Monday, 26 September 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group 19th Sep: The Prestige

Although this has been published under
the SF Masterworks banner, Chrisopher
Priest's book is rather lacking in sci fi
details. In fact, as MM Book grouper
Chris pointed out, there is really just
one sentence that you can stamp the 'sci fi'
label on.

As a tale of warring magicians - one naturally gifted (Borden), one financially in a position to buy elaborate equipment (Angiers), it is pretty engrossing. But - the
discussions around the table (some heated) suggested that we were all fascinated by the premise but disappointed in the execution.

Several members of the group found the descriptions of the stage performances tedious and felt that this was one area where the film adaptation probably did the book a favour. Most people also found that the 'modern day' wrapper surrounding the book (allowing the Victorian story to be told via discovered notebooks) was superfluous and detracted from the whole. The hapless journalist descended from Borden was two dimensional and there were details mentioned in the opening paragraphs that seemed significant but which were never referred to again.

The juxtaposition of present day and historic characters did open up a very interesting debate about how as readers we suspend belief. The point was made that a disappearing man seemed less outrageous in a Victorian setting, where vast acres of scientific discovery were yet to be pinned down, but was unconvincing in the 1970's - where scepticism would have been king. The people that enjoyed the book most were quite happy to suspend belief in both time zones.

Overall, the majority view was that the book was mainly hampered by cumbersome prose and under-developed characters. There were pockets of enjoyment though and it's worth noting that many of the group didn't see this book as sci fi in the slightest - but would have been put off reading it had they known beforehand! It's always exciting to dip a toe into the water of a new genre - just a shame that on this occasion the quality writing quality was felt to be lacking.

Next up: "Spooks" Mr B's style. A Hallowe'en discussion of Michelle Paver's chilling ghost story 'Dark Matter' at 6:45pm on Monday 31st October. And, if we have any unsolved burning questions about the book, we have the opportunity to quiz Michelle when she comes to Mr B's in November!

Monday, 12 September 2011

What's the technical term for half a Booker Shortlist?

A small diversion. I have now read three of the six Booker Shortlisted titles and I believe that even on this sample, the judges have made a rod for their own backs. All utterly different, all utterly brilliant in their own way. It's like comparing apples with Azerbaijan. How on earth are they going to decide? Here's my twopenn'orth to muddy the waters a bit more...

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Classy, effortless prose that is at once intelligent, wry, honest and crafted. The reader is placed in the hands of an unreliable narrator, one late middle-aged Tony Webster. But then Tony goes and tells us outright that he is an unreliable narrator precisely because he can't trust his own memories. And yet the reader can still be hoodwinked and surprised, such is his rationale and charisma. Tony tries to reconstruct the his childhood friendships with a group of boys who at 18 eventually go their own separate ways into University. The brightest and most inscrutable, Adrian, ends up at Cambridge. His brilliance is cut short, however, when he takes his own life. And it is this unexplained suicide that bubbles back to the surface of Tony's present. In witnessing his attempt to piece together evidence from his own life, we are invited to examine our own memories and whether history can ever be pinned down accurately. Julian Barnes is a master at creating realistic, complex human relationships and this novel is no exception. There are ideas and ways of thinking in here that stay with you for a long time.

2) Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I don't usually get on that well with books written entirely in dialect form (e.g. Trainspotting, Finnegan's Wake) but Sid's language is as lyrical, evocative and entertaining as a jazz solo. You very quickly get caught up in the rhythm and before long, you is thinking like a real Jack. The story is split between the past of pre-war Berlin and Paris, and a 'post-Berlin Wall' present. The sections describing how Jazz was perceived in Europe in the build-up to the second world war is fascinating. The history of the young, German, half-black trumpet genius Hieronymous Falk is a real eye-opener and the comaraderie of the band that both he and Sid perform with is by turns touching, treacherous, witty and wise. The edginess of the buildup to war adds weight to the consequences of each character's actions. I think what struck me most about this book was the pace. It is so perfectly balanced, each story strand works to build tension, move the plot along and reveal information. Without wishing to labour the musical analogy too much, it's all very harmonious. And just like Jazz -happy to be unpredictable and break a few rules.

3) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

A bombastic, hugely entertaining and darkly comic road trip through Californian gold rush country in the company of the deadly Sisters Brothers. Eli Sisters tells it like it is, pulls no punches and occasionally offers his own remorseful take on life philosophy. The brothers encounter a raft of tragi-comic and occasionally reprehensible characters as they track down a lone prospector by the name of Herman Kermit Warm. Even Eli's hapless horse Tub has bucket loads of character thrust upon him. De Witt plays fast and loose with Western conventions and yet this is so much more than a pastiche. The characters are fantastic, the dialogue spot on, the situations exciting. I read it in one day, because I couldn't put it down. It's just that sort of crazy, inventive tale. Also, I have to give a quick thumbs up for the bold look of the trade paperback: the kooky design features genuinely enhanced my reading experience.

So, there you have it: clever, multi-layered or enthralling...I think I'll leave it to the judges but I have really enjoyed the diversity of these three and whilst I've only half the field to comment on, either one would be a worthy winner.


Monday, 5 September 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Oxen of the Sun

Thank goodness we had the foresight to organise some sustenance for this meeting (thanks to James at The Salamander) - this was one of the longest and widest ranging discussions thus far. Not surprising really, given that even Joyce himself describes this section as the most difficult episode (although characteristically, he leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is talking about the subject matter, the interpretation or the writing process itself).

So, here we have nine sections, taking place at the maternity hospital in Dublin, just as the latest addition to the Purefoy clan comes into the world, two days overdue. Each sub-section simultaneously represents a month in the gestation period, and a historic literary style - beginning with the alliterative Anglo Saxon poetic form. We had an extensive debate as to how successful Joyce was in employing these different historical forms....was he deliberately parodying?; was he in earnest?; did he succeed or fail?

There were a fair few other circles to dance around in. The section is representative of the episode in the Odyssey where Odysseus' men kill sacred bulls and feast in spite of a specific warning not to do so. We saw culled livestock everywhere: how Kerry herds are to be slaughtered to control the outbreak of foot and mouth that is raging (and the practice of dairy calves being culled anyway as part of the milk production process); the way in which the Catholic women have their spirit and health sapped through serial pregnancies; the fact that the 'sacred cow' of childbirth is taken out of the control of women by patriarchs, the possible lampooning of ancient literary styles...

Bloom avoids being drawn into a discussion with the medical students in the common room bar of the hospital (Stephen Dedalus and his cohorts) about the biological rationale for some pregnancies being successful and others failing. Again, we are reminded of Bloom's own tragedy - that of losing his baby son. There is a stark contrast between the theoretical discussion of the students, their slow descent into inebriation, and the physical reality of childbirth taking place metres away. Devoid of emotion, their discussions might be described as intelligent but they are a long way from being truly informed in the way that Bloom is.

Everyone around the table agreed that this was the most difficult section to read. Sentences had to be read and reread so that their meaning could be unpicked. The allusions to restoration comedies, the diaries of Pepys, the poetry of Milton et al came thick and fast and were overwhelming if you weren't an English Literature graduate of the time (apparently, there is a single tome that Joyce uses as a template for his dizzying array of references).

This led to another lengthy discussion about how the creation of new life was perhaps the most inscrutable of questions for any author to tackle and that perhaps Joyce was being intentionally difficult to reflect his subject matter. There was also much talk as to whether evolutionary theory was being applied to language (Joyce's epic being the evolutionary product of all that had gone before) or whether it was an argument for recycling being the engine of creation (Joyce borrows, but then makes new). In the text, there is a reference to Paddy Dignam lying in the cemetery at the same time as new life is emerging from the same building blocks of atoms. As if to completely sideline this debate, the section ends with drunken slang. After all the high faluting stylistics that preceded it, the directness and urgency of the language shows itself to be a much better and easily understood mode of communication!

