Loitering With Intent [Muriel Spark]

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Many of you will know Muriel Spark from her novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – especially if you’ve ever studied Literature in Scotland. Her work is regarded as sacrosanct north of the border; everyone loves the local girl done good from Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, which happens to be where I was living this time last year. (Two literary superstars. Lucky Bruntsfield!).

Loitering With Intent filled a couple of my afternoons on the Isle of Arran over the new year. A small cottage literally packed to the rafters with nine people, on an island with a total population of just over 5,000, miles from even the nearest hamlet, was a pretty good setting in which to be reading a book about an insular social group. Fleur, our protagonist, takes a job at the ‘Autobiographical Association’, under the direction of its enigmatic founder Sir Quentin Oliver. All of her time outside work is taken up by her writing, chiefly her novel ‘Warrender Chase’. Warrender Chase is named after its main character, but just FYI Warrender Park Road and Warrender Park Crescent are streets very close to where Spark grew up, and I don’t believe for a second that ‘chase’ happening to be another street type was a coincidence.

The Autobiographical Association is populated by various society types who want to pen their scandalous life stories, but then file them away – only to be published when the folk implicated in said scandals are dead and gone. Fleur is thrilled; it provides boundless inspiration for her novel. But the lines between fiction and reality start to get blurry (maybe this is what Robin Thicke was really talking about?), Fleur’s bitchy diary of a novel gets discovered, Sir Quentin turns out to be even more deranged than everyone thought, and things basically get in a mess.

Loitering With Intent brings me on to a topic I surprisingly haven’t yet covered on Brewandbook: unreliable narrators. The plot of this book was alright, the characters were fine, but the way Spark handled the buildup of distrust and dislike for our narrator and protagonist Fleur was outstanding. She contradicts herself at every page turn. She behaves judgmentally and nastily to those around her but describes these events gleefully, either blind to or in denial of the fact that she has behaved contemptibly. It’s clear enough through the fog of her version of events that she is delusional – that we’re not getting the big picture. But, then again, it’s clear enough that the others in the Association are truly pretty unsavoury characters. So it’s pretty hard to piece together the reality of the situation – creating those blurred lines we all hate so much, but must admire as a display of an author’s skill. It complimented perfectly the book’s themes of art imitating life, and vice-versa.

I thought Loitering With Intent was better than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but that’s no glowing praise of the former as I didn’t like the latter much. I will concede, however, that Spark is a great manipulator of her narrators.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Try ‘The Edible Woman’ by Margaret Atwood.

What do you think?

All my Scottish lit students holla at me in the comments.

Artwork Credit: Lady Godiva by Alfred Joseph Woolmer

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers [Xiaolu Guo]

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Green Tea

Hello book fans. Sorry it has been so very long since I touched base. I’ve been settling into a new job, and have basically just been really tired. It’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the truth. The thought of devoting brain power to processing print was just too much.

But I have my little brother (I say little, he’s 16, and taller than me these days…) to thank for my rejuvenated spirit. Thanks, Ben, for my birthday Kindle. It was too generous, and I’m sure you secretly really wanted to spend that money on PS3 games. You see, in April this year I was rushing to get ready for a party, took a step back from the mirror to check my makeup, lost my footing and stomped pretty heavily on my handbag. A sickening crunch reminded me that my Kindle was inside. A Kindle onto which I had just that day downloaded a new book: ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo. The party in question was for my boyfriend’s birthday, so I had keep my chin up and act as though I hadn’t just destroyed one of my most beloved possessions.

So, earlier in December, I gleefully fired up Kindle 2.0, the aforementioned book with a name too long to keep writing out popped up, and it was just what I needed. It’s a short book, and is divided up into epistolary snapshots of life of the main character, Z, over a year or so. Initially I really had no patience for the ‘broken English’ style – Z is a 23 year old Chinese woman living in London and is trying in earnest to learn the language. A little like ‘Flowers for Algernon’, it always rubs me up the wrong way for a while when the narration is done using atypical spelling/syntax for whatever effect – in my mind it gets  a big red ‘DUMB’ stamp and I ready myself to move on to something new. I’m not sure that Guo was on point with the bilingual learning curve, with some inconsistencies in what had been ‘mastered’ at various points. And then there’s the fact that each diary entry starts with a relevant word and its dictionary definition. This, to me, is on a par with ‘Keep Calm and ________’ as a tiresome ‘creative’ choice. But, just as in ‘Algernon’, I came to be extremely fond of Z, and ended up unable to put the book down – even in my most weary winter post-work fugs.

