Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Book Seer...

I just tried The Book Seer, a neat little tool that recommends a book for you to read, based on what you've been reading.

I like the styling on it - a distinguished, whiskered gentleman appears on your screen - complete with a speech bubble, saying something along the lines of 'Salutations. I've just finished...... by......What should I read next?' You fill in your details and the Book Seer makes its recommendations.

I put in Wide Sargasso Sea, and among others, it came up with Jane Eyre, (which I was going to read next anyway) Things Fall Apart, Foe, Midnight's Children & Heart of Darkness - I've read all of them, which I thought was quite impressive!

I'll definitely have to give it a try next time I can't think of what to read next.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

I picked up Jean Ryhs's Wide Sargasso Sea again reaently (I'm going through a rereading phase at the moment) and I got think about how although each time I've read it, I've thought about Jane Eyre, I've never read them in succession.
So I'm going to do it now. It's going to be an odd experience, and a bit like a weird kind of time travel - Rhys wrote her book long after Bronte, but chronologically, it pre-empts Jane Eyre as it writes back in time to it. Also, like most people, I read Wide Sargasso Sea as an adult, long after I first read Jane Eyre - which my grandmother bought it for me and I loved when I was younger. Rhys's novel was also one of the first texts to bring home the concept of the postcolonial to me - perhaps because it made me completely rethink a text that I thought I knew so well. Why had I never thought about 'the madwoman in the attic' before? It's unsettling to have your literary map upset like that, and I suppose I'm wondering if rereading the two texts in succession will do it again.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

I heart Ian McEwan

I heart Ian McEwan....I haven't read one of his book for such a long time, and On Chesil Beach brought it all flooding back to me.

He's a controversial author, but I can forget about all that when I open one of his books. I'm completely won over by the devastating subtlety of his writing.

In On Chesil Beach he unfolds a whole relationship through the filter of the couple's wedding night. It's a slim volume, but he captures the tension, all the insecurities, anticipation and longing in that pivotal moment in their lives:

'And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.'

Friday, 12 June 2009

The book that changed reading for me....

I read an article a while ago in some woman's magazine or other (I hate buying them by the way - it makes me feel so shallow, but I like looking at pictures of beautiful clothes I can't afford and would never wear. So there.) with 'celebrities' describing the books that changed their lives. the only example I can remember was Pamela Anderson said that Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own changed her life because it made her feel intelligent and reminded her that she was capable and could be independent.

I don't think I can honestly say that I've read a book that has changed my life, which shocked me when I first thought about it. I've read some books that have had a profound effect on me - reading No Logo when I was 16 definitely had an impact on me, Sunday at the Pool in Kigali was so powerful it made me physically sick and there's a poetry anthology that I don't go many places without. I can't honestly say that there's anything I've read that has really affected the course of my life in a major way - there's plenty of things that have had a subtle and culminative effect on me.

There's one book that definitely changed reading for me though - Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I read this when I was doing my A-Levels and I'd never read anything like it before, and I also read it in a different way to how I'd ever read anything else. I thought about the meaning behind the storyline, I was amazed at how Atwood played with words and built layer on layer of meaning in the text and I was also able to look at it as a comment on the time that I lived in, where in the immediate wake of September 11th, the world was becoming increasingly divided. I can pinpoint the exact point in the text where I saw for the first time what the written word could do - Offred is playing an illicit game of Scrabble that would cost her her life if she was discovered, she says:

'I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling in voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.'

I'm still tempted to suck a Scrabble tile every time I play.

Annie John - Jamaica Kincaid

I went back and re-read an old favourite recently - Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and as I was reading it, I remembered a seminar at university where we discussed it.
My class (which was all female - as most of my seminar groups tended to be) were asked what we thought of the book - and after suffering that agonising 'I'm not going to be the first one to speak in case what I say isn't the same as what everyone else thinks' silence that typified the first two and half years of my degree, I rolled my eyes and spoke up. I said that I loved the book, because I thought it was really accurate portrayal of how teenage girls interact with their mothers.
Cue a sharp intake of breath, no doubt from the girls who think that their mum is their best friend, share clothes and go shopping with them and have never exchanged a cross word - what I said was an aberration to them, because, to put it bluntly, Annie John really seems to hate her mother.
It's fair to say that while I love my mum and have a huge amount of respect for her now, our relationship throughout my teenage years was a bit like a pitched battle - I was awkward, angry and for the most part, really unhappy, from the age of 11 to about 18 - I can't even imagine how awful living with me must have been.
I read Annie John after I had left home and moved away from my family (as Annie herself does at the end of the book) and I could look back on my own teenage years as I read about Annie's. I recognised how Jamaica Kincaid describes the way the relationship between mothers and daughters changes when you suddenly stop being a child and start having an identity of your own - one that could well disappoint your parents. In Annie I see the same conflict between wanting to please my Mum and realising that I couldn't change who I was and feeling angry that she couldn't accept my personality.
It's hard to write about teenagers without it sounding ridiculous (just look at all the comments
this article about The Catcher in the Rye sparked - and all the people saying that they couldn't stand the book because of all the self-pity and angst) and I think I love Annie John so much because it avoids that trap, and because I can read it, remember my teenage years and take them a bit seriously, rather than squirm in embarrassment.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Experiments with Google Squared

I've been playing around with Google Squared today, the new offering from Google Labs which they describe like this - 'Google Squared takes a category and creates a starter 'square' of information, automatically fetching and organizing facts from across the web.

I thought I'd share my findings with you - I thought they were kind of interesting and pretty funny in places.

So, let's start simple - I'll enter 'books'....

OK 1984, Naked Lunch, Ulysses not bad....buItalict Little Black Sambo? Jesus Christ Google! That's appalling.

And what about the director and cast categories - nonsense! Sometimes a book is just a book, not a film too...

Next, I'll try 'great books'....

Absolutely amazing - we've got Homer...accompanied by an image of Lenny, Homer's friend from the Simpsons, but not Homer himself. Fantastic.

And why do we have all those Greeks and one solitary Roman? Surely there's been a great author since the year 180?

Next, an issue dear to my heart, 'Salman Rushdie'...

Now here's where I think Google Square starts to come into its own - the list is pretty standard, nothing I don't know and haven't read before, except for the last entry 'In Good Faith' an essay which I've never even heard of before. I gues what's its really intended for is compiling statistics and making comparisons, but I think that using it against the grain could potentially be interesting too...