Once you get started on creation, of course, there are no definite conclusions. Suffice to say that we had a pretty good go at encompassing all the major points - including the relative size of the barnacle's reproductive organs (impressive) and different cultural attitudes to the status of women (French politicians featured prominently) once 'men' had debunked the myth of childbirth with science.

The next section is too huge to attempt in one meeting, so we have decided to split 'Circe' into two. We will be meeting on Tuesday the 20th September to discuss up to p492 in the OUP edition - or the line 'Cardinal sin. Monks of the screw.' for those with other editions. Hmmm....more barnacle facts beckon, methinks.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books 15-19

OK, I admit it; I may have gone a little off course with my reading year, having just read eight fiction titles in a row (oops!). I promise I’ll get back on track soon; in the mean-time here are my latest reads.

No. 15. “The Best of Everything” by Rona Jaffe (Penguin Books, 2011)

With a cast resembling the Sex and the City girls (maybe a little less racy) and a set-up that mirrors that of the recent hit series Mad-Men this is a novel that reads like the TV mash-up of your dreams (or maybe just my dreams).

Originally published in the 1950’s, (when it was thought to be rather revolutionary) Penguin have recently reissued this novel about four young women working in a publishing house in New York. The characters range from ambitious and together (Caroline), to flighty and naïve (April) but all of the women share the same dream; to find love in the city. Chapters switch between the sagas of the central characters as they battle to work their way up the career ladder, try to escape the advances of their lecherous male colleagues and drink an obscene amount of whisky.

The characters are well-developed and equally interesting to read about, I naively found the women’s attitude to work in the 1950's (as a stop-gap on the route to marriage) rather shocking! Even Caroline, the most driven of the women is willing to abandon her career dreams in the face of an eligible man. The writing is super-light, but if you’re looking for a girly flavoured holiday read then this is your boy (irony intended)!

No.16. Jubilate by Michael Arditti (Arcadia Books, 2011)

I followed my light and girly read with something altogether more serious and literary. “Jubilate” is the story of the relationship that forms between a BBC producer and a Catholic woman on a pilgrimage in Lourdes.

Gillian is a woman overburdened with responsibility; her husband has suffered a brain haemorrhage and is hugely dependent on Gillian’s care. With some coercion from her mother in law, Gillian joins the annual pilgrimage to pray for a miracle cure for Richard. But her dedication to the cause is disrupted by the attention of Vincent, a sceptic when it comes to Catholicism, who has been assigned the task of making a documentary about the pilgrimage.

The affair unfolds in a series of chapters which shift between Gillian and Vincent’s narration and jump backwards in forwards in time over the week of the pilgrimage. The effect is a beautiful and complex layering structure, which sees some episodes reported from the different perspectives of the couple and others more sparsely described.

I was really impressed by this book, it’s thought-provoking and romantic but it achieves these accolades without losing sight of the serious issues at the heart of the narrative.

No.17. “The Break” by Pietro Grossi (Pushkin Press, 2011)

The B Team (minus Ed) flocked to read the first novel (translated into English) by our favourite Italian author of the moment. Having told myself I would only have time to read half of the novel before Grossi rocked up to talk Reformation at the Mr B’s Book Lovers Unite event, I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

The protagonist is Dino, a young man who relishes the order of his quiet life. He spends his days paving the streets with stones and his evenings playing Italian billiards and planning elaborate trips with his wife that they both know they will never take.

Grossi’s style is understated, stripped back prose which I found incredibly effective and at very times moving. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the intuitive nature of stone-laying, a mechanical process which involves a surprising amount of instinct.

I loved, loved, loved this book!

No.18. “All the Stars Electric Bright” by Ian Breckon (Old Street Publishing, 2011)

Atmospheric and tautly written, this novel blends giants of Italian Fascism, Mussolini and F.T. Marinetti (initiator of the Futurist movement), with a cracking selection of fictional success-hungry artists, dancers and other creative types.

The narrative unfolds at a glamorous Futurist themed dinner party, hosted by Marinetti. Amongst the guests are aspiring artists and friends Emilio and Arturo who must compete for a prestigious commission and for the affections of Nina, the woman that they both love.

As cocktails and revolutionary cuisine are guzzled the claustrophobic mood of the party intensifies and the frustrated guests begin to reveal their true dramatic selves. A really exciting novel that simmers with tension, art, politics and pretentious food.

No.19 “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, 1994)

I can’t believe I have only just got round to reading “The Shipping News”, it is without a doubt the best book that I have read in ages! Annie Proulx’s writing is simply outstanding, her descriptions of people and places are so impressive, funny and vibrant, in particular a comparison of a character’s face to “clawed cottage cheese” sticks in my mind!

Quoyle is an overweight, hopeless journalist who returns to his ancestor’s run down house on an isolated area of coast in Newfoundland, along with his aunt and his daughters Bunny and Sunshine. He quickly secures a job at the local newspaper, where he is responsible for reporting on the shipping news (even though he knows nothing about boats) and car wrecks (which evoke painful personal memories).

If you’re a person who looks for great characters in a novel (and I certainly am) then this is a book that’s sure to impress, each character is so brilliantly and originally drawn. I'm adding Annie Proulx to my favourite authors list now.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: Travels with my Aunt

Lots of willing travelling companions
for Grahame Greene's unconventional
Aunt Augusta - so many turned up for
this one that we had to split the group
in two. So, this post will only be able
to cover half the meeting! For those of
you who were in the upstairs group,
feel free to chip in. I should also mention
that Chris provided some excellent cake,
which meant that despite us not being
prepared for such a large meeting, there
were sufficient nibbles to go round.

(Please, please, please try to remember to drop us an email/phone message in advance of the meeting to let us know you are coming!)

Now, back to the book. It was great fun to read and everyone round the table enjoyed this rather 'late in life' blossoming of Henry Pulling. There was some debate over exactly when the book is set. Aunt Augusta ranges from Edwardian courtesan to 20's flapper girl in people's minds. Henry, has the stuffiness associated with late 1940's/early 1950's English gentlemen - and yet he encounters a hippie-esque teenager out of the early 1970's. How much of this is Greene's design? After all, the reader is floundering as much as Henry is at the beginning of the book, encountering lives so far removed from his own sphere of existence.

There are some aspects of the writing style, however, which unquestionably date it as mid-2oth Century. The group noted that whilst there is a libertarian attitude exhibited by Aunt Augusta to her African 'valet', Wordsworth, he is the only character in a gamut of foreign gentlemen who Greene feels the need to voice in dialect (patois). As a result, the reader makes snap judgements about Wordsworth's intelligence, which he is never prompted to do elsewhere. On the plus side, Wordsworth is a very rounded and interesting character rather than an archetype. He has the wit to use stereotypes (himself as a coloured man and Henry as a dull, establishment figure) for his own ends - as does Aunt Augusta.

Henry's naivety underpins much of the humour of the book. How much of this is real, though? We are left wondering whether he has simply inherited his Aunt's gift for fantastical storytelling. The book is narrated retrospectively. Everything we are told has the sheen of careful reflection and detail rather than bewildering immediacy. This means that despite Henry facing some awkward circumstances, there is a feeling of assurance about each episode he recalls. It helps with the humour and light touch of the book and enables Greene to sneak in some pretty taboo areas of Aunt Augusta's life philosophy. It also helped when the suspension of credulity is required as the novel is full of coincidences (the most jarring being the chance encounter with the hippie Tooley's father).

That many of the characters are not fully fleshed out, or that their motives remain hidden, or that their actions are unbelievable, didn't cause too many problems. Aunt Augusta is a very entertaining character to spend time with: by turns outrageous, unconventional, immoral, flawed and dogmatic. As the focus of the novel, Henry's slow realisation that he has lived the wrong sort of life (staid bank manager, predictable days) is a treat and gives succour to all of us that it is never too late!

