Books For Children (That Aren’t Just For Children!)

Inspired by an article I read in the Guardian (see link below), I thought it was finally time to write about a subject I spend most of my time immersed in- children’s literature. As my job involves facilitating shared reading groups with young people (mainly secondary school students, as I feel less likely to want to throttle someone in that setting and also, for the most part, I quite like working with stroppy teenagers!), reading copious amounts of children’s/young adult books is a necessary part of my role. Whilst I am by no means an expert in this area, I do like to think that I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge about what constitutes a good story for young people. Writing about it during my week off work is probably not the best form of escapism, but, as I’m lucky enough to have a job that revolves around my main hobby, escaping from books was never really my intention anyway!

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/16/childrens-books-are-never-just-for-children

As a passionate advocate of reading for pleasure, I often find it frustrating that talented children’s authors don’t receive more critical acclaim in the realm of literature. Engaging today’s children in the act of reading is a difficult task when there are so many competing forms of entertainment, and yet so many authors are not only able to attract and sustain their interest, but do so by deftly weaving together a multitude of fundamental components- well-rounded characters; universal ‘truths’; important social issues; humour; emotional depth; and an abundance of imagination. Ultimately, the ingredients of a high calibre piece of literature aimed at young people are no different from those of literature for adults, yet children’s authors often go unrecognised when it comes to achieving literary merit. Rather than simply be judged as pieces of fiction, books written for children/young people are ignored or disregarded when it comes to major literary awards, such as the Man Booker, and are generally labelled ‘Children’s Literature’ or ‘Young Adult Fiction’ instead of simply being regarded as ‘Fiction’ or ‘Literature’.

Anyone who read voraciously as a child will know that the stories that make an impact on us as children tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives, and are often re-read over and over. I’ll never forget Susan and Lucy weeping into Aslan’s fur following his brutal death at the hands of the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or Amy’s cry of ‘Oh Jo, how could you? Your one beauty!’ after Jo March sells her hair in order to pay for her mother’s visit to their injured father in an army hospital in Little Women. These stories, amongst others, moulded my personality, shaping my attitude towards the world, and, ultimately cultivated a deep and unrelenting passion for words, stories, and people. Without them, I have no doubt that I would have developed into a very different sort of adult.

Aslan's Death

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of personal book/short story recommendations for young people based on my experience of reading with them. There are still many amazing works that I have yet to read, and some of the ones I have listed have been included on the basis of their appeal to children/teenagers rather than their literary merit, but I firmly believe that anything which engages someone in reading has some value. Of course, ‘great’ literature is important, but I don’t think anyone will dispute the role that all books play in forming the foundations from which we build a love of reading. As I work with children who are usually between the ages of 11 and 16, the titles are aimed towards that age range, but some are suitable for younger readers and, of course, as I have greatly enjoyed them myself, I would recommend all to adults!

• Mick Jackson’s The Pearce Sisters always provokes extreme reactions from teenagers and adults! It includes what some might describe as gratuitous violence, so may not be acceptable reading material to some parents, but raises some very interesting questions about gender and morality. I recently discovered a Bafta award winning short animated film based on this short story. It’s only approximately 10 minutes long and is quite amusing, so I’d recommend watching this too (after reading the story!).

The Pearce Sisters Film

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher is a novel that I read for my 30 Before 30 Challenge and subsequently blogged about (if you want to read my thoughts on it, the post is in my April 2014 Archive). It’s a beautiful, tear-inducing read, probably more suited to older, more mature teenagers and young adults, which encompasses such issues as death, grief, terrorism, divorce, alcoholism, and bullying.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is a fast-paced, fun fantasy-adventure novel which blends mythology with the modern world, making Greek myths more accessible to children in the 21st century.

Percy Jackson

The Secret Garden is a classic tale with timeless appeal. Although recent editions nearly always seem to have a stereotypically feminine design, I’ve discovered that quite a lot of boys also tend to enjoy Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of friendship, nature and positive thinking in early twentieth century England.

