Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reading Resolutions

As I’m not progressing on my literary travels quite as fast as I hoped (too many diversions), I’m going to have to be stricter with myself and reduce the number of miscellaneous books I consume along the way. I’ve reached a compromise with myself, and have decided to allow myself some slack – for every four books I manage to get through for my world literature challenge, I can read something that won’t count. 80% of what I read will therefore hopefully be getting me closer to my eventual aim of reading one hundred books from one hundred countries while at the same time allowing me the occasional irresistible bliss of a tempting volume of something – for example, The Fragrance of Guava which is by Márquez but can’t count as I’ve already read something by him. (It was looking at me in Borders, I couldn’t help it.)

Genre is something else I’d like to experiment more with; not so much crime as opposed to fantasy or travel, but rather forms of writing – short stories, poetry, essays and so on, in addition to novels. I admit I tend to look for novels before anything else, but I’m determined to make an effort to read more widely.

I’m also going to try and blog more consistently, and to that end, I think I’m going to try blogging every other day for a while. I would like to blog every day, but I have so much on, I don’t always feel I can craft a worthwhile post either because I don’t have the time/energy or simply because I haven’t been reading. So, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and perhaps the odd day in between if I feel like it.

To kick off 2007, I’m reading my way around some Latin American countries. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve picked up recently or am planning to read:

The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz (Mexico)
This I Believe, Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)
Memoirs & Selected Poems, Pablo Neruda (Chile)
The Fragrance of Guava, Márquez (Colombia)
Death In The Andes, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado (Brazil)
The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso (Chile)
Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar (Argentina)

Eight books but only six countries…you can see why I’m in trouble! At least there’s a good mix of genres in there – essays, recorded conversations, memoirs, poetry, novels. I think most people have made some reading resolutions for 2007, so I wish you all luck in sticking to those. Happy reading in 2007, and happy new year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

That’s All, Folks! (The Review Post)

I’m just over five months into my challenge, and according to my calculations, I should have read something like forty books from various countries by now. I’ve probably steamed through forty books easily since the end of July, but as only twenty of them actually counted toward my challenge I’d better not dwell on my progress in that respect!

But for anyone who is interested, here is my official list of books counted towards the challenge so far:

In Lucia’s Eyes, by Arthur Japin (Holland)
Les Liaisons Culinaires, by Andreas Staïkos (Greece)
Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare (Albania)
No Saints or Angels, by Ivan Klíma. (Czech Republic)
Embers, by Sándor Márai (Hungary)
The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross (Estonia)
The Three Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (Spain)
The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness (Iceland)
Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau (France)
Journey In Blue, by Stig Dalager (Denmark)
Reunion, by Fred Uhlman (Germany)
Home And Exile, by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
As The Crow Flies, by Véronique Tadjo (Côte d'Ivoire)
So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba (Senegal) AND Scarlet Song, by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna ( Sierra Leone)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco)
Woman At Point Zero, by Nadal El Saadawi (Egypt)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez (Colombia)
Waiting, by Ha Jin (China) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (China)

It is difficult to pick out favourites, because now that I look back, I enjoyed almost all of the above titles. So Long A Letter was an absolute revelation and is my most appreciated book of all time so far; but as for the rest of the list, the titles listed encompass such a variety of styles and themes that I am reluctant to begin analysing the merits of each. What I can say with absolute certainty is that purposely exploring literature from across the globe has been exceptionally gratifying. Almost everything I’ve read has been quality writing, but the array of cultural/social settings and opinions expressed has been diverse enough to constantly capture my attention and encourage me to take a fresh look at some of my own attitudes, or, on a different note, revisit things like Andersen’s fairy tales which are quite surprisingly different from an adult perspective.

For the final few hours of 2006, I’m going to take advantage of the Christmas break to indulge in some of the books I received as presents which are unrelated to my world literature challenge, but I promise I’ll be back on the global diet in 2007! Expect a post with reading and blogging resolutions in the near future…

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Last post before xmas

I'm taking an xmas break - one where I don't write at all for a few days instead of writing sporadically! - so I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone a merry christmas and a happy new year. Have fun, I hope you get what you want!