Next up is 'The Prestige' by Christopher Priest, which we will be discussing on Monday 19th September. (Lucinda)

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Nausicaa

Any sympathetic feelings for Bloom in the last section are tested here. Dirty old man or romantic fantasist? As a voyeur, watching three young Irish girls by the sea at dusk, Joyce spares us no details as to the desire felt by Bloom. Homer didn't quite have Odysseus messing his trousers, but there are strong parallels in this section again between his encounter with the beautiful women washing clothes in the river and the girls that Bloom encounters. Whilst some in the group felt that the syruppy language and excruciating small talk of the girls was in some ways more tedious to read than Stephen Dedalus' intellectual ramblings, others found that the section was a novelty: Joyce presents a scene with an omniscient narrator, description, dialogue, internalisation.

There was a lot of discussion around whether Gerty's thoughts are really hers, or whether the whole chapter is Bloom's creation and he is imposing his fantasy upon her. Claire (who is fast becoming our close reading specialist) pointed out that Bloom knows who Gerty is and a little bit of biographical detail about her from the conversation in Barney Kiernan's pub: 'Gerty Mac Dowell loves the boy that has the bicycle' which would enable him to do this. Plus, the voice of Gerty perhaps paints Bloom in too enigmatic and romantic a light - referring to him as 'handsome'.

There was also a lot of discussion around the significance of the idolatry of women going on outside, at the same time as a church mass is taking place, worshipping Mary and the cult of the virgin. There is also the significance of Bloom rejecting Gerty once she leaves and he realises that she is lame. Joyce's women at the moment exist and are weighed and measured in the minds of men thus far....roll on Molly Bloom!

We all enjoyed the liberal opportunities for Joyce to ham up the double entendres: we even have fireworks at one point. As the 'cuckoo' call echoes Bloom's situation as cuckold though, the scene ends with feelings of pity.

4 weeks to the next meeting which will be at 6:45 on Tuesday 30th August at the very hospitable Salamander pub. Plenty of time to get to grips with 'Oxen of the Sun' (p366-p407 in the Vintage edition) and a return to centre stage of Stephen Dedalus.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Cyclops

So, the unease of Bloom as an outsider in Dublin is suddenly unleashed as he confronts the bigotry (one eyed-ness) of the patrons of Barney Kiernan's bar. Anti-semitism is overtly articulated. Bloom finds himself no longer amongst intellectual 'betters' or his own peers. Now, he appears the most informed man in the room - which has it's advantages, since he can answer back and hold his own. Ultimately though, in the form of a malevolent dog, Bloom isn't equipped to deal with the threat of violence and ends up fleeing.

Joyce's Cyclops is a no-man (or perhaps an every man) - the 'citizen' in the bar (the drunk in the corner) remains unnamed. The narrator for this passage is only ever 'I' - and there are lots of plays on the word 'eye' or the act of seeing. Most of the group found the change in tone quite chilling. There was some sympathy for Bloom, who is asked outright 'what is your nation?' - and his reply of 'Ireland' is met with disdain. The bigotry espoused, however, isn't restricted to Jews. All 'foreigners' fall short of Ireland's standards. The French, English and Canadians are all quickly dismissed.

Our discussions centred around how Joyce manages to undermine the arguments of the bigots through their inept language and their easy recourse to stereotype. Uneasily, we (alongside Bloom) can feel superior to these men. In amongst the simmering hatred, howerver, there is plenty of opportunity for comedy and wordplay. The narrator tells how on the way to the bar, his eye is nearly poked out by the brush handle of a chimney sweep. Again, the very direct links that this passage evokes with the 'Cyclops' section of the Odyssey is blatant and as a result, we all felt huge satisfaction at making the associations.

All in all a tricky and unsettling passage - but again, the familiarity of setting and realism of the dialogue meant that it was not difficult to read. The dramatic ending (in a book which thus far has been devoid of action) has spurred us on to read the next section by Tuesday 2nd August from 6:45 at The Salamander. I think we're in for another epic change of tone: 'Nausicaa', according to Joyce, is written in a 'namby-pamby jammy marmaladey, drawersy style' (!)

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Sirens

Big pats on the back all round as we realise we have a third of the book under our belts. This section produced some polarised opinions. Some felt it was unneccessarily inscrutable and that Joyce could have written something just as evocative but more accessible; others found that the onomatopeic style led to some innovative and telling descriptions. Claire wins the 'close reading award' for pointing out that Bloom's companion in the bar is the self same awkward Uncle that Stephen Dedalus refers to in the first section.

Bloom as 'outsider' is becoming more and more clear: from the jibes of the barmaids, to his stealthy progress to the back room of the bar (avoiding Blazes Boylan and his notorious squeaky tan shoes) and his pointed preference for offal over the pub staple steak and kidney pie. Stephen Dedalus' father by contrast is seen as popular - in spite of his lofty 'bard' son.

Casting the barmaids as Sirens offers Joyce great scope for some jovial preening and flirting - but ultimately these women are selling liquor and potentially leading men from sobriety and towards oblivion (and it was pointed out that again, Joycian women appear to be conniving and villainous whilst the men are hapless but blameless). The deaf barman Pat, appears immune from the fawning of the barmaids - perhaps because he understands it is all for show. In a clever reversal of the musical theme, it is the men that play and sing (and we all came away from the section feeling a need to seek out the songs mentioned). Every character has their own rhythm and set of sounds which are often repeated - mimicing the Greek aural tradition of qualifying characters with descriptive adjectives e.g. the resourceful Telemachus. The effect of repeated desciptors or syllables throughout the passage divided opinion and was either intensely annoying or very innovative!

Pubs, music, irreverant chatter and gossip - all very Dublin and perhaps why some of the group found this section so entertaining.

Also, it is perhaps the clearest parallel between the text and the Odyssey that we have come across so far and because the Sirens are so well known, there was less time spent poring over the notes (no musical pun intended) and more time enjoying the language and the scene itself.

The next section - Cyclops - is a meaty 50 pages and so we shall reconvene at the Salamander (around 6:45pm) on the 19th July.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 27th June 2011

In many ways, Italo Calvino's
Castle of Crossed Destinies is
a perfect book group read. The
premise is intriguing: in a nod
to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales,
travellers meet up at a castle
but find they have lost the
power of speech. Only a pack
of Tarot cards can help them communicate their stories. As the cards are laid upon the table, a matrix of stories is created. The cards take on different meanings depending on the start and end points used in the grid. Stories are read upwards, downwards and across. The book contains helpful illustrations of the two sets of Medieval Tarot cards that Calvino used to devise the stories. So far, so intriguing, but I'll come out up front and say: "Not everyone enjoyed it". There was a strong sense that Calvino's experiment was for his own rather than the reader's benefit and the narrator is functional in the way in which he interprets the cards laid down by his fellow travellers. Often the reader feels passive rather than engrossed. The book feels like a technical exercise.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is divided into two distinct sections. In the first, Calvino sticks rigidly to the idea that each additional tale must fit perfectly into the tableau of cards on the table. As a result, some of the stories feel 'forced' and some of the group found that the interpretations Calvino places upon the cards are too convoluted. There were inexplicable historical anomalies: computers and skyscrapers mingled with knights and sorcerors. On the other hand, a couple of people found that when Calvino made imaginative use of the actual images, the results were fascinating: crossed swords become a forest of intertwined brances for example - or cups take on the appearance of a cemetery viewed from above.

Pervading it all was the sense that we were reading something formulaic....but if some of the stories felt familiar, it is because Calvino (particularly in the second half of the book) has mined folk tales, myths, classics and great literature - and this is perhaps where the 'enjoyment' factor of the book plays second fiddle to the sorts of ideas Calvino's experiment throws up: 'What makes a good story?'; 'Are there any new stories or simply a re-ordering of standard events?'; 'Why does the reader become engaged in some and not others?'

And then that leads to some even bigger questions: how important is language in conveying meaning? Is Calvino's obsession with creating a working tableau of stories bording on pyschotic? Are his travellers sane or locked in some form of madness? Do we disregard each others stories all the time and is it significant that the second half of the book is set in a tavern, where strangers convene, swap stories, dissipate and promptly forget much of the conversation?

