Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Poem of the Month: June

When I first read this poem at the age of 13 I cried, and it still gets me very teary eyed. It's a beautiful poem, so read it out loud. It's important to really hear the sounds.

Mid-term Break - Seamus Heaney
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At ten o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying -
He had always taken funerals in his stride -
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'
Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.
He lay in a four foot box, as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Monday, June 28, 2010

working so hard/never in charge

Alan Bissett: Wednesday 18/08

Lionel Shriver: Saturday 28/08

Gutted to see that Seamus Heaney was sold out by the time I got the box office website working. Le sigh.

Due to insufficient funds, I had to choose just two events to go to. I'm excited all the same!

Currently thoroughly enjoying my first ever advanced reader's copy. Review will be up very soon.

Working too many hours, trying to fit in my work in progress when I can. Looking forward to some time to really work hard at it. A girl can dream.

And: Book Buying Ban is still a success, despite just being paid and getting discount on Penguin books. Cheer me on! My bank balance is appreciating this immensely.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alphabet Thursday: O

Shakespeare wrote some strong women - think of Portia winning the day and saving lives. Despite Ophelia's tragic end, she stands her ground. She's a woman who respects her father and loves her brother. She's loyal and loving to Hamlet, despite his 'feigned' madness. Ophelia speaks her mind without losing her place, and strives to keep her dignity intact.

There are many literary characters who would have broken down long before Ophelia did. Let's be fair to the girl - her father had just been killed, her brother was pretty much AWOL, and her lover just told her to get to a nunnery. That would make you pretty depressed. That Ophelia goes crazy made sense. I've never questioned Ophelia's madness, always sympathised with it, and by the end of Hamlet I think she had the right idea.

In a play full of themes of madness, Hamlet's antics can be gauged against Ophelia's. There was method, indeed, to Hamlet's madness. Ophelia, on the other hand, was giving out flowers in a muddled way. Beyond that, Ophelia's death marks a turning point - it's the catalyst for Hamlet's own, real, madness. A really tragic element. She could have stood her ground longer, she could have persuaded Hamlet otherwise. By the end of the play, she could have saved the day. But she didn't. Ophelia remained beautiful, pure, and tragic - ah, the magic of Shakespeare.

For Review: The Catcher in the Rye ~ JD Salinger

Very nerve-wracking, picking up the 'great American novel', not least at the age of twenty-two, with an MA in English literature. I'm over that adolescent age that most Catcher in the Rye readers are (at least, when they come to it for the first time), and I'm an overly opinionated book snob. I went through a huge disappointment with Hemingway, and I was hoping that I wouldn't repeat the ordeal with Salinger.

Holden Caulfield had me at the word 'go'. After reading just the first page I was entirely aware of exactly why so many adolescent readers loved, and still do, love this. Holden's narration is nothing short of genius - his tone, his pace, his use of language, completes the package of the confused teenage mind. His thoughts are punctuated with swearing, 'goddam' and 'sonuvabitch' being peppered across the sentences. He both knows what he wants and doesn't know what he wants, typical of that lack of motivation and the desperate desire of an adolescent. Holden is what every teenager I know has struggled with. What I really loved about his narrative is the continual use of hyperbole. Everyone 'killed him', or would have made someone 'committ suicide' or was 'five million' times. The skill, precision, and insight that went into that novel must have been insane, but it felt so natural and effortless. More Salinger has to happen in my life. I've been meaning to read this book for years, but I won't lie: Salinger's death brought it to the forefront of my mind, and I've been pressing to read this all year.

Having finished the book, I looked up some articles etc and was outraged to find some recent news about a film version. First off, it wouldn't work. Not even if there was someone doing a voiceover. Two, given Holden's hatred of movies, the whole thing would be pretty ironic. Three, Salinger said 'NO.' The man was adamant his whole life that he didn't want his work turned into a film. To ignore this because he is dead is just down right rude. I think it's horrendous even to speculate making a film when it was so entirely against his wishes.

