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Book Club Announcement: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

This month, the lovely Susie from Girl With Her Head In a Book and I read Wuthering Heights together, and both blogged about it as part of a new book club venture.  Thanks so much to everyone who took part!  We have decided on Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace as our second book club choice, and hope to both post our reviews of it at the end of February.

To whet your appetite, I have included the novel’s blurb below:

“Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.”

Please let us know if you plan to join in, and we can’t wait to discuss Alias Grace with you!  You can read Susie’s post, which includes links to other Wuthering Heights reviews here.

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New Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

I have been corresponding with the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head in a Book of late about starting a little online book club.  We have decided that our first ‘trial’ book, as it were, should be one which both of us have very much enjoyed in the past, and one which we were keen to re-read.  We have therefore decided that our inaugural book club choice will be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Susie and I would love as many people to join in with our project as possible.  We have decided upon the first week in January to post our Wuthering Heights reviews, so that we aren’t too bogged down in Christmas things, and to give everyone else a chance to read the novel too.  If you’re planning to join in, please let us know!

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Great Book Club Choices (Part Two)

Following on from last week’s ‘Great Book Club Choices (Part One)’, here are ten more novels which I feel would warrant stimulating and lengthy conversation in a book club environment.

11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
“Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.”

12. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Double “is a surprisingly modern hallucinatory nightmare-foreshadowing Kafka and Sartre-in which a minor official named Goliadkin becomes aware of a mysterious doppelganger, a man who has his name and his face and who gradually and relentlessly begins to displace him with his friends and colleagues.”

13. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
“When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future. With its sensitive depiction of the wronged Tess and powerful criticism of social convention, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels.”

14. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor Paul Emmanuel. Drawing on her own deeply unhappy experiences as a governess in Brussels, Charlotte Bronte’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”

15. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
“In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known. As Isaac navigates the terrors of prison, and his wife feverishly searches for him, his children struggle with the realization that their family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger.”

16. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
“An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. As the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings, a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the very island itself. Written in a clear, unsentimental style, full of brusque humour, and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story.Tove Jansson captured much of her own life and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of her adult novels.”

17. My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young
“A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty.  While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead? Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.”

18. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
“At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive – a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.”

19. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
“Northern Iceland, 1829. A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover. A family forced to take her in. A priest tasked with absolving her. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out: winter is coming, and with it the execution date. Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.”

20. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
“In this delightful, funny and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road. Lucy Hull, a 26-year-old children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favourite patron, 10-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. Lucy, a rebel at heart beneath her librarian’s exterior, stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours, with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embark on an improvised road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets and an inconvenient boyfriend thrown in their path. Along the way, Lucy struggles to make peace with her Russian immigrant father and his fugitive past, and is forced to use his shady connections to escape discovery. But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the strange man on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?”

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Great Book Club Choices (Part One)

Whilst I am sadly no longer part of a book club, I thought I would compile a list of twenty titles which I think would be wonderful choices for book club discussions.  Whilst not everyone will like these novels (from past experience, selecting a novel which everyone enjoys and admires is nigh on impossible), the conversation which can be built around them is sure to be stimulating.  For each book, I have copied the blurb to give you an idea as to the plot and style of each.

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
“The devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray. Only the Master, a man devoted to truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil’s onslaught.”

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
“Ten-year-old Abdullah would do anything for his younger sister. In a life of poverty and struggle, with no mother to care for them, Pari is the only person who brings Abdullah happiness. For her, he will trade his only pair of shoes to give her a feather for her treasured collection. When their father sets off with Pari across the desert to Kabul in search of work, Abdullah is determined not to be separated from her. Neither brother nor sister know what this fateful journey will bring them. And the Mountains Echoed is a deeply moving epic of heartache, hope and, above all, the unbreakable bonds of love.”

3. Restless by William Boyd
“It is 1939. Eva Delectorskaya is a beautiful 28-year-old Russian emigree living in Paris. As war breaks out she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious Englishman, and under his tutelage she learns to become the perfect spy, to mask her emotions and trust no one, including those she loves most. Since the war, Eva has carefully rebuilt her life as a typically English wife and mother. But once a spy, always a spy. Now she must complete one final assignment, and this time Eva can’t do it alone: she needs her daughter’s help.”

4. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna is the heartbreaking story of a man’s search for safety of a man torn between the warm heart of Mexico and the cold embrace of 1950s McCarthyite America. Born in the U.S. and reared in Mexico, Harrison Shepherd is a liability to his social-climbing flapper mother, Salome. Making himself useful in the household of the famed Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, young Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution. A violent upheaval sends him north to a nation newly caught up in World War II. In the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina he remakes himself in America’s hopeful image. But political winds continue to throw him between north and south, in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach – the lacuna – between truth and public presumption. A gripping story of identity, loyalty and the devastating power of accusations to destroy innocent people, The Lacuna is as deep and rich as the New World.”

5. The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
“Can a man be maimed by witchcraft? Can a severed head speak? Based on the most notorious of English witch-trials, this is a tale of magic, superstition, conscience and ruthless murder. It is set in a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined; when, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator fled to a wild and untamed place far from the reach of London law. This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.”

6. Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
“When Joel Knox’s mother dies, he is sent into the exotic unknown of the Deep South to live with a father he has never seen. But once he gets there, everyone is curiously evasive when Joel asks to see his father. Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a brilliant, searching study of homosexuality set in a shimmering landscape of heat, mystery and decadence.”

7. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding. Dorothy Baker’s entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken-at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. As she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has, Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother. First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.”

8. The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
“One morning a librarian finds a reader who has been locked in overnight. She begins to talk to him, a one-way conversation full of sharp insight and quiet outrage. As she rails against snobbish senior colleagues, an ungrateful and ignorant public, the strictures of the Dewey Decimal System and the sinister expansionist conspiracies of the books themselves, two things shine through: her unrequited passion for a researcher named Martin, and an ardent and absolute love for the arts. A delightful divertissement for the discerning bookworm…”

9. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
“First published in Norway in 1890, “probes into the depths of consciousness with frightening and gripping power. Like the works of Dostoyevsky, it marks an extraordinary break with Western literary and humanistic traditions. ”

10. Keepers of the House by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
“Since the eighteenth century the eccentric and flamboyant Beltran family have ruled their desolate Andean valley. Now they are almost extinct. At seventeen, Lydia Sinclair, newly married to Don Diego Beltran, the last of the line, arrives at the vast decaying Hacienda La Bebella. As her husband retreats into himself, Lydia takes refuge in unearthing his ancestors’ tragic history. Benito, the family’s oldest retainer, relates to her tales of splendour and romance, violence and suffering. From these she weaves a rich gothic tapestry in which the fantastic legends of the past are mingled with the present necessity for survival in a harsh, drought-ridden land.”

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Stay tuned for part two!

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Book Club (September 2014): ‘Poems’ by the Bronte Sisters ****

I have read these poems before, but I enjoyed them so much that I was thrilled when April chose them as our September book club read.  I already had a copy of them on my Kindle, and found myself reading them on Easter Sunday whilst in France – a perfect setting for such beautiful writing.

‘Selected Poems’ by the Bronte Sisters

Each one of these poems, without exception, is beautifully written.  I found myself enjoying those which are non-religious far more, but that is merely personal preference.  I love the way in which the sisters often use history as a backdrop to these works, along with a wealth of other themes, which stretch from life, nature, freedom, writing, philosophy and the changing seasons, to running away, grieving and death.

My favourite poems, split up according to the sister who penned them, along with an example of their work, are as follows:

Anne Bronte – ‘The Arbour’, ‘Home’, ‘Memory’, ‘The Consolation’, ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day’ and ‘Views of Life’.

From ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day’ (1842):
“My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.”

Charlotte Bronte – ‘Mementos’, ‘The Wood’, ‘Frances’, ‘The Letter’ and ‘The Teacher’s Monologue’.

From ‘Frances’:
“SHE will not sleep, for fear of dreams,
But, rising, quits her restless bed,
And walks where some beclouded beams
Of moonlight through the hall are shed.

Obedient to the goad of grief,
Her steps, now fast, now lingering slow,
In varying motion seek relief
From the Eumenides of woe.