If Calvino had made his narrator a character with which the reader could identify, and had written his stories with careful consideration of style, pace and meaning then we would not have had the same discussion about the nuts and bolts of communication and storytelling. What a conundrum - as I said, a great book group read.

Next up is Grahame Greene's Travels With My Aunt on Monday 8th August at 6:45pm. Expect characters fully in control of their powers of speech!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ulysses Support Group Meeting:The Wandering Rocks

Everyone agrees that given the diverse nature of each of the separate sections we have read so far, restricting ourselves to reading just one section works best. And this section was chock full of activity. Here is a confluence of characters and events that can be seen as the 'centre' of the novel. Myriad characters, all encroach on each others' stories - sometimes interacting, sometimes in the background. I think everyone agreed that this section is worth re-reading, because there is such a lot going on and so many people to keep track of! Although Joyce is hamstrung by the linearity of text (we can only read one word at a time!) he has a pretty good go at recreating a snapshot of the day from multiple perspectives. Again - in terms of reading this isn't a difficult section, but there seems to be a lot going on beneath the surface. We start with Father Conmee and end with the Earl of Dudley riding through the streets in a carriage. Are these the pillars of Irish society (religion and aristocratic authority) between which all of Dublin life surges? There is more than a whiff of impropriety and sin surrounding the montages in between these opening and closing pieces: voyeurism and debt in particular. We also see Stephen confronted by guilt again, as he comes across his sister buying a French primer. There is no doubt that Stephen sees himself standing apart from the rest of his family - academia removes him from the toil of everyday survival that faces his siblings. It was also noted that thus far, women are generally represented as hard working and resourceful women - often surrounded by slightly feckless men - but often relegated to the background (misogyny?). We also revisited the idea of Bloom as the central character and the impression of him as 'an outsider' is pronounced in this section. Why does Joyce make his Odysseus a Jew? Is this a reflection of Joyce's own 'self imposed' exile status?
During the meeting, Ali managed to track down a film based on Ulysses. At two hours, we're dying to know which elements of the book feature.

We're moving on to the Sirens next, which is up to page 279 in the OUP version. Next meeting will be at The Salamander, from 6:45 on the 28th June. (Plus, we have noted how Radio 4 appear to be jumping onto our bandwagon with all sorts of Joycian fare going on!)

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books 12-14

No.12 "How I Lost the War" by Filippo Bologna (Pushkin Press, 2011)

In a rare B team read-off Nic and I decided to pick a novel and read it simultaneously. We both loved Pietro Grossi’s “Fists” (so much so we’ve invited him to be a special guest at one of our Book Lov
ers Unite! Events in July) and so when we spotted Pushkin had recently published another book by a young Italian author, “How I Lost the War” seemed like an obvious choice.

This is a novel spanning multiple generations of an established Italian family; from Terenzio Cremona, a community man who famously “whipped the peasants” to his great-grandson Federico who must protect his family’s history from the plans of greedy businessman Ottone Gattai. Gattai comes to the Cremona family’s small Tuscan village on a mission to take advantage of the local waters and build a ruthlessly modern spa resort. Shackled to the duty of guarding his family’s empire by his belief that his own destiny is linked to that of his grandfather’s rebellious brother (also named Federico) the young Federico enlists his friends and launches an ever-losing battle against the wealthy magnate. But Federico’s war proves a fruitless one, as Gattai steadily wins over the town and eventually the Cremona family, building a massive resort and even erecting a ridiculous sculpture in the town square as a tribute to the commercial epicentre he has created.

The span of characters and time encompassed in “How I Lost the War” demands a complex and rich style of prose, which at times I found challenging. This is a political novel about the resolute nature of change and Bologna isn’t afraid of the odd direct address to the reader to really drill this home. But amongst the bigger message of the book are some gorgeous descriptions of the beautiful location in which the novel is set and some genuinely funny passages about family life. The portrayal of Federico’s grandmother’s version of Monopoly tailored to include all of the family businesses and amended in accordance with the Cremona affairs struck me as particularly funny!

This isn’t a novel that you could recommend to everyone but I did enjoy it – I’ll leave it to Nic to let you know what he thought.

No. 13 “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (Constable and Robinson, 2011)

You know when a novel has had so much hype that you just can’t wait to read it – the reviews are great, your friends and customers agree that they loved it, and then it wins a Pulitzer prize, you think to yourself “I’m onto a winner here” – well that’s why I had to read “The Goon Squad”.

This is a novel set around the music industry that addresses a new character in every chapter, with some characters reappearing later on the book and others disappearing completely after their starring role. Chapters demonstrate different styles and moods appropriate to the focal character, and prove that Jennifer Egan is an impressively versatile writer. This format seems to me to be such an appropriate and effective format for a book about such a cut-throat industry where often, five minutes of fame often does boil down to just five minutes.

The other interesting point about this book from a stylistic perspective is there is one chapter written entirely as a PowerPoint presentation. When I discovered this I was both thrilled and fearful – it’s exciting to come across a book that plays with style, but what if it’s a gimmick? I must say the PowerPoint chapter was FANTASTIC – moving, funny and with a surprising amount of depth.

It’s no doubt that this experimental feel to “The Goon Squad” is what has earned it it’s Pulitzer and it’s many fans and I really appreciated Egan’s ambition and her execution of it. However, I do have one gripe and it’s quite particular, I didn’t like any of the characters. Normally a dislike for a book’s cast isn’t enough to turn me off, “The Rehearsal”, “A Fraction of the Whole” and “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto” are all amongst my favourite books and there’s little to like about any of the characters in these books, but in “The Goon Squad” it seemed to matter much more. For me, the problem was that because of the length of time spent with each character (usually fairly brief) and because the novel centres around musicians and the like (who can be compared to an array of real life examples constantly written about in our press) a lot of the characters seemed a bit like caricatures, and because of this they became difficult to believe in.

Saying that, I think this novel has a fantastic appeal and I can think of a lot of people who would really love it. I certainly do not doubt that it is a really exciting contender for some big UK prizes this year… I’ll be really interested to see how it does.

No. 14 “A Riot of Goldfish” by Kanoko Okamoto (Hesperus 2010)

Call me shallow but I decided to read this pair of novellas simply because I loved the beautiful cover! Ashamedly this is my first venture into the world of Japanese fiction (despite having a boyfriend who reads almost exclusively Japanese authors) and I was really impressed by the intricate style, the honesty with which the characters are drawn and how very contemporary these 1930’s stories of class and romance seem.

“A Riot of Goldfish” centres around Mataichi, a young man who inherits his lower-class family’s goldfish business, whose adoration for Masako, the unattainable daughter of a wealthy man, borders on obsession. Masako is such a brilliantly original character – an irresistible concoction of smouldering beauty, and icy cynicism. She is the catalyst that drives Mataichi to succeed in his career in goldfish, despite his own initial lack of enthusiasm for the trade and his knowing that his success at work will not lead to success with Masako. With some financial help from Masako’s father, Mataichi applies himself to the task of breeding a rare and beautiful goldfish, but his concentration is constantly tested by thoughts of his muse.

The protagonist in “The Food Demon” is Besshiro, a poor man who attempts social climbing through his cookery, but to his extreme frustration he is unable to escape society’s sense of hierarchy. In his youth Besshiro finds himself unexpectedly mixing with the elite as he is enlisted to help out at various elegant occasions, he is well-liked at these parties as a shy but clever young man and he becomes ambitious to fit into this prestigious crowd as an equal rather than a helper. But fitting in proves more complex than Besshiro has anticipated, as his attempts to master the high arts leave him looking showy and foolish…

I liked both of these stories an enormous amount, they were clever and at times very funny, I think I will definitely be reading some more Japanese fiction very soon.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Ulysses Support Group Meeting: Lestrygonians & Scylla and Charybdis

An ambitious 'two section' session, which again highlights the range of styles that Joyce foists upon the reader in quick succession. Bloom's chatty, internal monologue as he decides where he will lunch, is full of digressions, unfinished thoughts and memories. By contrast, the section in the library with Stephen Dedalus holding court, is an academic 'showing off' session - which requires quite a lot of pre-reading around the subject of Shakespeare, his life and his plays in order to get all of the references. Whilst most of the group had studied Shakespeare at some level, this section was quite slow going because of the inscrutability of a lot of the discussion. Amazingly though, even this has failed to curb the enthusiasm of the group: 'if we don't understand everything, then isn't that just a really realistic experience of being in the library and eavesdropping...why should we presume to understand every detail of someone else's conversation?' Another aspect of Joyce's writing that is becoming apparent, is that far from being a 'rough draft', Ulysses is full of careful construction and craft - sometimes so clever that you don't realise it. We are all starting to love the emerging character of Bloom and there is even a tiny bit of tension created as Bloom and Dedalus skirt around each other without quite meeting.

