Time for a Creative Rebirth!

Sitting on Books
In the last few months, there’s been an abundance of cultural trips, copious amounts of reading, and plenty of fun…but no blogging. Although I could provide a whole string of excuses for this, the truth of the matter is simply this- when it comes to sitting down to write, I am a terrible procrastinator.

PoetryMad Hatter's Tea Party

Budapest

Some of the most exciting events of the last few months: going to Latitude; taking part in the Children’s Literature Festival at work (which included a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in the Enchanted Woods!); and a little trip to Budapest!

Daydreaming, checking Facebook/texting friends, and making more cups of tea than necessary are all large elements of my procrastination. I know I am not alone; it seems the majority of the western world indulges in the same time-wasting antics, yet that knowledge does nothing to appease my frustration at my own lack of motivation.

Strangely, however, it seems that my passion for writing has been reignited today. Besides penning a few lines of poetry, the first in quite a while, I also got the urge to write a blog post. Generally, this time of year does tend to have a transformative effect on my levels of creativity, so I can only attribute my desire to write to the gradually changing light and striking colours of the season. After being tired and devoid of creativity for the last few months, I feel as if someone’s flicked a switch and I’ve finally burst back into life!

This sudden outpouring of creativity will not result in me frantically posting numerous 30 Before 30 book reviews, however. Whilst the challenge continues- I am now on book 23 with 10 weeks to go and more optimism than I had a month ago! -, it would be difficult to catch up on documenting all of the books I’ve read through individual reviews. I will endeavour to write short reviews of each in due course, but for now I’m just pleased to be feeling motivated again!

September may be the start of the season of death, yet for some of us, it’s (hopefully!) the catalyst for creative rebirth…

Autumn Celebration!

And The Blog Goes On…

Since my last blog post, life has altered quite significantly. Besides starting an amazing new job, I’ve also had to contend with finding my way around a new city, meeting many new people (including weird men at bus-stops- which, let’s face it, is quite normal for me!), and spending a lot of time on my own. Though it’s been quite mentally draining, I’ve vastly enjoyed my first month in Liverpool, and am definitely feeling much more settled now. Exploring a new city is always exciting, especially when you begin to discover the various gems it has to offer. Having already visited a speakeasy, seen an amazing version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, and revelled in the natural beauty of Sefton Park (which contributed to a minor state of sun-induced delirium), I feel like I’ve started to embrace the natural and cultural landscape of Liverpool. It’ll never replace Yorkshire in my heart, but I’m definitely growing quite fond of it…and the people are lovely too (even the Scousers!).

New housemate

One of my new housemates. And occasional stalker!

 
Unfortunately, all this change has had quite a detrimental impact on my blog. Whilst I’ve managed to maintain my 30 Before 30 challenge, I’ve been a bit lax, to put it politely, on the blogging front. As blogging separately about each of the books I’ve read recently seems like an arduous task, however, I’ve decided to cheat a little and provide a very brief overview of my thoughts on each:

 
Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is renowned for her intricate and candid exploration of the black experience, and this book is no exception. Focusing on a young black man’s journey to realise his personal and familial identity in mid-twentieth century America, Song of Solomon is a work of lyrical complexity, with Morrison skilfully blending myth, allegory, song, and a host of, in my opinion, unlikeable characters together to create a novel of enchanting proportions. Although the central protagonist, Macon Dead Jr, or Milkman (so-called because his mother nursed him long past his infancy), is detestable in parts, particularly in his treatment of women, his metamorphosis from boy to man is fascinating and touching. There is so much to love about this novel, it definitely deserves to be read at least once.

SongOfSolomon

 
The View From Castle Rock- Alice Munro
Despite hearing many great things about both the author and the book, I was disappointed to find The View From Castle Rock extremely tedious. As someone who loves anything related to genealogy, I thought that this series of fictional stories based on Munro’s family history would be just the sort of book for me, but I was yawning before I was five pages in! After managing, with some difficulty, to read half of it, I decided to skim-read the last 150 pages. I wish I had something more positive to say, particularly as it’s very uncharacteristic of me to dislike a piece of literature. I’m not going to allow this negative experience of Munro to deter me from reading any more of her works, however. In fact, quite the opposite. I am now determined to find something of merit in her writing!

 
The Secret History- Donna Tartt
In this instance, the many glowing reports I’ve had of this novel are consistent with my own thoughts on it: it was an utterly enthralling read! The Secret History revolves around the lives of six students at a private college in America who become obsessed with the practices of the Ancient Greeks as a result of the influence of their charismatic though somewhat strange tutor. After some of them accidentally kill someone whilst attempting to recreate a Bacchanalian rite, they are forced to murder one of their own in order to keep their secret hidden. Yes, it’s an intellectual read and if you’re not particularly well-versed in the classics, there are some allusions that you will fail to understand, but it is also a thriller that will take hold of you from the very first page.

