Sunday, May 27, 2007

Please read: Moving to a new address

Hi everyone,

I'm moving to a new address. You will be able to find my blog at

so please update your bookmarks/site links. The new site is better organised and I love it because I made it purple! It takes so little...Anyway, this is my last post here but I will continue my literary explorations at my new address.

See you over there!

The Traveller

Thursday, May 24, 2007

8 Random Things

I've been tagged by this meme by Bibli0addict.

The rules -1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are my 8 random facts: (you can just read the first sentence - it is a summary)

1. I have an incredible innate ability to get very lost absolutely anywhere. My mother always marvels that not only do I have no sense of direction, but that I seem to have the opposite of a sense of direction. Case in point: I was staying in Shanghai with two friends. There was an underground stop two minutes walk from our hotel and all three of us walked there every day to use the trains and got off there again each evening to return to the hotel. As soon as I was left to my own devices however, I managed to exit the underground station through a tunnel that led me into an underground shopping city I never knew existed and eventually popped up 15 minutes walk away from my hotel. Then there was the time my travelling companion and I lost each other on while on the same platform and took over 20 minutes to find each other again…

2. I am fascinated by what I call ‘old lady magazines’. Not the ones with knitting patterns and five uses for an empty washing-up liquid bottle in, but the ones with the gruesome real life stories in – My Jealous Lover Cut Off My Nose, My Husband Wears My Underwear or My Sister Married My Son. I don’t know about other cultures, but we seem to have a proliferation of this type of magazine in the UK. Maybe it replaces Jerry Springer or something. Anyway I can’t help it, I love them!

3. I am a sucker for movies that make me cry. My favourite movies include The Land Before Time (I watched my copy so many times the video got all stretched and wouldn’t play anymore), The Notebook, The Neverending Story and Legend of The Falls. The Notebook especially has me howling every time I see it, and I’ve seen it several times. I even cry in anticipation of what I know is coming!

4. When I was a child my greatest ambition was to be a majorette. In case you don’t know, that is one of those little girls who march with a band and throw their little twirling sticks up in the air and do lots of flashy manoevers while marching along in little skirts and white socks. Every time I saw the majorettes at local carnivals and heard the drums, my heart would pound and I would long to be out there twirling a baton. For some reason, my mother hated the majorettes and never let me join.

5. I thoroughly believe in ghosts and an afterlife and desperately wish I was psychic (or at least had the ability to astral travel). I don’t know why – I’ve never seen a ghost – but I cannot accept that a person ends when they die. Something more has to happen.

6. I can sleep absolutely anywhere and can also fall asleep incredibly fast. Has to be witnessed to be believed. I can go from upright and functional to flat out and snoring in under 60 seconds.

7. I teach Chinese to Chinese kids but I’m white British. I studied Chinese at University and wanted a way to keep up my language skills after I left and teaching sounded great. I will never forget the look on those kids faces when I walked in on the first day and started talking Chinese to their Chinese teacher.

8. I am addicted to vanilla perfume and a cocktail called a Grasshopper. Grasshoppers are mint liquor, chocolate liquor and milk. They are, admittedly, a slightly suspicious shade of green and a few of my friends claim they taste like mouthwash but I love them and drink them anywhere I go. It is something of a standing joke among my friends now as a lot of bars have to make them up specially for me after I’ve explained what is in them. I'll still be sitting in coktail bars with a glass of green minty stuff in front of me in 60 years time.

I'm a bit late with this one, so I'm not tagging anyone specifically. If you read this and have not done it, consider yourself tagged!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Books from another continent

I just finished two Asian novels – one from Japan and one from Vietnam. I can’t recall who recommended Shipwrecks, but I reserved it from the library the day I read the recommendation and I was not disappointed. Shipwrecks (by Akira Yoshimura) is absolutely spellbinding. Somewhere on the Japanese coast, a small village of fishing families try to eke out a living from the sea. The village is virtually untouched by modern civilisation and society is deeply rooted in traditional practices. The lives of the villagers revolve solely around food and meals are dictated by the seasons; jellyfish in the spring, fish in the summer, whatever they have managed to store in the winter. Each winter, the village lights fires on the beach to attract O-fune-sama, the merchant ships that carry cargo, onto the rocks where they founder. The villagers murder surviving crew members and take whatever the ship is carrying and either use it to live on or sell it to buy food. If no O-fune-sama come for a few years, family members are sold into bondage for periods of up to ten years so their families can survive. The book focuses on 14 year old Isaku who is the man of his household following his father’s departure on a three year bondage contract. In his father’s absence, Isaku, his family and the entire village are changed by the devastating consequences of a wrecked ship. Besides being a refreshing change from the usual setting of civilisation and material concerns, this novel was free from stereotypical characters and clichéd expressions. As far as I can remember, this is the first non-happy ending I have savoured in a while; the whole things was so simple, so subtle, so poignant.

I followed up Shipwrecks with another novel ending in ruined lives. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is a novel about a soldier’s participation in the Vietnamese-American war and the profound effect it had on everything in his life that followed. I don’t usually like what I call ‘gritty realism’, preferring novels that end optimistically with promise for future happiness, but these two have caused me to rethink. Prior to reading The Sorrow of War, I never really thought much about war; I associate it with history, and history for me has strong connotations of boredom (and my history teacher who never shaved her legs). War is one of those things you can’t comprehend properly unless you have directly experienced it or been affected by it somehow. This novel succeeds in bringing home what war can do to a person and contains some horrifying accounts I assume are drawn from the author’s own experiences. Definitely difficult to read but compelling at the same time. I would never have picked it up if I hadn’t seen it and realised I hadn’t read anything from Vietnam yet – once again I am left wondering at the things I manage to read. What would I be reading if I wasn’t looking for books from a range of countries and cultures? The best thing about these two is that they fulfil something I had hoped to get out of reading literature from around the world – new cultures, new perspectives on life and what it means, a different outlook on the world.
Like all exceptional books they made me question how I live, how I think, what I prioritise.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I cannot imagine what possessed me, when I was still a student, to think that what I told myself was full time study would be anything like full time work. From my new vantage point, I can see that I was even lazier than I admitted to myself previously (and I was quite frank with myself over the actual amount of work I did as opposed to the amount I should have been doing). In comparison to students on other courses perhaps, I did work hard, but in relation to those on my own course I certainly did not. I've always done the absolute minimum work possible to acheive the grades I wanted to acheive and have ended up cutting it pretty close at times. I don't think I especially regret not working harder at university, but I do sometimes wish a couple of my marks had been higher! Then again, I did pass a paper that I had neglected to attend any classes for, ever.

This has turned into a slightly nostalgic recollection of lazy Sundays and miscellaneous afternoons devoted to reading for pleasure when I should really have been writing essays in any one of three languages, which it was not supposed to be. I had intended to briefly complain about how little time I have at the moment, but while I get annoyed at my lack of reading time I know I had better get used to it. It isn't likely to improve much in the near future.

I haven't blogged for about a fortnight (where did the time go?) but I have at least managed to get some reading done in that time; Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura (Japan) and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Vietnam) and am close to completing The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Angola). I've discovered a new website, Poetry International Web and been impressed by David Cameron's plans to create more interest in reading for leisure among boys in their early teens. It distresses me to think it, but he got one over on Labout there. I've also been 'detoxing' which in my case really just means eating more fresh fruit and veg and scoffing less chocolate and nutty popcorn. I now have a new-found mania for noodles in spiced coconut milk - sounds dubious I know, but I am addicted. And it is good for me!