Lots of back slapping and congratulations ensued when we realised we have reached the quarter stage and are STILL up for more.

We would also like to take the opportunity to thank Jim Williams for letting us have a copy of his fantastic collage-style Ulysses themed worksheets. The next section we will be reading is 'Wandering Rocks' and the details of the Dublin streets and the establishments that existed at the beginning of the 20th century are going to be invaluable. The next meeting will be in The Salamander, as usual, from 6:45 on the 14th June. Lucinda

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

And the Award for The Independent Bookseller of the Year goes to... Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights! Hooray!

Brimming with excitement and a little bleary-eyed, the Mr B's team have returned from the Book Industry Conference and Bookseller Industry Awards as the proud owners of the Independent Bookseller of the Year Award for 2011!

The very glitzy awards took place at the Park Lane Hilton in London and were hosted by Danny Wallace (of "Yes Man" fame). We, the B Team (minus Lucinda and Ed who were much missed but busy manning the fort) donned our finest black-tie gear in preparation for a night of eating, drinking, a wee bit of crazy dancing and of course lots of celebrating achievements across the industry.

In the embarrassingly short taxi ride from our hotel to the party we had all confessed we thought it was unlikely that we would win , owing to the fantastically high standard of the other Indie nominees in our category many of whom we'd been chatting with during the conference itself. In fact, we had our money resting on the gorgeous Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, Ireland, particularly with all their social media wizardry, so we were chuffed when they were given a Highly Commended certificate, along with our friends at The Mainstreet Trading Company. So imagine our uncontrollable glee when the lovely Joanna Trollope called out our names! A great big thanks goes out to Gardners Books, who sponsored the award and presented us with a very generous cheque, which we have mentally spent several times over already!
The judges generously pointed to our "compelling blend of modern and traditional bookselling" in their commendations as well as the "palpable passion of the staff". That's lovely of them to say but none of that stuff would be true if it wasn't for our wonderful customers - many of whom we know are every bit as book obsessed as us.

The "traditional bookselling" and "palpable passions" bits are a nod to our hopefully excellent customer service as well as to the way that we bombard you all with recommendations and wax on about our favourite books - if you didn't sometimes trust us with those recommendations and enjoy talking books with us then that certainly wouldn't be award-worthy. The "modern bookselling" is a reference to things like our reading spas and reading years and our themed literary evenings and again neither of those would warrant a gong if it weren't that our customers (a) bought or attended them and (b) told us how much they loved them. So thanks for almost 5 years of loyal book indulgence at Mr B's!

You can read a bit more about the awards on this blog -, thanks to which we'll be bigging up the grand work of indie booksellers everywhere on the BBC soon. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Aeolus

Books and food seem to be following me around...this evening's meeting at The Salamander was accompanied by some delicious bar food (thank you Rachel et al!) - and we probably needed the extra sustenance to tackle Joyce's unique presentation of the late morning exploits within the walls of the Freeman's Journal and Evening Telegraph offices. And if you think that was wordy, that's nothing to the language hoops that Joyce puts the reader through in this section. We have transcriptions of spell checks, reverse text as (partly) seen through the eyes of a typesetter, wordplay, limericks and allusions aplenty.

Firstly, we are beginning to realise that Joyce's schemata is only casually based on the form of the Odyssey - this is no simple retelling. Rather, he seems to be picking up on certain symbols or themes and then elaborating. So, our 'winds' in this section, refer to the hot air of the press: letters, adverts, quips, orders, banter and segments of copy fly around and occasionally make sense! Very logical and metaphorical...but then Telemachus (Dadelus) and Odysseus (Bloom) are both present at this early stage (unlike in Homer's original).

The sharp, brief, headline punctuated volleys of dialogue and movement was perceived very differently across the group. Some found it brought back memories of the myriad layers of conversation that flowed around a busy office, whilst others thought that the short and disjointed paragraphs were at times inscrutable, with the result that the reader was never allowed to become truly immersed in the scene. We struggled to identify the supposed 45 styles of rhetoric that Joyce explored during this section, although subconsciously we were probably aware of the different communication techniques employed by each of the staff members, when communicating with peers or superiors. Bloom's 'bit part' functional dialogue was in marked contrast to his extended internal thought processes that the reader was privvy to in the previous section (Hades).

There were several examples in the text where none of us could provide a definitive interpretation and at best we were guessing at whether words and phrases were colloquial stalwarts of early 20th century Dublin or linguistic puzzles. Occasionally, the lack of clarity provided by the notes on word meaning is frustrating, but some of us are happy to accept that they won't understand every reference in detail - and as long as they get some sense of place and atmosphere, don't really mind! This led on to a general discussion about eavesdropping and how you can get the gist of a conversation by continuing to listen, even if you aren't given background info. So, we shall continue to listen (and read) - and any anecdotal examples of the fantastic conversations of strangers can be swapped at the next meeting.

Joyce's treatment of women in this section is similar to that of the milkmaid in 'Telemachus' and we are beginning to see that the female characters are either worshipped at one end of the spectrum or are simply fodder for the men to sharpen their wits on. Are these the only two variations we shall encounter?

Now that we have been presented with three very different voices and styles in the sections that we have covered, the feeling is beginning to emerge that the novelty keeps our interest going - but at the same time, we are relieved that the sections are sufficiently short that we don't tire of the stylistic trickery. Again, the curious mix of non-explanation and myriad tiny details meant we tussled with the question 'Is Joyce is presenting us with a hurriedly written first draft, or a laboured and carefully constructed piece of writing?' My money is on the prospect that we'll be kept guessing throughout the whole book.

So, onward (with enthusiasm). Next meeting is Tuesday 24th May from 6:45pm at The Salamander when we will hopefully have both 'Lestrygonians' and 'Scylla and Charybdis' under our belts - that's about 70 pages in layman's terms!

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 9th May

A remarkably sunny
Easter holiday period
accompanied by the
gorgeous prose of
J.L Carr...what could
possibly be better?
Not much, according
to the Marvellous
Monday group, who
were all beguiled by
A Month in the
Country. We completed our 'idyllic English summer' theme with some scones (made by me, courtesy of Oliver Peyton's utterly reliable British Baking) and an impressive Victoria Sponge (made by Chris, courtesy of his own genius). For such a short novella, everyone seemed able to recall very vivid and memorable scenes and the point was made that the succinctness and punch of a short story was successfully carried into a piece of novella length. Often Carr would throw in a piece of detail or character name which was referred to earlier but perhaps without any significance attached to it, resulting in the reader having to re-read sections in order to understand. In a huge tome this might become taxing, but when you are relishing every line, it is almost a relief that you have an excuse to linger over the text. This careful reading was coupled with an undeniable sense of being left wanting more: always a difficult line for an author to tread, but we were unanimous in thinking that the book was far more enjoyable because such a lot was left either unrequited, hanging, or unexplained. It all contributed to the sense of a retrospective, dream like reminiscence of a perfect time. In fact, it made everyone feel nostalgic for rose-tinted summers of our own past! The book provoked discussion about the catharsis of a simple, rural way of life; the way in which outsiders are perceived; morality in the early 20th Century and the difficulty of WWI veterans to share their feelings and experiences of the front line. Phew! The contrast between the upbeat, healing power of environment was of course in direct contrast to our previous read. Next up is Gemma's choice: Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies - a group of travellers congregate and share stories. At 14o odd pages, it's another short one, but, being Calvino, I suspect that nothing will be straightforward! Next meeting is on 27th June.


Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Ulysses Support Group Update: Meeting 3

In Penny's absence,
I thought I'd pen a
couple of notes
following the latest
meeting of her
Ulysses Support

Well done to the 5 of us that eschewed chocolate chomping for literary chewiness and pitched up at The Salamander to discuss the next instalment of Joyce's epic.

Pages 53 - 111 (of the OUP Edition text, available from Mr B's) were up for discussion. This is the bit where we meet Mr Leopold Bloom for the first time. In a refreshing change of style, gone is the intense, opaque and inaccessible voice of Stephen Dedalus and in comes a Mr Bloom that positively overflows with earthiness - and given that we are treated to the innermost thoughts of a man whilst on the pot and also when attending the funeral of a friend, there is plenty of soil to go around. Everyone agreed that this section was an easy(ish), rewarding read and that the myriad details of an early 20th Century Dublin morning were both fascinating and accessible. The large amount of dialogue between Bloom and his friends during this extract, meant we all hankered for an audio version replete with thick Irish accents, that could enhance our understanding of the rhythm of the language. In terms of understanding the content of the language though, we felt that even sans notes, this section works very well as a realistic 'stream of consciousness'. It can be read in isolation and still be enjoyed for what it is: one man's view of his world at a particular point in time.

Back to the more highbrow reading: what of Joyce's Odyssey mapping? There was much debate as to whether the recumbant Molly Bloom, resplendant in her bedroom setting was Bloom's Penelope or Calypso. We are anxious to find further clues to back one interpretation or the other. In fact, so keen are we to probe further into the potential extra-marital activities of both Mr and Mrs Bloom, we have agreed to meet again on Tuesday 10th May at 6:45pm. And our goal over the next two weeks? To read up to page 143. This means that those of you who were still on Easter hols won't have to wait ages for the next meeting and if you need to catch up, there is only another 30 pages to conquer. Go on, you know you want to! The mood of those around the table at this point is that the book is proving far more enjoyable than we were expecting. Or have I just spoken too soon? Only one way to find out...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books 8 - 11

8. ? by ? (?, 2011)

Book eight demands a rather enigmatic blog as I am not yet able to reveal exactly what it is, so instead, here's a few teasers...

~ It is a psychological novella revolving around a group of four male friends.
~ The writing is astute, descriptive and analytical.
~ I thought it was excellent and I read the whole thing in a day.

9. "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene (Vintage, 2004)

One of Graham Greene's "Catholic novels" - but so much more than just a novel about religion. Greene's plots are so fantastically clever - this novel is told (predominantly) from the perspective of Maurice Bendrix, a writer who has had a love affair with married woman Sarah, which she ends suddenly and without explanation. Baffled and heartbroken Bendrix hires a private detective to follow Sarah, whilst at the same time forming a fragile and uncomfortable friendship with her completely oblivious husband.

The twists and turns in the plot are at times comparable to those of a Shakespearean tragedy and Maurice's occupation allows for some thought-provoking prose about the role of the writer.

This was my second experience of Graham Greene and whilst in all honesty I have to say that I preferred "Brighton Rock" to "The End of the Affair" this novel is another excellent example of Greene's master craftsmanship and sensitive, psychological style.

10. "Eating with the Pilgrims" by Calvin Trillin (Penguin, 2011)
A bit of a cheat for my non-fiction book this time, this little book (a glorious 99 pages) of food essays is part of Penguin's new "Great Food" series. From the author of "Tepper isn't going out", (The final book in my 2010 reading challenge) "Eating with the Pilgrims" is a hilarious collection of writings about New York bagels, spaghetti carbonara, Buffalo chicken wings and an incredible Chinese chef, whose refusal to stay in one restaurant results in an ongoing man-hunt by his hoards of hungry, determined fans.

The two essays revolving around a pair unsightly sea creatures; the catfish and the monkfish, stood out as being particularly funny. Trillin's valliant attempt to get his fussy, salad-hating daughter to sample some catfish is followed by a discussion of butchering a monkfish, an animal that is so horribly unattractive that "it makes the catfish look like Robert Redford!"

Throughout the tone is both warm and sarcastic and the descriptions of some of the New York eateries made me want to hop straight on a plane. In fact, this is perhaps the only level on which this book failed me - as I was desperately trying to avoid reading anything that made me want to go on holiday! Oops!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 18th April 2011

Good weather prevails at
the Marvellous Monday
book group. Sunshine
streamed in through
the windows -completely
at odds with the drizzly,
bleak landscape of
Georges Rodenbach's

This is a story of one man's
obsession with the memory of his dead wife and the novel explores deadness in many forms - including Bruges itself, the 'dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.' For a short novel, there was plenty to discuss and it produced some contrasting opinions.

When Hugues Viane leaves his solitary mourning period to begin a doomed affair with a dancer, it quickly becomes clear that far from moving on, he is simply projecting the memory of his dead wife upon another woman. Was Jane Scott insufficiently defined for us to understand her motivation for remaining in such an oppressive relationship? Or are we only allowed to see her through Viane's eyes: a doll to be dressed in the clothes of his dead wife?

We collectively failed to identify the specific elements of the novel that mark it out as a 'symbolist' work. Even wikipedia was opaque, naming Rodenbach as a key proponent of symbolism without actually defining the movement. One unusual feature of the original text, reproduced in the Dedalus text (Mr B's preferred edition) are the accompanying black and white photographs of Bruges every couple of pages. Moody, deserted and monotonous visions of canal paths and stone certainly contributed to the effect that Rodenbach was aiming for.

The effectiveness of Bruges as a malevolent force produced conflicting views. Everyone agreed that Rodenbach's language was often sublime but there was also a feeling that ultimately it was a less convincing evocation of place than, say Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Given that Chris + Chris had just returned from Bruges (laden with handmade choccies and genuine Belgian beer - yum) we were intrigued to find out whether they recognised Rodenbach's Bruges.

Unsurprisingly, they didn't and had a fabulous time admiring the architecture and eating fantastic food. We discussed possible reasons for the conflict: have our attitudes to preserving pre-20th century buildings changed over time? Was Rodenbach looking at a town whose local economy had died and where medieval buildings were symbols of a lack of dynamism and progress? Has Eurostar significantly revived Bruges' economy? Certainly, Rodenbach doesn't fill his Bruges with Gourmands and cheery travellers - the shadowy locals are pious and restrained.

Overall, despite the bleak nature of the story, the feedback was more positive than negative - and everyone agreed that the protagonist was interesting...and repugnant. There was a desire to tell him in no uncertain terms to pull himself together; his obsessive behaviour was convincing; others noted the hypocrisy of his moral compass.

Next up is the achingly beautiful A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. Thanks to Rachel for choosing an uplifting text: regardless of the forecast, our next meeting on the 9th May will be sunny.

P.S. A reminder that the Ulysses Support Group is meeting in the Salamander Pub on Tuesday 26th April. We're aiming to be up to page 111 by then.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mr B's 2011 Reading Journey Book 6 (New Mexico) - The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes

Moving Westwards again in my Reading Journey I've just hurtled through New Mexico in the hands of one of the queens of American suspense, Dorothy B. Hughes.

Whilst Penguin have recently reissued her better known "In a Lonely Place" and Persephone Books have reissued her late novel "The Expendable Man" (even if Hughes does sit awkwardly alongside some of the Bloomsbury Group types that Persephone are more known for), I went for the 1943 wartime thriller published in all its retro glory by the Femme Fatales imprint of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Wonderful kitsch cover, wonderful that they've kept the novel in print, pity about the plethora of typos.

