We all need a little romance…

Indeed we do!  I know there is always a bit of backlash against Valentine’s Day; what of all the single people out there, it’s become so commercial, if we really love someone there shouldn’t need to be one day a year where we express it…blah blah.  But come on, who, hand on heart, doesn’t enjoy a little romance every now and again.  Whether that be a real life romance or experienced vicariously through a good book or film.  I know I do.  I normally get my love story fix over the Christmas period, but hey, anytime will do.  Now, I love a trashy rom-com as much as the next girl, but there is nothing like a beautifully described love story that has you turning the page, willing the protagonists to get together, knowing they are right for each other even if they don’t, gulping at every misjudged word or deed, cursing every mistake they make along their journey to discovering each other and (hopefully) finally being together.

So, if you fancy a little bookish romance in your life, you may like to try one of these:

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
  • Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
  • One Day – David Nicholls
  • Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Brokeback Mountain – Annie Prouix (strictly speaking, a short story, but who cares)
  • Trumpet – Jackie Kay

P.S. The list is not exhaustive!!

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Habibi

I don’t normally read graphic novels, this isn’t a conscious decision, they are not really on my radar.  As I mentioned in a earlier post, I have read a couple, they have tended to be high-profile ones though; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and I enjoyed them both.  I do know there is a lot of snobbery in the comic book world and among comic book lovers so I am not sure what sort of reception Craig Thompson’s newest offering, Habibi, has had among hard-core graphic novel aficionados.  I also don’t know a great deal about him other than it has been some time since he had a book published.  His last book, Blankets, came out some time ago.  I understand that Habibi took him something like 8 years to research, write, draw and perfect.  It is not surprising really, it is a monster of a book running to 672 pages.  But you don’t need to be a comic book geek to appreciate the gorgeousness of this book, the story and the artwork.

At its core, this is a love story, set in an unnamed, timeless desert state.  It focuses on 2 child slaves, Dodola and Zam.  Dodola is sold into marriage by her illiterate parents as a young girl.  She is taught how to read and write by her husband but this is also the beginning of her life in sexual bondage, but he is soon murdered by robbers and Dodola is handed over to slave traders.  While waiting to be sold on she encounters Zam, who is still a baby.  They escape the traders to live together and grow up in a desert hideout.  Dodola teaches Zam to read and write but mostly tells him stories.  They lose each other when Zam reaches puberty and both enter into a period of grim enslavement, she in a sultan’s harem and he with a rag-tag band of eunuchs.  They find each other in later life and try to make some sense of what has happened to them and start to put their horrific past behind them.  The narrative jumps backwards and forwards through their adventures, and tells the story through both their experiences.  At first this was a little confusing, but the lack of linear story telling makes it feel more like a myth or fairy tale.

That is a seriously simplified version of the story.  The real allure of this book is its visual loveliness.  Suffocatingly crowded market scenes, dreamlike giant angels and demons, rivers and deserts overflowing with rubbish and recurring pictorial themes of rain, fumes, liquid, numbers and arabic script.  Some motifs above doorways, on rugs and clothing occur over and over linking scenes, characters and the time periods of the narrative.  Craig Thompson clearly spent a lot of time studying arabic script and his use of it in Habibi allowed me to appreciate its beauty and versatility.

There are some ideological themes apparent in Habibi also.  The stories re-told, mainly by Dodola, serve to demonstrate the shared heritage or Christianity and Islam.  Familiar bible stories and their koran versions sit side by side reminding us of our common story-telling traditions and morality tales.  There are also questions regarding consumerism, over exploitation of natural resources and what we are doing to our planet by allowing ourselves to drown in our own waste.

It is an enormous book, with so much to look at, ponder over and maybe research at a later date.  But first and foremost it is a feast for the eyes.  Even if you are not a fan of graphic novels, you should check it out for its exquisiteness alone.

Habibi – Faber and Faber.  ISBN 978-0571241323

My Bedside Table 2

Back to the bedside table…

The pile of books at the back of the table is made up of the next books to be read or books I dip in and out of as and when I fancy it.

