Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Breaking into the Chinese market

Penguin has just announced that they are translating ten classic books into Chinese which will be hitting the mainland in November. Here's the list:

Cervantes Don Quixote
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre
Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Dante Divine Comedy
Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
Goethe Faust
Leo Tolstoy Resurrection
Herman Melville Moby Dick

I wonder how they'll be received? I'm not sure how many have been translated before, if any. A lot of modern Chinese authors (and by modern, I mean 1919 May Fourth writers) did read Tolstoy and Dickens and others, but I'm fairly sure that they mostly read them in Japanese because Chinese translations simply weren't available. Also, their concern at that time was specifically to create a new literature to aid China's social revolution, and translated literature played a big part in making that happen. The times have changed, and as the author of this article notes, "the most popular publications are usually management guides, self-help books and biographies of the rich and famous". This is because these books are what meet the need of China's urban populace at this time - I'm not sure if a leisure reading market even exists. There is no such thing as nationwide best selling lists that are available in book shops; each book shop has its own list of bestsellers, which vary depending on what that particular shop stocks, and books on English language learning are invariably up there somewhere.

I would have thought Penguin would be better translating some of China's classics for the Western markets. There is such a vast, rich literary tradition in China, and with the surge of interest in everything to do with China, surely the country's significant literature will soon catch the public interest here in the West. Everyone knows Tang dynasty poets are to be admired, but what about the four great story cycle novels - who even knows what they are? What about all the revolutionary authors from the 20th century - Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ding Ling? None of these are widely available, if available at all. Penguin currently carries two Chinese classics - The Story of the Stone (extremely long, undoubtedly a classic, hugely popular in China, but perhaps not the best to start with if you are new to Chinese fiction) and Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu, which I haven't read. Of course, since winning the N0bel Prize for literature, the works of Gao Xingjian have been translated and are available almost everywhere, and there are a few contemporary authors who are regularly published but by and large, Chinese fiction is not translated.

Maybe this will change soon. I find it ironic that to find English translations of many of the authors I mentioned above, one has to go to China. While I'm waiting for more English translations of Chinese authors, I hope China enjoys Dante!

Monday, August 28, 2006


Book Number 11: Reunion, by Fred Uhlman
Country: Germany

While I was in London this weekend, I took the opportunity to make a beeline for my favourite book shop. I first discovered it last year, while I was doing an internship in London. Naturally an early riser, I found myself with nothing much to do one Saturday morning, so I headed out to a book shop I'd read about in a London guide with the intent of finding something new to read and spending the rest of the weekend curled up with my new treasures. Much to my delight, the book shop was blissfully empty of other customers, and I spent an entire morning wandering round the impresive selection on the shelves, pulling out books, then sprawling across a huge squishy couch with a pile of books beside me, reading Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende while Ella Fitzgerald played softly in the background. I was in heaven.

This weekend, while meandering slowly around the fiction shelves, a small book caught my eye; partly because the author's name hinted at a European origin, and partly because of the book's publisher, which I know from experience selects books I enjoy and also creates beautiful covers for them which immensely enhances the pleasure of reading. I glanced at the brief blurb on the back, and settled down onto the same couch to read the book and was shortly lost in the captivating story.

It is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendship between two boys, one a rich German aristocrat from an old established family, and one a middle class Jew. As so often happens with children, their differences never bothered them until Hitler arrived on the scene and society turned against all Jews. Their friendship was torn apart, and the young Jew was sent to America by his parents in order to avoid persecution by Hitler's regime. I can't tell you the ending, because that would spoil a first reading of the book, but it is exceptionally good. I should really implement some kind of ranking system, because I seem to have been quite nice about all the books I've read so far - but this one would definitely merit 11 out of 10. It is very delicately written and I never can resist emotionally charged books. Heaven revisited!

*In case you're wondering what this wondrous book shop is I've been raving about, I have to confess it is Borders on Oxford Street. I'm sorry it's an evil corporate giant and not an independent, but I love it so. I can't help myself! The fact that they don't mind you reading the books in the store without buying them is amazing; for me, reading is never better than when I am surrounded by masses of books with masses of time to dip into as many as possible.

Journey In Blue

Book Number 10: Journey In Blue, by Stig Dalager
Country: Denmark

Firstly, apologies for the prolonged absence of entries - I went to London for a few days and had no internet access. But on the other hand, I got to hang out in my favourite book shop and read, which is always a highlight of London! More on that tomorrow.

I finished Journey In Blue, which is the novel I mentioned in my last post about Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales. It is a fictionalsied autobiographical novel about Andersen's life, told through snapshots of memory as Andersen lies on his deathbed and morphine sends his thoughts drifting through time. Reminiscences are punctured by brief moments of decreasing lucidity as his grip on reality slips away and Death stalks his dreams.