• David Almond’s Skellig is one of the best children’s books I’ve read in a long time. Tense yet poetic, it never fails to grip the attention of readers (including me!) within the first few chapters. It could be described as gothic literature, with the whole plot revolving around a ten year old boy’s discovery of a mysterious creature in the garage…

Skellig

• Anthony Horowitz’s short horror stories are fantastic at engaging reluctant readers, particularly boys. The Hitchhiker is always very well-received, and Flight 715 also gets a lot of positive comments. If you’re particular about what your child reads, however, it would be worthwhile reading them before your child does; they could potentially be nightmare inducing!

• Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (or Black and White as it was retitled) is the first in a series of dystopian novels which imagine an alternative world history- one in which black Africans (Crosses) are regarded as superior to white Europeans (noughts). Essentially, it is a powerful and thought-provoking tale of racial segregation with a Romeo and Juliet style love story at its heart.

Noughts and Crosses

There are many others that I would recommend, and, no doubt, numerous fantastic books that I’ve failed to include simply due to the fact that I haven’t yet read them, so if anyone has any questions/personal recommendations, please don’t hesitate to get in touch- it’s always good to share the book love!

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: 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.

The Liebster Award

liebster-award-300x3001

When I first started blogging, I wasn’t aware that there were such things as blogging awards, but apparently there are- and I’m chuffed to have been nominated for one thanks to the lovely and very interesting Yasmine over at http://ymulholland.wordpress.com.

For those of you who don’t know, blogging awards are a really great way of gaining exposure for relatively new bloggers, enabling them to reach new audiences of like-minded individuals. If you get nominated for the Liebster Award, all you have to do is follow the rules below:

·       Thank the blogger that nominated you and share a link back to their blog.

·       Display the award on your blog.

·       List 11 facts about yourself.

·       Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.

·      Think of 11 new questions to ask your nominees.

·       Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less than 1,000  followers. You can nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you can’t renominate the blog that nominated you.

·        Inform nominees of the award

11 Facts About Myself

  1. Growing up in a family of Huddersfield Town supporters meant that I used to have a season ticket when I was a child. I haven’t been for about 10 years, but I do still enjoy watching the odd football match- it’s the only sport I actually like!
  2.  I love animals and get really attached to pets. Although I was brought up to be a carnivore, I was also taught that all living things deserve to be treated with love and respect. When my 19 year old goldfish died I cried like a baby.
  3. I’ve always been really intrigued by magic and the supernatural. When I was a teenager, me and my best friend used to do spells, and my mum, brother, and I like to talk about anything relating to the supernatural.
  4.  I tried to be a vegetarian once, but failed- I just felt ill all the time! So now I eat chicken and fish. My dairy intake is also quite limited as I have a mild lactose intolerance.
  5. I’m a really emotional person and cry at everything- books, films (even Disney!), music, adverts…
  6.  I LOVE dancing, as I’m sure anyone who’s seen me on a night out will testify.    After reading it’s my favourite thing to do.
  7. I barely wear any make-up anyway, but I try to only buy cosmetics that are BUAV approved (not tested on animals). This can be quite difficult!
  8.  People always mention what a happy, positive person I am, but I can be really moody and stroppy when I want to be…generally when people don’t understand my need to be alone!
  9.  I’m not at all motivated by money- and I don’t have a lot of respect for people who are.
  10. Some of my favourite words are ‘rapture’, ‘melancholy’, ‘effervescent’, and ‘mellifluous’.
  11. I used to be obsessed with Emily Bronte and went through a phase of thinking I was her in a past life!  

11    Questions From http://ymulholland.wordpress.com :

  1. What was your favourite book as a child/teen?

My favourite books were The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Little Women, both of which I used to read on an annual basis. The magical elements of Narnia captivated my imagination and I really wanted an Aslan of my own. I loved Little Women so much because I identified with Jo March. Like me, she loved books and writing and didn’t really care what anyone thought about her. Both books still have the power to reduce me to tears!

  1. Who is/are your favourite author/s?

There are so many brilliant authors out there, but I generally sway towards those who have quite a poetic or exuberant writing style, like Ben Okri and Angela Carter, or those who write about the fragility and complexity of relationships, like Amy Tan, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, or Joanne Harris. I’m definitely not a style over substance person, but a writer’s prose style can make or break a book for me.

