Friday, 30 July 2010

Book review: "The Corfu Trilogy," by Gerald Durrell

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I really feel like I need a holiday, and it's all Gerald Durrell's fault. A couple of years ago I read "My Family and Other Animals," and I've been meaning to read the next two in the trilogy ever since. I finally got around to borrowing "Birds, Beasts and Relatives" and "Garden of the Gods" from the library.

"Birds, Beasts and Relatives," begins at a Durrell family gathering. "My Family and Other Animals" has already been published, and they are reminiscing about their time in Corfu. They come to the conclusion that Gerry had left out some of the funniest anecdotes - and they are horrified to find that he agrees with them, and was planning to write a further book. They all fear that the incidents of which they are most ashamed will be outed - and they are.

We therefore find ourselves once again immersed in the world of animal-obsessed Gerry, gun-mad Leslie, acne and puppy-fat prone Margo with a tendency towards hysterics and malapropisms, artistic Larry and their slightly absent-minded mother. To the established cast of local characters like the ubiquitous Spiro (in my head, always played by Brian Blessed) and fount of all knowledge, Theodore, Gerald Durrell adds an assortment of motley characters. Highlights are Margo's association with the marvellously named spiritualist Mrs Haddock, whospeaksratherlikethis...Whaaaha, and Mrs Durrell's unwanted, lecherous suitor, Captain Creech.

I think my childhood was happy enough, but I still find myself envious of his. I would return from a day at work and wish that I could have spent my day in the idyllic countryside of Corfu observing the wildlife. I am not sure that I would swap my childhood memories for his, but I would certainly swap a day at work for a day of exploring Corfu. I don't share his insect interests (I'm a bit put off to realise that Corfu has tarantulas and, yes, I watch "QI" so I am well aware that a spider is not actually an insect), but I would certainly envy him a day on the Bootle Bumtrinket - his temperamental boat, built by his brother - observing sea life with his dogs, Roger, Widdle and Puke.

As a caveat, however, there is an acquisitional element to his childhood exploits - taking birds eggs, removing baby animals from their mother - that I feel slightly uncomfortable with in this age of environmental ethics. I am aware though that I do him a disservice by judging his actions against today's standards. This discomfort with Gerry removing animals from their natural habitat is tempered by an awareness that I am judging a child by adult values, as well as my knowledge that he became a great and influential conservationist.

Gerald Durrell is a very natural writer - in all senses of the word - and, as you would expect, his descriptions of wildlife are particularly vivid. His observations of animal (and human) behaviour are rendered in beautiful, intricate detail. His Corfu is a paradise of abundance, fertile olive groves and seas rich with exotic life - and he is possibly their best tourist ambassador. As long as you aren't scared of insects.

Friday, 16 July 2010

On giving up

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

It used to be that I would never give up on a book that I have started. Once I began to read something I felt duty bound to finish it, even if I wasn't enjoying it.

That isn't the case so much any more. Now that I am a bit older and have so many books and so little time, I have decided that I won't force my way through a book if I am not enjoying it. It isn't worth it. I do sometimes make exceptions for something that is 'worthy;'a book that is considered to be a classic, or a book that is highly regarded and intelligent.

There are, however, remnants of my own pride and stubbornness which mean that giving up on a book is something that I don't do lightly. But, I confess, I am considering giving up on "The Strain."

I don't mean to imply that "The Strain" is a bad book. It is an interesting take on the idea of the vampire, which is intelligently written by Guillermo Del Toro and Hulk Hogan (sorry, Chuck Hogan). The opening of the novel is particularly tense, and they effectively create an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. But I am considering giving up on it because it is simply too damn scary for a wimp like me.

I'm not good at horror, and I am especially bad at body horror - and this is quite body horror-y. I am a hypochondriac who is scared by her body's own potential for betrayal: for its potential to act against the dictates of my will, from the big stuff like cancer or heart attack, to the small stuff like not being able to resist the need to fart when in a public place. As someone who imagined she had bubonic plague after learning about it at school and who still can't watch the whole of the "Ice" episode of "The X-Files," "The Strain" is a bit too virus-y/parasite-y for my liking.

"The Strain" is the first book in a trilogy. Is it a good book? It probably is - if it was a bad book, I wouldn't be so freaked out by it. If a book in the horror genre scares you, then surely that makes it a success. Will I finish reading it? I'm not sure yet. Will I read the next two books? Probably not.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Book review: "Horns," by Joe Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

"Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. He was so ill - wet-eyed and weak - he didn't think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry.
But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept. He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours he pissed on his feet."