Besides, what really engrossed me wasn't necessarily the story or plot - a lot happens, but not a lot actually happens. The style, the writing, the word. Ah, it was just too good! I can completely understand why The Catcher in the Rye is taught all over the US of A, and if I was a teacher there I'd be giving it to my kids at the age of five.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: 22 June

"I used to think she was quite intelligent, in my stupidity. The reason I did was because she knew quite a lot about the theater and plays and literature and all that stuff. If somebody knows quite a lot about those things, it take you quite a while to find out whether they're really stupid or not." (95)
The Catcher in the Rye ~ JD Salinger

[well that's my cover blown]

Monday, June 21, 2010

For Review: Complete Stories ~ Flannery O'Connor

Until recently there were very few female writers on my shelf: one Margaret Atwood, a few Jane Austen, two Hitomi Kanehara. A few months ago it was pointed out to me that, as a woman and a writer, I should read more women writers. Makes sense. But I don't want to read about shopaholics, I'm not interested in boring affairs, and anything remotely as 'girl-power' as Sex and the City makes me both quite angry and fed up. Then one day someone suggested reading Flannery OConnor because, as said person pointed out, it's a good read for someone like me who enjoys darker reads. Perfect.

'Everything That Rises Must Converge' was on my course list last semester, so this was where I started. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. I devoured the story, relished it, and was all in a hurry to get through her Complete Stories. Probably the best collection of short stories I've ever read, it seems unfair to OConnor to review them all in one go. Really, I took take each individual story and make an entry for each, but it would take forever to do that justice.

Underlying OConnor's stories are many of the issues that concerned the 1950s American South. These are stories of white against black, black against white, religion, God, ethics and morality. Far from being 'preachy' or heavy stories, they're outrageous, darkly interesting and often very funny. There's something very Gothic about O'Connor's writing which features descriptions of the grotesque and delights in 'wrong' thoughts and doings of the characters. Many of the characters are racist, bigoted, or just completely egotistical, and yet there's a charm in them that's impossible to ignore. In short, there's something very clever going on in O'Connor's writing. It's dark, it's serious, it's ridiculous, it's comical and utterly fascinating.

I'm not sure I could say enough in just a blog entry about how amazing her Complete Stories are, but there's no reason to ignore her when she's offering such rich short tales. For the newbie to O'Connor, I'd suggest her most well-known stories such as 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' and 'Everything that Rises Must Converge' but if you're sure that you'll love it, the Complete Stories is a treasure to have.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Read Your Name Challenge: Complete

Read Your Name challenge? Done!

What was read:

Boyracer - Alan Bisset
Empire of the Sun - JG Ballard
The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan
Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
Yellow Wallpaper, The - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

That was my first challenge, and it was really good fun! Now, on to completing the next one!

For Review: Howl's Moving Castle ~ Diana Wynne Jones

Rarely do I finish a book with a smile on my face. If it is, it's a smile of contempt/sympathy/sadness. I'm a tragedy lover - the more dead people and disturbing revelations the better. But with Howls' Moving Castle, the experience was completely different. I giggled my way through the last few pages (much as I giggled at several points throughout the book) and when the novel was finished I was happily smiling, feeling nothing short of delighted.

'Delightful' is exactly the word I would use to describe this book. I came to Howl's Moving Castle as a fan of the Studio Ghibli animation. I've been watching Miyazaki's films for years, and was filled with excitement to see this feature at a small Edinburgh cinema. So for years I've intended to read the book, and I'm only sorry it took me so long to get round to it.

There is so much in this book that wasn't included in the animated film. Howl's Welsh background, for one, is just such a charming detail. That, and the characters are different in many ways. Wynne Jones' Howl is one of the most fantastic characters I've ever read. He's utterly ridiculously, completely melodramatic and yet just so endearing. For a man who eats women's hearts, it's impossible not to fall in love with him. He frets about his appearance, wearing the right clothes, have the proper disguise. He worries about spiders in his home, goes out on a limb for his friends, and remains ever the confident wizard. If anything, this novel is worth reading just for Howl.

