Monday, November 24, 2014

Memoirs: My family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

When naturalist Gerald Durrell was ten years old, his family left England to live on the Greek island of Corfu for five years. My Family and Other Animals is a rollicking account of those years as told from the point of view of young Gerald. Durrell prefaces his memoir by telling us that 'it was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages.'

The book is divided into three parts, each taking place in one of the different homes the Durrells inhabited during their stay on Corfu: 'the strawberry-pink villa'. 'the daffodil-yellow villa' and a 'snow-white villa'. It contains a wonderful cast of characters, starting with Gerald's genial widowed mother and older siblings Margo, Leslie and Larry (acclaimed novelist Lawrence Durrell). Other friends and local identities include the irrepressible Spiro, Dr. Theodore Stephanides (a mentor to the budding young zoologist), and Gerald's eccentric English tutor called George.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Modern fiction: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. It is one of the most powerfully evocative novels about slavery and its unthinkable legacy ever written. It is based on a true story of a black slave woman, Margaret Garner, who escaped from a Kentucky plantation with her husband Robert and sought refuge in Ohio. Recaptured, she killed her baby to save it from the slavery that she had escaped.

Toni Morrison
In the novel, Sethe is a passionately devoted mother and as an act of supreme love and sacrifice she tries to kill her children to prevent them becoming slaves. She succeeds only in killing her two-year-old daughter and since she cannot afford to write 'Dearly Beloved' on the gravestone, the child is known as Beloved. Sethe now lives with her teenage daughter Denver and the house is haunted and rocked by the rage of the dead baby. The hauntings are only alleviated by the occasional appearance of Paul D, a man so ravaged by his slave past that he keeps his feelings in a tobacco tin. One day a teenage girl turns up. Is she Beloved incarnate? She knows the song that only Sethe and Denver share. Sethe is obsessed with assuaging her guilt and the opportunity to love Beloved.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday is today

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in the village of Thornton, West Riding, Yorkshire. Her father, Patrick Brontë, was the son of a respectable Irish farmer in County Down, Ireland. As the eldest son in a large family, Patrick normally would have found his life's work in managing the farm he was to inherit; instead, he first became a school teacher and a tutor and, having attracted the attention of a local patron, acquired training in the classics and was admitted to St. John's College at Cambridge in 1802. He graduated in 1806 and was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1807. In addition to writing the sermons he regularly delivered, Patrick Brontë was also a minor poet, publishing his first book of verse, Cottage Poems, in 1811. His rise from modest beginnings can be attributed largely to his considerable talent, hard work, and steady ambition—qualities his daughter Charlotte clearly inherited.

Charlotte Brontë's earliest experience with school life could not have made teaching seem an attractive career. As Juliet Barker notes in The Brontës (1994), the record of her abilities in the school register hardly suggests that her potential was noticed: "Reads tolerably—Writes indifferently—Ciphers [arithmetic] a little and works [sews] neatly. Knows nothing of Grammar, Geography, History or Accomplishments [such as music, drawing, French]." Since the assessment of every other student is essentially the same, the register tells little about Charlotte but certainly reveals that Cowan Bridge was unlikely to recognize individual talent, much less foster it. The evaluation concludes with a telling comment: "Altogether clever for her age but knows nothing systematically."

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez died aged 87

Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel laureate and author of the bestselling novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, died at home in Mexico City on Thursday, age 87. Widely considered the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century, García Márquez’s literary celebrity spawned comparisons to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

His flamboyant and melancholy works, including Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera and Autumn of the Patriarch, outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible. One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in 1967, sold more than 50 million copies in more than 25 languages.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Wikimedia Commons)
When he accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1982, García Márquez, described Latin America as a “source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune.

“Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Memoirs: My Left Foot by Christy Brown

Published when the author was only 22 years old, My Left Foot is the story of an extraordinary person. Christy Brown was an imaginative, sensitive soul trapped in a body twisted and crippled by cerebral palsy. Barely able to talk, at the age of five he picked up a piece of chalk with his left foot, the only part of the body with any flexibility, and thus began to communicate.