Joe Hill's book, "Horns," invokes sympathy for the devil. In his recent past Ig Perrish was a happy young man, with a beautiful girlfriend whom he met at a local church. He was due to go to London to start his dream job. Then his girlfriend dies tragically and violently the night before he is due to go away, and Ig is the main suspect. The case against him collapses, but so has his happiness, and Ig is left with a joyless and directionless life.

Then Ig wakes with the titular horns and he discovers a new talent: people start to confess their deepest, darkest desires to him. The emphasis here is on the darkness; these are things that you don't even like to admit to yourself. He also finds that he can influence people to act upon these desires. Ig is disturbed to discover what his family, friends and acquaintances think of him and, even more significantly, he discovers what really happened on the night his girlfriend was killed. He then starts to direct his new talents towards revenge.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and there are similarities in their writing. If you enjoy Stephen King, you will probably enjoy Joe Hill as well. They share a robust and direct writing style; their prose is functional rather than flowery. However, I have been about 100 pages into a Stephen King book before now - 100 very enjoyable pages - before realising that actually nothing much has happened. This is not Joe Hill's style; he is more a mastery of brevity and, as the opening extract demonstrates, he jumps straight into the story.

Joe Hill, like his father, is aware of the darkness within the heart of man. His characters are deeply flawed and often quite unsympathetic. In "Horns," as in "Heart-shaped Box" (his first novel), I found the female characters more likeable than the male. However, this comes with a huge caveat; his female characters, though more sympathetic, are often victims of abuse and/or their own self-hatred.

I'm becoming aware that I am not exactly selling this book, and I'm probably making it sound heavier than it is. Yes, there is a streak of morality in Joe Hill's writing, but there is also a pleasing ambiguity between good and bad, human and demon. He has a nice line in black humour that lurks in the dark shadows of his writing. Particularly in "Heart-shaped Box," which I probably enjoyed even more than "Horns," Joe Hill's imagery provides some startlingly vivid, creepy, details, and his characters are memorable and well-defined.

I also noticed on IMBD that a film of "Heart-shaped Box" is in development. If the film gets made - and I hope it does - I would be interested to see who is cast, and how Hollywood treats Joe Hill's novel.

I read "Heart-shaped Box" because I was intrigued to read a book by Stephen King's son. Now I read his books because they are by Joe Hill.

By the way, Alicia and anyone else who is scared of snakes. "Horns" is probably one you should avoid.

Book review: "Outside of a Dog," by Rick Gekoski

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In the past year or so, I discovered a new book geek pleasure. A friend of mine, let's call her Brenda, gave me a great Christmas present - a book journal (even more meaningful, as I know she used to despair of me wanting books for a present instead of something glamorous and girly). My new pleasure then was to scour the magazine brought out by Waterstones (a large bookselling chain in the UK), and make a note of all the books that sound interesting. "Outside of a Dog," was one of the books that I saw in a Waterstones magazine.

Rick Gekoski's book is a memoir of a life in books (as a lecturer, and then as a rare book dealer). This memoir takes Rick from his early years as a highly sexed adolescent, placing a different spin on Carlyle's dictum that "the best effect of any books is that it excites the reader to self activity," to finding his voice as a writer in later years. Along the way he meets luminaries such as Germaine Greer (a colleague when he was a lecturer), Graham Greene and the widow of Kim Philby. In addition to reading about writers and books, you also find out a great deal about Rick and his family.

This book essentially does what every good book about books should do - makes you want to read more of them. His chapter on T.S. Eliot made me want to reread "The Wasteland," which I initially didn't like as a student but have now come to admire. His chapter of Yeats, however, has done nothing to ameliorate the dislike that I felt for his poetry. As an admirer of Germaine Greer (the most interesting people are passionate, committed and a little bit mad), I found the chapter on her particularly interesting as it places "The Female Eunuch" within the context of its time.