The Secret History

 

The Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is a writer that I always felt I should read rather than actually wanting to, hence my inclusion of one of his works on my 30 Before 30 list. Whilst I can see that The Old Man and The Sea might be hugely enjoyable to many people, it was not a particularly exciting read for me. As the story of an unsuccessful Cuban fisherman’s triumph and eventual defeat as he finally catches an enormous fish that drags him out to sea only for it to be eaten by sharks before his return to shore, The Old Man and the Sea is a simple yet effectively written tale exploring the relationship between man and nature. I’m sure that there are various interesting literary interpretations of it, but, on the most basic of levels, I’m afraid to say that it didn’t appeal to me as a reader. Luckily, it’s only a 99 page novella, so I didn’t feel as though I’d wasted too much time reading it!

 

Although I’ve only provided a very vague outline of my thoughts on each novel, I feel as if I’ve now achieved my objective for the week by forcing myself back into the routine of sitting down to blog! There are still a fair few books to work through over the next six months though, so I’d best continue with the next one if I’m ever to complete my challenge. There’s still a heck of a long way to go…

 

30 Before 30: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Annabel Pitcher

As a teenager the majority of books classified as Young Adult (YA) passed me by. Other than reading a few Point Horror books and the necessary ‘coming-of-age’ Judy Blume novel when I was a pre-teen, I recall making a relatively swift transition from Nancy Drew to Jane Eyre (with a few Mills and Boon pit-stops along the way, courtesy of my uncle’s girlfriend!). Once I had entered the vast realm of adult fiction, I saw no reason to go back, and consequently, I have since realised, probably missed out on some amazing pieces of literature for young people.

Since working with teenagers I’ve made a distinct effort to return to the world of YA fiction and have, on the whole, been pretty impressed with it. So when a secondary school teacher I know recommended Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece I decided to give it a try. Entirely different to the sensationalist fiction of Darren Shan or Stephenie Meyer (which is good in its own right), I was completely blown away by how candid and poignant it was.

Exploring the effects of loss on a 10 year old boy and his family in the years after his sister is blown up by terrorists, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece tackles a difficult subject in a sensitive yet not overly saccharine way. From the opening paragraph, it is apparent that the death of Rose, Jamie’s older sister, has cast an irrevocable shadow over the family, yet Jamie, the narrator throughout, remains detached from the grief that consumes his mother, father, and Rose’s twin sister, Jasmine. Although his dad cannot bear to spread his daughter’s ashes, instead keeping them in an urn on the mantelpiece, Jamie fails to even remember his older sister. Whilst his family disintegrates under the weight of grief, poor Jamie struggles to make sense of a loss that he can never fully understand. .

Delving into a multitude of issues relevant to life in modern Britain- from racism to alcoholism and single parent families- Pitcher’s debut novel reflects just how devastating an impact death can have not only on family life, but also on a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Uprooted and not properly cared for, Jamie has to contend with issues of bullying and loneliness in silence as the rest of his family become increasingly absorbed in their misery. Anyone who has ever worked with children will have met a ‘Jamie’ before- a child who arrives at school in the same dirty clothes every day; someone who is never included, no matter how hard he tries; a person who tells elaborate tales or simply remains silent as a means of hiding the reality of his home life. The sad fact is, Pitcher’s fictional story is a brutally honest account of what happens when grief takes over.

Beyond the sadness, there are moments of light relief that will keep younger readers entertained, particularly the parts involving tricks played on Jamie’s new teacher- a seemingly uncaring woman who is almost as horrible to him as his classmates are. The heart-warming friendship that blossoms between Jamie and fellow outcast Sunya, a kind Muslim girl, is also cause for cheer, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

What most struck me about My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was the way that, despite being labelled Young Adult fiction, it is just as relevant to an adult as to a teenager. The universal nature of death means that we all have to suffer the consequences of grief at some point, yet being an adult does not always prepare you for it any better than a child. Besides being infused with warmth and a welcome sense of reality, the book reminds us that there is no specific formula for grief- we all deal with things differently, we all make mistakes, and, ultimately, we are all just human.

This novel had me in tears at various stages, which, let’s face it, isn’t hard (as regular readers have probably noticed, this has become a frequent occurrence through this challenge!). I’m pretty certain that I’m not the only person to ever cry at My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece though- in fact, I’d defy anyone NOT to get a little glassy-eyed at it! If you’re an animal lover be prepared for some serious sobbing however- a box of tissues might well be necessary. You have been warned!

ginger cat

 

 

 

30 Before 30: The Shadow of the Wind

1232The Shadow of the Wind

Reading like a prose ode to literature, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a book lover’s dream. It’s been a few weeks since I read it, but one of the most potent passages from the first chapter is still very much embedded in my mind:

‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend’.