The story borrows fairytale conventions, and includes all the magical elements of fantasy.Witches, magical contracts, curses in aplenty. There was a lot going on plotwise, all very intriguing, but at times I was slightly confused. Most probably, this was because I was reading the book in 10/15 minute intervals to and from work; not excactly optimum reading time. However, roping John Donne in with any kind of story wins immediate brownie points for me.

Howl's Moving Castle is a charming and delightful read, and I'd urge anyone (particularly those with a love of handsome drama queens) to pick it up.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Alphabet Thursday: N

Nick Carraway's memoirs of his summer in 1922 are fascinating. While he might prefer to observe, listen, and document the thoughts and actions of others, he does so in such an interesting way. After all, it's hard to find life boring with The Great Gatsby around.

Nick both loves and loathes his new lifestyle, and with good reason too. While the fast-paced extravagance of it all might be very thrilling, he dislikes the shallow dishonesty. Nick seems to spend most of the novel in two minds about the lives of his neighbours, but needless to say he's curious and intrigued, which makes for a very curious and intriguing read. Nick is involved with conversations, with the things that people say, matching them up to the person's personality and trying to establish some kind of grounded idea of who that person is. All surface and pretence, or is there something genuine about these people with their parties and fashionable clothes? Wonderfully decadent, I could always see Nick's attraction to these people, while also being sympathetic to his repulsion to them.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Today! Today the Edinburgh International Book Festival brochure was released to the public, and that means me. I was working a long shift today, but as soon as I was home I looked up what's going down this August.

And my goodness, there's so much to think about.

Lionel Shriver, Alan Bissett, Jeanette Winterson, Joanne Harris, Simon Armitage, Zadie Smith. All sorts of crazy different people and writers showing. That list only includes the names of writers I have actually read! Philippa Gregory, David Mitchell, Christopher Brookmyre will also be there. And of course there's festival favourites Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

There's my name dump. I can't afford to go to everyone I want to go to (which includes writer's workshops, debates etc) but I plan on grabbing tickets to a couple of events and wandering around to do some author spotting! How exciting!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: 15 June

'"Nice!" screamed Howl. "You would! You did it on purpose. You couldn't rest until you made me miserable too. Look at it! It's ginger! I shall have to hide until it's grown out!" He spread his arms out passionately. "Despair!" he yelled. "Anguish! Horror!"' (87)
~ Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones.

My love for Howl is unreal.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Book Blogger Appreciation Week sounds like good fun! I'm just new to the blogsphere, my first official posts being on 07 March, but at times it feels like I've been blogging far longer. There are the readers who I look forward to hearing from, the bloggers I look forward to updating, and the appreciation week celebrates book blogs of all sorts. So, just for fun, I thought I'd register.

My chosen niche: Best Literary Fiction Book Blog

Boyracers - Alan Bissett
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Empire of the Sun - JG Ballard

The Alphabet Thursday Feature:
We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

On Books and The Digital Age:
On The Fate of Books

My chosen category: Best New Book Blog

For Review: Boyracers ~ Alan Bissett
For Review: Tell-All ~ Chuck Palahniuk
For Review: Hymn California ~ Adam Gnade
My Alphabet Thursday Feature - J
Oh, What's It Called Again?

There are loads of different categories for every kind of book blogger, and it's worth while checking it out! Even if you don't want to nominate your blog, you can sign up to vote of judge. I'm excited to see what I can find through this appreciation week.