This book is fantastic in so many ways - stylistically, it is frequently one of the best examples of stream of consciousness writing I've read. Dalager suceeds utterly in painting a portrait of Andersen and all his neuroses and insecurities, but where others have condemned Andersen as a boring personality, Dalager takes us inside Andersen's thoughts so we can empathise with him and see the world through his eyes. In his afterword, Dalager emphasises that in his opinion, "poetic genius corresponds to a complex, rich and enthralling personality", accounting for his need to represent Andersen in a different light to that in which his critics cast him, redressing the balance where Andersen himself could not. Dalager adds that where appropriate, he has used Andersen's own words; at other times, he has paraphrased or rewritten some of his stories, underlining themes in his fairytales to themes in Andersen's own life - unrecognised beauty, unfair persecution, the differences between poor and rich. Anyone who enjoys Andersen's fairytales will find this beautifully written book an invaluable companion for enriching and enhancing the stories, and even if you aren't a fairytales fan, I would still recommend this as an exceptional portrait of an enduring artist.

Along with reading about Andersen's life, I've been rereading some of his fairytales (my last post reflected my first initial foray into them since childhood, and my horrified reaction), and I hope to do more reading and research into the fairytale genre over the next couple of weeks, so look out for that post. Being able to link Andersen's writings to his own feelings at different times in his life has enabled me to see more in them already, and I've been given some names to look up and some things to think about relating to the fairytale genre so I'm looking forward to revisiting more of them. As Andersen himself said, his fairytales are not just for children. Adults will see more in his works than a child can.

Links and random trivia:

- A $12.5m theme park based on Andersen's tales and life will open in Shanghai by the end of 2006. Multi-media games as well as all kinds of cultural contests related to the fairytales will reportedly be available to visitors. He was chosen as the star of the park because he is a "nice, hardworking person who was not afraid of poverty", Shanghai Gujin Investment general manager Zhai Shiqiang was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.
this Wikipedia entry on Andersen.

The Guardian review by Michael Faber from last year

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fairy Tales Revisited

I'm currently reading an excellent novel about Hans Christian Andersen, which has encouraged me to pull a book of his fairy tales off my shelf and start reading them again. It's actually scary how...well, scary, his stories are!

When I hear the label 'fairy tales', I immediately think of princes and princesses and happy endings. Above all, happy endings! I watched a lot of Disney as a child (still do, really) and I never realised just how carefully selected and edited their stories were - take The Little Mermaid, for example. Mr Andersen's version is horrible, quite unlike the Disney one. As in Andersen's tales, Disney always preserves a moral, but they are diluted down versions - Belle loves the Beast despite his appearance; moral is, beauty isn't just about external appearances. Ariel gets her prince in the end and the evil sea witch is duly punished; moral is, love conquers all and/or if you're a bad person, bad things will happen to you. Same goes for Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all the other heroines. But in Andersen's tales, if you're not a model Christian, terrible (and I mean really terrible - we're not talking all-singing-all-dancing teapots here) things happen to you.

I'm going to illustrate this point with two of Andersen's less well-known stories, which, incidentally, focus on females and their shoes. Firstly, there's the case of the little girl who was born poor and coveted red shoes like all the other little girls had. Sadly, because she was poor she had to make do with what her mother could afford, which was rather second rate brown shoes. When her parents both died, she was taken in by an old woman who took care of her every need and bought her whatever she needed. One day they were out shoe shopping and the little girl, quite naturally, chose a pair of stunning red shoes above all the others. Revelling in the special feeling that a truly beautiful pair of new shoes can give you, the little girl wore them to church but everybody disapproved of her vanity (including the old woman who was blind and therefore had no knowledge of the colour of the shoes). The little girl, having slightly limited understanding as children do, danced for joy in her red shoes and didn't understand why something that gave her so much joy could be as awful as everyone seemed to think. It seems red shoes were a bad choice for her however, because once she'd started the shoes wouldn't come off her feet and she couldn't stop dancing. She danced and danced and danced until she was exhausted, terrified and in floods of tears, whereupon a helpful woodcutter stepped in and cut off her feet. Now is it me, or does a love of pretty shoes seem an insufficient crime to warrant the punishment she recieved? Namely to be permanently crippled, unable to wear any shoes at all ever again because of the clunky wooden feet she had instead of her own feet and thus condemned to never again recieve joy from a pair of beautiful shoes or indeed, probably many other things - because if having a sense of aesthetics gets your feet cut off, who knows what enjoying the taste of cheese or the melodies in a piece of music might get you?