I promise I'll post more reading-relevant things later in the week; I'm looking forward to doing the 8 random things meme among other things, and I found some new poems (new to me) I'm going to post because I love them so much.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Culture Clash

The two books I read over the weekend both deal with clashing cultures - basically, racism (and England is the bad guy in both cases). Nehanda by Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe) is about the white invasion of Africa, and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Trinidad) is the story ofWest Indian immigrants in the 1950s. I hadn't intended on reading these two together, by good chance they just happened to come off my library pile that way.

While searching for an image of the novel Nehanda, I accidentally discovered Nehanda herself was a real woman and is still revered as the most important person in Zimbabwe's history. During her lifetime (c1840-1898) she was a spirit medium of the Shona people. As one of the spiritual leaders of the Shona, she provided inspiration for their revolt against the Rhodesian colonization of Zimbabwe. The British spent some time hunting her down and when they eventually captured her they executed her as a warning to all those who refused to accept and embrace the supposedly superior English culture and religion.

Sam Selvon's novel is also a history of experience and Selvon himself was also a leader of a kind. Before he died, he was already being hailed as the 'father of black writing in Britain'. Although Selvon's situation is the inverse of Nehanda's - he chose to come and make a life in Britain - he didn't have an easy time in London. Londoners were racist and expected the West Indians to behave as though they were British while still assuming an inferior status. There was no mass persecution or executions, but it is still not exactly a comfortable read. Selvon's writing is incredibly atmospheric; he is one of those authors who can put you inside a character's head so that you absorb their feelings or personality traits while you are reading and it only occurs to you to think objectively about what just happened when you put the book down for a break and realise your feelings are something quite different to the main character's.

The themes of these two novels are themes that will never get tired and will never be resolved. Culture and society are like religion; almost everyone thinks theirs is best.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Notions

There's a great new challenge up at Grasping For The Wind. It's called New Notions 5 Reading Challenge, and the requirements for books (you only have to read one a month) is that they have to challenge your thinking on any given topic. That's the kind of challenge I love!

I haven't had much time to think about what I might pick, but Wikipedia does have a list of controversial books and there is a long list of banned books here, and a list of the most harmful books here.

Some of the issues I'd be interested in reading around would include:

- Climate change theory; I'm in the camp that does not believe global warming is due to carbon emissions, but I'm always interested in reading about different theories)

- White supremacy; I've been fascinated by the supposed allure of blonde hair and the status accorded those who have blonde hair for a long time and want to look at the darker side of the Aryan ideal and its supporters

- Conservative politics; I'm pretty left wing and want to know how these people think!

- Che Guevara; I loved the film The Motorcycle Diaries, but I get the feeling it isn't a very objective interpretation of Guevara's life

- Cloning; I am very against cloning in theory, but perhaps if I knew more about how it can change people's lives and how it actually works, I might change my mind

I can't wait to start finding books that will count toward this challenge, and I also can't wait to see the selections other participants make. Half the point of reading books is to increase knowledge and stretch the mind, but that sometimes gets neglected.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Speedy Reading

I'm powering through my library stack - two more books down! After a reader commented that I had to read Pedro Páramo because 'providence, not the librarian, had placed it on top of my pile', it had to be next on my list.

Juan Rulfo wrote Pedro Páramo when he was into his fifties and it was hailed as an instant masterpiece. It was his first and only novel. Garcia Márquez claimed that this novel along with Kafka's Metamorphosis (also on my reading list - thanks for the recommendation nyssaneala!) was the most influential work in his early reading, and could recite whole passages of it from memory. The novel follows a man who returns to his mother's birthplace to find his father, in accordance with his mother's dying wish. He finds a ghost town; the whole place appears abandoned, but wandering among the deseted buildings he encounters some former residents. The ghosts carry him back in time through their memories and help him gradually reveal the truth about his father and how the ghost town died. Rulfo said of the way the novel is written: "There is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no time." The translation I read was beautiful; I couldn't put the book down. It reminded me in some ways of The Obscene Bird of Night which was my read for Chile; many of the same themes, although Pedro Páramo is far shorter and more accessible.

From a Mexican ghost town, I travelled to Kenya and read my first play of the journey! Mugasha is a play derived from an oral legend of the East African region and narrates the birth of one of the most revered deities in that area. Mugasha is a miracle birth to the barren wife of the former king and once born, returns to reclaim his father's kingdom from the usurpers. He commands the weather, the lakes and the animals, all of whom help him in hs mission. He also takes the opportunity to teach a stuck up princess a good lesson about snobbishness and the duties of a ruler along the way, like all good leaders should. The only complaint I have is that none of the references to aspects of African culture were explained in the volume, especially when the original African words were used. Although this is an old story and I don't wish to grossly generalise African culture, I did feel some of my impressions garnered from earlier reading were reinforced; the importance of rituals surrounding births and deaths, the relative status and roles of men and women, the strict ethical codes governing life.

Finally, on the way home today (as it was payday!) I stopped at virtually every book shop I came across and ended up with a vintage secondhand edition of A Concise History of Romanian Literature and also To Bury Our Fathers, a Nicaraguan novel. The only book I bought new - very proud of the restraint I exercised - was a memoir by a Vietnamese man whose job during the war was dragging Vietnamese bodies from the jungle. The memoir is called The Sorrow of War - it sounds like an interesting if harrowing read.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Weekend Reading

Following my trip to the library, from whence I hauled home 11 new books, this weekend has proved to be a veritable reading retreat. I finished off one book I had already started and devoured a further two.

First up was The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble. I read this one for a number of reasons, but it isn't something I would usually have picked up. Way back in January, when I signed up for the Winter Classics Challenge, one of the books I wanted to read was The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, the diaries of an eighteenth century Korean princess. I never got around to reading it for a number of reasons, but it was suggested to me that I might enjoy Drabble's fiction novel, inspired by the same diaries. I did not. In short, I found the novel full of trite, irritating asides, and it never really went anywhere. I can see that the idea behind the novel was interesting, but Drabble's realisation of that idea left a lot to be desired.

Thirteen Cents, by South African author K. Sello Duiker was a far more engaging read. Drawn from the author's own experiences, the novel is a brief snapshot of a few months in the life of a street orphan in Cape Town. Having lost both parents, 13 year old Azure with his blue eyes and black skin is left to survive alone. He sleeps on the beach and makes his living by prostituting himself to men.

"A boy? I'm not a boy. I've seen a woman being raped by policemen at night near the station. I've seen w hite man let a [11 year old] boy get into his car. I've seen a couple drive over a street child and they still kept going. I've seen a woman give birth at the beach and throw it into the sea."

Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly gripping. Although this is a gritty read, the narrator's strong tone and refusal to be a victim holds it up. I thoroughly recommend this for an eye opening read - think City of Men (I've only seen the film, but I remember being horrified - very naively). I couldn't have got further from magical realism if I'd tried!