Friday, June 11, 2010

For Review: Boyracers ~ Alan Bissett

So far this year I've read novels based in Tokyo, the American South, rural England, Moscow and apocalyptic nowheres. Scotland? It's been absent. Alan Bissett's Boyracers, however, fixed that for me. Set in Falkirk (where I spent the first fourteen years of my life) I was able to picture absolutely everything. I didn't have to depend on films I'd seen, I didn't have to make up the streets and places. Bissett's characters race round Falkirk town centre, live in Hallglen, and take road trips to Cumbernauld. This is contemporary Scottish fiction at its best.

Alvin, Brian, Frannie and Dolby (or is it Uriel?) spend much of their youth in their beloved car Belinda, debating superheroes, discussing Bono and challenging ideas about the Old Firm. It's just so so true to the life I knew in Falkirk. Though I left Falkirk at 14, our lives revolved around the newest U2 cd, around parties and Eminem. I found myself laughing out loud (maybe too many times) because it's a hilarious read but also because of that whole 'it's funny cause it's true' mantra of my teenage years. It's just brilliant, honest, and genius.

But between all these preoccupations, Alvin Allison has a home life to contend with. A missing mother, a struggling father, a brother doing goodness knows what in London. Growing up, Alvin has to choose between what is expected of him by his teachers, and what is expected of him by his family - fundamentally two different things dictated by class. But it's hard to make any informed decisions when you've spend your childhood caring for an alcoholic mother and your weekends are filled with boyracers and underage drinking.

Boyracers says so much about Scotland, and about growing up in what is essentially a working-class enviornment. But more than what it's about is the way that's written. Bissett's style is quick and clever, and Alvin's narration of the novel is infiltrated with pop culture references (and we all know I love that), song lyrics, and he's distracted by memories of his past. The paragraphs cut in the middle of words or sentences (just open the book to see what I mean) but the whole thing runs seamlessly. Alvin's story loops from inside Belinda, to conversations with his mum, to sitting at home with dad, to the classroom with his teacher. There are no chapter breaks - just a seamless stream of narration. But I never felt lost or confused; the whole thing flowed naturally, almost like really being present in Alvin's head.

A brilliant read, and I'd urge anyone who hasn't read any contemporary Scottish fiction to go there. Dialogue is written in the Fawkurt dialect/accent but I don't think anyone outside Soctland will struggle. I say that, as someone with that accent, but it's definitely accessible. For any Scottish people/brave non-Scottish people I'd urge you to also pick up The Incredible Adam Spark, which is written entirely in the phonetics of the Falkirk dialect. Bissett presents an accurate and honest depiction of contemporary Scotland which is both clever and thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alphabet Thursday: M

Margot Peters takes Albinus on a rollercoaster of an affair. She appears as a demure, apparently innocent teenager - just another girl ready to take on the world as an actress. Margot wants fame and glamour, and is willing to do whatever necessary to live a life of luxury.

Margot is about getting exactly what she wants, and she knows all too well the powers of her young womanhood. In short, Albinus fantasises and obsesses over Margot. He throws away his wife, his children and his home and sacrifices more to be with her. There is never any suggestion that Margot has real feelings for Albinus, but that doesn't deter the relationship. Albinus uses her for his fantasies, and in return she gets what she wants; he actually enjoys giving in to her silly materialist whims.

This girl is cold, calculating and completely dishonest. A holiday towards the end of Laughter of the Dark reveals just how relentless Margot is in her pursuits. A wayward child, Margot is a fascinating creature and, despite all her immoral and impulsive decisions, Albinus' obsession ends up making sense.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Hard Backs and Brochures

So, I did it. I got through Tell-All without screaming at the hardbacked cover, and without throwing away the sleeve in a fit.

I hate hardback books. I can't stand the things. They're awkward, clumsy, too big for some of my handbags, and they're pricey. Urgh. But this time round I couldn't wait. I was too keen to read Palahniuk's latest, so I pre-ordered the thing and awaited the doom. It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, despite the squeaking that was going on. Also, I didn't have to worry about creasing the spine which made the whole act of holding a book and drinking tea simultaneously a lot easier. Winner.