Second example: another poor little girl who had the good fortune to be taken in by a rich family. Admittedly, this little girl is not quite as likeable as the first; as she gets older, she turns into an ungrateful little cow. She doesn't visit her birth parents very often as she is a bit ashamed of her humble beginnings (although this seems to be inherent in her - her foster family are by all accounts lovely people). One day, her foster mother sends her with a loaf of freshly baked bread to visit her birth mother. As the little girl walks through the forest, she comes to a part of the path which is rather muddy. Not wishing to dirty her pretty shoes, the little girl then throws the loaf of bread onto the mud so she can use it as a stepping stone and thereby keep her shoes pristine. Reprehensible, certainly - although possibly not worthy of the punishment she received, which was to sink down through the mud into Hell where she remained for many many years until she turned completely to stone. (Some dear soul eventually rescued her, pointing out to God that the little girl's crime was not horrendous enough for the punishment she had endured.)

I am not impressed with these stories, and not just because I see nothing wrong with having a certain amount of love for one's oh so beautiful shoes. Stories with a moral are a fantastic idea, but there is so much wrong with these! Firstly, of course I appreciate that it is important to educate children while they are young so they don't grow up to be young offenders or 'yobbos' (as English people of a certain age like to label almost all teenagers). But the way to do it should be to tell them stories of what happens to children who grow up to be horrible adults, a) because adults should know better whereas children are still learning, and b) because everything Andersen said was simply a mean ploy to terrify children into submission - to their parents, to the Church, to anyone older than them. I feel this is akin to cheating, personally. I know he was writing in the early 1800s and was a product of his time, but still! What an awful thing for the son of a shoemaker to tell millions of little children, when the truth would have sufficed just as well.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First Monthly Review

Wow! A whole month (and a day) since my first post. Exciting times! Each month on or around the 2oth, I'm going to do a review post listing the books I've read that month, the continents I've been reading from, how much I've enjoyed my reading, and so on.

Basically I worked out that in order to attain my 100 books in a year mark, I need to be reading nine books each calendar month. (Usually I read far more than that anyway, but I do tend to read a lot of rubbish interspersed with my literary novels, which is generally less time consuming.) I'm delighted to report that I am right on schedule, having read nine books in my first month of my World Literature Tour. Here they are:

1. In Lucia's Eyes, by Arthur Japin (The Netherlands)
2. Les Liaisons Culinaires, by Andreas Staïkos (Greece)
3. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare (Albania)
4. No Saints Or Angels, by Ivan Klíma (Czech Republic)
5. Embers, by Sándor Márai (Hungary)
6. The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross (Estonia)
7. The Three Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (Spain)
8. The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness (Iceland)
9. Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau (France)

It goes without saying that these are all European countries. So far, I'm loving my literary travels so much I feel as though I could happily devote an entire year just to reading European authors. I'm feel as though I'm learning so much about Europe - Europe is scarred not only by the Holocaust but also by Napoleon, for example, which I never realised. I'm going to have to do more reading about him and what he got up to, because he is mentioned in almost everything I've read. I was surprised that I liked Jaan Kross' The Czar's Madman because before reading it, I would have said I loathed historical novels - I think my definition of what a historical novel actually is was somewhat limited, because now I stop to think about it most of what I've read is not in a contemporary setting. For the first time in ages, I'm happy with everything I've been reading recently. Not in the sense that I have enjoyed everything, because some books I have enjoyed more than others, but more because everything I've read is an example of the best literature from each country. Or if it isn't great literature, it is at least fun or deeply rooted in that country's culture or it has won international literary prizes or something.

Blogging is definitely part of enjoying reading. It is somehow very satisfying to stop and reflect on books and put my thoughts down on my blog, and I love reading other people's blogs to find out about new authors or books I might enjoy, or just reading their musings on anything bookish. Plus I love the fact that I have a record of what I've been reading and what I thought of it. It makes it more real, because I forget books very fast, even those I loved reading. Blogging about them helps them stick in my mind and form clear impressions, whereas I always used to read, reflect for about two seconds, and move on (unless I had to write an essay on sex and death in the works of author x, or something equally terrible).

Reading purely for myself on my own random reading mission is proving to be more rewarding than I thought.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Les Enfants Terribles

Book Number 9: Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau
Country: France

All I know about Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) is what is printed in the front of the book I picked up, the most significant item of information being "...a leading figure in the Surrealist movement." All I know about Surrealism is Dali, with his melting clocks and his swans being reflected as elephants. Pitiful, really.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Surrealism:

Surrealism is an artistic, cultural and intellectual movement oriented toward the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative faculties of the "unconscious mind" and the attainment of a dream-like state different from, "more than", and ultimately "truer" than everyday reality: the "sur-real", or "more than real".

