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.