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…

 

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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: Murder on the Orient Express

murderorientexpress

As my brain was still swirling with post-Satanic Verses thought last weekend, I decided that it was time to relieve my mind of confusion and read something much lighter! Although a murder mystery novel is hardly ‘light’ in terms of subject matter, Christie’s writing style is so simple and methodical that Murder on the Orient Express was immensely readable from the start. When I was a child, I loved the Famous Five and Nancy Drew books, so I had no doubt that I would find this equally compelling. Journeying to Manchester to celebrate my friend’s 30th birthday gave me plenty of time to read, so I began it on the train, then became so absorbed in it that, after checking into my hotel, I ended up going to the Cornerhouse café to read more whilst waiting for the rest of the party people to arrive. If you ask me, a good brew and a book are always a winning combination (even if that does make me sound like an OAP!).

The basic plot of Murder on the Orient Express, written in 1934, is as follows: Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is hurrying home from Syria after a telegram notifies him that there’s been an important development in a case he’s been working on. When the train he is travelling on (the Orient Express) becomes stuck in a snow drift and the man in the compartment next to Poirot is found dead, having been stabbed numerous times, Poirot must attempt to solve the murder mystery with the help of only two others: his old friend, Monsiuer Bouc, a director of the train company, and a Greek doctor, Dr Constantine. Narrowing the suspects down to the other passengers in his carriage, Poirot employs logical methods to ultimately deduce the identity of the murderer, interviewing each of the suspects, listing the evidence, and discussing his theories with his friends at regular intervals.

Hercule Poirot

What I found particularly interesting about this book was the use of negative stereotypes about race in the formulation of theories, particularly stereotypes of the English. On numerous occasions throughout the book, characters describe the English as cold, reserved, unapproachable and incapable of feeling, with Poirot’s first encounter with English people on the train resulting in his observation that ‘True to their nationality, the two English people were not chatty.’ Later on, I was amused by the assertion that the crime of stabbing someone multiple times was uncharacteristic of an unfeeling English person, but seemed more likely to be the crime of an Italian due to their passionate natures! Christie’s constant use of stereotypes are clearly a device to escalate the complexity of the plot and mislead the reader into making assumptions about characters. Whilst these generalisations are consistent with old-fashioned ideas about race, I doubt that modern crime writers would allow their detectives to think/voice such blatant racial stereotypes nowadays however!

orient_cast

Although the novel isn’t scary, I did get a little jumpy when reading it at the hotel before my roomie arrived. Every little noise outside seemed amplified, and I became very conscious that, like the passengers on the Orient Express, I was in a little room on a corridor full of strangers who could potentially be murderers! A bit of nervous agitation can only be a good sign in a crime novel, however, reflecting how convincing and absorbing the plot is. Christie’s writing style may be quite simple, but it suits the genre of the book, allowing the reader to focus on the happenings on-board the Orient Express and attempt to come to their own conclusions about the identity of the killer. I am pleased to say that, with the help of a diagram of the carriage layout and constant repetition of the evidence, I correctly guessed who the killer was about forty or fifty pages from the novel’s end. Without going into too much detail, the ending is very interesting, provoking the reader to question the effectiveness of the justice system and ponder upon issues of ethics and morality.

Ultimately, I’d describe Murder on the Orient Express as a vastly enjoyable read that works the brain without overworking it. On the basis of this book, I will definitely be reading another story about the Belgian detective, and may even watch the TV adaptation too (previously I’ve only ever seen snippets of it)! What’s more, I think I may read some modern crime novels; Agatha Christie and Poirot seem to have given me a hunger for murder mysteries!

30 Before 30: The Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie

This is probably the most controversial piece of fiction in modern history.

It is also, however, a work of imaginative brilliance.

In my post-reading ecstasy, when I was considering how to approach writing about The Satanic Verses, my mind was so jumbled and chaotic with thought that I found it almost impossible to structure my response to it clearly. The one thing I wanted to convey, I decided, was the idea that this book MUST be read by anyone and everyone who is interested in literature and/or religion. Yes, it is dense, intellectual and so surreal in parts that you start to question your own sanity. If you can make it past page 28, however (a man I got talking to in the pub told me that this is when he closed the book, never to reopen it), you may as well carry on reading the next 500 pages. Slowly. With an open mind.