Finally, yesterday's read was The Fatal Eggs by Bulgakov. Who could resist a book with such a tempting title? It actually turned out to be a sci-fi dystopian vision of possible future scientific discoveries. A (somewhat) mad scientist in Russia discovers something in a strand of DNA that causes all organisms exposed to it to grow to gigantic proportions extremely quickly. Before he has had time to experiement with anything more significant than amoebas, Russia is struck by some form of poultry flu which wipes out their entire chicken population. The state initiates a project to use the new technology to grow more chickens in a short period of time, but everything goes wrong when instead of chicken eggs, they are sent the eggs of another type of animal. The consequences are disastrous. Not the type of thing I usually read, but I enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New Books/Countries!

Following yesterday's panic-inducing realisation, I took a trip to my local library to see what I could see and have returned joyously with 11 books from 11 new countries! All relatively short at around 200 pages and hopefully quick to read. I'd forgotten how much I relish browsing the shelves of the library and searching for new books - the satisfaction of coming away with a new stash is almost unbeatable. Inevitably there is also the regret of passing over several books I would have liked to pick up and bring home - I think the library must have gone on a Persephone spree, because there seemed to be an inordinate number of those elegant grey spines adorning the shelves. Also - and it is funny how these things seem to come in groups - I kept coming across books from Nigeria and Iran/Persia. I've never managed to find anything from Iran/Persia before and I discovered three books from there today (bear in mind that my local library is very small and has large collections of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins et al). I wanted to read all three, but have come away with Layla and Majnun by Nizami, which claims to be the classic love story of Persian literature. I must confess that despite stating yesterday that I would not read Pedro Paramo which I had reserved at the library, I might have to. The woman at the checking out desk just put it on my pile, how could I say I no longer wanted it after they'd sent it down from another library? And it is so little, I'm sure it wouldn't take too long to read. Excuses, excuses!

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for new books I could read - I'm grateful for the help, and have a new list of books to look out. I can't wait! (Suggestions are always welcome, so if anyone has anything they'd like to add, please feel free.)

Anyone have a time machine going spare?

I've just checked my first post and discovered I wrote it on July 20th 2006. Horror of all horrors! I wanted to read 100 books from 100 different countries in a year...which means I now have 3 months to read around 75 books. But all is not lost - today is April 19th, so I have 62 days left to complete my challenge which means all I have to do is read 1.2 books a day and I'll make it! All I have to do now is build my time machine and I'll be well away.

Now onto the serious stuff - how, HOW, have I only read 25 books from 25 countries so far? I know I doubled up on some of the countries, and I also know that some books were so monstrously large and took so long to read that I fell behind. I suspect the real reason is all those books I don't tell you about on here, or the ones that I do write about on here but don't count towards my reading challenge. Last week for example, I was so enchanted with Little Boy Lost, I ran straight out and got another Persephone book - Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - from the library and devoured that. I will concede it was enjoyable, not as much so as I had hoped, but if I want to meet my own challenge, I may have been better off reading something else. Over Christmas I read several Chinese books I didn't mention on here, and now I come to think of it, reading books that do not count towards my challenge has been something of a theme lately. Oops.

So - dear, dear readers - I need your help. You can find a list of the countries I have read books from here. I would love your suggestions for any short books you know from any countries I have not yet visited (if I can read them in one day so much the better). I'm going to stop reading books that will not count towards my challenge. Although...Pedro Paramo is waiting for me in the library and I really really want to read it - but I already read Carlos Fuentes who can count towards Mexico, and I also have Octavio Paz on my shelf who is Mexican. I must be strong! I will send it back unread. I will read it after July 20th!

Anyway, all suggestions welcome. Even if you don't know any books that I can read quickly from other countries, send me good luck wishes! I'm going to need them...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Magical Realism

I think I’ve discovered why I love Magical Realism so much.

Magical realism as a term describing a genre of literature was initially coined by a Venezuelan critic in the 1960s and was used to apply to a specific type of Latin American literature. The expression gained currency after Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias used the it to describe the style of his novels and it has since been widely applied among Latin American novelists – Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and many more. (It isn’t limited to Latin American authors however; the works of Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri among others have also been labelled magical realism.)

One article I found online here claims that magical realism is “a literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre” and “aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites”. In the works of Allende, this is often manifested in her juxtaposition of the supernatural alongside the earthly, or in Gárcia Márquez simply by incorporating elements of the fantastic, almost surreal, into plausible stories grounded in reality. In Latin America in the 1940s, “magical realism was a way to express the realistic American mentality and create an autonomous style of literature” and I believe this statement still holds true today. One of my favourite aspects of literature is how it can be used to effect social change or to embody a collective cultural passion or goal and I suppose I’m drawn to works of magical realism partly because the works of Latin American authors in particular are very distinctive and disparate from most other genres or movements in literature I’ve encountered and partly because I believe in magic and spirits and relish the fact that in much magical realism these aspects of life are brought to the fore and accepted as part of the natural order of things. I’d far rather magical realism than gritty realism!

Besides these aspects there is another factor which keeps me returning to magical realism, and I only identified it recently while reading one of the earliest works of magical realism to emerge from Latin America – The Obscene Bird of Night by Chilean author José Donoso. It is certainly the most challenging novel I’ve read in the last six months and maybe longer than that. I’m still not quite sure what is real in the story and what is not, or even who is real and who is not. I am sure that everyone in the novel is insane to varying degrees. The key story is that a son of one of the oldest aristocratic families in the country is born a hideously deformed monster. In shame, his father hides him from the world, but out of love and pity for his child, but also reflecting his aristocratic heritage and outlook, sets the monster up in a fantasy world populated by freaks gathered from around the continent. The world is entirely enclosed and self sufficient, and the aristocratic monster is bought up as king and groomed to believe he is the epitome of physical perfection. A normal human being seems unbelievably deformed and ugly to him. One day he manages to escape his fantasy world and spends some days in the outside world where his notions of reality and social order are destroyed as he is taunted and called a freak in a world that seems to him to be populated with freaks. In his misery he returns to his fake kingdom and plots to destroy his father and erase his memories of his new knowledge through a lobotomy. This whole story is narrated by Humberto, his father’s servant who inhabits the world of freaks and reports back to the monster’s father. Humberto appears to be severely delusional whether on purpose or not, and narrates several different realities at once changing names and places and events until nothing is certain.

There is much more to the novel and several more storylines, but I couldn’t relate them properly even if I wanted to. The main point I’m trying to get to is that this book was so much more extreme than anything else I have read in the magical realist mode that it prompted me to consciously and consistently analyse everything I read and led me to examine my own position as a reader. I had to make choices on how to read the book; Humberto’s stream-of-consciousness narrative pulled me into the story and made me question everything from what and who was real, what was symbolism, the nature of truth and reality, whether as reader I should judge Humberto or any of the other characters, whether the techniques the author was using were effective and how I was being provoked into thinking one thing by the narrator but after the next comma being told something different. The novel made me look at myself and my beliefs and how I see the world and threw it back at me to be questioned again. I felt like I was finally finding my feet as a reader and gaining some kind of understanding of what it means to read with awareness.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Persephone Books

Almost a month since I last posted (properly)! Time flies – I don’t think I’ve even managed to read very much over the last few weeks.

