Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bookstart: Share 20 books in 2012 & Kurt Vonnegut

Location: Anywhere you're near a book!

Joining well-known faces such as Gruffalo author (and Children's Laureate) Julia Donaldson and War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, I've recently made a pledge (and a silly balloon on my Twitter profile) to a great cause: to share 20 books in 2012.

This is part of a Bookstart campaign to get everyone to share books with their families and friends. Bookstart itself is aimed at helping children start reading, but hey, you can share books not just with children. This is what they recommend:

How can you share 20 books?
  • reading picture books with your own children or other members of your family at bedtime or at anytime!
  • reading to a group of children in a school or a library
  • joining a reading group
  • recommending books to your friends
  • posting a book review on a website.
I'm probably just going to do the latter two. In previous entries, I've already shared with you the wonders of The Hunger Games, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Diana Athill's STET, TS Eliot's Four Quartet & Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach... so it's really easy to continue onwards writing reviews about another dozen or so books for the rest of this year. 

So for Book #7, I will talk about Slaughterhouse Five


Author: Kurt Vonnegut

First of all, it is embarrassing to admit that I only read Slaughterhouse Five recently (over Easter holidays). Secondly, I have always thought that Slaughterhouse Five is about a group of children solving mysteries.

Yes, I mixed it up with The Famous Five, haha!

So naturally, I didn't really like it when I started reading, as it defied my expectation: why did the narrative launch immediately into a discussion about the representation of World War 2 (and in particular, the Dresden episode)? Where are the kids? Where's the mystery?

I started to like it by the end of chapter 1. It's very metafictional, with the author going on about how he's going to write about his war experiences authentically and correctly. He's very self-deprecating: 
I've finished my war book now. The next one I wrote is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: [...]
He does indeed give away the last sentence of his book, right in the first chapter. Very Joycean; very biblical.

Anyway, so the 2nd chapter brings us into this fictional account of Billy Pilgrim. That story itself is hard to appreciate, I think because the main character Billy is so difficult to like: he's quite pathetic, bad things happen to him but he doesn't try to change his situation much. He is a Cassandra-like creature, but the things he can foretell sound ridiculous. I really didn't like Billy Pilgrim, but the metafictional aspects of the story are awesome, where the I or me appears in the narrative as the 'author'. That is quite fun and unexpected. And I'm a huge sucker for metafiction.

Another quirky bit in the book is that whenever someone dies, or if someone talks about death (and this happens quite often!), the line 'So it goes' follows right after. This technique doesn't get old, and it's quite a funny yet resigned way of dealing with death.

Overall, the book is worth a read. It is actually ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. In any case, if you must read only one satire on the world war, you should skip this one and pick up Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Catch-22 is quite lengthy, but it's absolutely a laugh-out-loud kind of novel.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

TS Eliot & Ian McEwan

This has been a surprisingly literary weekend. We didn't set out to do anything other than have a relaxing Easter break, perhaps drive around the countryside and to the coast. We stayed in Yeovil, which isn't a spectacular town, but ended up having a nice cup of chai tea and a scrumptious raspberry & chocolate tart at the Pear Tree in the nearby town Sherbone. Someone wrote a review of what to do in Sherbone and recommended the Pear Tree (and also managed to slag off Yeovil, but I don't blame him). 

On the same day, we drove to East Coker, which turned out to be part of TS Eliot's famous poem the Four Quartets. I absolutely love Burnt Norton, the first part of the Four Quartets, so I'm embarrassed to say I didn't recognise the significance of East Coker until I saw his plaque inside the church. My favourite lines from Four Quartets: 
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Isn't it beautiful? I fell in love with this section of the poem at the same time as reading Borges' short stories, and Borges' fiction primarily wrestled with the astounding idea that in art or literature, fiction and non-fiction (truth and lies) are given equal status. Only in literature can you follow the path you did not take, and learn what could have happened. Anyway. 

East Coker turns out to be Eliot's grandfather's home, and the Eliot family has ties to this village for centuries back. TS Eliot was born in the States, but he ended up becoming a British citizen. He lived in London for most of his life: when he visited East Coker though, he decided to have his ashes buried there. Quite poignant. There's a plaque dedicated to him inside the church, with part of his poem inked on it: 
In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.

Title: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

After a lazy lunch today, we took off towards Bridport and Beaminster. We were told the two towns are quite picturesque, and decided to drive down to the coast. Bridport is small, quiet (especially on Easter Sunday), but it has a lovely cultural scene going on there: signs with the latest Bridport Film Festival, lots of used bookstores, cute pubs with book club evenings... We spent a nice afternoon chilling out at Beach & Barnicott, a lovely Grade II listed bar & restaurant. It is very comfortable, except that the ceiling started leaking while we were drinking Green & Blacks hot chocolate and devouring a moist carrot cake. Turns out the kitchen employees were draining their sinks, and yes, the water goes down through the ceiling and onto us (well, almost). Anyway, other than that incident, the pub was very relaxing and we had a nice time compiling a strange list of things we are good at (inspired by this book).

We then drove a few minutes more to West Bay and walked along the beach, which turns out to be next door to Chesil Beach! Chesil Beach, made famous by Ian McEwan's novella. I am the biggest fan of McEwan (at least, almost everything after The Child In Time), so it was really fortunate to accidentally find the setting of one of his stories. It was a bit chilly, but the walk by the beach and the Jurassic cliffs nearby are really astounding and dramatic - you can kind of picture dinosaurs seeing the same cliffs when they once roamed the earth. 

Anyway, I hope you all had a lovely long (and literary) weekend as well!