As you'd expect from this genre, the pace is high from minute one as heroine Julie Guille (and various pseudonyms) is forced to suddenly flee her hiding place in New York City as ghosts from her past threaten to catch up with her. Heading South to Albuquerque by train she goes in search of the whispered about "Blackbirder" who can spirit refugees like her out of America by air if the money is right. But as she travels the repeated coincidental sightings of a limping man in gray start to niggle and soon everyone she claps eyes on are potential threats - whether they're Nazis seeking to capture her and take her back to occupied France under the direction of her traitorous uncle or the police or FBI wanting to question her about the crime-scene she left behind in New York (not to mention the false passport which got her into the country).

By the time she's made it to Santa Fe, Julie is surrounded by a cast of shady characters but it remains unclear exactly who is on whose side which leads to some genuinely surprising twists and turns.

I'm no connoisseur of the pulp and American noir genres to be honest (Ed's the shop expert on that front) so all I can do is compare Hughes to a master like Raymond Chandler or an English equivalent such as Eric Ambler. Chandler beats her hands-down for dialogue and Ambler's writing as a whole is more sophisticated, BUT I must say that Hughes' plot is an absolute corker and this is quality page-turning thriller. The book also gives the reader an interesting insight into a nervous America during World War 2 and I was surprised by how much of the action in the end takes place in New Mexico (I feared a loose New Mexican connection followed by much globetrotting), with Santa Fe and it's Indian inhabitants playing a major part.

Fans of this vintage of thriller should definitely try Hughes out if they haven't already, whether it's this one or Ed's favourite The Expendable Man.

Mr B's 2011 Reading Journey Book 5 (back to Texas again) - The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Reading Larry McMurtry's "Roads" back in January (blogged about previously) left me wanting to read his magnus opus "Lonesome Dove", until I saw quite how Magnus it really is. After dismissing that 1000 page option I decided instead to read "The Last Picture Show" his classic American "coming-of-age" novel set in Thalia, Texas - a fictional version of his real home town Archer City, Texas.

This is a superb novel which paints a vivid picture of life in a small Texan town in the early 1960's from the perspective of three late-teens. Sonny is on the point of graduating high-school and is already sharing an apartment with his best friend Duane. They work hard to pay their rent and to afford to hang out at Sam the Lion's pool hall and to take their girls to the picture show on a Saturday night, after which a number of bases may, or may not, be rounded. But whilst Sonny's girl is underwhelming and unwelcoming Duane is dating the rich, beautiful and exotic Jacy, leaving Sonny and the rest of the town's male population to just dream. Until, in Sonny's case, he begins an altogether more dangerous sexual adventure with a more mature resident of the town.

Sonny and Duane are surprisingly earnest and mature characters in a town full of small-minded busybodies and tough-nuts (there are a couple of seriously alarming scenes of rural misbehaviour hidden in here!) but the manipulative tease Jacy proves to be the main catalyst for heartache in the novel. The bit-players are ALL so well-drawn and stick with you long after you've finished the novel - such as the lazy bully sports teacher Coach Popper, the Fonz-esque pool shark Abilene, cash-strapped late night cafe waitress Genevieve, local legend Sam the Lion and the vulnerable simpleton Bobby with his obsessive street-sweeping.

It's a novel of friendship, community, first experiences of love, sex, adultery and death and is laced with atmosphere and humour. The more I think about it the more I want to wax on about it, but that's tricky without drifting into plot spoilers.

It seems to demand a soundtrack of Carl Perkins, Hank Williams and, most of all Roy Orbison....which makes me want to rent the movie (which starred a young Cybil Shepherd as Jacy and a young Jeff Bridges as Sonny) to find out what the soundtrack actually consists of.

My lovely edition (a U.S. one which was all that was available until early March) is above and the brand new Penguin Modern classic version is here - Penguin again picking a corker of a forgotten American gem to induct into their modern classics stable.

Mr B's 2011 Reading Journey Book 4 (Arkansas) - The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

After my annual Bath Lit Fest and aftermath blogging hiatus I'm back to prove I haven't just stopped reading.

From Texas, oddly, I decided to briefly go North to Arkansas, mainly because, with "True Grit" competing strongly in the Oscars, I really wanted to read Charles Portis' other novel in print in the UK, "The Dog of the South". It's not exactly evocative of Arkansas, but the plot description of a man who, taking his route from the locations on stolen credit card receipts, is about to set off from his home in Arkansas, south across Texas towards the Mexican border in pursuit of his wife and her ex who have run off together in his car.

It sounded like a genuinely funny road trip novel and, to a point, it is. The narrator Ray Midge is a very mellow character who somehow keeps his search for the errant Norma on course despite being joined by increasingly bizarre traveling companions. For the final phase of his trip to Belize (where Norma and her beau - another character who turns out to be seriously unhinged - have apparently ended up) Midge gives a ride to Dr Reo Symes. The latter is definitely the novel's most peculiar character and their conversations on the road South contain some hilarious exchanges. The deluded, borderline bankrupt and opinionated Symes has some particularly ingenious views to share on the subject of reading when defending what he views as the greatest book of all time "With Wings as Eagles" by John Selmer Dix (a self-help manual on the subject of sales).

Midge: "They say Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived"
Symes: "Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse"

"The doctor went on and on. He said all other writing, compared to Dix's works, was just 'foul grunting'"

Comic literary criticism aside though, the book's appeal waned a little, for me at least, as it neared its climax. It stays eccentric and the cast of oddball (and not very likeable) characters keeps expanding, but at the expense of the momentum of the original plot.

And on the vital subject of aesthetics, I like the cover I have (above) but I wish I'd known about this brand new one which has just come in.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Book Seven

7. "Just my Type" by Simon Garfield (Profile Books, 2010)

Not just for font geeks or graphic designers, my second non-fiction read of the year "Just my Type" reveals the fascinating stories behind typefaces. Written with a healthy dose of sarcasm, Garfield describes how type has evolved over time, how our best-known fonts came into being and the role of typefaces in branding and advertising before naming and shaming the world's ugliest fonts.

My favourite aspect of the book is all of the quirky little stories featured, I particularly enjoyed the tale of a hoax, run by The Guardian, which imagined an entire island composed of towns, rivers, beaches, etcetera which shared their names with popular typefaces. After this feature was run in the newspaper, travel agents were apparently inundated with requests to fly to Bodoni airport!

"Just my Type" is witty, interesting and really insightful, and what's more it may have just helped me conquer my fear of non-fiction.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Lucinda's Reading Challenge: Now for the Science Bit...

Obviously, ANYTHING on the
Mr B's science shelf is going to
be a good read, but I have to
say Michael Brooks' 13 Things
That Don't Make Sense
is a
bit of a find. In addition to
(paraphrasing Donald
Rumsfeld) some 'known
unkowns': What's really
out there in our universe?
and What is the elusive
difference between kiving and dead matter? Michael Brooks also covers some intriguing 'unknown unknowns': Does cold fusion exist? Do we have free will? and intriguingly, Homeopathy - does it have any scientific grounding? The chapters are cunningly linked together, so one big question flows seamlessly into the next and occasionally some of the concepts you've just read about are carried over too. This means that you get the chance to apply your new knowledge as you make your way through the book - which allows you the luxury of feeling a teensy bit clever! Mr Brooks is pretty adept at explaining some fairly advanced physics, biology and chemistry to a science novice like myself, but to stop there would make this sound like a useful, but dry, little textbook. What I really loved were the back stories describing how scientists have pursued answers to these questions throughout the centuries. Brooks provides insight into both the personalities and politics involved, describing successes and failures with equal verve and all topped off with a dollop of humour. The human aspect weighs up nicely against all those theorems and hypotheses. I now have a passing interest in the progress of scientific investigations I didn't even know existed! With Brian Cox et al bringing science back into the media spotlight, before long we'll all be talking about string theory and genomes - arm yourself with this little volume, however, and you'll be able to tell your quarks from your eukaryotes with confidence.