  1. Which book, or books, has had the most influence or impact on you?

Many books have had a big impact on me, but, in recent years, I’d say Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes At The Museum really resonated with me in a way that I’d never experienced before. Besides being funny, poignant and intensely readable, it made me reflect on my own maternal family history, and made me think about writing my own family members into history so that they don’t become ‘lost in time’.

  1. What is your favourite literary era/time period?

I really enjoy gothic fiction, so the whole period of Victorian literature is wonderful. The idea that there was so much passion, superstition, and fear of social change lingering underneath/behind the stiff corsets and upper lips of the 1800s fascinates me!

  1. How would you describe yourself as a reader?

Involved. I find it difficult to extricate myself from what is going on and think of characters as friends (I also have real friends…honestly!). I often feel quite drained from all the emotion that I invest in books.

  1. What is the worst book you have ever read?

I really can’t think of one. By now, I think I’m quite a discerning reader- if I don’t like the look of it, I don’t read it! I’m sure they’re very enjoyable to some people, but I could never read the type of books that perpetuate the myth that women are only interested in clothes, makeup, and men. Books generally have to have some substance- some social, political, or literary value- for me to read them.

  1. Why did you start blogging about books?

I needed a creative outlet, so I decided to start blogging about all the things that I love or am interested in- though it seems to have become pretty literature-concentrated! Writing about literature at MA level was fab, but you have to remain fairly neutral; feelings and opinions aren’t relevant unless they contribute to an academic theory/debate. I wanted to write about books in a way that everyone who loves literature could relate to.

  1. What is the most rewarding or challenging aspect of blogging?

It’s always great when someone says that you’ve inspired them to read something, but, if I’m honest, I just enjoy the writing process- it’s so cathartic.

  1. Can you pinpoint the exact moment where you discovered your love of/interest in books?

I think I was born to love stories and reading! Apparently as a baby I used to pick up the newspaper and babble away to myself as if I was reading it. It’s quite strange actually; nobody else in my family likes books- I’m the anomaly!

  1. How often do you read, and for how long?

I try to read a little bit every day, even if it’s only a poem or two on the bus, but it’s very difficult to do when you have a job, active social life, and lots of other interests! Once I’ve started a book I tend to plough through it quite quickly. I can read a book in a few hours if I put my mind to it.

  1. Do you watch TV/movie adaptations of books, if so what is your favourite adaptation and why?

Although I always endeavour to read the book first, I do love a good adaptation! It’s great to be able to see the visual representation of someone else’s imagination, even when it isn’t always consistent with the book. As a period drama lover, the film version of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet is a particular favourite of mine, but I’ll happily watch any.

 My 11 Questions For Nominees

  1. If you could be any literary character, which one would you be and why?
  2. What’s your favourite opening line to a book?
  3. Which fictional character would you marry and why?
  4. What’s the most emotionally draining book you’ve ever read?
  5. If you could have written any book, which would it be and why?
  6. Which book would you adapt for the big screen and which actors would you choose to star in it?
  7. Who is your literary idol?
  8. If you could have a dinner party with five writers, dead or alive, who would you choose?
  9. Which fictional world would you like to live in?
  10. What do you enjoy most about reading?
  11. What three books would you take on a desert island?

Nominees

If you enjoy reading about all things book-related, check out these blogs:

The Literary Bunny http://christinarosendahl.wordpress.com

Too Fond  http://toofond.wordpress.com

What Amy Read Next http://raininglilies.wordpress.com

Blunts Book Blog  http://bluntsbookblog.wordpress.com

The Literary Sisters http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com

 

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.

Places For Book Lovers

Maintaining my blog has been a challenge in itself lately; there seem to have been so many things going on in my life recently, from juggling two jobs to going on various weekends away! There will always be time for books, however, so I’m continuing to plough through my 30 Before 30 Challenge. It’s progressing more slowly than I originally envisaged due to so many other commitments, but that’s just life unfortunately!