The Satanic Verses is the story of two very different Indian Muslim actors who are joined together by one event: their unlikely survival of a terrorist attack in the late Eighties. Clinging together as they plunge from a hijacked jet towards the English Channel, both clearly believe that they are about to meet their maker, yet, in a miraculous turn of events, survive to be reborn on English soil…one as an angel, complete with halo, the other as a horned devil.

What follows is what Angela Carter described as a ‘rollercoaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination’ as each character journeys on through a life of physical and spiritual metamorphosis, experiencing love, loss, betrayal, hallucinations (in the case of one of the men), alienation, and, ultimately, what it is to be human. For Saladin Chamcha, man of a thousand voices and ardent Anglophile, the process of falling to earth as a devil eventually seems to humanise him, while Gibreel Farishta’s ‘transformation’ into the archangel Gibreel (which can actually be read as a symptom of his schizophrenia) ultimately leads to his downfall as he descends into a world of paranoia, jealousy and despair.

There is nothing controversial in this in my opinion, though references to promiscuity and homosexuality,  the questioning of Allah’s existence, and the description of a Muslim stuffing haram foods into his mouth in the first thirty pages of the novel made me understand why Muslims may find Rushdie’s novel so offensive.

Burning the Satanic Verses

The controversial elements of the book actually appear in chapters that, as an aside to the main action of the novel, are meant to be read as a sequence of dream narratives experienced by Gibreel during his incarnation as the Angel Gibreel (or one of his hallucinatory experiences). In one dream-vision, Ayesha, a butterfly-eating young woman who claims to receive messages from the Angel Gibreel, leads a village to their death or new life (you decide) following a lengthy hajj to the Arabian Sea, whilst in another the early days of Islam are re-narrated, with Mahound (the Prophet Muhammad) struggling to convert a polytheistic society to the true word of God. Although Rushdie’s creation of a character (Salman) who alters the word of Allah when given the task of writing down Mahound’s recitations outraged many Muslims throughout the world, it is undoubtedly the inclusion of a story rejected by most Muslims which caused The Satanic Verses to be branded a work of blasphemy by many religious leaders and scholars of Islam.

As the original story goes, during what he believed to be a revelation, the Prophet Muhammad recited verses accepting three goddesses into the Islamic faith, only later rejecting these verses with the suggestion that Shaitan (the Devil) came to him in the form of the Angel Gibreel. Anyone who knows anything about Islam will understand why this is such a controversial story. As the Shahada, the statement of belief which forms the basis of all Islamic faith, declares that Allah is the one and only God, and the Qur’an is viewed as the literal word of God, Rushdie’s decision to include the story of the Satanic Verses in his novel, and actually name his novel after it, can only be described as brave. Or perhaps mad.

Satanic Verses

For many people, the allure of The Satanic Verses lies in its status as a novel of scandalous proportions. Any book that causes a spiritual leader to issue a fatwa sentencing its writer to death is going to be appealing on the grounds of it being taboo, yet to some extent I think that this is to the book’s detriment. Overshadowed by the hype, the book’s literary merit has, to some extent, been forgotten by the general reader. Through blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality; life and death; good and evil, Rushdie explores many interesting themes, with the primary focus, I felt, being on the idea of alienation from culture, family, and even oneself. Whatever people may say about Rushdie’s treatment of Islam, there is no denying that The Satanic Verses is a masterfully lyrical and satirical novel that makes the reader reflect on the many nuances of the human condition.

There are, of course, flaws within the book- the structure of it being, for me, the most obvious of these. If you can cope with the constant flicking from reality to dream narrative without getting either confused, annoyed or bored, then, quite frankly, you deserve a high five! Additionally, the amount of minor characters left me bemused on more than one occasion. The Satanic Verses does require a lot of concentration and mental investment, but, if you are prepared to proceed with it, it is hugely rewarding. Be warned, however: unless you are Indian, a Muslim, or highly knowledgeable about Islam, there will be many jokes and references that you will either completely miss or fail to fully comprehend.

Due to this being a blog and not a piece of literary criticism, there are many elements of The Satanic Verses that I’ve left untouched. The fact is, I don’t think it’s possible to give an overview of this book that will truly do it justice. Multi-layered, philosophical, and almost farcical in parts, Rushdie’s most widely discussed novel is something you have to read for yourself. Whether you love it or hate it, I’m sure you will be able to appreciate it as a work of considerable literary power.