I especially found that I could relate to his discomfort with the rise of literary theory. My inability to process literary theory, and my dislike of some of its tenets, was one reason why I decided that I was not suited to a career in academia. In modern academic life it seems impossible to lecture and not have to teach theory. Theory made my head ache; it seemed to take pleasure in asserting its intellectual superiority by being contrived and - to my limited brainpower - completely impenetrable. It was language as obfuscation, not explanation. In my attitude to literary theory - as in most things - I was terminally unfashionable. Most of all I hated Roland Barthes' idea of the death of the author: that authorial intent is irrelevant, and what matters above all else is the reader's interpretation. This, of course, is a gross simplification that proves my inability to grasp theory. I passionately took against this idea, because for me the intellect that created the work is as fascinating as the text itself. And Rick Gekoski is a very interesting author with whom to spend some time.

There is one element of this book that fascinated me and has made me think again about my reading habits. And this is something that I have still not resolved, and am working through in this blog. Rick Gekoski, on leaving academia, rebelled against its tenets by embarking on a process of "becoming less intelligent." This involved taking out a standing order for 20 thrillers a month; disposable novels that were read at speed and almost instantly forgotten. This has increasingly become my style of reading. The majority of the novels that I have read recently have been to literature what Pot Noodle is to nutrition. I recently tweeted that I hoped my policy of complete declaration of my reading might shame me into reading something more intelligent.

Although I have apparently internalised this snobbery which elevates some writing as literature and denigrates some as trash, a big part of me rebels against this. I used to be saddened by people at university who told me that they were unable to switch off their critical faculties, and just read something trashy for pleasure. Why should this be less valuable than "literature?" Do I think Dan Brown is a great author? Of course not. But do I find his books enjoyable on the basic level of a good story, which sweeps you along so that you want to find out what happens next? Yes, I do. Well, maybe not so much with "The Last Symbol." But, surely, that is what you should ask of a good thriller? A thriller that has "literary value," whatever this is, but fails to produce a compelling narrative, is surely a failure? From the earliest traditions of oral history, humanity is a storytelling species. Telling stories spans all cultures in a way that suggests it is an integral part of the development of our species, just as much as the opposable thumb. Granted oral history, myth and fairy tales are all meant to teach us something about our nature and development, but when did the ability to tell a good story become devalued?

Rick Gekoski's resolution is to be "differently intelligent." I'm not sure yet whether this phrase will help to resolve my reading habits. In being differently intelligent, he sheds his contrived academic voice and finds the more natural voice that he uses for this memoir. It is an effective and engaging voice, and becoming differently intelligent allows him to reclaim the literature which became daunting to him while also reading a modicum of thrillers. For me, I always had the distinctly unacademic belief that the most important thing was whether I enjoyed something. And I enjoyed this book.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Confessions of a bibliophile

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I've already decided that, if and when (hopefully when), I win money on the lottery, I need a house with lots of rooms. One bedroom for my husband and I, a spare room for friends to visit, a couple of extra rooms in case we have kids, a library for me, and a cinema room for Mark. That's not even counting the rooms I have taken for granted, like a nice kitchen, bathroom, dining room etc. I also think we should probably have some space for a bit of gym equipment, or maybe a pool (because reading and watching films are both sedentary pastimes).

But since the lottery isn't working out for me, I have to admit I have a dilemma. I have more space for books than I used to - but still not enough to house my books still at my parents' house. I admit I am quite a materialistic person. I can hardly deny it, having just admitted the desire for enough riches to have a mansion. And my main weakness is books. Even though I have shelves of books I intend to read, I still can't resist a visit to the library to seek out something new.

So a couple of months ago, I decided that I would be more ruthless. When I have read a book which I don't think I will want to reread, I will get rid of it. This backfired when I took 2 books to a second hand bookshop. This was a good start, which I ruined by buying 3 books. Since I made the decision to ruthlessly purge my books, I have probably bought more books than previously because I saw books I wanted to read in second hand shops, or on offer in bookshops.

One solution is my Sony ereader, which Mark got me. And I do love it, don't get me wrong. An ereader is an excellent solution to lack of space for a bibliophile, and I love the download sites for free out of copyright classics (my favourite is Feedbooks - which I will add an internet link to in the gadgets on this blog). I have cleared a bit of space by replacing some of my cheap classics with a downloaded version for the ereader. But, given a choice and unlimited space, you can't beat the feel and look of a traditional book.

I have just realised today though that I have found a solution to the problem of having too little space for my books, as well as having too little time to read them - and it's a solution of which I think Mark and some of his friends will approve. I need a fully functioning TARDIS. Unlimited space and time travel, bargain. And it has a library with a pool in it.