That’s a lie, really. I know I’ve been reading, just not things that are strictly to do with world literature. My favourite part of this last month’s reading has been the discovery of Persephone Books.
I know quite a few bloggers have discovered them recently, or known and loved them for a while, and I’m going to add my voice to those of the devoted. The company itself has a touch of the magical about it, and even the way in which I read my first book is special! I first heard about Persephone Books a couple of years ago when reading India Knight’s book The Shops (great fun to read, I recommend that one too). My lasting impression is, I think, how she raved about the elegance of their grey covers with their vintage prints inside the covers. Just the descriptions of the way these books would look on a bookshelf made me covet one, never mind about the contents. I forget why, but I never actually bought one. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a parcel landed on my doormat, and on opening it I discovered – much to my great delight – a Persephone book with a note from a friend saying Happy early/late Birthday, she’d seen the Persephone shop and thought of me! I was incredibly touched and impressed by her excellent taste and devoured the book in less than 24 hours. It is called Little Boy Lost and is by Marghanita Laski. I can honestly say it was the best read I’ve had in a while for pure entertainment value. During WWII, a man was separated from his wife and baby boy. His wife was subsequently murdered by the Nazis and his child lost. After the war had finished, he returned from America to search for his son in Europe but can find nothing concrete. With the help of a friend, he identifies one child in an orphanage that might be his son, but when he visits the boy he sees no physical resemblance and the child can remember nothing of his early life. In the days that follow, the man becomes acquainted with the boy and it seems increasingly likely that this boy is in fact not his son. Ultimately the man has to make a choice – should he leave and get on with his life and accept that his son was lost and probably killed, or should he take the child from the orphanage and try to give him a better life? Does it matter that the child is not his son? Where does his duty lie? Laski evokes a complex emotional moral dilemma so well I couldn’t put the book down and was practically crying in the hairdressers by the time I finished the last page. The last sentence was utterly perfect and I’ll always remember the story. I know some of you out there are looking to buy some more Persephone books, and I really can’t recommend this one enough.

Aisha, huge thanks again for sending me this one – I love it and you!

Here's the Persephone catalogue entry for Little Boy Lost.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Oops...I wasn't back on Sunday at all! Not the Sunday I originally meant, anyway. This post is actually to say that I'm away all this week, and I won't have computer access to blog. Or time, I expect. I'll have to make a renewed effort when I return to make time for blogging. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back on Sunday!

I've been away (again) for almost two weeks - there was an issue with my laptop so the computer place has had it for ages, but I can pick it up on Friday! It isn't mortally injured or anything - the dog leapt on it and ripped off a load of keys with her claws, leaving several gaping holes in the keyboard. I knew there was a reason I never usually let her into my room...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Moral Superiority of the Novel by Susan Sontag

The Guardian (my favourite!) has just published an essay by Susan Sontag entitled Pay Attention to the World. It compares the novelist's traditional task to the new task they face in modern culture (and the predicted 'hypernovel'), and contains some wonderful observations.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Lady, The Chef and The Courtesan

The Lady, The Chef and The Courtesan, by Marisol
Country: Venezuela

"According to a Latin American proverb, a complete woman must be a lady in the living room, a chef in the kitchen and a courtesan in the bedroom."

Ironically, a couple of days after writing a post ranting about the difficulties of finding anything to read from Venezuela, I came across a review of this book online. I read the blurb on Amazon, and since I have a weakness for certain types of book - in this instance, a feminist novel of newly discovered inner power enabling the central character to go against her mother and cultural traditions to follow her heart and step into a new life in Chicago - I snapped up a copy and dived in.

As it turns out, the original reviewer was right on the money - I can't find her review, but she wrote something along the lines of 'not great, but interesting for the cultural knowledge it contains'. My initial impressions of the novel were not favourable. I thought the language was stiff and cliched, nothing piqued my interest and I decided that life is to short to carry on reading if it didn't pick up by the end of the first chapter. As it turned out, the book did pick up - without wishing to give too much away, much of the main body of the novel is Pilar's grandmother diaries, containing stories from her life, lessons she learned on love, cooking and living in Venezuelan society and a secret she carried with her to her grave. Slightly weirdly, once the author got into the diary excerpts, her prose changed and became beautifully composed and flowing. The contents of the text also changed, revealing aspects of traditional Venezuelan customs and culture within the main storyframe. Unfortunately, the end was a little predictable and unsatisfying, but I do now posess a killer paella recipe, which I will be trying out as soon as I buy some oregano!

Here's three facts about Venezuelan culture you probably didn't know:

1. Women are expected to remain virgins until they marry, but men undergo a rite of entry into manhood by visiting prostitutes in brothels.

2. When a marriage proposal is put forward between two families, the bride's propective mother-in-law must prepare the most delectable meal she can for the bride's family to prove that her son is worthy of his future wife (who will already have undergone extensive training for housewifery).

3. Traditionally, Venezuelan women make a lot of their own beauty products - tooth whitener made with lime juice and baking soda, lip plumper made with honey and chillis and each woman will also blend her own unique individual scent.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Once I put it down, I just couldn't pick it up...

I was planning to post on something entirely different today, but an article in The Times with the same title as this post caught my eye today (you can find it online here). The piece amused me after my observation yesterday that I've spent the last two weeks starting several books without finishing many of them. According to a recent survey, "the average Briton spends more than £4,000 on books over a lifetime, but leaves nearly half unfinished". I'm fairly sure I'll spend a good deal more than that, but I don't plan on leaving such a large proportion unfinished. A high percentage of people surveyed confessed to buying titles that would look good in front of others, which is something I don't think I do. I will admit to making careful selections from my shelves at times, but generally that just means leaving Harry Potter and Jilly Cooper at home! Here's the list of the top ten unfinished fiction books:

1 Vernon God Little, D.B.C. Pierre
2 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J K Rowling
3 Ulysses, James Joyce
4 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis De Bernieres
5 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
6 The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
7 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
8 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
9 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
10 Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky

I've started (and completed, before you ask) four of these - Harry Potter (loved it), The Satanic Verses (disappointing, wanted to give up but didn't), The Alchemist (overrated) and The God of Small Things (compelling but disturbing in places). Of the others, I know Captain Corelli's Mandolin is in the house somewhere, and Ulysses has been languishing on my shelves for ages, as has Crime and Punishment. I haven't even heard of Cloud Atlas, I don't think - and I'm unlikely to look it out now! How many on the list have you completed or abandoned?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Carlos Fuentes on Reading

During my (slightly extended) break from blogging I’ve been delving into books left, right and centre. I’ve started several, including Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School by Scott Turow and The Sin of Father Amaro by Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz.. I’ve also been dipping into Neruda’s poetry as I go. On top of these, I started (some time ago now) Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands as well as The Obscene Bird of Night, both of which are staring accusingly from my shelves. Abandoning books before completion is not usually a problem I encounter and it is definitely not a habit I want to get into – apart from anything else it is very frustrating to have half-finished books lying around. I feel like a sloppy reader!

Another book I’ve been dipping into when the urge takes me is a book of essays by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, called This I Believe: An A-Z of A Writer’s Life. I’m gaining such immense pleasure from his writing, I’m going to include some extracts from his essay on Reading here. What I love about Fuentes are his ideas and his obvious love for Mexico, indeed all of Latin America, and belief in the power of books. The spirit of forward motion, toward a better life and better society that is evident in his words is something I’ve noticed in Latin American cinema recently. One interview I read with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal showed the same spirit (and, now I’ve read some Fuentes, I see where some of the things Bernal discussed came from. If I read some Buñuel, I think I’d find some more.) It is something I especially admire, not least because to me, it seems absent from British society.