Discovering a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books would be akin to finding heaven on earth for me. If such a secret library actually existed, I might never leave. Except to venture out to the odd party. And to buy an eternal supply of tea and crisps.

For Daniel, the main character of the book, the discovery of this repository of obscure literature in the bowels of Barcelona and his subsequent ‘adoption’ of a long forgotten novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, not only eases the pain of his mother’s death, but begins an obsession that will characterise his transition from boy to young man. When he discovers that a mysterious figure named Lain Coubert (which he later find out is the name of the devil in Carax’s books) has managed to destroy every copy of the novel apart from his own, Daniel starts to investigate the author, Julian Carax, and to piece together the enigmatic story of his life.

Though his detective work often lands him and his trusty sidekick, former Spanish Civil War torture victim Fermin Romero de Torres, in hot water, Daniel continues to attempt to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life- which, he soon discovers, is one that encompasses family tragedy, a doomed love affair, and layers of lies. Like a typical teenager, Daniel ignores the threats of Lain Coubert and a corrupt police officer in order to fulfil this self-imposed mission, ultimately facilitating his own journey to manhood.

Despite the convoluted plotline (which I’ve only really given a bare outline of), the basic idea that a book has the power to catalyse change and transform lives is one that all bookish types cannot fail to appreciate and understand. Other than this, what I really loved about the novel was the sense of community within it- how neighbours rallied round to support each other and stand up for those who were being persecuted in the years after the Civil War- and the use of some classic gothic tropes, such as the archetypal gothic building. Blending the gothic tradition with historical fiction, comedy, and a touch of romance, Zafon’s novel has a bit of everything to keep people enthralled until the end.

The fact that it is also beautifully written means that it is very hard to criticise the novel. If your concentration span is limited, you may find it difficult to follow in parts, but this is quite a minor flaw in my (very biased!) eyes. Ultimately, it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me think. But, more than all that, it filled me with a sense of belonging; with a sense that I had found a writer who truly understood my reverence for the written word and the hallowed status that books have always had in my life.

There is no question about it: I will definitely be reading The Shadow of The Wind again. And, quite possibly, every other Zafon book I can find.

Read it if you can; it’s a literary gem.

30 Before 30: The Famished Road

Famished Road1991 Ben Okri The Famished Road

Ben Okri is the literary love of my life, but The Famished Road can definitely be likened to a literary version of Marmite.

Fusing the domestic with the political through an amalgamation of African myth and a postcolonial world of poverty, Okri has never failed to mesmerise me with his intensely poetic and visionary writing style. In his 1991 Booker Prize winning postmodern novel The Famished Road I felt like Okri had cast an enchantment from the very first page, drawing me into the chaotic world of the African spirit-child Azaro with the lush opulence of his words. Some people may find the arcane density of his writing difficult to follow, but, as this passage hopefully illustrates, the style he employs has the quality of myth, and seems to be used as a means of highlighting the western reader’s entrance into a culture where oral tales form the basis of everyday existence:

‘ In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.

In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn…There was much feasting playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were always free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living…’

The Famished Road explores the many elements of life in an African (probably Nigerian) ghetto- poverty, love, injustice, violence, and hunger- through the eyes of a boy who has abandoned his spirit companions to remain in the world of the living. Despite their endeavours to lure him back to their world, Azaro roots himself in a life of suffering, enduring the eternal threats of famine and death to remain with the people he loves.

The novel has been criticised for being repetitive and I must confess that it is. Azaro’s father, a character whose courage I admire but whose temper I don’t, seems to fly into a rage in virtually every chapter, yet his anger always abates before anything too serious occurs. Whilst these violent outbursts can get quite boring, they are, in my opinion, intended to be an accurate reflection of the monotony and futility of life in an African compound, where people are faced with the same struggles and injustices day after day after day.

Far from being predictable, however, there are instances in the book where you’re not quite sure what is happening. Okri blends the spirit world with the world of the living so well that you are often unsure who is alive and who is dead, or what is real and what is fantasy. Although this can be confusing, it allows you to see Okri’s world from the perspective of an African child and contributes to the sense of political and social chaos that permeates the entire novel.

Ben-Okri

At five hundred and seventy four pages long, I can understand why some people put it down long before the end; at times, it really did feel like a labour of love. What propelled me to continue reading it, besides my complete adoration of his prose style, was the fact that this book, a winner of a prestigious Western literary award, was not written by a European, but by a black Nigerian man- someone who is more qualified than most to give a distinctly black African perspective of and insight into the black African condition.

If I’m being honest, this is the sort of book that many people will detest. If you’re not very literary/philosophical and have no patience, I can almost guarantee that you will hate it. But if, like me, you enjoy the challenge of a highly literary read that will continue to provoke thought (and probably confuse you!) long after you’ve read it, The Famished Road will provide you with all the mental and spiritual nourishment you need.