Wringing her hands, at intervals­
But long as mute as phantom dim­
She glides along the dusky walls,
Under the black oak rafters, grim.”

Emily Bronte – ‘Faith and Despondency’, ‘Song’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘How Clear She Shines’, ‘Sympathy’, ‘Death’, ‘Honour’s Martyr’ and ‘Stanzas’.

From ‘How Clear She Shines’:

“How clear she shines! How quietly
I lie beneath her guardian light;
While heaven and earth are whispering me,
” Tomorrow, wake, but, dream to-night.”
Yes, Fancy, come, my Fairy love!
These throbbing temples softly kiss;
And bend my lonely couch above
And bring me rest, and bring me bliss.”

Y soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
Read more at http://www.poetry-archive.com/b/lines_composed_in_a_wood_on_a_windy_day.html#puiEwmDIddJrwt6V.99
Y soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
Read more at http://www.poetry-archive.com/b/lines_composed_in_a_wood_on_a_windy_day.html#puiEwmDIddJrwt6V.99
Y soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
Read more at http://www.poetry-archive.com/b/lines_composed_in_a_wood_on_a_windy_day.html#puiEwmDIddJrwt6V.99

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Book Club (August 2014): ‘The Poems and Prose Poems’ by Charles Baudelaire ****

Whilst this is our book club read for August, I found myself reading it at the end of March, when I felt like immersing myself into some poetry, and already had a copy to hand.  I have read a few of Baudelaire’s works to date – several of his poems when collected in other anthologies, and La Fanfarlo, which I read during my time at University – and have really enjoyed it all.

Charles Baudelaire

Throughout his Collected Poems and Prose Poems, Baudelaire’s rhymes are rather delightful, and some of the imagery which he crafts is utterly gorgeous.  I love the style which he uses for his poetry; throughout, I was reminded a little of my beloved Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Keats, in terms of the subjects he writes of and the pictures which he builds up in the mind.  His use of history and mythology suits his poetical style well.

As I normally do with poetry books, I am loath to make a list of favourite works within this volume, as I truly did like them all.  I loved the variety of work, and the way in which each and every poem seemed fresh.  Baudelaire’s use of different – and almost conflicting – poetry techniques is most interesting.  Some of the poems are shown in a continuous manner, and others are split into rather slight stanzas.  I adored the way in which he made use of different narrative perspectives, and the many themes which he made light of within his work: nature, death, illness, music, religion, weather, love, courting, poverty and wealth, royalty, the elderly, ageing…  Baudelaire’s poems are so rich that I am sure I will come back to them often in future.

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From ‘A Une Madonne’

I want to build for you, Madonna, my mistress,
An underground altar in the depths of my grief
And carve out in the darkest corner of my heart,
Far from worldly desires and mocking looks,
A niche, all enameled with azure and with gold,
Where you shall stand, amazed Statue;
With my polished Verses as a trellis of pure metal
Studded cunningly with rhymes of crystal,
I shall make for your head an immense Crown,
And from my Jealousy, O mortal Madonna,
I shall know how to cut a cloak in a fashion,
Barbaric, heavy, and stiff, lined with suspicion,
Which, like a sentry-box, will enclose your charms;
Embroidered not with Pearls, but with all of my Tears!
Your Gown will be my Desire, quivering,
Undulant, my Desire which rises and which falls,
Balances on the crests, reposes in the troughs,
And clothes with a kiss your white and rose body.
Of my Self-respect I shall make you Slippers
Of satin which, humbled by your divine feet,
Will imprison them in a gentle embrace,
And assume their form like a faithful mold;

If I can’t, in spite of all my painstaking art,
Carve a Moon of silver for your Pedestal,
I shall put the Serpent which is eating my heart
Under your heels, so that you may trample and mock,
Triumphant queen, fecund in redemptions,
That monster all swollen with hatred and spittle.
You will see my Thoughts like Candles in rows
Before the flower-decked altar of the Queen of Virgins,
Starring with their reflections the azure ceiling,
And watching you always with eyes of fire.
And since my whole being admires and loves you,
All will become Storax, Benzoin, Frankincense, Myrrh,
And ceaselessly toward you, white, snowy pinnacle,
My turbulent spirit will rise like a vapor.