I'll do an end of year type post before the new year; I have to say, I'm not sure my around the world reading has been progressing much recently, certainly not as fast as I'd hoped. I've got stuck on the Sandman series, reading the whole of book two yesterday (I am now completely hooked and can't wait for number three to wing its way to me), and reading more from China, this time in the form of a novel. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has been a book I've glanced at many times in the past but never wanted to read, so I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found it. It was a testament to the power of great writing and how great writers can change lives, give hope, encourage people to believe in themselves. I thought the quality of the writing fluctuated a little, and the very good passages stood out from the rest as being exceptionally noteworthy as opposed to merely very readable; I have one more Chinese novel to read, then I'll move on, but my recent forays into Chinese writers, or writers of Chinese origin, has made me very nostalgic. I have a feeling one of my new year's resolutions will be to start reading in Chinese again; I didn't realise how much I'd miss it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Book Festivals

For years I've been meaning to go to the Guardian book festival at Hay-On-Wye. I still haven't been, and I discovered it about six years ago. It is simply the biggest and the best book festival here in the UK, a mecca for anyone interested even remotely in books and writing. The thing is, for the last six years I've had exams every summer and it has been impossible to justify taking time out from revision to attend lectures entirely irrelevant to my subject and miles away from my university. Highly frustrating; next year however, I have no exams. I sense a trip to Hay-on-Wye!

This is what the official site says: Hay-on-Wye is where the fun first started. Hay is a tiny market town in the Brecon Beacons National Park, It has 1500 people and 41 bookshops. The Festival is a spectacular holiday party for friends to gather and indulge their tastes for the finest books, food, drink, comedy, music, art, argument and literature.

How could anyone not? It sounds like paradise; all the books you could ever want and more besides, a massive variety of free lectures and talks (some you do have to pay for), and the company of fellow book lovers. They've expanded too, into Spain and Latin America. There's a festival in a few weeks in Colombia which features a range of Latin American and international writers and sounds wonderful. The authors listed have also given me some inspiration for more Latin American authors to look up, and I can't wait for the audio files to be made available online. What did we do before the internet?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream...

...but not a nightmare, please.

I hate admitting I was wrong. I was very skeptical about Neil Gaiman's first Sandman graphic novel, and scoffed at the thought that I might be hooked by the end of it, but you know what? I think I almost am.

Originality is the key attraction for me, I think (although it might just be because I am new to the genre). Gaiman takes stereotyped characters and recreates them, makes them more human, allows them to be exposed to situations and attitudes that do not fit conventional images of them and offers different perspectives on practically everything. I was quite intrigued by the fact that Death personified is also Life, and her (she's a woman! no, better - a Goth girl!) activities revolve around not only taking but also bestowing life upon individuals. Apparently there is more to come in the following nine or so books in the series, and I am quite keen to keep reading and find out more following the catastrophes that befell Earth when the Sandman was captured and nightmares stole the world.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thud! (a little rant)

I've finally managed to read my latest Pratchett acquisition, Thud!. I have to confess, I'm a little disappointed - it just isn't as good as some of the vintage Discworld books I know and love. The Hogfather was my first ever Pratchett read, given to me one Christmas by an uncle who is himself an avid Pratchett reader (quite appropriately as the story is about Christmas (in a warped kind of way), and I still love it, along with almost all books featuring Rincewind the inept Wizzard who can't even spell 'wizard'. I think people have the Marmite approach to Pratchett - love him or hate him, sometimes without trying him - and I definitely love his stuff. Why has he gone downhill? It happens to a lot of authors - happened to Stephen King, who seemed to lose all ability to write in an engaging manner after his first twenty or so books, maybe less, and then Jilly Cooper whose latest offering made me want to hit her over the head with it, or something equally terrible. Honey, if it has taken you literally years to write a piece of chick lit and it turns out to be 900 pages long, GIVE UP! Is my frustration coming out here?! I tell you something; if the last Harry Potter book is rubbish, I think I'll actually cry.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Burst of Short Stories

I think most people have at some stage or another observed how things seem to come in groups. I'm not much of a short story reader, but recently, I've read quite a few. Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers has received a lot of attention recently in the press, winning the Guardian award for best first work of fiction and being praised by many other reviewers. I snapped it up when I saw it a couple of weeks ago as it'd been on my wishlist for ages, and at the same time, I discovered I had a volume of short stories by another Chinese native already on my shelves; Waiting by Ha Jin.