Les Enfants Terribles is surrealism epitomised, going on the above definition. For the four children at the centre of the novel, all there is is Life and the Game. The Game is the surreal, a reality born from their minds that comes into itself at night, while in the day they mostly sleep through Life or wait for the night to come again. The Game affects everything in their lives - their relationships to other people, to each other, their loves, their passions. Eventually, for one of the group, the Game proves to be more important then real life and the consequences are terrible.

The 'children' featured in the book are a little older than children featuring in novels of make-believe worlds usually are - the book starts when the oldest of them is 16, and she is probably at least 20 when it ends. The others are a couple of years younger. Their imaginary world is never fully explored or explained, and the reader is not initiated into their group, but kept very much as an outside observer. The Game intrudes into their lives, and the boundaries between the two rapidly become uncertain. Good fortune and the group's careful exclusivity and rejection of the outside world create a cocoon for them to play out the Game, until something changes and real life forces its way in. Perhaps because of the exclusivity of the group of children and the distance the author retains from their minds, this book was quite challenging to get into, and took me a couple of attempts to get going. I found myself frequently re-reading passages to try and make sense of what I had read, because much of it is couched in semi-Game language - by that I mean phrasing and references to things of import in the Game I didn't fully comprehend the significance of. The confusion I felt while reading was undoubtedly intentional on the author's part, to emphasise the lack of clear distinction between reality and the surreal, but I can't say it suceeded in either helping me liberate my mind or understanding the liberation of the character's minds.

I was mildy curious about the ending from the blurb on the back of the book, which encoraged me to keep reading, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed reading it. I prefer books where I can engage with the characters, get into their minds, understand who they are and why they do what they do. While I found the concept behind the book interesting, fantasy worlds have become common place in literature since the Surrealist movement, and I didn't find these characters interesting so much as self-absorbed and spoilt. A decidedly uninspiring read as far as I am concerned, although I did like the accompanying ilustrations. Cocteau would be horrified!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Libraries of the World...some, anyway

I discovered today, while surfing the net. I thought it sounded as though it might be interesting (it's about "the future of the codex book"), but the first paragraph on the homepage made me smile so much, I didn't get any further into the site - instead, my thoughts went off on their own little tangent, and I never did read about the future of the codex book. Here's the first paragraph:

"The easiest way to achieve planetary peace and cross-cultural understanding is for libraries all over the world to issue a Planetary Library Card. This should be a paper card with the two global hemispheres imposed over the spread of an opened book. The card will be signed by the reader and issuing library and be considered a welcomed credential at libraries everywhere."

What a fabulous idea! Spreading world peace through a mutual love of books. Sadly, never going to happen. I was pondering the wonders that must be concealed in libraries of other countries, that I just don't have access to, then I remembered my trials at the China National Library in Beijing...

I read Chinese for my undergrad degree, and as I am wont to do, selected what I thought would be an amazing topic to do for my dissertation, and didn't realise how much research I would have to undertake in China. Silly me. The National Library is spread over several sites, and it is extremely hard to get a reader's card for any of them if you aren't Chinese and don't have a Chinese University card. I had to rely on personal connections to wangle myself a card, along with lying and saying I was actually doing research for a phd, but that was only the start of my struggles. Each department of the primary site of the National Library is several floors tall, and consists of several buildings on one site. I thought I'd wander in, browse the shelves, pick up some useful tomes and scarper back to my flat to peruse them at my leisure, a la England. Not so. Firstly, there are very few shelves to browse, for reasons given below. Secondly, (something that never even crossed my mind) so many people use the National Library that removing books from the premises is prohibited, else the library would be permanently half empty. Instead, the books are stored on several floors under the library. To view a book, you must call it up from the basement on the computer system, which took me most of a day to fully figure out, and then take your seat in a waiting room for at least two hours, and eventually, your selected items will rattle up from the basement on a little trolley train (probably not all at once), which the librarians will then give you on production of your Reader's card. Happily, you can call up any number of books, but it involved many hours of sitting and waiting, and cursing as I realised that what I'd thought might be useful was in fact utterly irrelevant. I remember thinking furiously, why won't they let me at the books so I can flick through them and look for useful articles? Happily, my second experience was far more enjoyable.

My topic was such that I also had to access some older dynastic works, but for those, I had to travel across to the other side of Beijing, to a beautiful site next to an old Confucian college. The courtyard outside the library was gorgeous, with the ubiquitous stone lions that adorn every doorway of any significance in China flanking the tall red gates, and the library building itself was just as stunning. It was an older building than those on the main site, made of grey stone with carved lacquer furniture and staircases inside. When I found the library reading room, it turned out to be a rectangular hall with large windows across every wall, and dark wood tables and ornate chairs in rows across the floor. There were even a couple of venerable long haired Chinese scholars poring over classical texts, who gave me slightly quizzical glances. To be fair, I shouldn't expect they see young white girls reading late Qing texts in semi-Classical language in there very often. The reading room was empty apart from myself and a couple of other scholars every day I was there, and I can honestly say that given the chance, I would work there every day. The room itself was the epitome of serenity, and between bouts of scrutinising texts, I could gaze dreamily out of the window into the courtyard, and think happy floaty thoughts about all the thousands of people from hundreds of year before who must have been there before me, or read the same texts I was reading.