Finally, to complete your role of Mary,
And to mix love with inhumanity,
Infamous pleasure! of the seven deadly sins,
I, torturer full of remorse, shall make seven
Well sharpened Daggers and, like a callous juggler,
Taking your deepest love for a target,
I shall plant them all in your panting Heart,
In your sobbing Heart, in your bleeding Heart!I want to build for you, Madonna, my mistress,
An underground altar in the depths of my grief
And carve out in the darkest corner of my heart,
Far from worldly desires and mocking looks,
A niche, all enameled with azure and with gold,
Where you shall stand, amazed Statue;
With my polished Verses as a trellis of pure metal
Studded cunningly with rhymes of crystal,
I shall make for your head an immense Crown,
And from my Jealousy, O mortal Madonna,
I shall know how to cut a cloak in a fashion,
Barbaric, heavy, and stiff, lined with suspicion,
Which, like a sentry-box, will enclose your charms;
Embroidered not with Pearls, but with all of my Tears!
Your Gown will be my Desire, quivering,
Undulant, my Desire which rises and which falls,
Balances on the crests, reposes in the troughs,
And clothes with a kiss your white and rose body.
Of my Self-respect I shall make you Slippers
Of satin which, humbled by your divine feet,
Will imprison them in a gentle embrace,
And assume their form like a faithful mold;

If I can’t, in spite of all my painstaking art,
Carve a Moon of silver for your Pedestal,
I shall put the Serpent which is eating my heart
Under your heels, so that you may trample and mock,
Triumphant queen, fecund in redemptions,
That monster all swollen with hatred and spittle.
You will see my Thoughts like Candles in rows
Before the flower-decked altar of the Queen of Virgins,
Starring with their reflections the azure ceiling,
And watching you always with eyes of fire.
And since my whole being admires and loves you,
All will become Storax, Benzoin, Frankincense, Myrrh,
And ceaselessly toward you, white, snowy pinnacle,
My turbulent spirit will rise like a vapor.

Finally, to complete your role of Mary,
And to mix love with inhumanity,
Infamous pleasure! of the seven deadly sins,
I, torturer full of remorse, shall make seven
Well sharpened Daggers and, like a callous juggler,
Taking your deepest love for a target,
I shall plant them all in your panting Heart,
In your sobbing Heart, in your bleeding Heart!

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Book Club (July 2014): ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri **

My choice for our July Book Club read was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, a novel which won the Booker Prize in 1991.  I had previously heard of it as a revered work, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it when I began to read.  The spirit world, and how spirits interact with humans on earth, is focused upon throughout, and the narrator of the piece is Azaro, a ‘spirit-child’, who lives in a ghetto in an unnamed African city during British colonial rule.

At the beginning of The Famished Road, the story is engaging – provided, of course, that the reader is able to suspend his or her disbelief.  Magical realism abounds from the first page, and a dreamlike haze is woven within Okri’s words, so that one never quite knows what is real and what is imagined.  He blurs the lines between fiction and reality in quite an odd way. However, the story soon leaves this intrigue behind, and becomes almost cyclical in the violent scenes it presents, the harm which befalls Azaro and his parents, and the way in which they use food – which is unfailingly described as ‘delicious’ – to comfort themselves.  There is no real thread of plot leading from beginning to end; rather, days in Azaro’s life are described one after another, so that the whole becomes incredibly repetitive.  Something about this made the entire novel feel rather off-kilter, rendering it both uneven and inconsistent.  Some of the scenes also made me – a self-confessed squeamish reader – feel rather sick.

The first person narrative perspective did work well on the whole, but there were occasions in which it felt a little flat.  Azaro was often void of emotion at what should have been the most challenging episodes in his life, and he felt two-dimensional in consequence.  I did not grow to like him as a character – something which I think is important in such long novels in which you, as a reader, have to invest a lot of your time.  Perhaps if Azaro had been given a realistic range of emotions, and had handled events in different ways occasionally, my opinion of him would be different.  Some of the imagery and descriptions used were nice, but they did lose their power in their constant repetitions.  Okri’s writing style and the way in which he has presented his story felt to me like a culmination of Salman Rushdie’s and A.S. Byatt’s work in places.  Sadly, neither are authors whom I particularly enjoy.

