that is tantalising in its incompleteness.

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From the waiting room of Bologna station

All life passes through the waiting room of a station; it is always the same life.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Review of 'The Impressionist' by Hari Kunzru

The ImpressionistThe Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fabulous work - a response to/reverse take on Kipling's 'Kim', this novel follows one young man's attempt to discover, or create, his own identity. From a high caste Indian home in Agra, via prostitution, public school and the hallowed grounds of Oxford University, to the unmapped lands of Africa, we follow Pran Nath's journey to find self. At times Kunzru is laugh out loud funny, reminiscent of Tom Sharpe at his best, but the humour is balanced with sober moments as the impact of British Imperialism is felt on all - black, white and all the shades in-between.

Like 'Kim' this novel highlights how racism exists not only within the imperialist mindset but also within the 'native' one. Neither wholly English or Indian, Pran falls into the gulf that lies between and struggles to find the identity that best suits him. But without doubt, it is the imperialist machine (and reactions both negative and positive that arise from it)that causes Pran to suffer.

This is a well-written novel, with pace changes that make one pause and think but, that all the time keeps you flowing nicely to the end. Pran sheds his skins so effectively that it is difficult to build an affinity to him, but throughout I felt sorry for the boy within, and could empathise with the decisions he made - even the most unsavoury.

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Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Euphemism

Euphemisms are common place in today's society where we have become over-sensitised to some of life's more cruder or unpleasant aspects.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

St. George, Cervantes and Shakespeare

April 23rd is a date associated with a dragon-slaying saint and books, not two things you would necessarily expect to go hand in hand but in the UK and Spain, particularly Catalonia, they do.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Musings

To the airport

The sleepiness of winter slides from the face of white-washed fishing villages. Shuttered eyes are raised to reveal once slumbering bars. Tables sprawl across the pavements and at them the first of the season's lobsters, all red and crisp from having plunged into the heat of the Andalucían sun. "Only mid-April", they say as their claws clack across the table-top grasping at forks to spear the chips, or waving to the now calm waiters for "more beer, more beer". 

Calm waiters, calm as they rise from their winter siesta to face the quickening pace of the summer evening. Their aprons still pristine, starched, black. Their faces unperturbed as sun and cerveza take their toll, and the lobsters crawl home cooked in their own juices.


At the airport

Man in white linen waves three red roses to the girl in black. As she clasps him tightly he whispers words of divine love and she pulls them in. Humanity flows around them, their little island of love and when the rush subsides still they remain. Passion undisturbed - solitary one-ness on the ocean of gleaming marble floor.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Reviews - March 2013

The Discovery Of ChocolateThe Discovery Of Chocolate by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some of the 'facts' were a little out of kilter with the actual history of places but thankfully I am one who can ignore those and just take a story for what it is...a story.

Travelling through time Diego and his dog discover and experiment with chocolate. From Cortez's expedition to Mexico and meeting with Montezuma, through the French revolution, creating Sacher torte and into the twentieth century this is a light-touch tour of history and the history of chocolate with some love thrown in.

The novel is not going to test anyone's vocabulary or make them think overly but it is a pleasant read. Ideal for the beach or time spent at airports and onboard a plane (as I did).

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CoriolanusCoriolanus by Lee Bliss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've never been much of a fan of Shakespeare's plays so with some little trepidation did I approach Coriolanus. Pigeon-holed as a tragedy in 1623 by Heminges and Condell the play has perhaps suffered from genre-typing. This is not the tragedy one may expect if thinking of Lear, Othello, Hamlet or Macbeth - there are no heart-rending, soul-searching soliloquies to give insight into the man's psyche. This is the tragedy of a public man, played out in the public arena. It is also full of commentary on the political situation at the time.

The introduction by Lee Bliss can be a little dry at times but it is comprehensive. I would recommend working your way through it in order to appreciate some of the political angles Shakespeare obliquely puts in.

Overall, this is a tragedy for the people, the city, the public man and worth the read.