Still, the thought of a Planetary Library Card is appealing. No need to plan holiday reading, you could pick it up when you arrived at your destination! (Obviously reading for the plane journey would still be crucial - planes should have libraries on board! Although books are quite heavy...ok then, planes should have the option to read books on a screen. I personally hate doing this, but could bear short stories or poems or articles. I read blogs off a screen all the time! Anyway...) Until a Planetary Libarary system is developed, book bloggers will have to spread the love online. If anyone else has any experiences of libararies abroad (that is to say, not in your native country), be they good or bad, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Fish Can Sing

Book Number 8: The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness
Country: Iceland

To be honest, most of the time I forget Iceland even exists. This sounds a little rude, and is an insult to Icelanders, but Iceland has never managed to really penetrate my consciousness. It wasn't something we covered in Geography classes at school, it isn't ever in the newspapers, and although Bjork used to be kind of wasn't in an especially 'what a wonderful country Iceland is' way. It's ironic that I picked up The Fish Can Sing by Iceland's most famous author (although I had to look on this list to find an Icelandic author - doesn't say much about my current state of literary awareness), because it's about the backwardness and obscurity of Icelanders.

The book is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Reykjavik is still a small town, and the people live simply. Alfgrimur lives with an old couple he calls his grandparents in a house called Brekkukot. As Alfgrimur grows up, his life changes and becomes more complex as Iceland develops. The personality of Garðar Holm is sporadically present - Holm is well known in Iceland to be a world famous singer, rich and globally renowned, despite the fact that he never sings in Iceland. Alfgrimur and Garðar Holm come into contact on the few occasions that Garðar Holm returns to Iceland to visit his mother, and Holm chips in with everyone else in offering Alfgrimur advice on what to do with his life.

I'd originally wanted to read Independent People, which is recognised as the best of Laxness' works, but the library only had this one. Fine by me, because I loved it. Perception and transition are central themes, played out through Alfgrimur as he grows older, and reflected in the people around him. Alfgrimur is not an emotional narrator, and I was very surprised that the last page almost made me cry - but it isn't until then that he really sees anything and understands what he is seeing.

A little bit on Halldór Laxness: He is Iceland's only Nobel prize laureate, not only because he wrote amazingly compassionate and profoundly touching works, but also because he wrote them in Icelandic. Icelandic authors used to write in Danish, because "they despaired of the Icelandic language as an instrument for artistic creation". Laxness forged the path for modern writers to use Icelandic as an artistic means of expression, giving his fellow Icelanders a priceless gift.

Monday, August 14, 2006

On Selecting Books

I’ve had a couple of comments recently asking me how I’m selecting the books I read. I started to reply to one just now, but I discovered I had a lot to explain, so I’m putting it all in a new post.

I started my tour of world literature almost a month ago, and so far, most of the time I wander around my library, or a local second hand bookshop and pick up any authors that sounds as though they might be European. A slightly dubious method, I agree, but it seems to be working out so far. I am trying to steer away from reading authors I have already read, as well as books everyone has read - so, for example, I wouldn't choose Madame Bovary for my French book, because to my mind, it is a little like a tourist hotspot. (Plus I already read it, but you get the idea.) I came across The Three Cornered Hat by browsing in the library, and I chose it above Cervantes as my Spanish read for the above reason, really - I'm out to discover books I've never heard of, new authors, new everything really. Of course, Don Quixote is on my 'to read' list, but not this year.

Another way I find books/authors is searching online, either specifically for, say, Romanian authors (if I am having trouble finding a Romanian author), or for lists like the Nobel Prize winners for literature - see

This year, I'm not out to read every great work of literature I can find; mostly, I want to have fun, read a variety of books from a range of authors, and discover books I otherwise might not have discovered. I do sometimes think that maybe I'm missing out by not aiming for the universally acknowledged greats, but I have the rest of my (hopefully long) life to read everything I want to read.
Having said that, a lot of the time, the books I happen across are examples of the best work from the authors held in highest regard in their own countries and abroad – for example, Jaan Kross’ The Czar’s Madman, or the one I’m reading at the moment by Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing. Both of those were random finds, and I’d never heard of these authors before, even though Laxness won the Nobel Prize in 1955, and Jaan Kross was nominated for it a couple of times. It’s a fine line, I suppose; I also don’t want to waste my time reading utter rubbish! However, I usually go on the assumption that if it someone has gone to the bother of producing an English translation, there must be something about the work to recommend it, although if I don’t like what I see on the back, or don’t like the random page that I read, I won’t take it home.