Reading the two volumes side by side has made for some interesting comparisons. Although both deal with recent society in China, the generational difference is very marked; Ha Jin tends to write about issues confronting individuals of the generation above the one with which Yiyun Li concerns herself, and each author picks up on appropriate prevalent issues depending on which stage of development Chinese society is in. In Ha Jin's work, China struggles to prove her prowess to the West and modernise society. Families destroyed by an earthquake in one city are patched back together again with survivors from three different family units to form a new dysfunctional nuclear family. An American fast food restaurant successfully competes with local street vendors for business, but when the workers go on strike in an effort for fair pay they are fired and replaced with new workers. Two peasants are executed for making a joke about a workunit leader that was misconstrued as a slight against the dead Chairman Mao.

In Yiyun Li's stories, young men and women compete to escape the confines of China for the freedom and riches of America, then struggle to retain their Chinese identity and empathy with China. Caught between tradition and modernity, a young man educated in America struggles to tell his mother that the reason he keeps rejecting the potential matches she arranges for him is because he is homosexual; a woman moves to America after falling pregnant in order to seek a better life and finds hope that China cannot give her; a husband and wife battle to keep their family together in the face of rejection from society when one of their children is born mentally ill.

What struck me most was how much Chinese society has changed in such a short space of time. I know China has been trying to modernise, and having spent time there, I know there are massive divides between country and city, old and young, and new and old; but I've never been exposed to such expressions of these struggles. Both books are of course banned on mainland China (although probably not in Taiwan) and I am surprised that censorship doesn't feature more heavily in either set of stories. Not only in literature, but generally in freedom of speech in the media or even in what Chinese people are allowed to view from overseas media. In hotels, foreign news reports on China are often cut from broadcasts. Foreign papers arrive three weeks late and will sometimes have articles perceived as reflecting negatively on China's progress or development torn out. Everyone (in the West) knows that a massive quantity of websites are blocked in China - my blog is banned in China! (Not mine specifically; blogger appears to be banned.) But the Chinese are, by and large, unaware of the extent to which their government blindfolds them. Anyway, I've managed to go off course on my speculations about censorship; my point is really that China is going through a massive rapid social upheaval, and reading these two books together has provided an interesting record in literature on social problems.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Graphic Novel and Me

Graphic novels are an unexplored realm as far as I'm concerned. I barely knew they were even out there until I picked up a copy of Lonely Planet's Guide to Cult Fiction one day in a library and discovered a whole section on graphic novels, including a debate I didn't know existed - is the graphic novel 'literature'? (Seems rather a ridiculous debate to me, since nobody can pin down or agree exactly what 'literature' is, but there we go.) The closest I'd come to reading a graphic novel is either an illustrated Pratchett novel or an abridged graphic novel version of The Hobbit, which I've had for aeons and only recently read.

I have, however heard of Neil Gaiman's legendary Sandman series of graphic novels, so when an acquaintance offered to lend me the first in the series to get me started, I decided to take her up on it. With promises that I'd be hooked by the end of the novel ringing in my ears, I settled down to read Volume One: Preludes and Nocturnes. I have yet to be hooked.

It's not that I don't like the storyline or the illustrations; I have some minor issues with the font used and the apparently arbitrary way some of the words are in bold which makes me emphasise them in my head when there is no need - see? And I have to concede, the more I read, the better the storyline becomes (more intricate, more questioins being raised). But, the main sticking point for me is that I find it a disturbing mix of film and written novel. A lot of the scenes are drawn as they might be shot in a film, and there is a little voice in my head asking why. Perhaps it's simply because I'm not accustomed to the visuals being provided when I read or that I'm not used to that kind of illustration techniue. I'm not saying I dislike the novel because of it, but I'm finding it hard to adjust.