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The Long and the Short of ItThe Long and the Short of It by Jan Ruth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jan has taken 5 instances of human emotion and thrown some Celtic magic over them. Each of the short stories takes the reader to a different emotional space, ones that you recognise even if you have not experienced them, and pulls you in. The stories may be short but they are fully formed, Jan Ruth has not skimped on detail and you are fulfilled at the end.

My favourites were Over the Moon and Two Hearts, One Soul which, though touching different emotional triggers, left me with a sense of satisfaction in each case.

The bonus of this book is the three chapters, one from each of Jan Ruth's full length works, that tempt you to savour them.

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The Book of Human SkinThe Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a year since I finished reading this novel (and noticed I'd failed to put a review up) but I can honestly say I recall it very clearly and that is the sign of a good read.

Was it the morbidity that kept the novel in my mind? I think to a large degree it was. A person with a deviated mind, sick perversions and the stories of his victims were written in such a way that I cannot forget them.

I won't put a synopsis in this review as I think the reader needs to make their own way through this work. If there is one criticism it would be the ending which I felt was a little rushed, as if Lovric did not know what to do with her left-over characters. For all that, this is a read that lingers...

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Sunday, 3 March 2013

My Top 10 of Fiction


Over a year ago I wrote a blog post about my Top 10 works of fiction and thought it was time to review it. Had anything changed? Yes, one. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte has been demoted and Animal Farm by George Orwell has taken its place. This has been brought about by reading a Bertolt Brecht adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. The rhyming couplets employed by the plebians as they thought up slogans for their uprising reminded me of Orwell's work, so I whipped out a copy and read it again. 

The other nine remain the same, one of the criteria for making the top 10 is that these are works that I can revisit time and time again. Here they are in no particular order. I have cheated a little (or have I?) by including an anthology and a ‘complete works’. 
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I like the characterisation and the thwarted love story. But more than that I like the portrayal of the America of the 1920s – bootlegging, excess, the jazz age – and ultimately the corruption of the American Dream.  You can read it with all its nuances or purely as a love story – it does its work on more than one level.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Excellent! Since when did all those with a motive all carry out the murder? Original, suspenseful and, as always with Christie, good characterisation. I did own all Christie’s works but sold them when I moved to Spain (couldn’t afford yet another storage container, it broke my heart). I like a good murder mystery that you can rip through in an afternoon and there are none better than Christie.
Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy
I was introduced to Thomas Hardy’s written work through ‘The Return of the Native’ for my A level English Lit. Surprisingly it did not put me off but that may have been because I had seen Tess and Madding Crowd as TV adaptations when younger and liked the stories. I admire the way in which Hardy portrays his heroines with compassion, highlighting the Victorian hypocrisy of sexual mores. Hardy is also sympathetic to the rural way of life and how it is transformed by the on-going industrialisation. Particularly in ‘Tess’ it is the effect of the new social elite with their money from industry on the ‘old families’ and Hardy’s assertion that to be of  old stock is far from desirable that strikes a chord. Little wonder his works caused a stir in his lifetime.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Gothic; Horror; a commentary on the pursuit of knowledge, social acceptance of non-conformity, birth and death, sublime nature and much more besides. I have never been so glad that I was able to read the book and to dismiss all previously seen appalling filmic interpretations from my mind. This book has more levels to it than can ever be expressed in film. From the moment the creature was ‘born’ I felt empathy and sympathy for it. To my mind Victor Frankenstein is one of the greatest literary villains ever created.  I LOVE this book.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
What can you say about Wilde that has not already been said? The wit, the acute observation of society and some of the most memorable lines in literature; be it plays, short stories or ‘Dorian Gray’ there is skill in these writings. Apart from ‘The Happy Prince’, which makes me cry every time, the works of Wilde put a smile on my face. His is laugh out loud humour that will get you funny looks on the train – but who cares, it is superb.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
Yes, more horror with a touch of Gothic. I read this work as part of my A level English Lit dissertation which I titled, ‘Psychological Horror as a Literary Genre’. I wish I still had that paper; it had the makings of a bloody good piece of literary analysis. That aside, this story gripped me. I could not make up my mind as to where the horror emanated from for ages; it kept me on my toes and who is to say that my interpretation is correct. It is the story’s very ambiguity that makes it such a cracking read.
The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, Edgar Allan Poe
Mm, my English Lit A level has a lot to answer for. These stories were also part of my dissertation, particularly ‘House of Usher’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Poe combined the gothic horror literature, such as the House of Usher and ‘Ligeia,’ with the detective fiction genre in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ These are two of my favourite genres as can be quite clearly seen from my list but Poe stands above the rabble. I think that Poe’s work as a literary critic was invaluable in helping him create the characterisation, plots and to use the language most appropriate for each of the genres in which he wrote. You can tell that he took time to make sure that the words and imagery he used conjured up the desired effect.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
‘Ah those Russians’ to quote Boney M. Only one of them made it into the top 10 but what a book. Murder, philosophical arguments as to the ability, and even right, to commit murder, wrapped up in the story of an impoverished, conflicted student. Little wonder as a student I was drawn to it.  Even better that as a slightly maturer being I am able to revisit and delve more deeply into the philosophical arguments within it. Every reading makes me consider the arguments differently; it is like reading a new book each time.
 The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
This is a departure from the other nine in the list; I’ve only just noticed now I’ve come to write about it. Interpretations of the same event, I had to read the book again to see what clues I had missed in the first reading. I still enjoyed it on the second reading, and the third. It’s the carnivorous island that haunts me. If a book remains within your mind (in a positive sense) for some time after reading then it definitely has something. I’m still not entirely sure what that something is with Pi, but it has it.