One of my favourite things about the book was the character of the unnamed 40-something Londoner artist who Z falls in love with. He’s pretty much a classic hipster, and through Z’s eyes there is a beautiful ‘peeling of the onion’ – she is drawn to this cool, enigmatic older man, only to discover that under this ‘skin’ lie his neuroses, narcissism, and hollow artistic vision. As she spends more and more time with him, the discrepancy between how he wishes to appear and how he really is becomes greater and greater. He is supposedly an artist, but all of his work seems little more than a very self-aware attempt to craft a bohemian persona. As soon as he slips out of this self-awareness the bullshit goes with it, and he is revealed to be a pretty horrible guy – worse, a pretty dull guy. Guo beautifully make Z this naive character who finds beauty everywhere as she learns a new language, travels around strange places, and adapts to a foreign culture. The interplay between these characters made, for me, one of the most well-written relationships I’ve come across in years.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A corker of a book, currently forming a very brightly coloured brick in my Christmas tree of books.

What do you think?

I’m yet to come across someone in the ‘real world’ who has even heard of this book, let alone read it, so I would love to hear some other opinions. Let me know in the comments!

Until next time x

… BUT WAIT

1) I mentioned that I have a book tree. It’s a true fact, and it looks flipping fantastic:

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2) Special things are happening for brewandbook in 2014. Hint: a brand spanking new YouTube channel and a GoPro camera I got for my birthday may or may not be involved.

3) Given the way things have been, I think it’s safest if I make no promises about getting another post up before Christmas. Instead, I wish you the most jolly of holidays. Let me know which books are on your Christmas list!

Lots of love, and happy holidays.

Chess

The Music of the Primes: [Marcus du Sautoy]

Music of the Primes

MATHS. A topic the mere mention of which brings on a stress headache in many.

I, too, had some feelings about maths before I started ‘Music of the Primes’. Let me tell you about those feelings through connected anecdotes.

A close friend of mine was recently part of a business meeting in which she was the only lady present. When a colleague told a story about his daughter struggling slightly in maths, and how he was planning to help her, my friend’s boss loudly told him that there was no point as girls are no good at maths.

This is obviously enraging.

I struggled with maths too, as I hinted at the top of this post. But the kicker is that I was never bad at it (nor, I should add, did my gender have anything whatsoever to do with it). I was filtered into the top maths class at school along with some seriously bright girls. The pace was extraordinarily fast, and I was out of my depth. I managed to grasp all the necessary concepts and I still achieved an A in the end, but for two years I was trapped in a vicious circle of playing catch-up – leaving myself with ever-shakier foundations upon which to build the next layer of knowledge. I felt stupid next to my classmates and had rock-bottom confidence as a result. (I did ask to be moved down a set but was told not to be “silly”). My mathematically brilliant best friend was my lifeline throughout, and we can now look back and laugh at the way she would, without fail, receive a call from me the night before every test, in floods of tears and hyperventilating.

This educational kerfuffle obviously engendered in me an aversion to maths.

Third and final anecdote. A few weeks ago, my flatmates and I all got really drunk and ended up sleeping in each others’ rooms. It was great fun. I ended up in the room of my flatmate Adam, who is a fire engineer (yeah, it’s awesome). It goes without saying that I had a nosy through his books, and I caught a glimpse of ‘Music of the Primes’ but reflexively skipped on to the next thing. Maths – that’s not for me. But then I had this weird flash of anger with myself. Why should I discount a book about maths? Am I too stupid to understand a pop science book for God’s sake? Of course not! I picked it up, stormed out of the room and set to. Granted, it wasn’t the best choice of hangover reading material, but I was drowning out my headache with determination and empowerment.