Brown has the Irish gift of storytelling, and writes simply and lirically about his life. At times, when he tells of his feelings of loneliness, entrapment and suffocation, it is heartbreakingly painful. But through painting and writing - with his left foot - he is able to express his pent-up feelings and experience moments of transcendence. One of the most moving scenes is of the candlelight procession at Lourdes, which Brown describes as 'the most beautiful moment of my life'.
The book is not without humour, however. particularly funny are the author's descriptions of his large brood of siblings, who take him on adventures through working-class Dublin in a battered little go-cart named Henry.

Throughout his autobiography, Brown acknowledges the friends and guides who have helped him along the way: social worker Katriona Delahunt, doctor and writer Robert Collis, teacher M. Guthrie, and especially his mother, who from the time he was born, vehemently denied that he was mentally defective and refused to let him be placed in an institution.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Poetry: Nightrunning by Tiffany Atkinson


Tiffany Atkinson
So much cold
even the moon can't swallow it
or the harbour in its fishy dark. You
balance your breath like a bowl of dry
ice. It's all a mistake, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the heart spins hard on its string
is an animal watching. It scratches
at night, perhaps a beak or a tusk,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.
So much rain
even the deepest hill can't filter it
or the river with its open gills. You
carry your heart like a full dish of blood.
It's all such a blessing, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the lungs stretch their intricate wings
is an animal watching. It wriggles
at night and shows its belly or its tender scales,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.

From "So Many Moving Parts" 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Science fiction: Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade by kurt Vonnegut

Using his own experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, Vonnegut's deeply satirical 1969 novel explores the human condition through the medium of science fiction. The protagonist, Billy Piper, is 'unstuck in time', and never knows which part of his life is going to experience next. In 1967, he is kidnapped by aliens, the Tralfamadorians, and exhibited in a zoo. During his stay on their planet, he learns that they have a completely different concept of time: for them, every moment, whether in the past, present or future, has always existed, always will, and will occur over and over again.

They are able to revisit any part of their lives at will, and so to them an individual's death does not matter as they are still alive in the past. One of the most important events in Piper's life was witnessing the Allied carpet-and-fire bombing of Dresden (which killed 130,000 civilians and flattened 90 per cent of the city) and the descriptions of that horror bring home in gripping fashion Vonnegut's eloquent anti-war message.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Writers attack 'overrated' Anglo-American literature at Jaipur festival

Xiaolu Guo
American literature is "massively overrated", the award-winning author and film-maker Xiaolu Guo told the Jaipur literature festival – and fellow panellist and US novelist Jonathan Franzen – this weekend.
A session on the global novel in Jaipur on Saturday saw the Chinese/British writer Guo, one of Granta's best of young British novelists who has also been shortlisted for the Orange prize, attack the way "our reading habit has totally been transformed by the mainstream"."Our reading habit has been stolen and changed" said Guo. "For example I think Asian literature is much less narrative … but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American … Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it's so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Modern fiction: Wildlife by Richard Ford

This is Richard Ford's  fourth novel, written in 1990. He is perhaps better known for Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer Prize and Penn prizes. Ford is often compared to Faulkner or Hemingway in that he holds a mirror up to American society and we see reflected in it and lives of the characters he creates, both the universal human condition and that of America's ordinary people.

 Wildlife is characterized by clear, tight, poetic, if a somewhat distant, narrative style. This reflects the overarching theme of the futility and sterility of unfulfilled lives.

The story is set in 1960, and is told in the first person, by Joe Brinson, a young man living with his parents. Like many of Ford's creations, he is caught at the moment of transience, having recently moved to Great Falls and not having made many friends. His father Jerry has recently lost his job, and becomes a fire fighter. He is sent off to fight a raging forest fire. In the few days he is gone, Joe's mother has an affair. The natural disaster serves as metaphor, too, for the explosive passions that the family must share.
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