Sunday, October 31, 2010

bookmark of the week

Just to finish the month with a leather bookmark that puts the Roman rule of Britain in some sort of historical context. A great bookmark from English Heritage.

Friday, October 29, 2010

book review - The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson

"How do you go on living knowing that you will never again - not ever, ever - see the person you have loved? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge? How do you hold yourself together?"

In many respects this is a love story. Not just for women that the main characters have loved and lost but for an idea, a hope, that after the terror of the holocaust the Jews were no longer going to be victims of anti-semitism and the horrors inflicted on them in the past.

But this is also a book asking some pretty weighty questions about what it means to be Jewish. Both sides of the for and against Zionism debate are covered and because of his ability to craft political questions with a great deal of humour Jacobson manages to pull it off.

What does it mean to be a Jew? For Julian Treslove, a failed BBC radio producer, failed father and failed lover it means a lot because his two best friends are Jewish. But as he seems to be intent on embracing Juadism his friends Libor and Sam Finkler are struggling to cope with what it means to be a Jew in the current age.

Things start with the three friends meeting after one of them, Libor, has suffered a recent bereavmenent after a marriage after a long marriage and Finkler has also lost his wife. But one was faithful and the other was not. Both have regrets but find a refuge in being and arguing about what it means to be a Jew. Treslove is a bystander as Sam and Libor argue about the rights and wrongs of Israel and he would have possibly have stayed on the sidelines until one night he is attacked when walking home and his attacker calls him a Jew.

His search for a justification in the attack and a growing envy and obsession with Judaism brings him into a relationship with a Jewish woman who is also setting up a cultural centre. As she finds the centre the target of attacks Treslove immerses himself in discovering the amount of hatred and antisemitism out there.

Just as Libor struggles to live a life alone, Finkler struggles to contemplate his guilt for infidelity and the prospect of growind old alone Treslove cannot cope with what it means to be a Jew.

His failure, which he is set up for at the very start, raises questions not just of understanding between different communities but what impact the amount of hate has one anyone who sits down long enough to compile a list and really think about it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

bookmark of the week

One of the highlights of the month was taking part in the Lego mosaic world record. This bookmark was one of the rewards for helping beat the record and bring a bit of the old Roman decorative magic back to life for half-term.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Finkler Question

There are some moments when this brings a smile to the face but there are some big issues that Jacobson is dealing with here and laughter is a helpful alternative to the full force of the political and religious subjects he tackles.

Three friends, two Jewish and one not, two widowed and one not, spend their time together discussing Israel, Zionism and what it means to be Jewish. It makes the non-Jew among them rather envious and in some senses this is a story of how he starts to become attracted to a religion and way of life just as those around him born into it are falling out of love with it.

But there is also a theme here about friendship and rivalry and it should be interesting to see how that develops and how the relationships change in the second half.

A review will come soon...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Libraries already going without details of the cuts

Although there were some large numbers thrown around by the Chancellor George Osborne in the Comprehensive Spending Review today but not that much detail.

With libraries around me already at risk of closure, thinking specifically of the one in Blackheath and New Cross Gate, it raises the question of what will happen when the details of the cuts finally come out.

Libraries seem to be in the firing line. Seen as places that are underused and as a result prime places to wield the axe what worries me is the impact on the future. Books might be seen as reasonably priced but for those that are unable to buy them or grow up in a world devoid of books the exposure and access to a library was crucial.

Take that away and I really worry about the long term impact on some people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

book review - The Land of Green Plums - Herta Muller

"Edgar nodded and Georg said: Everyone's a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it's being watched."

There is a moment early on in this book when four student friends find that they need to find a place to hide some books. Who can they trust in a state where informers and eyes are watching everywhere? Just hiding a book is something that could potentially land you in hot water so reasonably quickly you are introduced to the author's world of paranoia and fear.

The world where Georg, Kurt, Edgar and the female narrator occupy is one dominated by Ceausescu and it is a regime that is determined to crush individualism and any potential threat to the state. One of the victims of that regime is Lola who chooses to take her own life early on in the story after she comes up against the brutality of the state.

Her example unites four students who share the same views on the system and the same urge to defy it. Not defy it in terms of demonstrations and political actions but defy it in terms of wanting freedom of thought. The story follows them as they leave college and get jobs in factories where they are constantly kept under surveillance. They meet their nemesis in the secret service who is determined to break them and harasses their families as well as getting the few neutral friends to turn on them.