José Vasconcelos, the first Education Secretary of the Mexican Revolution, published a collection of universal classics, beautifully bound, sometime around 1923. Why publish Cervantes in a country with a 90% illiteracy rate, people asked him and criticised him in his day. But today the answer is self-evident: so that the illiterate, once they are no longer illiterate, will be able to read Don Quixote instead of Superman.

Over the past century, in every Latin American country, we have all witnessed and participated in the creation of a great circle, a circle that travels from writer to editor to distributor to bookseller to the public and then back to the writer. Unlike what has happened in countries with more mercantile development but less intellectual stimulation, in Mexico and Latin American there are books that never disappear from the shelves. Neruda and Borges, Cortázar and García Márquez, Vallejo and Paz; they are always present in our bookshops.

They are always present because their readership is constantly being replenished, never depleted. They are young readers, between fifteen and twenty five years old. They are men and women of the working class, middle class, or somewhere in between, carriers of the changes and the hopes of our continent.

Today, the succession of economic crises endured by Latin America since the 1980s is the greatest threat to the continuity of the reading tradition, which is a reflection of society’s continuity. Various generations of young Latin Americans have discovered who they are by reading Gabriela Mistral, Jorge Amado or Juan Carlos Onetti. A break in this circle of reading would signify a loss of identity for any young people. Let us not condemn them to abandon libraries and bookshops only to get lost in the subterranean world of misery, crime and neglect.

In 1920, as the Dean of the National University of Mexico, Vasconcelos ordered the printing of a collection of beautifully bound volumes of Homer and Virgil, Plato and Plotinus, Goethe and Dante – a collection of true bibliographical and artistic jewels. But for a population of illiterate, indigent and marginalised people? Yes, precisely; the publication of these classics at the University was a way of saying to the majority of Mexicans: one day you will be at the centre, not at the margins of society. One day you will have the resources to buy a book. One day you will be able to read and understand those things that now, in our day, all Mexicans understand.

The book is the intimacy of a country, the inalienable notion we create of ourselves, of our time, of our past and our remembered future, experienced throughout the ages as verbal memory and desire in the here and now.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Until March 5th...

I won't be posting again until around March 5th. I haven't had time to devote to blogging or reading recently, and it is driving me mad. So, I'm taking a break from blogging to take care of some other things and hopefully I'll come back refreshed and renewed and better than before!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Captivity of the body, freedom of the mind

As I mentioned in my last post, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is one of my favourite poems. I first encountered it via Nelson Mandela; when he was in prison, he recalled some of the lines of the poem and how his situation had given them new meaning. Primo Levi, in his memoirs of Auschwitz called upon his love of poetry to sustain him, using Dante' s Divine Comedy to teach other prisoners Italian, but more significantly, to retain his humanity and soul. The freedom of the mind when the body is imprisoned interests me, and it says a lot about poetry that people seldom seem to recall passages of prose or scenes from a book to identify with their personal situations. A search on the internet turned up this project of teaching poetry to prisoners, some of whom had never read or written poetry before. Some of the poems they have produced are surprisingly evocative. My own favourite is this one:

Over two years ago
I knew nothing of
Of how it allows a
huge part of me to
be free.

How the truth in
it makes people feel

how it allows me
to feel love and sorrow
like a great earthquake
starting from
so deep

Monday, February 19, 2007

If This Is A Man

In a bid to recover some lost time on my classics reading challenge and retain some chance of completing three more books over the next ten days (as if), I rescued Primo Levi's two memoirs of his time in Auschwitz from my shelves and devoured both 'If This Is A Man' and 'The Truce' over the weekend. It's been a while since I read these two, and although some things had stayed with me since my initial reading of his works - a general impression of extreme work, no food, sore feet and appalling living conditions - those things were overshadowed by the new impressions my latest reading has left me with. There's nothing to say about German concentration camps and the persecution of Jews; all that is left is for each individual to discover that appalling chapter of history for themselves and take from it what they will. I personally found Levi's lack of resentment and anger the most astonishing facet of his writing, although whether he was too numbed and drained by everything that had happened to him to want to cover it again through writing or whether he was simply past resentment because there was no comprehending the behaviour of the Germans is impossible to say.

Since this was only the second classic I've managed to complete to date I have some way to go. The Obscene Bird of Night is still on my nightstand and I'm still less than halfway through it - it requires concentration to read it, because the prose is semi stream of consciousness and semi...something else, and it is hard to know who is actually speaking, whether they are really speaking or just thinking, whether the action is in the present or in a memory or even whether anything real is happening at all. When I manage to set some time aside for it, I do enjoy reading it and marvelling at how verbose the narrator is while at the same time conveying seemingly minimal information.

I also caved today while in Borders and bought the collected poems of Oscar Wilde. I haven't read much of Wilde's poetry, but The Ballad of Reading Gaol is one of my favourite works and I can recite vast tracts of it from memory. I'll never forget the unfortunate student on University Challenge who called it The Ballad of Reading Goal in response to one of Paxman's questions, to be met with a stare of disbelief as Paxman corrected his pronounciation and told him 'I bet the title makes more sense now, doesn't it?'

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Endings

I stole the inspiration for this post from this article here, all about the author's favourite happy endings. As so often happens, I started contemplating my own favourite happy endings in literature, thinking I'd lazily compile a list and post it. I rapidly discovered however, that most of the books on my shelves (and those that I've read recently) don't end happily. The only two titles I could come up with were The Time Traveller's Wife (which, although it makes me cry every time I read it, has a sweetener at the end) and Reunion by Fred Uhlman (a book about terrible things but with the most effective ending I've come across - not conventionally 'happy' per se, but changes the entire book).

I haven't read most of the books included in the aforementioned article, so I can't really say whether it is the case that I don't tend to read books with happy endings, or that my definition of a happy ending does not include an author promenading some hitherto unfortunate character's future possibilities for a happy life in a vaguely hopeful way at the end of a novel, or simply that the conventional happy endings - true love, another chance at life, freedom - now belong primarily to the domain of films rather than books. Take Trainspotting, for example. That novel is, without doubt, the single most sordidly depressing book I have ever come across, yet when it was made into a film the characters morphed into funny, likeable mischief makers and the film as a whole was extraordinarily optimistic and forgiving.