And here we are. It took me quite a while considering that I normally tear through books like The Flash in a library, but I finished ‘Music of the Primes’ and I really, genuinely enjoyed it. My instinct is to have a moan about how the author seemed a bit obsessed with providing a mini ‘This Is Your Life’ for every mathematical figure who has ever so much as thought about a prime number. But I can’t really complain, because this was actually a really nice method of turning the study of prime numbers over the years into a narrative, making the whole thing accessible and familiar. And yes, the maths itself was rather dumbed-down, and more difficult concepts were kept bundled up inside the cotton wool of metaphor. If this makes it too basic a book for you, then pat yourself on the back and go pick up something more challenging. But I’ve retained a surprisingly large amount of information, and I genuinely feel a desire to go away and keep reading about primes.

I know that I’m far from alone in the trepidatious feelings I have about maths, in fact I’m well aware that lots and lots of you will have had a much worse time of it than I did at school. I’m not throwing myself a pity party, honestly. The point of this post was to remind you all that books exist as tools to empower you in myriad different ways. There will be books pitched at a level you can understand and appreciate. And once you find something which gives you that bit of knowledge and confidence, you can build from there.

 

Artwork Credit: Via Crucis VIII by Xylor Jane, a Canadian artist whose pieces are guided by the structure of numerical sequences – primes in particular.

POETRY FRIDAY: Shibboleth [Michael Donaghy]

ImageWhen I stumbled across this poem, it took me back to a moment about four years ago when I was sitting in a lecture on Morphology. Our lecturer was (still is!) a fantastically interesting man named Heinz Giegerich – no link this time, but feel free to look him up yourself. He’s a German linguist with a lovely twang to his accent when he speaks English. One day he happened to use the word ‘shibboleth’, and was met with a sea of blank faces – kinda shameful considering that as a Linguistics undergrad you’re supposed to be fairly well clued-up about words (and especially words about words) . Before he told us what it meant he said it slowly a couple more times, paused, then said it some more, taking care to really enunciate each sound in the sibilant shibboleth – a display of incredulity mixed with the simple satisfaction that some words give when formed in the mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if reading this has prompted you to mutter ‘shibboleth’ a few times to yourself, too.

In case you’re as bewildered as we were, a shibboleth is the linguistic poker tell – a word or pronunciation that betrays the speaker in some way to his interlocutor(s). And here is a lovely poem about such things:

Shibboleth

 

One didn’t know the name of Tarzan’s monkey
Another couldn’t strip the cellophane
From a GI’s packet of cigarettes.
By such minutiae were the infiltrators detected
By the second week of battle
We’d become obsessed with trivia.
At a sentry point, at midnight, in the rain,
An ignorance of baseball could be lethal.

 

The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving,
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
‘Maxine, Laverne, Patty.’

 

Happy Poetry Friday everyone, have an awesome weekend.

Until next time! x

More Micheal Donaghy: http://www.poemhunter.com/michael-donaghy/

Artwork credit: ‘War in Heaven (The Green Fall of the Rebel Angels) by Kazuya Akimoto

10 Bookish Facts About Me

10 facts about me

So guys, we’ve been chatting about books since March and I thought maybe it was time for us to get to know each other a little better. So today I’ve put together a sort of FAQ – some of the sorts of things people always ask me when they find out about my book loving ways.

1) What is your favourite book?

‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby. For those who don’t know, it’s a book written by the Editor in Chief of French Elle magazine after suffering a stroke which left him fully paralyzed save for the ability to flicker his left eyelid. By using an alphabet board and flickering the lid when a scribe pointed to the right letter, he wrote a whole book. Not only is this an astounding feat in itself, but the language and structure of the book is beautiful, too.

2) What is your favourite genre?

Historical fiction. Rose Tremain’s book ‘Restoration’ was the one that got me hooked. And I’m a complete sucker for anything to do with the French Revolution in particular.