The style is almost diary like with small to long passages coming on top of each other to give you an idea of what it must be like to live in a society where the fear of the state is the first lesson handed down from parent to child and the consequences of free thought are dire.

Even when they escape the country they can never really escape the fear, the sense of surveillance and the threat from a regime that has to squash anyone who disagrees with them. It might not be easy to follow on occasions and the jerky results of it being clipped passages makes it difficult for the narrative to flow sometimes.

But the feeling it provides is one that is going to be more memorable than the story. The sense of paranoia, fear and the limits to where an individual can escape to when the only real escape is in their head is brilliantly delivered.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

bookmark of the week

Horrible Histories are a hit in my house and this fun bookmark sums up their approach to making history fun. One of a couple I picked up and will post the other one later on.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Canal

I should really be doing reviews but conscious that my reading almost slipped last month trying instead to get a few books under the belt. Aim to get a Freedom review up tomorrow. But in the meantime the halfway point has been reached on Lee Rourke's Canal.

Having waited ages to read this it suddenly feels very topical having come joint top in the Guardian's Not the Booker Award.

At the risk of trying to summarize something not yet read completely this does seem to be our own homegrown response to the war on terror. A man who is bored throws in his job and spends everyday sitting on the same bench on the banks of a canal in North London.

That sounds like a difficult setting to maintain a 200 page story but soon the man is joined by a mysterious woman who is attracted by suicide bombers, beaten up and menaced by a local gang of youths and drawn into watching the day to day activities of a man working in the office opposite.

Passages about terrorism, bombing, suicide and the twin towers are interspersed with views on boredom and on the futility of modern life.

"But wouldn't it be nice for us to just get away from here? And do something else for change? Do something other than sit here all day long?"
"There's no need to do anything else."

Enjoying it so far and will post a review on completion...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Land of Green Plums

There is a challenge with this book because of the way it is delivered in bite sized chunks. That makes it a rather jerky read and sometimes difficult to follow.

But the positive far outweigh that criticism and the writing is beautiful and you find yourself sitting reading it with a notepad on the lap taking down page references to remember passages afterwards.

One of the ones that will stick in my mind describes a father and his son heading to the station so the young man can head away from the village to the city and to college:

"My father, said Georg, took the bicycle to the station so that he wouldn't have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back , his empty hands wouldn't remind him he was returning home alone."

The world Muller describes is a horrible one of oppression with then main four characters living in a nightmare where only their thoughts are safe from the state. Living under a dictatorship every sign of non-cooperation brings persecution and some even take the suicide option rather than go on living with the pressure to lie to yourself everyday.

"...other people manage to to clap along with everyone else and make money."

You fear for the narrator and her three friends as the second half of the book unfolds.

A review will be posted soon...

Blog added to Bookswarm Feedreader

Thanks to the folks over at Bookswarm they have kindly added a feed of this blog to their reviewer section on their Feedread service. It's great that they have done that and will add another way for people to get this blog.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Importance of culture reminder on night of Booker prize

It's lucky I left a gap in the reading for this month to have a book spare incase C didn't win the Booker prize. Sure enough that decision turned out to be a wise one as Howard Jacobson won with The Finkler Question.

Watching the coverage of the prize on the BBC I found the comments made by the chair of the judges Sir Andrew Motion were worth listening to and remembering. His passionate defence of culture in a time of cuts is one that hopefully government ministers will have picked up on.

Taking the axe to arts budgets seems to be an easy option in times of hardship but as Motion said the cultural richness of a nation is as important as its economic wealth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sticking with paper and ink

EBooks are all the rage these days with the Amazon Kindle, the Sony eReader and the iPad all trying to jostle to catch the eye of the next generation of readers who are happy to read off electronic paper.

I liked to believe I was potentially one of them. Maybe still could be with the right technology. But the experience of trying to read The Canal on an iPhone screen has proved to be too much for me.

Having got to page 59 I am now printing it out in batches of 50 pages. There is nothing wrong with the book being sent in PDF form and nothing wrong with the book. If anything it's getting better the more you get into it. But the technology has let me down so it's back to paper and ink again for now at least.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark shows one of the mosaic floors at Lullingstone Roman villa. The site is run by English heritage and this is one of the bookmarks that is very specific to the location, a great addition to the collection.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Read it before you grow up

Went to the library this morning and took out the 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up. It's done by the people who did the 1001 things to do before you dies and it has provided some food for thought.

What really interested me was not so much the new books that are coming out or are a few years old, like the follow-ups from the Gruffalo authors for instance, but the classics.