Realistically, I suspect that a happy ending is harder to pull off than a slightly grittier, imperfect ending. Nobody really believes in Prince Charming anymore; he's a cliche, as are the rest of the traditional happy endings with which everybody is acquainted. Authors face the problem of making a story credible and consistent while avoiding the deathly pitfalls of being steroeptypical and trite, and the easiest way to do that is to condemn characters to an unavoidable reality rather than allow them the golden dream. That's not to say that contemporary fiction is generally pessimistic, quite the opposite. And even if a story does end badly or pessimistically, the conclusion can still be striking. It's more that the art of ending a novel powerfully and effectively seems to be disappearing from modern literature.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Literature in Schools

Roy Hattersley's article today in the Guardian on teaching literature in schools was interesting, if vague. He rightly points out that "the way in which [books] are used in schools can make or break our enthusiasm for them in the years which follow". I remember detesting poetry with a passion when I was at school, thinking it was boring and pointless and a waste of time; likewise with Shakespeare. Away from the heavy analytical atmosphere of English Literature classes (what does this word mean? how does the author use irony to undermine his narrator? what is the poet *really* saying here?), I discovered an equally strong passion for poetry as I had experienced in the classroom, only now I love poetry. Not all of it, granted, but I couldn't live without Neruda, Yeats, Edna St Vincent Millay, Auden, Frost, Byron on my shelves. I know some of you feel the same and still have a deep aversion to reading poetry, probably because it recalls the feelings we experienced in the classroom years ago - always analysing, always feeling we were missing something, afraid we didn't 'get' poetry. I never 'got' Shakespeare at school - I remember sitting in class one day reading The Merchant of Venice, and not understanding any of the speeches and soliliquys and feeling decidedly stupid for it. Now I realise it was the way I was taught Shakespeare - I make a point of visiting the Globe theatre in London every year to see at least one performance (and am certain that visits to the Globe would do all young students of Shakespeare an immeasurable service). I can't blame it all on the teaching however; some of the poetry chosen is still the sort of thing I wouldn't choose to read, having had time to develop my own taste, but perhaps I wasn't ready for some of the material selected for us as students of 15 or 16 to read?

What, then, should students be reading? What would instill in them the joy of reading and a love of books? It is all very well to state that "the school syllabus must meet the needs of more than the academic minority", but what does that really mean? Should Shakespeare have been excluded from GCSE curriculums? Will poetry be next, because pupils are not deemed 'academic' enough to cope with it? Hattersley states (and I couldn't agree more) that "everyone should also read books and poems with which he or she can directly identify", and that we shouldn't be afraid to allow "new classics" to enter the syllabus. Both good points in theory, but combining 'modern classics' which allow students to 'identify directly' yet learn about literature as an art form (which, let's face it, is part of the point of teaching literature in schools - otherwise we'd just be teaching reading) will be difficult. Can it be done within the confines of English literature? Or should we look to international literature for inspiration? After all, what do inner city kids who lead deprived underprivileged lives have in common with a novel written by a reasonably well off, middle class Oxbridge graduate about something that doesn't directly relate to their lives? I didn't relate to or enjoy either Great Expectations or The Remains of the Day, both of which I did at A Level - but I did read a lot of Jane Austen and I especially remember how much I loved Wuthering Heights, neither of which were on my syllabus. I don't even see why English literature is confined to English Literature (if you see what I mean) - why can't international literature be read? It is impossible to gain an understanding of the English literary canon and Tennyson's or Forster's places in it in two hours a week, so why continue the pretence that A Level English Literature can achieve that?

The question of what students should be given to read in schools is knotty, and won't be easy to solve. One thing is certain; the poeple who best know what 15 and 16 year olds would most like to read and enjoy won't be consulted. Why aren't the students ever consulted?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Classics Challenge: One Down!

Some books tell inexpressiby beautiful stories; some tell common stories but with such finesse and expression that they become remarkable. Chéri is one of the latter. There is nothing extraordinary about a broken heart, after all.

Colette, the author of Chéri, is notorious in France both for her outrageous lifestyle and views, and her works of fiction. My personal feeling is that Chéri is one of the best classics I've read. The emotional punch the ending packs is phenomenal, not because it is good writing (which it is) but rather because Colette draws her characters so skilfully. Without being too explicit in detailing thoughts, emotions or personal habits, she creates characters so real that the reader is left wanting to know how it ends for them - I'm still absolutely reeling from the punch Colette delivered at the end of Chéri. I hadn't realised quite how immersed in the story I'd been, or how much I liked Léa, the female lead.

If you haven't read Chéri but are planning to, stop reading now because I'm going to reveal some of the plot and characters and I don't want to prejudice your own reading.

Chéri is a typical spoiled angel incarnate; utterly beautiful and desirable, but turns out to be (as Bridget Jones might put it) a bit of a fuckwit. He embarks on a six year love affair with Léa, a contemporary of his mother's and several years his senior. Although both refuse to admit it, when the time comes for Chéri to marry and they are ripped apart, both realise how much they love each other and spend a torturous six months wondering how the other's life is progressing. Léa suffers especially; a beauty as a young woman, at fifty she has become old and lost her looks and with them any chance for real love. To disguise her longing for Chéri, she creates a fictitious lover with the (possibly unrealised) intention of making Chéri jealous. Finally, Chéri gives in to his desire for Léa and storms into her apartment at midnight to declare his love for her and the two are reunited. Léa's relief is as evident as her love for him, and for a few hours perfect happiness is hers. Upon waking up in the morning, as Chéri watches Léa in unfavourable daylight, he notes her wrinkles and changing figure and realises that he does not want Léa. Chéri probably doesn't possess the self awareness to understand himself, but his change of heart is a combination of many factors, not least finding out that what he thought all along he couldn't have never did belong to another. There follows a fight between the two, and this is how it all ends. Colette is inexpressibly cruel.

She closed the door behind him, and silence put an end to her vain and desperate words. She heard Chéri stumble on the staircase and she ran to the window. He was going down the steps, and then he stopped in the middle of the courtyard.

"He's coming back! He's coming back!" she cried, raising her arms.

An old woman, out of breath, repeated her movements in the long pier-glass, and Léa wondered what she could have in common with that crazy creature.

Chéri continued on his way toward the street. On the pavement he buttoned up his overcoat to hide his crumpled shirt. Léa let the curtain fall back into place; but already she had seen Chéri throw back his head, look up at the spring sky and chestnut trees in flower, and fill his lungs with the fresh air, like a man escaping from prison.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Deliciously Decadent

Book two of the Classics challenge started! (Book one still pending.) Due to the fact that The Obscene Bird of Night is not very portable - read: it has a flimsy cover and I don't want to bend it - I've begun reading Cheri by Colette and am enjoying it immensely. It couldn't be a greater contrast with Donoso's prose; Donoso is verbose and employs stream of consciousness across great chunks of text, where Colette is more concise and builds her characters through observations about them as much as revealing their feelings and thoughts directly. Cheri is full of light and people hedonistically pursuing the finer things in life; in Donoso's novel, the characters rattle around empty, dark and dusty halls and make semi-new garments from the unravelled wool of old clothes. Their pleasures are twisted to fit into their warped world and they have no hopes of hedonism whatsoever.

While I'm enjoying both novels, I have to confess that reading about the lives of the rich and idle always fascinates me. Let me put a proviso on that: reading about the lives of the rich and idle from past times fascinates me; otherwise it all gets a bit political. It feels somehow extremely indulgent to be reading about people dressed up in pearls, lounging about in sunny gardens and sipping brandy from 'petal-thin glasses' when I'm shivering in Caffe Nero, wrapped in a ratty old cardigan and slurping hot chocolate from a generic coffee house mug. I suppose it is really escapism - unless one of the characters is completely unbearable, but Colette tempers things with humour and doesn't take her own characters seriously at all. Decadence is just so...decadent. Who wouldn't want to be completely self-indulgent once in a while?