Having said that, I am enjoying the concepts and characters in the novel - in attempting to summon and capture Death, a mage manages instead to capture the Sandman, and, fearing punishment, will not release him. Strange things begin to happen to people and the dreamworld crumbles without the Sandman there to control the nightmares, and worse is to come when the Sandman finds his release and begins a quest to recover what was taken from him. I'm still only halfway through, so addiction could develop yet. And if I do become addicted to the genre, there's always Japanese manga to explore!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book shopping in charity shops

Sarah Burnett of The Guardian produced a wonderful blog entry yesterday on buying books from charity shops. I found myself smiling and nodding in agreement as I read through it, and indeed, yesterday I have been to my own local Oxfam and bought two treasures - both of which I have devoured already!

The first one I found was a brand new copy of Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores in immaculate condition, and for only 40% of the original price. How could I not? And then, an unexpected delight in the poetry section; I pulled out an old-fashioned little hardback book entitled Great Horses and Gallant Horsemen which, when I flicked through it, turned out to be a trove of horsey poetry complete with beautiful illustrations to accompany most of the poems. I had no idea such an anthology existed, and the copy I picked up was printed in 1988 and looks it, but is in beautiful condition. It is hard to explain, unless you have a passion for horses, but these poems together epitomise everything horse lovers feel about horses and feats of horsemanship - one of the poems made me cry, but another immediately after made me laugh; the poem The Knight's Leap is a great story told in seven short stanzas, and The Arab's Farewell To His Favourite Steed reminded me of the horses I have sold in the past and how I felt about it. I sat in a coffee shop yesterday and read the entire anthology right through, then went back and re-read some of them. Unfortunately, I know this book would be a perfect gift for a friend who runs a racing yard, as most of the poems deal with racing and hunting; only I don't think I can bring myself to part with it!

After I'd done with the poetry, I started on Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and finished it up this morning. It is quite different to the two books by Marquez that I've read before; shorter, more obviously humourous, less complex. I won't go into the details of the story - it is quite short for a novel - but here's an extract I found rather funny and wanted to share.

The only unusual relationship was the one I maintained for years with the faithful Damiana. I remember I was reading in the hamoock in the hallway, when I happened to see her bending over in the laundry room wearing a skirt so short it bared her succulent curves. Overcome by irresistible excitement, I pulled her skirt up in back, pulled her underwear down to her knees, and charged her from behind. Oh Senor, she said with a mournful lament, that wasn't made for coming in but for going out.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Winter Classics Reading Challenge

It is high time I joined in a reading challenge, and this one is the perfect choice! Five classics in January and February and, most crucially, they can be international classics! I am very excited about this one already. Here's my list (version one!):

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (Mexico). On my shelf as I bought it a few weeks ago, but I doubt I'll get round to it before Christmas, so it can be part of my challenge.

Cheri by Colette (France). Because I got it while in Paris and want to read it!

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong by Hyegyong Hong Ssi (Korea). Written by a crown princess of Korea in the 18th century, this memoir recounts the death of her father (placed inside a rice bin to starve because his son refused to kill himself) and the events in the court thereafter.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Russia). Massive poetic epic. It's been on my shelf for years, and I've only ever watched the film (grossly different in some respects from the book, I've heard, and since I'm something of a purist it should make for interesting reading).

The Obscene Bird of the Night by Jose Donoso (Chile). The title of this is taken from a letter to Henry and William James from their father, and is apparently a very valuable contribution to the Magical Realism genre. The title actually refers to the dark side of the imagination.

I'll probably change some of these as I go, depending on availability and what mood I am in during the first two months of next year - I have a list of other books I want to read from various countries and I'm sure some of those are classics too. All the same, I have some quality literature lined up for post-Christmas literary indulgence. I can't wait to see what everyone else is reading!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Poetry Meme

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was...

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Weirdly enough, the poem was in a Jilly Cooper book, and after reading it in there, I bought a book of collected poems by Frost.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and...

I don’t think I had to actually memorise any poetry in school, but I do have a few memories of poetry classes –reading ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by Wordsworth (as a country girl I was even then disgusted by the notion that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ than London city), analyzing what turned out to be a list of poetry titles because one teacher was curious about how we perceived poetry, and a class where we all had to pick a poem to share with the class, and I chose one by Emily Dickinson (predictably I cannot now find or recall the poem in question).

I also especially remember this sonnet by Keats, because it expressed some of my feelings when I was about 15 and having more thoughts about things than my head was able to contain.