After reading Midnight’s Children I started to think that Salman Rushdie was a literary genius. After my reading of The Satanic Verses, I am now convinced that he is.

30 Before 30: Norwegian Wood

Norweg 1 Norweg 2

Many of Haruki Murakami’s readers were disappointed by Norwegian Wood when it was first published in 1987, believing it to be a ‘betrayal’ of what his work stood for. In a departure from his usual form, Murakami seemed to be embracing Japanese mainstream autobiographical fiction and a conventional love theme, his narrative uncharacteristically simple and realistic. As a newcomer to Murakami, I can, of course, only judge Norwegian Wood on its own merits- and far from being just a simple love story, I would describe it as a lyrical and evocative example of modern Japanese literature.

When 37 year old Toru Watanabe hears the opening bars of an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ during a flight, he instantly feels pain. The favourite song of Naoko, his first love, transports him back to a time during his adolescence when love and grief were painful yet necessary rites of passage. Though Toru ‘often tried to write’ about his experiences, he ‘couldn’t produce a line’. It is only with the passing of time and the fading of memories that the novel’s main character is able to truly reflect upon and start to understand his experiences as a young man.

The rest of the novel takes the reader on an interesting linear journey into Toru’s past. Set against the backdrop of late 1960s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood tells the story of a young student who is seemingly torn between the emotional ties of the past and the possibilities of the future, as embodied by two women- fragile Naoko, the girlfriend of his dead best friend Kizuki, and vivacious Midori, who he meets at uni. While one woman is mentally unstable and sexually reticent, the other represents modern woman- sexually free and unconventional. Whether Murakami was intending to make a political point about the social and historical evolution of Japan through these two characters is unclear, but the Japan of his novel is certainly one that is undergoing a period of turbulence and transformation.

Norweg 3

Haunted by the suicides of both Kizuki and, it later emerges, her older sister, Naoko is unable to survive in the world of student uprisings and casual sex that the Japan of the Sixties has become, entering a mental ‘retreat’ in an attempt to remedy her problems. Just as Kizuki died at 17, Naoko seems to undergo a metaphorical death which prevents her from maturing into adulthood- failing to progress, and actually becoming increasingly rooted in the past. Although Toru tries to support her through this with regular letters and visits to the retreat, Naoko eventually takes her own life, hanging herself in the surrounding woods- the place where she last walked with Toru. Finally, the bird has flown (those Beatles fans among you should understand that reference!), leaving Toru free to continue his journey into adulthood.

While Naoko’s death is the catalyst for a bleak period in Toru’s life, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief that he has finally been released from a romantic purgatory to pursue a future with the unconventional Midori, whose love for him is obvious from the very beginning. In contrast to the dark and dismal presence of beautiful but troubled Naoko, Midori, whose name means ‘green’, brings colour to the story with her lively exuberance and overt sexuality. From the moment she was introduced to the story, I couldn’t help but hope that Naoko would somehow ‘disappear’ to make way for a blossoming relationship between Toru and Midori!

In typical literary fashion, however, Murakami doesn’t provide a clear-cut ending; there is no certainty of a ‘happy ever after’ following the death of Naoko. Ringing Midori from a phone box in the final paragraph of the novel, Toru is left confused and bewildered when she asks ‘Where are you now?’ Unsure of where he is, the novel ends with Toru calling out for Midori ‘from the dead centre of this place that was no place’. Like Naoko, it seems that the grief he has suffered through the suicides of two of the people closest to him threatens to engulf him. While we know that Toru reaches adulthood, Murakami never clarifies whether he embraces the future through a relationship with Midori, or remains stuck in the past, metaphorically walking in the snowy woods where he spent his last moments with Naoko.

snowy-woods1

This is part of the book’s ultimate appeal, however. Philosophical in its exploration of grief and the way that the past affects us, Norwegian Wood raises ideas that adolescents and adults alike can relate to, provoking questions about the nature of love and life. Intensely readable and emotionally engaging, it never disappointed me. In fact, quite the opposite; I loved it! Though I am aware that most of his work is very different to this, reading Norwegian Wood has definitely instilled a desire within me to read more of Murakami’s books. I’m just not sure when I’m going to find the time…