Animal Farm, George Orwell
Written during the second world war Animal Farm is allegorical looking at the Russian Revoultion of 1917 and the Stalin era of the Soviet Union. This was the first 'political' book I had read (swiftly followed by Orwell's 1984) and the use of animals, perversely, made it more real for me. Orwell was a socialist but he did not approve of Stalin's brand of socialism and made it very clear by making the Stalin figure a large Berkshire Boar called Napoleon. I cry every time I read of the old workhorse leaving for the 'hospital'. It is a book that touches me.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Can art be divorced from the politics that supported it?

This is an interesting article to spark debate (when you skip past the bit about Berlusconi though he does spark all manner of debates all on his own). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21260072

Can you divorce politics from art? If the art was produced during a political regime now deemed to be unpalatable (and supported or was supported by that regime), or had been adopted by now despised poilitical leaders, should we ignore its context ?


Futurism was one art movement in Italy that on paper could not be separated from the political foray as the group's leading exponent, Marinetti, helped Mussolini found the Fascist movement in 1919. Marinetti broke away from Mussolini in 1920, but still supported the regime after the 1922 March on Rome, claiming that Fascism had at least fulfilled Futurism's minimum programme of demands. In 1929 Marinetti became secretary of the Fascist Writers' Union. Loyal to Mussolini until the end, Marinetti died in 1944, and with his death Futurism finally came to an end.


As I mentioned in my blog article on Futurism and Florence, Futurism was a precursor to Fascism in Italy and fought against the vanguard: 


Established in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, Futurism was a contrast to the Romanticism that had gone before. The Futurists emphasized and glorified contemporary concepts of the future – speed, technology and industrialisation. They embraced the modern world. F.T. Marinetti published his Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, first in an article in the Italian ‘La Gazetta dell’Emilia’ before it was taken up by the French paper ‘Le Figaro.’ Marinetti wanted no part of the old world and tradition,
“Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”
There was no artistic programme in the manifesto, just a battle cry against the vanguard, a threat to remove Italy “from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tour-guides and antiquarians. […]We mean to free her from the countless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”
 But would looking at artwork without knowing the history or any manifestos that may be behind it affect the message that the artist(s) was trying to put across? Yes and no. There is the intertextuality of life; the art was not created in a vacuum and nor did the artist not have a concept of what they were creating, so to ignore that would be to only see half of the picture. Or would it? By admiring a piece of art purely for the forms on the canvas, created in marble, or whatever, the viewer can still appreciate the technique and quality of the finished article. If you applied Roland Barthes' theory on writing as espoused in his paper "Death of the Author" to art then it would be the viewer that creates the proper interpretation; by assigning a single interpretation on a work (one taking into account the creator's social and historical background) you are imposing a limitation to the work's 'text'.