As it’s World Book Day on Thursday and I’m only halfway through my current book, I thought I’d take a break from discussing actual books to share some of the best places I think that a book lover can visit, both physically and virtually. Here’s my top five:

            Sites of Literary Interest

Wherever you live, there’s bound to be a place of literary interest within a reasonably commutable distance (unless you live in the middle of the Amazon rainforest!). In the UK there are hoardes of amazing places that have a literary connection. As a Yorkshire girl, my favourite literary pilgrimage destination has always been Haworth, the home of the Brontes. Non-drivers might find it a bit difficult to get to as it doesn’t have a train station (though there is a steam train that runs through it in the summer months), but I’m sure any true pilgrim would be more than willing to sit for hours on trains and buses to get there!

HaworthHaworth Parsonage

Besides infusing me with literary awe, my annual trip to the picturesque village of Haworth is lovely simply because it’s a gorgeous place to visit- a typically quaint English town of cobbled streets, cute tearooms, and quirky little shops situated in the midst of a dramatic rural landscape. I would definitely recommend it to any book lover, but if Haworth is a bit far for you to travel to, find a more local site of literary interest.

            Online Literary Gift Companies

Despite my constant assertion that I’m a technophobe and wish that I lived in the pre-digital age, I have to admit that, like most people, I rely on my computer for everything. One thing that I particularly love about the Internet is how you can spend hours researching things that you’re interested in and stumble across so many things you would never have found without it! Recently discovered websites that any book lover will adore include www.literarygiftcompany.com , www.bookishengland.co.uk and www.bookishly.co.uk. All contain wonderful literature-related gifts, such as jewellery, cards and prints that will make you think you’re in book heaven!

One day I intend to adorn my walls with book related prints, but as I currently have no wall space to decorate, I’ll have to do it virtually instead, using a print from Bookishly:

We are such stuff...

            Independent/Secondhand Bookshops

In a world of Amazon and Kindles, independent and secondhand bookshops are a dying breed. For me personally, part of the pleasure of the reading process lies in visiting quirky bookshops, hunting out musty old books, and revelling in the ‘bookish’ atmosphere. I appreciate that not all book lovers feel like this, and that some of my friends think I’m a bit odd when I start talking about the feel and smell of old books, but I do think it’s important to support independent second hand bookshops as much as we can, many of which provide an interesting alternative experience to the homogeneity of chain and online stores.

Of all the bookshops in all the towns in all the world (to misquote Casablanca), the most amazing one I’ve ever visited is Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I’m not going to lie- this is partly because of the name and the fact that it’s situated in Paris, my favourite city. Besides this, however, the shop has a piano, a typewriter, and a gorgeous quote on the wall, and apparently gives free lodging to aspiring writers in exchange for them working in the shop! If only I was more proficient in French…

Shakespeare & CoShakespeare & Co3

            Your Local Library

Like independent bookshops, libraries are also becoming increasingly redundant in the face of growing online book sales/downloads, yet they provide so much more than just books. As the venue for many adult workshops/educational activities for kids, libraries are a valuable part of the community- a place where anyone can go, regardless of class, age, ethnic origin, or employment status. By supporting your local library, you not only get to borrow books for free, but also show that you recognise the service that libraries offer as an important contribution to the local community.

            Theatre

We’ve all seen film adaptations of books, but how many people have actually seen a theatrical adaptation? Visiting the theatre to see a play/stage version of a piece of literature is one of my favourite things to do, and, despite what people might think, it isn’t solely the pursuit of the middle classes. Anyone can go to the theatre and enjoy it; you just need enthusiasm and an open mind! Whether you agree with someone’s artistic interpretation or not, seeing someone else’s imagination brought to life on stage is really interesting and often gives you a deeper insight into the book.

At the moment, I’m a massive fan of dance adaptations, particularly those by Northern Ballet, a UK based contemporary ballet company. If you enjoy dance/creative expression, I’m sure you’ll agree that their versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Great Gatsby are utterly spectacular!

Thanks for reading, and have a bookishly good World Book Day!

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.