So there you have it. In future posts, I’ll include a little bit on how I chose any particular book, and on the author – whether they’ve won any notable prizes and such. I don’t really know why I haven’t been doing this – so thanks Litlove and Booklogged, for making me think more about what I’m trying to accomplish on my world literature tour!

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Three Cornered Hat

Book Number 7: The Three Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón
Country: Spain

First published in 1874, the cover of this little book promised me 'a hilarious tale of lust, intrigue and of the best loved Spanish novels of all time'. It certainly delivered! It is a classic tale - a great beauty married to an ugly man, a magistrate (whose badge of office is the three cornered hat he wears) who desires the beautiful woman for himself, and the lengths he goes to in order to arrange a union with her. Predictably, nothing is quite what it seems, and chaos ensues. It actually reminded me a little of Chaucer - the same bawdy humour, the way the story is framed, with its origins in spoken word (this story purports to originally have been a ballad, and claims to have made young women blush), and the enduring popularity.

This short but sweet fable has spawned at least two films, as well as a ballet, which Dalí designed a set for, and for which Picasso also created 31 colour plates (see the curtain he designed here). The Three Cornered Hat really does pervade Spanish culture - it's only a short book, but massive fun to read, plus you'll gain an insight into something Spaniards treasure.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Czar's Madman

Book Number 6: The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross
Country: Estonia

Timotheus von Bock was declared mad by the Emperor, and for nine years was incarcerated in the icebound Schulusselburg castle with only a grand piano for company. Jakob, Timo's brother in law, begins a secret diary on the day that Timo is released in 1827, relating his investigations into Timo's state of mind, the reasons for his imprisonment, and his unexpected discoveries.

The Czar's Madman is a historical novel, based on real occurences and real people. Through Timo, Jan Kross criticises the totalitarian regimes of the Czars of post-Napoleonic Russia, the repression of free expression, and the failure of the nobility to empathise with the working classes. An aristocrat idealist, Timo von Bock's passion for proving the "equality of all human beings before nature, God and his ideals" led him to marry a woman from a peasant family in a practise-what-you-preach move. Later on, honouring an oath he swore to the Emperor to always tell him the truth for the benefit of the people the Emperor ruled over, Timo wrote a memorandum, the contents of which were deemed so shocking that the Emperor immediately proclaimed him to be insane, and Jakob agreed that to even write such a thing was insanity in itself, let alone allow the Emperor to read it.

The technique employed by Kross is highly effective - Jakob's resistance to the fact that Timo married his sister, provided both of them with an education, a home, an income, all contrast with Timo's enthusiasm for and belief in the equality of all men. Jakob is an example of the ignorance and unwillingness to change as exemplified by the typical man; he feels inferior to born noblemen, depite the fact that his education easily matches theirs, and resents the fact that his sister seems perfectly at ease in her new role as an aristocrat's wife. Jakob really serves to illustrate that although Timo's idealism is admirable, his conviction is incorrect - all men are not equal. Mostly, they're just human.

It took me a few pages to get into this book, but once I did, I almost couldn't put it down. A few other reviewers have noted that a knowledge of Russian/Estonian history would allow a deeper enjoyment and appreciation of the book, which I agree with. While I recognise the air of authenticity the diary format gives, no historical background information is included in the book, even on a page before the novel begins. On the plus side however, I feel as though I know more about European history (which isn't hard, since I never studied it and barely know who Napolean was!).

For more on Estonian writers, click here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

To read or not to read?

The Observer ran an interesting article this weekend on Richard and Judy (a married couple with a daily entertainment show here in the UK) and how their televised book club is affecting the British bestseller lists - last week, three of the six books they recommend for summer reading took the top spots in the national bestseller listings. The book club is on weekly (I think), and each week Richard and Judy send out camera crews to capture the thoughts of some people who have read the book they are featuring on the show that week. The public thereby gains a range of opinions in colloquial language on a number of books, and can also refer to the website for additional information on the author and the book as well as quotations taken from the televised reviewers.

Anyway, the article got me thinking about the reasons people read (or not). I am passionately devoted to books and always have been. On the other hand, my sister probably only owns about three books, and she has those because other people bought them for her. I remember one occasion when the two of us were out shopping with out parents - we must have been about 11 and 13, and on the way home in the car, we were comparing purchases. Shopping was an exciting event for us; we each had a paper round, and earned about five pounds a week, and we'd save up to buy our individual objects of desire. Naturally, my sister always wanted cosmetics or clothes, which I duly admired. I will never forget the look on her face as she looked into my Waterstone's bag at the book inside, and said, incredulously: "You spent seven pounds on a book?" then, as she turned it over, "You spent seven pounds on a poetry book?" There is some famous quotation I came across the other day (predictably, I cannot find it again) which expresses the opinion that a love of reading is developed through having books read to one by one's parents while very young. All I can say is, my mother read books to both my sister and I on a daily basis until we learned to read by ourselves, yet one of us loves reading and the other does not see the point.