3) What’s your favourite Roald Dahl book?

A good question to ask almost anyone when you’re talking about books, because I am yet to meet a person who didn’t love at least one of them. It’s an absurdly hard question to answer. I think that ‘Danny, The Champion of the World’ just about pips it for me (that father-son relationship gets me right there), but I will be re-reading the whole canon until I am dead and gone because honestly in my eyes they make up one of the most creative and wonderful bodies of work any author has produced.

n.b. The Vermicious Knids in ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’ are among the scariest of all villains I’ve ever read. If anyone sends in photos of themselves dressed as one for Halloween, I will send you a prize.

3) Do you prefer an exciting plot or character development?

I feel like this is pretty analogous with asking a heterosexual bloke if he is a “leg man” or a “breasts man”. You might get a clear answer out of them, but chances are they’re actually pretty damn keen on both. If you really pushed me, I’d probably come down in the plot camp… but only when that plot is being moved forward by great characters. Argh.

4) Why did you start a book blog?

In a word, unemployment. I was time-rich and money-poor and was spending a crazy amount of time reading – which is saying something considering I wasn’t exactly book-shy before my circumstances changed. I had a surfeit of opinions I wanted to voice about all of these books and felt bad about chewing my friends’ ears off. So I hopped on to the internet and found millions (ok… dozens) of new friends with new ears for me. That came out weirdly.

5) Which other book blogs do you follow?

Lots of very famous ones that I’m sure you’ll die of boredom if I talk about. The Millions, Bookriot and suchlike. Obviously, they’re big for a reason – they’re great. On a smaller scale, I’m a fan of bookcunt (especially her Twitter account)and Dead White Guys (again, great accompanying Twitter account).

6) Have you ever really loved a book which is widely considered to be crap?

Of course I have. People who claim to exclusively read classics and prize-winners (or only classics if you’re chatting to a real winner) are either straight-up lying and have a secret cupboard groaning at the hinges with Jackie Collinses, or must be incredibly vain about their book choices. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I love Janet Evanovich’s ‘Stephanie Plum’ series. She is a badass female bounty hunter and a relatable, Bridget Jones-ey character. What’s not to love?!

7) Flip-reverse that last one – have you ever hated a book which seems to receive nothing but praise?

The Goodreads blurb for Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22′ reads: “It is one of the funniest books ever written, a keystone work in American literature”. Sorry, no. I was also pretty underwhelmed by ’1984′ – but dystopian fiction isn’t usually my bag anyway so that feels a bit unfair. I can objectively see why that one goes over so well.

8) If you could go out drinking with a fictional character, who would you take?

Extremely hard to say. Roberta Muldoon from John Irving’s ‘The World According to Garp’ would probably be lot of fun. Odysseus is obviously a top lad, too, so I’d buy him a pint.

10) Have you ever written a book, or would you like to?

When I was younger I had a set of what are best described as imaginary friends. The difference was, I wouldn’t ever actually imagine them as interacting with my own life. They weren’t grounded in my surroundings or situations and I didn’t play a part- instead I would constantly be dreaming up plots and  conversations with this little cast of characters, all around one central theme and based in one specific place. They grew with me over years and years – I’m talking until I was at least 19 or 20, and became pretty complex individuals. It had always been at the back of my mind that I would write a book about my “friends”, but by the time I actually sat down to write I was completely overwhelmed at how much I wanted to say all at once. If I was ever to go through with it, I think I’d have to pull a J.K. Rowling and get some crazy-detailed notes and diagrams drawn up to help me organise it all!

So now you have a little more of an idea who’s behind all of these mouthy, know-it-all posts. Thanks for the support so far, guys! I love writing brewandbook, and it makes my day every time someone comments, favourites or subscribes to my posts. Speaking of which, I’d love to hear your answers to these questions, so go nuts in the comments! If you write your own blog, why not answer these questions over there and link it below? Sharing is caring!

Until next time! x

She Came to Stay [Simone de Beauvoir]

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Chai, Darjeeling and Assam.

This week’s book is remarkable.