What makes decadence so attractive is the perceived glamour of it - decadence has connotations of wealth, beauty, fine food/jewellery/fashion, the whole charmed life. Moral decay is irrelevant because who needs morals when you have as much money to do as you please? I do sometimes wonder at the recent proliferation of books such as A Girl's Guide To Glamour or The Goddess Guide - books claiming to contain the secret to imparting glamour into one's life, usually by putting an orchid in the bathroom or buying extraordinarily expensive new shoes and keeping them in plastic boxes with a polaroid on the front. It is all about indulgence and image, two things modern women are informed they should aspire to. At times (when I'm shivering in a coffee house and wrapped in a ratty cardi) I can see the attractiveness of the lazy, glamourous life and the point of a not-so-ratty cardi. But really, who has time to put one's shoes into see-through boxes and colour code one's wardrobe? And why is an orchid in the bathroom necessary to feel glamourous? You still wouldn't have time to lounge around drinking brandy and looking stunning, and after buying everything in those books, you definitely wouldn't have the money to support yourself in pursuing such activities! In my opinion, all you really need is a stash of books like Cheri to immerse yourself in all the glamour and all the decadence you could wish for (and much cheaper than those heels).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

From Chile with love

I've finally started on my selections for the Winter Classics Reading Challenge. Considering I'm supposed to read five by the end of Febuary and I'm only 80 pages into The Obscene Bird of Night which is well over 400 pages, I'll be delighted if I manage to complete three! I'm finding the lack of time I seem to have free to devote to reading a real problem; I have so many commitments that take up hours each week that I might otherwise spend reading but I must also conclude that the material I've been reading recently isn't the type of literature that lends itself to being read quickly. With Donoso so far, I'm lost in the labyrinths of language and stream of consciousness just as the characters I've met get lost in the dusty passageways and courts of the casa they inhabit, and just as I think some sense is beginning to shine through the surreal surroundings something else is revealed which throws everything into question. Donoso really is an exceptionally effective writer.

Continuing the Chilean theme, here is my most beloved poem from Pablo Neruda, who Márquez referred to as "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language". I discovered Neruda by accident one morning. I pulled out a volume of his poems from the shelf in the book shop, and settled down to have a look through. Ella Fitzgerald was playing, I had the book shop to myself and there was the most wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. I've been in love with Neruda ever since (and am resolved to marry anyone who can write me poetry like his!). Read it slowly and feel what the poet feels.

Tonight I Can Write

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


I won't be posting for another week or so - I'm off to London to do some work shadowing with a barrister, since at some stage I do need to find an actual career. I haven't posted for a while because I've been madly busy filling out applications for law schools, jobs with law-type places, and reading many books about the law (learning a lot!). If my next post raves about how well Glanville Williams writes about something legal, don't be surprised!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dirty Havana Trilogy

Dirty Havana Trilogy, by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
Country: Cuba

Reviewer's opinions on this novel are divided into two camps; those who think it is "an intellectual and deeply introspective piece, full of passion and honesty” and those who loathe it as a piece of “bland sensationalism". That the novel is exceptionally full of sex and dirt (in all senses of the word), everyone agrees.

Pedro Juan, a forty five year old living in Cuba under Castro during the '90s narrates a series of short stories that introduce the streets and the people of Havana. Life is tough; mostly, there is nothing to do, except drink rum, smoke cigars, have sex (preferably with as many different women as possible in as many different ways as possible) and try to earn a few pesos by engaging in any one of a number of illegal activities while avoiding the police.

Pedro Juan is an intriguing character; he paints a vivid picture of Havana in the '90s, and despite finding many of his attitudes and observations of people crude and vulgar, I couldn't help liking him and even respecting his attitude to life. Cuba has been through some tough times and the people have taken the brunt of it all, but their way of living is just to get on with it as best they can, and not waste time complaining about their situations. I'll admit, when I first began reading the novel, I felt quite uncomfortable with the explicit way the narrator deals with sex (and, less frequently, death) but once I settled into it and became more familiar with the narrator, I became more appreciative of the context of the novel and precisely what life in Havana actually meant for the Cubans.

I know it is cheeky and lazy to do what I'm about to do, but somebody called James Ferguson has written a fantastic review here if anyone is interested. Dirty Havana Trilogy wouldn't usually be my cup of tea, but since it wasn't pessimistic and managed to challenge my perceptions and prejudices I enjoyed reading it. Definitely the most controversial (and dirty) thing I've read in a while!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

In The Mood for Quizzes

Instead of using my free time profitably, I've been fooling around on various websites taking literature quizzes. Rather disgracefully, I scored 100% on the Guardian's Jilly Cooper quiz, and only 11 out of 29 on this, The Guardian World Book Day quiz. It's an intriguing quiz, asking questions on authors/book/book related things from each continent in turn. Strangely enough, the continents I scored best on were Africa, Asia and South America. Must improve on the others...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Global Interest

Sometimes it is very hard to find books by authors from a certain country. Venezuala is proving particularly problematic at the moment. I've investigated a list of authors, searching for their works online and on Amazon for volumes of poetry or novels with limited luck - apparently some works in Spanish are available (at a price, naturally) but only two authors appear to have works published in English that are available through Amazon, and generally Amazon is a fair indicator of what is out there. In addition to the limited availability of translated authors, I can't afford to keep buying books from every country: doubly annoying when no library in the southwest of England contains anything by either of the Venezualan authors I have identified. It isn't especially a problem as such at the moment, just more of an annoyance. But is could become a problem later on - there are approximately 180 countries in the world which gives me a lot to choose from (in theory) - I only have to find books from around half the countries out there, right? Only I'm starting to worry that maybe books from half the countries out there will prove harder to find than I had anticipated.

I've been thinking over the last couple of days along two lines - firstly, why isn't there more of an interest in literature from other countries? And secondly, why can't I (as a highly educated individual) read in more languages? I only did Spanish for GCSE level at school when I was 16, and haven't spoken it at all in the seven year interval since, so there is no way I could tackle anything from Venezuala in the original. I would quite like to be able to read Spanish fluently though; Neruda is one of my favourite poets and I hear that his peoms lose a lot in translation. But more than that, writers from certain countries seem to take it for granted that they should be able to read novels and poems in languages other than their native tongues - French, English, Japanese and Russian (in the case of Chinese authors), yet I cannot imagine many writers in the UK being able to read fluently in a European language. Does anyone read Balzac or Zola in the original French besides academics? And does it really matter? Just because I think so, and feel slightly ashamed for what I perceive to be a British cultural failing (general widespread lack of interest in other languages/cultures and not just limited to literature), should it even be something of significance? Perhaps my perceptions are entirely incorrect; but I feel that more interest inthe world's societies and cultures can only be a good thing, and we could do worse than literature as a medium for imparting a little awareness.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Mooching Books

When it comes to my books, I am incredibly pedantic. I can’t (or won’t) read books with creased covers, or those that have page corners folded down to mark where someone finished reading. I absolutely detest marking my books in any way – one of my friends always underlines those passages in novels that he especially appreciates, which to my mind is akin to a crime. As a student, whenever I came across an academic work that somebody else had made notes in or highlighted relevant passages, I would sit in the library grimacing and rubbing out their marks in a righteous fury. I also learned the hard way never to lend books out to people; a copy of A Clockwork Orange that I had never read came back to me crumpled, ripped and with paint fingerprints across it. I never picked it up again. In addition to these slightly ridiculous obsessions, I cannot bear to throw anything away, more so when books are concerned. When it reaches the point that some bookshelves are two rows of books deep however, and there is no room for more bookcases, something must be done.