I've digressed somewhat. I meant to discuss the role of the professional book critic in promoting books, because it occurs to me that the vast majority of the reading public obviously do not pay much attention to what reviewers in national papers say, or possibly even the bestseller lists. I wonder if anyone really pays attention to professional critics; I very rarely do, unless it happens to be John Bayley, because I know I can trust his opinions. It is common knowledge that publishers routinely manipulate the national bestseller lists by buying up their own books in vast quantities in an attempt to bring them into the public eye via the bestseller lists (so clearly they believe in the power of the bestseller list), so sales rates are not always good indicators of the quality of a book. What, then, encourages people to pick up a certain book? Might more people read if reviews were couched in language that is less literary, or simply more colloquial? I am speculating here, but I would ascribe the success of the Richard and Judy book club to good old popular culture. There is an anti-intellectual trend in the UK (even among university students - Oxbridge students divulge the name of their university at their peril to a student of any of the other UK universities) which reflects negatively on books and reading. At the other end of the spectrum are those who scoff at the notion of something as untaxing as chicklit fiction, and don't seem to be able to get their heads around the fact that entertainment literature has its place in the book world as much as the Romantic poets do. Given that one in five adults in the UK is 'functionally illiterate', totalling over 7 million adults, maybe Richard and Judy is the way to get more adults reading. After all, Nietzsche is never going to be everyone's cup of tea, and who cares whether people are reading something light and fluffy, as long as they read and enjoy it? If parents like reading, they can encourage their children to read - it may turn out that some kids, like my sister, will never take to reading for fun, but everyone should at least be able to read.

I know there is no evidence that Richard and Judy are actually causing people who do not tend to read for fun to go out and buy books and start reading, but since people are actually buying books as opposed to borrowing them, and in sufficient quantities to top the bestseller lists, their show is clearly exercising a strong influence over vast numbers of people, among them likely to be some who generally do not read as a regular pastime. People trust Richard and Judy, and appreciate hearing what other 'normal' people think of books. It is an unprecedented phenomenon, and makes me think that maybe televised book clubs are the way forward in promoting reading. They are arguably the most accessible form of book reviews for the majority of adults, because there is no need to spend time on specific book websites, or go into a library and be faced with a bewildering array of literature with no way of knowing what you might enjoy. Instead, the choice of literature is narrowed down for you in your own living room, and you can even buy the books through Richard and Judy's book club website. I say bring on the televised book clubs!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Book Meme

After reading many versions of the book meme on various blogs, I've decided to finally do my own. I do so love lists! Plus, I'm feeling very lazy today.

1. One book that changed your life.

A Long Walk To Freedom, by Nelson Mandela. I read it when I was 16 or so (not that long ago for me), and it opened my eyes and got me thinking in so many ways. One of my ambitions is to meet Nelson Mandela before he dies (because let's face it, he's an old man now), but I have the feeling that the closest I am likely to get is the Make Poverty History rally I attended in London, where he was a speaker.

2. One book that you've read more than once.

The entire James Herriot series. If you've never heard of these, they are the autobiographical stories of a vet in the Yorkshire Dales during the '40s. It helps if you love animals, but these books are utterly fantastic - I love re-reading them. Each time I do, and I come across a favourite anecdote, it's like catching up with an old friend I haven't seen for ages. The characters are beautifully represented (I wish Tristan were one of my friends so I could marry him), and they are hilarious to read. It makes me smile with delight just thinking about those books.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island.

Probably the Bible...I tried reading it once, and I got as far as Noah's age and gave up in disgust. I think if I read it, I would understand much more about this world. A desert island would be the ideal setting too, because not only would there be no other books to distract me, but I imagine that at that stage, I would be very receptive to the idea of God.

4. One book that made you laugh.

Any of the James Herriot ones. That's cheating really, isn't it? Ok then, any Discworld books featuring Rincewind the Wizzard.

5. One book that made you cry.

Iris, by John Bayley. It's Bayley's memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch, and he recounts everything, from the first time he saw her right up to how he coped when she developed Alzheimers. I love this book for so many reasons, not least because I always wondered if love truly lasts until old age. Now I know I have something to look forward to. I always hoped I would see John Bayley shambling around Oxford since he still lives nearby, but I never did. I don't think I would have spoken to him, but I wanted to see the man who loved his wife so much and wrote such a beautiful book about their life together.