For proof, firstly look to its central theme of apportioning love in a three-person romantic relationship. This is quite a jump from the oft-seen love triangle trope – it’s a whole different ball game in its psychology and the struggle to find peace with your standing in relation to the others involved. If all three individuals feel equally strongly about the two others (unlikely to be the case to begin with), does everybody win? Does everybody lose? Is it better for all three to be somewhat happy than for two to be very happy and one to be miserable? It harks to some of the questions about how to maximise happiness raised by the Greatest Happiness Principle – and in this case Beavoir’s three decide, some might say naively, that all three of them can be very happy and screw you naysayers. I should add, though, that man-in-the-middle Pierre is definitely more keen than his partner Françoise to get a pretty young thing from the country involved. She mainly goes along with it out of love for him – so make of that what you will. I keep spoilers to a minimum around here, but you can probably surmise for yourselves that things do not end well.

The scotch bonnet in the already spicy chilli of ‘She Came to Stay’ is Simone de Beauvoir’s personal romantic circumstance. She spent her life in an open relationship with fellow philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, and ‘She Came to Stay’ is widely acknowledged to be a fictionalised account of Beauvoir and Sartre’s relationship with Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz – in which the character Xavière represents an amalgamation of the sisters.

De Beauvoir has said of her book ‘The Second Sex‘: “The book now plays an activist role but it wasn’t conceived that way”, and I think that it’s important to bear this sentiment in mind when approaching ‘She Came to Stay’, too. I’m not saying that there was no embedded message or meaning to the work; there undoubtedly is. What I mean is that it is too easy – given our knowledge of de Beauvoir’s situation – to link every small detail of the book to her life and treat it as her making a personal comment. Simone De Beauvoir was not a shy woman, and had she wanted to write an autobiographical exposition of her lifestyle I think she would have published an essay. The fact that she chose to write a novel says to me that she wanted to question and explore the themes which were prevalent in her life, to manipulate and play with them and maybe attempt to understand them more deeply as a result.

Many of the questions she raises go unanswered, and we are left with an hangover of ambiguity about culpability and personal freedom, the justifications for jealousy, the legitimacy of violence, the temptations of deliberate indiscretion and the struggle for balance between our experience of ourselves as simultaneously solitary and interwined with others.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

I reckon that you could find a lot of similar themes raised by ‘The Great Gatsby’ if you take its characters at face value and not as an allegory – in other words, when you’re not  preoccupied by chasing the American Dream hur hur hur.

On my own list for further reading is ‘The Second Sex’ by de Beauvoir. If you’ve read it yourself please do let me know what you thought in the comments!

What do you think?

What is your favourite literary love triangle? Please don’t say Bella-Edward-Jacob.

Artwork credit: ‘Men in Her Life’ by Andy Warhol: Silkscreen painting of Elizabeth Taylor at the Epsom Derby with her husband of the time and her husband-to-be.

n.b. See also this fascinating interview.

Judging a book by its cover: 3 instant turn-offs.

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As I was flicking through Twitter this morning, I came across a post by blogger playingbythebook, who admits that she actively disregards pink book covers when picking out new reading material for her young daughters. She interviews author Abie Longstaff, whose book ‘The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty’ couldn’t really get much more ‘girly’, who tries to defend this marketing choice. I must say, I’m still not convinced. I have always stood pretty firmly in the camp of ‘anti-pink’ when it comes to childrens toys/books/clothing. A little here and there is fine; obviously it’s just a colour – and a nice one at that – and there’s no need to banish it from the spectrum completely. But there is just too much of this and this sort of thing still blighting the high-street at the moment (check out @PinkstinksUK on Twitter for examples which can be pretty absurd at times), and I think it is pretty important that parents of both girls AND boys (gender stereotyping is just as harmful both ways) take any opportunity they can to break away from that.