There are some books that I read as a child including the likes of Just William that I had forgotten and have now been inspired to get out again to read to my children. Reading aloud is a great pleasure providing me with as much fun as the boys and having got through three Mr Gum books this year and a couple of Enid Blyton's we are currently reading a Michael Rosen. Next perhaps it might be Just William...

Friday, October 08, 2010

C seems to be the front runner

It was interesting to watch Newsnight Review and get a glimpse into what some of the movers and shakers in the lit world think will win the Booker prize next week.

The broad agreement seemed to be that C was the favorite but it wasn't necessarily a popular choice. John Mullan expressed his dislike of the pr around the book that it was an 'anti-novel' pointing out that if anything it had a chronology and a main character that made it in some respects quite like a traditional novel.

But at the end as the four critics were asked what they thought would win there was a split between McCarthy's C and Damon Galgut's in a Strange room.

You get the feeling that if C doesn't win it's going to be quite a surprise. even the bookies aren't taking anymore bets on it. Waiting to see what happens on the 12 October.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Literary prizes...discuss

The question of whether or not literary prizes are worth while or not is certainly one that I come down on the side of them being a very useful exercise. Okay you can argue until the cows come home about who should be on shortlists etc but the point is that the lists of those considered has the effect of making you try out new authors.

So at this time of year with the Booker prize about to be unveiled and the Nobel prize for Literature unveiled today there is plenty of suggestions for the TBR pile.

At this point I need to admit that although I managed to read the previous winner of the Nobel prize but one Le Clezio I still have to get through a book from last year's winner Herta Muller. The colleague at work who has lent it to me will probably start wondering what has happened to it.

This month as earlier pointed out I plan to leave some space in my reading time for some Mario Vargas Llosa and if need be the winner of the Booker if it turns out not to be McCarthy, which I've managed to read.

These are inspiring times.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Freedom

This book is big in scope and size and the story takes its time to unravel. It also takes a bit of time to get used to the way that Franzen is going to tell his tale.

You are introduced to the Berglund family who are doing rather well and have a marriage and a middle class lifestyle that is the envy of neighbours. But things fall apart and the book starts with those same neighbours getting the chance to gloat over the downfall of the respectable Walter and Patty and their children Jessica and Joey.

So having introduced a family that has gone from being happy and content to one being torn apart as the Joey moves in with the girl literally next door you finish the first part wondering just where that all came from and where they go from there.

And at the point Franzen starts to take you on a journey. It takes you back in time to the childhoods of Patty and then Walter taking you not only back past the point where the book started but then also forward into the future. These shifting view points overlay and develop the story.

In some senses it reminded me of John Updike in the way that Franzen is describing an America that is in crisis as behind closed doors the perfect nuclear families fall apart. But at other times I found myself thinking that if this was adapted for anything the stage would be the ideal place with each character getting their moment under the spotlight before the family unit took the narrative on collectively.

Slow so far but getting through it.

A review will be posted soon...

Monday, October 04, 2010

The month ahead

The month ahead is going to hopefully be a bit more controlled than previous ones with a determination to get through some specific books.

I aim to read the following plus a few more:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Canal by Lee Rourke
The booker winner if not C
Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
Something by the winner of the Nobel Literature prize

Sunday, October 03, 2010

bookmark of the week

My son is studying the Romans at school so the bookmark theme of the month is going to be Romans. here is the first one which is an aid to understanding their numerals.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bath Children's Literature Festival

The only literature festival previously attended was the World Literature Weekend run by the LRB over the last couple of summers. But in order to take my son deeper into the world of Beast Quest, which he loves so much, this weekend we headed to Bath and the Children's Literature Festival.

Aside from regrets about not going to more sessions the Beast Quest event was brilliantly done. On one level it was a reading but it was acted brilliantly and then the children were invited to participate and get up on stage.

The book stall on the way out was packed and the event was a great success. We are already planning to go to next sessions next year.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Month review - September

September turned out to be a weird month with the aim of reading seven books a month almost derailed. A lot happening at work had an impact on my reading time and mood so that filtered through.

Having said that the choice of books perhgaps didn't help either with the Powell not having aged at all well. First Love, Last Rites by McEwan was also a much more difficult read than anticipated.

However the books were read and the year is entering its final stages with me having now read as many books so far this year as I did in the whole of 2009 so that is a real positive.

books read in September

From a View to a Death by Anthony Powell
Kings of the Water by Mark Behr
The Castle of Otranto by Horage Walpole
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason
Vivian and I by Colin Bacon
First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan
C by Tom McCarthy