And then some.

30 Before 30: Jamaica Inn

Jam Inn Jamaica_Inn_novel

When I first heard Tori Amos sing of pirates, trust, and cliffs of rock in her song ‘Jamaica Inn’ from The Beekeeper album, I was instantly filled with a desire to read Daphne Du Maurier’s book of the same name. Though I knew very little about the book, other than that it was based on the history of a centuries old inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, I’d heard many glowing reviews of it. Imagining a dark tale of gothic romance, I was pleased to discover (about eight years later!) that my theory was correct. From the first page I was completely enthralled, swept into the bleak and desolate nineteenth century landscape of the Cornish moors and the literary territory of the gothic novel through Du Maurier’s use of compelling imagery.  Descriptions of the ‘granite sky and a mizzling rain’ and a coach ‘rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man’ propelled me into a story of darkly dramatic proportions, immediately creating the tone of gothic intrigue that permeates the entire novel.

tamos

To summarise, Jamaica Inn is the story of a young woman, Mary Yellan, who obediently complies with her dying mother’s wish that she goes to live with her Aunt Patience and her husband, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, after her death. Arriving to find that her once happy Aunt Patience has become a nervous and almost childlike woman, scared of her violent husband, and that Jamaica Inn is a place feared by the locals, Mary begins to suspect that something is amiss. Unable to depend on her feeble aunt, Mary determines to discover the secrets of Jamaica Inn and her uncle, Joss Merlyn, but soon finds that it is impossible to bear the terrible burden alone. Finding herself drawn to two very different men, Joss’ brother Jem, a magnetic but roguish horse thief, and Francis Davey, a strange and distant vicar, Mary must decide who to trust as events begin to unfold outside of her control.

Besides some beautifully atmospheric descriptions that make the novel immensely readable, what I loved most about Jamaica Inn was Du Maurier’s characterisation of its central protagonist, Mary Yellan. Spirited and courageous, Mary is an extremely likeable character- in fact, I’d even go as far as saying that she is my new favourite fictional heroine (though I still love Elizabeth Bennett)! As someone who has been raised on a working farm, she is hardy and practical, preferring the idea of independently running a farm to the notion of marriage. Moreover, she seems to understand, beyond the conventions of the age in which she lives, the restrictions that are imposed on most married women, recognising her Aunt Patience as an embodiment of the married woman’s metamorphosis from autonomous individual to voiceless shadow of her former self. That is not to say that she is strictly anti-men, however. Despite her revulsion for her uncle’s treatment of her Aunt Patience, Mary understands and experiences desire and the complications that arise from it. Although she enjoys solitary wanderings and relishes the idea of returning to her former home to live a life of independence, Mary’s ambivalent feelings towards the mysterious Jem Merlyn mark her out as a character of complexity. The reader is never quite sure what she will do next, yet there is no doubt that Mary Yellan will continue to remain true to herself, executing her plans with good judgement, resolve and integrity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mary Yellan is not the only complex character in the book, however. In Joss Merlyn, Du Maurier carves out an extremely flawed character- who is both detestable and fascinating at the same time. Finding myself sympathising with Joss on more than one occasion, I viewed him as an alternative Heathcliff. Whereas Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff denies his roots to climb the social ladder, ultimately becoming a self-made man, Joss seems to use his as a justification for his depraved behaviour, blaming his father and grandfather’s genetic influence for his own misdemeanours on his path to self-destruction. Though he is guilty of heinous crimes, Joss’ humanity emerges through drunken revelations and the dreams that haunt him, reminding the reader that, despite his seemingly evil personality, he is, after all, merely human. I don’t think anyone could describe Joss Merlyn as a likeable character, yet I found that there is something quite pitiful about this ‘great husk of a man’  which almost helps to mitigate the severity of his crimes.

To say that Du Maurier’s novel isn’t predictable would be untrue; I was able to guess some of the outcomes halfway through the book. This never diminished the enjoyment of Jamaica Inn for me, however, as I was far more interested in the psychology of the characters than the actual plot. Whilst many readers have drawn comparisons with Du Maurier’s most famous work, Rebecca, suggesting that Jamaica Inn is a much weaker novel, I personally found Jamaica Inn to be a much more enthralling read. With all the elements of a traditional Gothic novel, including a suitably dreary landscape and the archetypal Gothic building, Du Maurier’s story never failed to excite me. In fact, if I didn’t still have another 24 books to read, I’d start reading it again!

Now that I at least partly understand Tori Amos’ song, I think it may be time to plan a literary pilgrimage to the real Jamaica Inn so that I can truly understand its significance in Cornish and cultural history. Hopefully there’ll be no bands of criminals to contend with, but, like Mary Yellan, I’d be more than happy to stumble upon a real-life Jem Merlyn!

jamaicainn