But I haven’t come to brewandbook to continue that exact debate per se. I don’t have kids, and am of an age where I’m starting to consider myself a grown-up (*gulp*), so let’s take a look at some pet-peeves in the world of adult lit:

1) Cartoon Ladies

Sophie Kinsella’s publisher is probably the worst culprit for using ladies drawn with exaggerated long and curvy lines, mid-step and in high-heels, to reflect the contents of her books. But even though she is one of the top-dogs of the chick-lit market, hers are by no means the only ones using this visual trope. Admittedly, I kind of hate most chick-lit anyway* so perhaps I only hate these cartoon ladies because they’ve become symbolic of that.

*The exception being the Janet Evanovich ‘Stephanie Plum’ series, which I love and adore without the slightest niggle of shame.

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2) The Sci-Fi Font

Blocky, angular and often emanating a faint glow, Sci-Fi publishers know what they like when it comes to choosing a title font. Overlay said font on a background that is dark and space-y with too much going on to really know exactly what you’re looking at on first glance, and bob’s your uncle. I like Sci-Fi as a genre, and I think that these cheap-looking covers belie some potentially excellent content.

Image3) The Kooks

To be fair, this category is as much about the cringeworthy titles as it is about the cover design. This quirky, higgledy-piggledy, home-made vibe is all over the flipping show. Presumably everyone in the marketing department at these publishing houses is spending far too long on Pinterest and far too little time thinking up anything unique and representative of a novel’s individuality. En-masse, it’s just such an irritating trend – like shabby-chic furnishing which is obviously composed of entirely brand-new, overpriced purchases. In trying so very hard to be cute – slightly off-the-wall and casual – the irony is that it just ends up coming off as a particularly bland and spiritless design choice.

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Lest you begin to think that I’ll only give a chance to plain orange Penguin Books titles, I feel like the ease with which I will roll my eyes at these sorts of covers is outweighed by how much appreciation I have for those that are done well. My favourite recent find is this cover for ‘The People In The Trees’ by Hanya Yanagihara:

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I will just say that I do have sympathy for self-published or budding new authors whose marketing is not at the top of the priority list at their publishing house. I know that marketing and design teams can’t dedicate the resources needed to create unique and wonderful artwork for every single new book (although I think that’s why the ‘Kooky’ category is particularly annoying – because it is often used for very high-profile authors and has probably taken a lot of time and money). I get that it’s not the author’s fault in any way; judging a book by its cover is the idiom for superficiality at its most negative for a reason.

What do you think?

What are your turn-ons and turn-offs when it comes to book covers? Have you ever purchased a book purely because you were so taken by its cover? Leave me a comment and/or show me a picture of some of the best and worst of the bunch!

Until next time! x

Spotlight: How books can open your mind [Lisa Bu for TED]

A little while ago I told you all of my misadventures with Guy Browning’s book ‘Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade‘. The tl;dr version is that I regularly used to swap books with a boy I really fancied – he was a bit of a book snob – and it turns out a compilation of weekly comedy Guardian columns is *not* the equal of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka by the Shore’. Our exchanges terminated there. Incidentally, the Guardian actually reported today that Murakami is the favourite to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature (although sadly Guy Browning didn’t pen that particular article).

Where am I going with this? Well it happens that I recently got my hands on another of these compilation books by Browning: ‘Never Push When It Says Pull’. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, there was one sentence that sat awkwardly with me. When talking about ‘How to Read Books’, Browning says:

Someone reading a book is likely to be living a far more interesting life on the page than in reality. Interestingly, one of the things you don’t find characters in books doing is sitting down and reading a book for a couple of hours.

Of course this is said with tongue securely in-cheek; Browning has constructed his livelihood around the written word. But it still got me thinking about the traditional stereotype of the boring book nerd, so often juxtaposed with the cool and adventurous wild-child who wouldn’t be caught dead in, near, on, around or adjacent to a library. But books don’t have to be this “parallel universe” (again, Browning’s words). Books exist to enrich the rest of your life – to fill up your head with the knowledge and ideas which translate into actions or new outlooks, approaches and inspirations to go out there and DO the things you’ve read about. And in this TED talk, Lisa Bu explains a similar sentiment beautifully. I’m sure that if you’re reading this, I’m preaching to the choir. But if you haven’t already seen it, then by the same token I’m sure this talk will make you smile as much as it did me.