After the recent interest in Birdsong due to the lovely BBC adaptation, one of my bookgroups chose Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks as our next book to read.  I have to confess that I’ve read a few of his and none lives up to Birdsong (although Engleby is brilliant in an unsettling way), so I am looking forward to reading this war romance to see how it measures up.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is also a bookclub book.  Anne Bronte is probably the lesser known of the Bronte sisters, but don’t underestimate her…oh no, this lady packed a punch in her day.  This book caused uproar when it was published, as it concerns a woman, Helen, who leaves her husband because he mentally and physically abuses her and her son.  Such behaviour was unheard of in Anne Bronte’s day, but many women will have suffered like Helen.  It was a shocking novel at the time and was chosen by a fellow bookclubber for that reason, our theme being “books that caused a scandal when published”.  There are so many books that fall under this banner, but goodness, most of us have read them all.  It is refreshing to come across something that isn’t normally found on the classic newspaper lists.  I have to admit that I have cheated a little when it comes to this book, as Woman’s Hour serialised an adaptation just after we chose it and I was captivated from the first installment.  I cannot wait to get stuck into the book.

Susan Hill is a fascinating writer and reviewer.  She is one of those people who seems to know so much about books and writers.  I came across this book, Howards End Is On The Landing, here.  It is a memoir of her reading life.  She wanders the multitude of bookshelves in her house that bend and heave under the sheer weight of the books she owns, some of which she hasn’t read or forgot she even had in her collection.   She decided to spend a year re-reading and discovering books on her shelves rather than buying new ones.  This book is an account of her rediscovering well-loved titles and discussing the merits of one book over another, one author over another.  Her aim to find a definitive 40 titles that she could not bear to live without, but it has to be only 40.  Imagine how hard this would be…the discussion about Shakespeare is particularly amusing.  But there is more to this book than merely Susan talking about her favourite titles.  There are some beautiful anecdotal passages in which she describes her encounters with some literary heavyweights.  These private vignettes add a human angle to the books she writes about and reminds us that writers are just like the rest of us.  The great thing about Susan Hill’s book is that you don’t have to read it in one sitting.  I love just dipping in and out of it.

When I got married a couple of years ago, we themed our tables around the books and writers we loved.  I bought some old books with titles that had something to do with marriage from a lovely local charity bookshop.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the contents, only the titles.  We mixed these up with books by our favourite authors and decorated our tables with them.  The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett was one of them.   I didn’t know anything about Arnold Bennett, and then coincidentally read about him in 2 different places in the same week.  The first was in Susan Hill’s aforementioned book.  She doesn’t say much about him other than he was a prolific writer of novels and diaries.  I then read an article about him in the Guardian and realised that I owned one of his books.  Hence it is now on my bedside table as I intend to pick it up at some point soon.  Strangely enough he also had an omelette named after him after he requested that the chefs at the Savoy make him something special.

I no longer recall why One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on my bedside table.  I finished it a long time ago and absolutely adored it.  I suspect it is there because I want to read it again.  I’m not going to write more than that about Marquez right now as I suspect he may become a regular feature.

The saddest title on my bedside table is the next one; What Can I Do To Help by Deborah Hutton.  This book is on loan from a friend who knows that one of my close friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and when I first found out, I struggled with how I could best be of practical help.  It was really useful at the start, but I think I can return it now as I have realised that, for me to be myself is all my friend needs.  I never really got on with self-help books.

I love getting a quick blast of wit from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.  These poems are so readable and a bit like the Guardian column “What I’m Really Thinking”.  They all have the same mocking tone of a wife, partner or sister of a notable man assessing their achievements and failures.  It’s just hilariously amusing.