Still, I'm not converted. I know now that I should be happy enough to receive Bret Easton Ellis' next installment next month, but I'll always choose a paperback when I can.


It's nearly time for the brochure for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Am I excited? Heck Yes I Am! June 17th is the day when the programme is announced and I can't wait to see what exciting things I can go to. I've lived in Edinburgh five years now and I have never been. I've always been working too much and/or way too poor to go to anything. This year, I don't care. I'm doing it, and it's going to be great!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

For Review: Tell-All ~ Chuck Palahniuk

Of the Palahniuk I've read, my favourite characters have been the women. While they don't necessarily have the most page time, I've always had such an exciting time reading their narrations. Tell-All provided me with a whole book of women. Maybe it's because it isn't written by a woman, but Hazie Coogan and Katherine Kenton are two of the more realistic women I've come across in a while.

Hazie Coogan narrates her story of living with Miss Kathie and tending to her every celebrity need. Her story comes from the periphery of Katherine's fame, and the whole book is heavily peppered with contemporary pop culture. Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bette Davis all appearing in bold. It's a fascinating technique, and it really brought to attention just how saturated they are in glamour and celebrity. But equally, how empty all those names are. Half the people mentioned meant nothing to me - but that didn't matter. The names are interchangeable, and in most cases just entirely unnecessary.

Tell-All is an ography, and plays with the idea of form - how much is truth, how much is fabrication? Ultimately, everything is about the superficial. Superficial fame, superficial faces, superficial relationships. The lives of these characters are very real, but completely made up. Food for thought.

As per Palahniuk, it's extremely clever and very witty. It will make you laugh, or at least grin away to yourself even if you're not predisposed to his kind of humour. He's not afraid to tell it like it is in any of his novels, and with Tell-All the characters expose some interesting honesty.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Alphabet Thursday: L

Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence is the charming boy next door to Alcott's Little Women. Orphaned by his father and Italian mother, Laurie grows up with his grandfather. He's charming, intelligent and wildy imaginative, making the perfect friend (and suitor of course) to the group of girls that are his neighbours.

But Laurie is stifled in his home, and struggles to become his grandfather's ideal of manliness: he has designs on studying and music, rather than going into any kind of business. Between the publication of Part One and Part Two of Little Women, Alcott received many fandom letters asking that Laurie would marry Jo. Of course, while Laurie might have had a similar idea for himself, Alcott set different plans in motion.

Laurie is probably the perfect boy next door; he's thoughtful, clever and just such an adorable character. Whether you see him as brother, friend, or lover, Laurie Laurence is the kind of magnetic character that you wish that you knew in real life.

[This Alphabet Thursday has been brought to you by Friday. It's been a crazy week, so I'm looking forward to a cosy weekend!
P.S Hello to anyone passing by or joining up through the Friday book blog hop!]

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

For Review: Hymn California ~ Adam Gnade

There is prose in poetry, and there is poetry and prose. When I opened Hymn California I had to take the time to breathe, to really read every line and take in every sound and syllable. It felt like being read to, like something important was about to happen. And it was, because Adam Gnade has presented such a delicious story.

Sex, drugs, insomnia, escape. Growing up in California: listless friends, confused teenaged ideals, copious red wine and crossing fingers to get by. But it's tender, sensitive in all the difficult realities that it deals with. The protagonist shifts through memories, lending stories and anecdotes to keep life going. More importantly, there's a seam of determinism throughout the novel. Life keeps on going, love keeps on going, family keeps on going. Creativity seems to keep the souls alive, like a way to prove the world wrong, or at least to press a lasting stamp.

The story is always lyrical and thinks hard about so many things that life does or doesn't have to offer. It was both cosy and reassuring, at least to me, in my own world of barely getting by, trying to make ends meet, struggling for creative freedom and ability. Not only that, but it paints such a colourful picture of America that I'm desperate to go visit again. I've got more of Gnade's writing on my shelf, and I'm excited to get round to reading it.