The sense of place is not overly strong, and I do not feel that Okri has made the best use of the social and historical elements which should have surrounded and overpowered his characters.  It was used as an occasional backdrop rather than an all-consuming and oppressive presence.  Whilst the political context can be quite interesting when viewed from a child’s perspective, this element of the novel was overdone, and lost all of its interest quite quickly.

The ending really let the whole down for me.  Whilst the majority of The Famished Road ranged from okay to relatively good, I found the ending staid, trite and unnecessary.  The literary technique which Okri used in the final paragraph (one which I will not mention so that I do not give away any spoilers) is one which I highly dislike, and which I have been told for years at school and University never to use because it really puts off the general reader.

The Famished Road is certainly different, but it is not stunningly so.  I believe, rather cynically, that it is such a hyped novel merely because it has won a prestigious prize.  There are many works which I have read in past years which are under the radar in terms of prizewinning, but which have completely blown me away with their storyline, prose, ideas and characters.  I shall be focusing upon reading more of these such novels in future.  The Famished Road is not an awful book, but I would have no qualm in terming it mediocre, and I doubt that I shall be seeking out any more of Okri’s books in future unless they come with an incredibly high recommendation.

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Book Club: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis *** (May 2014)

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister.

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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No Book Club Read This Month

Just a quick note to say that there will be no book club read this month.  The Japanese poetry book which April chose for us to read is proving nigh on impossible to get hold of, and I am unable to locate a suitable replacement.  As April is having a break from blogging and is not contactable at present, there is nothing which I feel I can replace it with.  Hopefully things should resume as normal from May onwards!

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Book Club (March 2014): ‘The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired’ by Francine Prose ****

‘The Lives of the Muses’ by Francine Prose

This book was written in the very first to-read notebook which I began rather a few years ago now, and since April and I are both interested in women and their social position throughout history, I thought that it would be a perfect choice to read together.

The blurb of Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired says that it is ‘fascinating and provocative’, and that throughout, the author ‘explores the complex relationships’ which exist between artists and their muses.  Prose has chosen to focus her attentions upon nine women over rather a long historical period, a structure which works incredibly well.  She has also included a broad scope of muses in terms of the fields in which they inspired, ranging from literature to photography, and from music to dance.

Those women which she discusses are as follows, with the artists whom they proved to be inspirational to shown in brackets: Hester Thrale (Samuel Johnson), Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll), Elizabeth Siddal (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Lou Andreas-Salome (Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud), Gala Dali (Salvador Dali), Lee Miller (Man Ray), Charis Weston (Edward Weston), Suzanne Farrell (George Balanchine) and Yoko Ono (John Lennon).

The introduction which Prose has crafted is beautifully written and well set out, and each essay chapter which follows has been nicely constructed.  Prose writes intelligently throughout without excluding the general reader from her audience.  The enormous bibliography at the end of the volume is impressive in its scope, and my to-read list has been added to rather considerably in consequence.

As often happens with such books, I found some of the chapters far more interesting than others in terms of the subjects which Prose presents.  The section of Alice Liddell, for example, was fascinating, as was the section on Lizzie Siddal.  Granted, these were the two muses in the collection who appealed to me the most, as I am already a great fan of the work which each inspired (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and many of the pre-Raphaelite paintings respectively).  Throughout, Prose critiques the work of the artist too, thus enabling herself to studying the male partner (or partners plural, in the case of Lou Andreas-Salome) whom the muses inspired in some detail.

The Lives of the Muses is a far-reaching biography, which, on the whole, does not disappoint.  Audra, a reviewer whom I greatly respect, commented on my book haul post which featured this tome that the book is rather enjoyable, but that it does not quite go far enough at times, and I do agree with this.  Some sections are undoubtedly well crafted, but for some reason, others can feel a little flat or underdeveloped in comparison.  Important details are sometimes skimmed over or saturated within other information, so some flipping back to appropriate pages to make sense of comments or progressions does unavoidably have to occur from time to time.  Regardless, The Lives of the Muses is sure to inspire those who have any interest whatsoever in the subject of musedom, and it is a book which I will certainly recommend.