6. One book that you wish had been written.

Another James Herriot one. (Does anyone sense a theme here?)

7. One book you wish had never been written.

So many people have said that there are no books they wish had never been written. I think there are probably some books I wish had never been written, but as I can't recall any of them right now, I'm going to say I wish I had never wasted my time reading Platform by Houellebecq. A friend recommended it to me, and it had a lot of rave review extracts in the front, and I expected great things. Instead, I loathed it.

8. One book you're currently reading.

While I was in the library today, I picked up a book called Yan and the Pike, by Jun Machida. When I have kids, I'm going to buy it for them and read it to them.

9. One book you've been meaning to read.

Ulysses. It has been on my bookshelf for at least five years now, and I have tried a couple of times to read it, but always given up by about the second page *blushes shamefacedly*. One of these days...
(Or I could just read the cheat's guide)

10. I'm not tagging anyone, but if you happen across this and haven't done it, do it!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends" - Dawn Adams

This week in the Guardian Books supplement, there is an interesting article and discussion on how our reactions to people are influenced by seeing what they are reading. According to a new survey, the genres 'most likely to help you pull' (or simply inspire a positive reaction in those around you) are 1) the classics and 2) modern literary fiction. This makes me very suspicious.

I'm about to be very hypocritical, but here goes: I distrust completely people who judge others on whether or not they read 'the classics' or by how many classics they have read. I admit, when I was 17, I went through a stage of reading nothing but classics for about a year, even going so far as to work my way through the entirety of Paradise Lost (much to the delight of my English tutors). My passion was partly fuelled by the desire to be 'well read' (pretentious in the extreme), partly by the feeling that I should somehow be holding my own in an undefined literary arena, and partly simply because I felt there must be something very worthwhile about reading these books, and that they were classics for a reason. I still read classics now, but with less frequency - there is simply too much else to read, so much so that sometimes I feel unbearably frustrated by the thought of all the books I want to read, and all the time I will waste reading books that for me are second rate, as I hunt for those elusive few that I wish I could continue reading forever. The thing with classics is that an awful lot of people read them or carry them around in their bags in order to prove their intellectual superiority (as evidenced by some of the people who have participated in the discussion on the Guardian site). I am wary of people who publicly proclaim their love for 'the classics', because I am only too familiar with intellectual snobbery and competitiveness, and distrust people who casually throw Tolstoy or Baudelaire into conversation in literary name-dropping games.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for those who genuinely speak of the classics with real enthusiasm, and can articulate real opinions about what they have read. In my experience however, these readers are relatively rare. As Mark Twain said, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." I'm just deeply cynical. But - here comes the hypocrisy - I can't help feeling a little impressed by glimpsing a man reading a classic (or anything I have read and admired). So many people just don't read, and who doesn't want a partner who can hold their own in reading discussions?

So there we have it. I hope I've managed to explain my views clearly enough - nothing against the classics, nothing against those who read them (after all, I'm one of them), but wary of pretentious fakers.

Finally: in answer to the questions posed for discussion on the Guardian's boards, if I saw a man reading any of the James Herriot novels, I would quite possibly fall at his feet. If I saw a man reading and enjoying Houellebecq, I would be more distressed than I can express.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache: do be my enemy for friendship's sake."

Book Number 5: Embers, by Sándor Márai
Country: Hungary

41 years ago, a man took up his gun to kill his closest friend. Instead, he fled. 41 years later, he returned to face his old friend and resolve what passed between them.

Two old men nearing the end of their lives sit together in a castle and one narrates the tale of their friendship. The story passes from the glittering ballrooms of Vienna to the old aristocrat’s isolated castle in Hungary, from childhood through to adulthood, until it was abruptly suspended by the deception by one friend of another. The men had been close, and shared everything; what belonged to one, belonged to the other. Their friendship prevailed in spite of the differences between them, and was valued by each. Yet one did not understand the other, could not see into his heart, did not understand the differences in his soul.

The book is narrated primarily through the voice of the General. For 41 years, he has waited alone in his castle for his old friend Konrad to return, and while he waited, he has contemplated the meaning of friendship, the nature of their friendship, and the reasons for Konrad’s actions 41 years ago. The story is delicately unfolded, and explores the themes of love, loyalty, togetherness and isolation. While recounting the General’s carefully thought out conclusions, Márai explores the character of the old man and reveals it slowly and carefully through the General’s explanations of everything he has considered over the years.

I found that as I read, I was prompted to think about my own close friendships and what friendship meant for the people involved. Márai’s book is not an exercise in philosophy, but it is extremely sensitive and relevant to everyone. My enjoyment of it stemmed not from the final folds in the story being smoothed out, but rather from the insights I gained about my own life, inspired by reading this book. (Incidentally, the copy I read had the most beautiful cover.)