I think either Dorothy or Danielle first introduced me to BookMooch. Initially, I was very sceptical; how could I give up any of my precious books? If I wanted to mooch anything from someone else, I had to list ten. There was no way I could find that many from among the volumes on my shelves; it couldn’t be done. Then I discovered that lured on by the promise of a coveted book for nothing (or for the price of postage), I could bear to make some sacrifices. Luckily for me, the first person to request a book lived in another country, so I got extra points to ‘spend’. (Should that be luckily, or fatally?) All I can be grateful for is that most of the books I want at the moment are obscure enough that they are hard to find even on Amazon, let alone on BookMooch, so the damage I have done has been contained. The plan was to give away more books than I mooched. So far, it isn’t working out. I’ve only received a couple so far but more are in the post. Plus I received an order I made before Christmas in anticipation of book tokens I knew I would be getting. I'm sure I am supposed to be decreasing the number of books I only consolation is that technically I haven't paid for any of these! Here are my new acquisitions (one day I'll work out how to upload photos from my camera):

The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriaga (Mexico)
Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutierrez (Cuba)
Memoirs, Pablo Neruda (Chile)
The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso (Chile)
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar (Argentina)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Death In The Andes

Death In The Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)

One of the best things about novels is that everyone takes something different from them, which becomes apparent in discussions or reviews and which, as you read these divergent opinions, encourage you to slowly absorb and savour what you have read so that your own opinions can settle. Had I read reviews of Death In The Andes online, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the book shop; as I’m trying to read only one book per country I’d have gone for Aunt Julia and the Script Writer instead which is almost universally admired. As it is, I decided that Death In The Andes sounded like an intriguing read (seduced by the publisher’s carefully selected glowing reviews) and that was the one I took home.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it – most other reviewers don’t seem to be overly impressed with it for a variety of reasons, many of which are precisely the reasons I enjoyed it so much. Death In The Andes was written at the tail end of Peru’s Shining Path rebellion (which is ‘fuelling Lima’s literary revolution’ according to an article in the Guardian last week) and touches on many themes – politics, crimes of passion (political and otherwise), superstition, love, deception, rural society, to name a few. Set, as the name suggests, in the Andes, the novel follows a member of the Civil Guard who has to solve some unexplained local disappearances, surrounded by hostile rebels, unfriendly mountain people and ancient Incan myths. Llosa plays with the narrative, allowing memories and reality to intrude on each other and distort perception which can be both very comic but also quite unsettling. I basically found this a very thought provoking novel (even if a lot of the thoughts did revolve around how awful Communist revolutions invariably are), and a very gripping one – and it is quite probable that it isn’t possible to get further removed from the magical realism which numerous South American authors are known for, which makes for a sharp contrast with my previous reading.

Monday, January 08, 2007


I've managed to catch an especially nasty flu bug and am feeling pretty terrible, so I won't be posting for a couple of days til I've shaken it off.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Guilty Reads

When I happened across this article in The Guardian, I had to laugh. A survey of the general reading public has laid bare our guilty pleasures - and it's good to know I'm not alone!

It seems everyone has some kind of junk food for the mind; those certain books you reach for when you want to read but don't want anything that requires any effort to enjoy. Mine is Terry Pratchett, which I'll happily own up to. I have reread almost everything in the Discworld series multiple times, because they are so easy to read, I find them funny, and each time I reread something, I notice a reference to something that I hadn't picked up on before (Terry Prachett is a mine of useless trivia). One that I don't always admit to however, is Jilly Cooper's Riders. I can't help myself, I love it - and I'd reread Polo too, except I was silly enough to throw it out in a fit of snobbishness one day, telling myself that I shouldn't be reading worthless junk like that anyway.

Strangely enough, Stephen King topped the poll as Britain's number one literary junk food choice, followed by Harry Potter then John Grisham and Dan Brown. I've read my fair share of King novels in my time (but he's another one that lost the plot, no pun intended, as he got older), and I am utterly devoted to Harry Potter - but who is this John Grisham? His name makes me not want to read anything of his - makes me think of gristle, which is a bit unfortunate really. Do any of you have any guilty literary pleasures that you normally keep hidden/would never read in public? (I would certainly never read Jilly Cooper in public - perhaps it is very British of me, but there is sex in there! People would know!)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Fragrance of Guava

The Fragrance of Guava is a collection of ‘conversations’ between Gabriel García Márquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, first published in 1982 when Márquez was about fifty (after One Hundred Years of Solitude had won him universal recognition but before he was awarded the Nobel Prize). He discusses many things from his life up to that point: his almost superstitious need to have yellow flowers, preferably roses, on his desk when he is writing; the numerous hours he spent alone as a young man reading poetry as he was carried around the city on public trams, until it became too dark for him to read any more; his political views and relationships with political figures such as Castro.

For me, however, the most fascinating elements of the discussions were those that centred around his love for women and his love for his craft. As an incurable romantic, I was touched by his confession that “All through my life there has always been a woman to take me by the hand and lead me through the confusion of existence, which women understand better than men…I think nothing awful can happen to me if I’m with women. They make me feel secure Without this security I couldn’t have done half the worthwhile things I’ve done in my life…”. He also made some quite humourous remarks about feminists, but only because they were true observations.

Márquez’ comments on his literary influences and the authors/works he admired and disliked made me think about the relationship between a work of literature and myself as a reader. At times, I am very aware that I am not reading analytically enough and am therefore missing out on subtleties and nuances in a novel or short story which would probably have contributed to my understanding and/or enjoyment of the way the book has been composed. On the other hand, I am not a re-reader. And I have to ask, is it possible for a reader to extract in one attempt even a tenth of what an author has put into a work? And how much should we attempt to do so? There is always the additional danger of over-analysing and reading into a body of text something which the author had not put in there; Márquez cites an example where he laid what amounts to a booby trap for the critics, by giving a central character the collected works of a certain author to read. The critics then emphasised the influence of said author on Márquez’ work when in fact, Márquez had never read that particular author himself. It is hard to gauge how superficially I tend to read things, but I’m not sure that it matters especially. There are a lot of rather pretentious essays on the internet pontificating on the finer points of being a ‘good’ reader, but all I can conclude after having abandoned several of them in disgust is that one can enjoy a good book without being aware of every literary technique deployed by an author in creating a certain atmosphere or character, every subsidiary theme, the agony that underlay the choice of each adjective. Perhaps it is true that those who write themselves find a deeper appreciation in reading the finely tuned works of the great authors; but the heights of literary analysis aren’t something each individual reader should strive for. (Having said that, I’m sure that I’ll be paying closer attention to the next novel I pick up. But that’s ok; if Márquex can be susceptible to double standards, so can I!)

My only complaint about The Fragrance of Guava is that although it purports to be conversations between two friends, it reads as a somewhat stilted series of interviews which seem to follow predetermined questions and as a consequence, I found myself wondering what Márquez might have discussed had a conversation been permitted to run a more natural course. What digressions might have been made? What more would Márquez have revealed about the workings of his mind? Despite that, reading this book was an experience I didn’t want to end. I don’t know if it is simply that Spanish translates into English extraordinarily well, or if the best authors writing in Spanish have a naturally fluid and almost poetic manner of speech, but I derive a lot of pleasure from Márquez’ linguistic expression, both in prose and in conversation.