The final 2 books are slightly linked.  A bit like the Susan Hill and Carol Ann Duffy books, there are times when nothing but a short story will do.  Raymond Carver is a master in this area and this book is a classic example of how books lead you to other books.  I was reading a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.   In it, he talks about having stolen the idea for his title from the Raymond Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Now, I don’t own that book but we did have Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Mr Fiction Habit couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it.  At about the same time I heard one of Carver’s stories, The Fat Man, read aloud on a podcast I subscribe to…it all led me to the book on my bedside table.  The other collection of short stories, I recently snaffled from the Guardian and I’m sure that some of the stories will lead me to yet more great writers…

My bedside table

How do you open a blog?  It’s difficult to know how to start and what to write about first.  I want this to be the place where I record my general ramblings about the books I read and love.  They are such a huge part of my life.  Therefore where better to start than with the books I am reading at the moment.

So, what does my bedside table say about me?  You wouldn’t know it by looking at the picture, but I have recently culled some books from my bedside table.  So in its current state, what can you tell?

Well, the tissues and paracetamol suggest that I have been unwell recently – this is true.  Two days on the sofa last week, first time in a long time.  I am on the mend but haven’t cleared away the things that kept me going.  The framed drawing of me was made at school for last year’s Mother’s Day by Little FictionHabit 2 (LFH2).  I couldn’t possibly put it anywhere else.  The old copy of the Guardian’s G2 has a crossword in it that I’ve not done yet, so I’m saving it!

Now to the books; they suggest that maybe I am incapable of putting books back on the shelves once I’ve completed them, therefore I must be a slovenly sort.  Maybe they suggest that I over-commit myself when it comes to reading, that I probably never finish what I start, or am indecisive and therefore keep piling more and more onto the table in the hope that something will jump out at me?

The last two points are not really true of me.  I nearly always finish what I start to read.  Mr Fiction Habit says that life is too short to read a book you are not enjoying.  He is right to a certain extent, but I very rarely pick up a book I don’t enjoy in some way.  There have also been times when I have been unconvinced by a book in the early chapters only to be blown away by the end.  I am also generally decisive about what to read next.  This is helped to a certain extent by the fact that I am a member of 3 bookclubs.  My reading matter tends to be chosen for me!  It is in this respect that I am perhaps over-committed!  I do find time to read my own choice of book, but probably not often enough.  I am reluctant to give up any of my bookclubs though, as they are made up of 3 very different groups of friends and I have been introduced to all sorts of writers because of them.

So let me run through the piles of books and attempt to explain why each of the books is on my bedside table.

The top book is the one I am reading at the moment.  Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road.  This is the sort of book that most people read in their late teens or early 20s almost as a set text to growing up.  I never got around to it then, but it was recently chosen by one of my bookclubs under the theme “classic road trip books”.  This book certainly falls under this banner.  I haven’t finished it yet, so I may write about it at some point.  Under that book are 4 books I got for my birthday last week.  Pure by Andrew Miller, the recent winner of the Costa award, is a saga set in pre-revolutionary France.  Having recently read A Tale of Two Cities I am intrigued to read this view of that time period in Paris. The London Train by Tessa Hadley is a story of two lives connected by a train journey.  Unfortunately this isn’t a copy with the lovely original linoprint cover.  Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson will be my first attempt at reading a book by this author.  I have found her fascinating to listen to when I’ve heard her interviewed on the radio and am looking forward to starting this memoir of her childhood.

The last book is the only one of the 4 new books that I have actually finished.  In fact I almost had it done by the end of my birthday.  It is a beautifully illustrated tome called Habibi by Craig Thompson.  This is a graphic novel with the most divine illustration, that you can spend hours looking at a page and still find more to look at.  I have read a couple of graphic novels before; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds being the one I remember most fondly.  I began reading the weekly installments of this story in the Guardian when it was serialised prior to publication, and then received the book one Christmas.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lent it to someone who hasn’t returned it and of course I now don’t recall who the borrower is.

Habibi, however, is in a different league altogether.  In fact I want to witter on about it so much now that I’m likely to hijack this post if I’m not careful.  I will write something about it in a future post.

Let me tell you about the other pile of books another time…

on being addicted to books

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