3. I read/don't read poetry because....

it adds to my life. Every time I re-read a favourite poem after a long interlude, it feels like coming across a loved friend I haven’t seen for ages and stopping to catch up with them, and finding them as wonderful as I remembered.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ...

Puedo Escribir by Pablo Neruda. I know it is cliched to like Neruda, but ever since I discovered his poetry in Borders one day, I’ve been utterly in love with the man. I used to say I’d marry the man who bought me my own library (unless I earn enough to buy my own library first, of course), but I’d settle for the man who wrote me love poems like Pablo Neruda.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but...
I don’t write poetry because I don’t believe I could ever express my thoughts and feelings as well as the poets I most admire, and possibly do not want to suffer the disappointment of trying and failing. But, I wish I could.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...

Poetry is more personal, I think. There are some poems that seem to be universally popular, but when it comes to it, reading collections of other people’s favoured poems is never as satisfying as reading your own favourites. Maybe it is the space for interpretation each poem leaves, or the way in which the poet moulds language to their purpose, or even just the memories associated with a certain poem in the mind of the reader. Also, the delicacy of poetry. Prose is often clumsier and almost always far more explicit. I am a dreamer, and I prefer poems that make my mind wander after reading them.

7. I find poetry...

more fulfilling than prose in some instances. Hard to explain; both have their places. Prose captures life and poetry captures the things we take through life with us – feelings, memories, reflections. The things that make us us.

8. The last time I heard poetry....

I was quite into journalism at university, and for one of my feature pieces I went to hear Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, give a reading of some of his works from Public Property. I bought the book as preparation for the interview I was to conduct with him after his reading, and was unimpressed with his poems. Until I heard him read some aloud – then they came to life, and I understood why poets like to read their work aloud. I particularly liked his poem Serenade but unfortunately I couldn't find it online.

9. I think poetry is like...

Art. It depicts beauty and truth. There are a lot of pretentious fools out there, but the real good quality stuff is instantly discernible. I also think it is like any other literature; some good, some not so good; some complex, some not so much. In my opinion the best poems are those that capture something everyone shares; a common experience (which is why Frost's poem is so popular), an epiphany everyone has had at some point, feelings everyone had experienced. The best loved poems, if you will, are those that frame the beauty in something common or ordinary in an exceptional way. Who doesn't have their own golden memory that always makes them smile, like Wordsworth and his daffodils?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Woman At Point Zero

If anyone still bothers to read this, I’d like to apologise for my general lack of posting last week, mainly due to laziness/the winter blues/time spent sitting around and moping. Enough is enough! Pick yourself up traveller, give yourself a dust off, and get back on the road. Louise Bagshawe has been a literary version of Fiji – relaxing, fun, non-taxing, all in all a nice break. (It is possible I may be extending my whole world travels via literature thing too far here…)

Anyway, following my chick lit diversion, I delved into another ‘prison novel’, if I can use that term. It isn’t prison fiction in the same way that This Blinding Absence of Light was, although I hardly need state that the obvious central theme of confinement remains. Nawal el Sadaawi has been imprisoned for her controversial writings and activism for change in Egyptian society. Woman At Point Zero is a partly fictionalised tale of a woman Saadawi met when she paid a visit to Qanatir prison. Firdaus, the woman whose story Saadawi tells, was imprisoned and executed for murder. In telling Firdaus’ tale for her, Saadawi raises many questions about liberty, death, the repression of women, the morals of murder. The novel isn’t about prison walls of stone; it’s about the prison men have made for women in society and the punishments meted out to those who dare to try and break out.

I found Woman At Point Zero an interesting contrast to recent works I’ve read; both The Blinding Absence of Light and So Long A Letter were about confinement and restriction and punishment, and all three are from different parts of Africa with different cultures, albeit a shared religion in the form of Islam. All three books have been exceptional reads, and reading books which take such similar central themes yet take those themes in such different directions has encouraged me to think a lot about the world we live in. Sounds corny, I know, but there is always a new perspective to consider, always a new take on an old situation, and there is always some kind of relevance to our lives or our own society if you choose to see it. And I think I’m still young enough to be a bit naïve about the world!