The question remains: can art be divorced entirely from its context?



Thursday, 24 January 2013

International Man Booker Prize 2013

The shortlist has been announced for the biennial Man Booker International prize. Comprising of 10 finalists it includes seven works translated into English and three works which were originally written in English orginating from nine countries.

First prize is £60,000 with an additional prize of £15,00 going to a translator of a translated work.

The full list comprises U R Ananthamurthy (India), Aharon Appelfeld (Israel), Lydia Davis (USA), Intizar Husain (Pakistan), Yan Lianke (China), Marie NDiaye (France), Josip Novakovich (Canada), Marilynne Robinson (USA), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia) and Peter Stamm (Switzerland). 
The Guardian has a visual guide to the finalists.

The last winner (after various walkouts) was American author - Philip Roth.
Philip Roth

















May the best book win.




Saturday, 12 January 2013

What does 2013 hold for the literary world?

I missed 2012 from a literary perspective but I hope not to make the same mistake for 2013. Here are some of the highlights for the forthcoming year...

January

200 years have passed since the publication of Pride and Prejudice and bosoms are still heaving after Mr Darcy even if they are a little freer than in 1813! Events are bound to be plentiful to celebrate the anniversary.

The finalists for the fifth Man Booker International prize will be announced at the Jaipur festival.

February

Release of Pow! by Mo Yan (Seagull Books). The first new novel in English from the Chinese author awarded the 2012 Nobel literature prize for his "hallucinatory realism" is a riotous carnival of food, sex and death in rural China.

Release of Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura (Clerkenwell Press). A white family implodes in an unnamed colonial country on the brink of civil war. I am reading lots of post-colonial theory at the moment and this seems apt.

March

The 7th is World Book Day. A Unesco-designated celebration of books marked in more than 100 countries. In the UK more than 14m book tokens will be distributed to children under 18. This can only be encouraged - more children need to discover the joy of reading.

April

The 23rd of April is Shakespeare's birth and death day and is an appropriate date for World Book Night. The books are:

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

A Little History of the World by E.H Gombrich

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Damage by Josephine Hart

The Island by Victoria Hislop

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Last Night Another Soldier... by Andy McNab

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner


Release of The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich (Corsair). This novel about a young teenager investigating his mother's assault beat Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz to the US National Book award last year, and has been called a Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.

Release of Crossing the Bosporus by Deborah Cater. A non-fiction account of three western women with different outlooks on life travelling from Bulgaria to Istanbul.

May

Book related (I sincerely hope it does follow the book's plot) is the cinematic release of The Great Gatsby. I love the book I hope Luhrmann has done it justice.

June

Presentation of first Women's Prize for Fiction, successor to the Orange prize; the 2013 panel is chaired by Miranda Richardson.

July

Time to buy a selection of the year's earlier releases and hit the beach - not much happening in the world of books this month.

August

At least in August you can head up to Edinburgh for its International Book Festival. 

September

Lots of small book festivals are scheduled in September - choose from:
Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival
The First Transylvanian Book Festival 
Bleinhem Palace Literary Festival

October

Henley Literary Festival - technically it starts on the last day of September but as most of it sits in october, well here it is.


New Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding (Jonathan Cape).  Seventeen years after her diaries of a singleton's comic mishaps were first published, Helen Fielding promises to explore "a different phase" in Bridget's life.

Sixty years after James Bond made his first fictional appearance in Casino Royal, William Boyd is the latest author – following Jeffery Deaver and Sebastian Faulks – to accept the mission from the Fleming estate to write a new Bond novel.

November

The Samuel Johnson Award for non-fiction will be awarded.

December

This is currently a quiet month news-wise but it is most likely the time of year when a good many books will be purchased - perhaps some of those released earlier in the year.


Happy Reading in 2013.




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