Sport next and I've chosen 'Just Sea and Sky' by Ben Pester. This is a decidedly low tech affair: Ben and crewman Peter sail from Plymouth to New Zealand in the 1950s minus any mod cons like electric lights or radios or GPS. I am expecting some hiccups!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 14th March

The weather on
Monday evening
was disappointingly
benign. No rain
lashed against the
(single glazed)
window panes
of Mr B's,the wind
was absent and the
temperature almost
balmy. We were
gathered to discuss
Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping - a travelogue charting the mystical, poetic and remote place names of the Radio 4 institution that is The Shipping Forecast. The book is divided into segments, almost as though Charlie was having to complete his odyssey on his odd weekends off - however - everyone agreed that this meant the book could be dipped into and out of very easily and that the bite size anecdotes were perfect for reading aloud. We felt that we probably learnt more about Charlie himself than the places that he visited (and the fantastical back story of his great grandfather's relationship with the sea is really not to be missed), but as he was such a witty and amiable guide, it didn't seem to matter. There were some genuinely curious historical facts and stories thrown up by his travels, but perhaps the most absorbing bits were the people and communities that he encountered, from the hardy Norwegians on the tiny, North Sea Utsira island to the canoodling mecca that is Plymouth Hoe. It was noted that the journalistic style was occasionally a little too... well, 'blustery' - but overall this is an engaging, informative and funny read. And has it lampooned our romantic ideas of the shipping forecast locations? Not a bit!

Next up, on Monday 18th April is George Rodenbach's Bruges La Morte, first published in 1892 and what looks like a deeply atmospheric study of loss set against the backdrop of a beautiful, decaying city. sweeten the mood, we are promised genuine Belgian chocolates whilst we discuss! Perfect. Copies are now available from the shop. [Lucinda]

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books Five and Six

5. "The Howling Miller" by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate, 2007)

“The Howling Miller” is a book that I’ve recommended to many people (based on Nic’s rave reviews) but one which has actually been sat on my “to read” shelf for an embarrassingly long time. So I finally decided to check out what all the fuss was about and I must say I wasn’t disappointed.

Gunnar is a troubled miller, who moves to a small village where he beautifully renovates a dilapidated mill and entertains with his excellent (if slightly bizarre) animal impressions. But at night the miller’s raucous howling proves too distressing for the villagers who diagnose him as a madman and banish him from their precious oasis. What follows is a witch hunt as Gunnar battles with his desire for his mill and the drop dead gorgeous horticulture expert and his longing for a hassle-free life.

I loved the other-worldly, almost fairy-tale feel to this novel; it’s unexpectedly charming and genuinely moving. I can now recommend it myself with absolute confidence that it's just as brilliant as Mr B promised!

6. "Ms Hempel Chronicles" by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Atlantic, 2011)

With a tagline from Curtis Sittenfeld (author of two of my favourite books “American Wife” and “Prep”) I was pretty excited about this novel following a teacher in her mid-twenties.

Ms. Hempel’s experiences imparting her wisdom upon a class of keen but rebellious teens leads her to reflect on her own coming-of-age story. The narrative flips back and forth between strange and specific recollections of Beatrice’s child self and scenes from the classroom of the grown-up woman.

As a young teacher herself, Ms Hempel’s relationship with her pupils is wonderful combination of endearing and awkward, the girls rarely hesitate to confide in her, and the boys simply adore her. Ms Hempel’s own feelings about her class are slightly muddier and are only confused by her age and occupation, which leave her stranded between the indulgent lack of responsibility enjoyed by the children that she teaches and the adulthood that she knows is beckoning.

I loved the variety of classroom characters depicted, particularly bad boy Jonathan, whom Ms Hempel has a real soft spot for (a rebel without a cause can be so irresistible)! I also think that the teacher herself is a very realistically drawn and interesting character.

However, I found the flippant style of storytelling slightly disorientating, and whilst generally I don’t mind a narrative that jumps around a bit (I loved the abstract style of “The Rehearsal” by Eleanor Catton) in this case I’m not sure that it entirely worked. The main issue for me was that throughout the novel the dynamic was fairly consistent and nicely understated and the violent texture of the plot created a jarring effect, which I don’t really feel complimented the story.

All in all, I wouldn’t say that this book quite lived up to my high expectations but it did have a strong charm aspect, which made me feel very nostalgic for my schooldays…

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Libby's reading year: a quick catch up!

For someone so excited to write my first blog post I realise I have slipped under the radar recently but although I have not been blogging I have been reading as much as ever! This means I have three very different books to fill you in on.

The House by the Thames: and the People Who Lived There by Gillian Tindall

In my last post I promised that after reading The House By the Thames: and the People Who Lived There I would know all there is to know about the history of London. I feel that, although that was a slight oversight, I have definitely learnt a lot about 49 Bankside and that area through the ages.

49 Bankside and the small terrace of modest looking houses sits right up next to the millennium bridge, opposite St Paul's and in the shadow of the huge old power station which houses the Tate Modern. Having walked past those houses many times, I have long been curious about how they managed to survive and what kind of people live inside. The anecdotal history throughout this book is very interesting it explores the Tudor inn which once stood on the site, the boat men who carried passengers across the river to the theatres in Shakespeare's times and also the huge changes on Bankside at the time of the industrial revolution.

Sometimes in the past I have struggled to read non fiction; my love for novels springs from being able to immerse myself in a story and typically I did find some sections of this book more interesting than others. There is no denying that Tindall has done a brilliant job in creating a well written and accessible history and I wish I was as interested in the coal trade chapter as I was in the chapter describing the fire of 1666, but I am afraid that is probably more down to my short attention span than anything else.
I will feel inclined to bring my copy of The House by the Thames next time I am in that part of the city and use it as a sort of travel guide. There are definitely some particular anecdotes I think will stick in my head and others I would like to put in to context by giving Bankside a visit.
So, after my brief spell in the basement of the history section I decided to give myself a break back to fiction. With a novel which is also about a house....(drum roll)..
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

I would like to start by saying that I loved this book. Much more than I thought I would after reading the first chapter, which I had to re-read having read the end. Set in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s this novel revolves around the Landauer house: an innovative piece of modern architecture built for Liesel and Viktor Landauer by the architect Rainer before the gradual decline of their nation into war.
The novel is one about war, betrayal and attraction in a uniquely cold but beautiful setting. The glass house acts as a metaphor throughout the book- to begin with for the growth of the Landaur family and then, as the house passes hands from a laboratory for genetic experiments to a dance studio, for the cultural decline from decadence into war. The wholly believeable characters and the subtle way in which Mawer describes their precarious situation makes this a gripping, thought provoking read. Apparently the house in The Glass Room was based on a real historical landmark in former Czechoslovakia, which makes it even more fasinating for me. This is definitely a book that I would recommend and, although so far I have only read two, the best book I've read all year!

My next choice was made in a slight rush to avoid the prospect of a long train journey with nothing to read. I often find rash decisions are made in these circumstances but in this case I was sweetly surprised. I have gone from glass houses to glass..feet, strangely.

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
As the title suggest this book is about a girl whose feet are gradually turning into glass which she covers up with many layers of thick socks and some big policeman's boots. Set on a strange and in some ways magical small island, which we are led to believe, is somewhere in the very far
The girl with glass feet, Ida, meets Midas a photographer come florist who is still coming to terms with his father's suicide and Henry Fuwa an obsessive science enthusiast who spends most of his day rearing mythical creatures which resemble tiny cows with wings. I really enjoyed both the lyrical fairytale descriptions and the subtle way in which Ida's transformation takes place. Even though the subject is obviously so fantastical the links with medicine and the modern day setting makes the glass feet thing almost matter of fact. The characters, too, are tragic but likable
and complex.
There are some beautiful parts to this novel which I really enjoyed and although I found the end chapters slightly over emotional for my tastes, (I don't want to say to much I case I give away spoilers!) This is an all round magical read once you ignore the cover which I think is way too girly and romantic.

I have already started my next read which, so far, I am very much enjoying. I will save that for
next time!