What do you think?

Not a strictly bookish question, but do you guys have a favourite (or a handful of them!) TED talk? There are so many on YouTube that I haven’t come anywhere close to having seen them all, and I’d be delighted to know which have resonated with you guys so that I can check them out myself.  I like to think we’re likeminded folks around here.

Until next time! x

 

 

POETRY FRIDAY: Postscript [In memory of Seamus Heaney]

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A sad Poetry Friday, today, with the news of the death of Nobel laureate and generally incredibly highly-esteemed Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Lots of you, like me, will have first encountered Heaney’s poetry in the AQA Anthology for English Literature at GCSE and A-Level. And, like so many other names I discovered in this way (Chinua Achebe and Carol-Ann Duffy, here’s looking at you), I always passed over their work in my non-academic poetic pursuits because their names felt too familiar; they had a comfortable, classroom-friendly vibe about them which was a big turn-off. How foolish. Heaney’s poems are simply beautiful, and you can see why he was gilded with so many awards and titles. Here I’ve reproduced for you a very poignant example, given its title. If you don’t get a lump in your throat, you’re a stronger soul than I.

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

With condolences to Seamus’ family and friends, until next time x

More Heaney: http://www.poemhunter.com/seamus-heaney-3/

Artwork: Photograph of the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. Providence unknown, so please let me know if you know who the photographer is!

p.s. My boyfriend and his friends are away in Ireland this week, and this poem makes me seriously consider hopping on the next plane out of Edinburgh to join them. Dan – I hope you’re having a glorious time.

 

Lost Illusions [Honoré de Balzac]

Lost Illusions

Like some sort of mash-up of Aeschylus and Gossip Girl, ‘Lost Illusions’ is a tragedy of Ancient Greek proportions in which the levels of subterfuge, deception and double-agency would have the scriptwriting staff at the CW drooling. Sadly my French isn’t quite up to tackling 700 page 19th Century novels, and it’s always tricky when you’re appraising style in a translated book to know how much to attribute to the author and how much credit/blame lies with the translator – Herbert J. Hunt in this case (whose name I can’t read without thinking of ‘Lolita’. I’m sorry.) What’s striking about the edition I read (Penguin Classics 1971) was that for the great majority of the time I felt as though I was reading something contemporary. Suffice to say, I think Mr. Hunt did a stand-up job of preserving Balzac’s characters, themes and tone while translating the French into something readable and relevant to the late 20th Century and beyond.

Balzac exaggerates the characteristics of the members of his French troupe to caricature levels. The first character we’re introduced to is Monsieur Séchard: an old miser straight out of Aristophanes – the innocent, hard-working old man claiming to have his son’s best interests at heart while extorting and hoarding every Franc he can. His son, David Séchard, and David’s wife Eve are nothing short of saints – trodden on and punished relentlessly for nothing but generosity and hard work. In the protagonist Lucien we find two extremes; he vacillates between sympathetic underdog and being the most hateful, selfish and generally infuriating son of a bitch. Publishers and journalists are more or less all snakes in the grass, who come together with those in High Society circles to play the collective antagonist. And then, right at the end when all hope seems lost, we’re introduced to this random priest guy – the Canon of Toledo, who is Balzac’s deus ex machina.

What sounds like it could have been an old timey pantomime is set in a world so richly and delicately painted, with such a compelling plot, that I finished the book knowing I had read a masterpiece – and that’s the first time I have ever felt that way; it really moved me. Balzac’s ability to work profundity into both comic and tragic scenes really gets you thinking about politics, philosophy, social inequality… the list goes on. But the true mark of genius is that all of this is couched in a really enjoyable novel.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Try reading ‘Dyskolos’ (‘The Misanthrope’) by Menander. His protagonist Knemon was in my head at any time old Monsieur Séchard was on the scene.

What do you think?

What are your favourite epics – either classic or contemporary? Let me know in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for new books to add to my ‘To-Read’ list!

Until next time x