Cambridge Book Club – Norwegian Wood

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This has been a very long time coming.

Norwegian Wood was recommended as a book club read about ten months ago, but our group fell into absolutely chaos not long after and we haven’t met since. Such is life in a university city, you can never pin people down. Today (what better day than World Book Day?) I officially give up hope that our book club will ever meet again, or discuss the novel, which, by the way, would have made for an incredible topic of conversation. So I throw the rope to you, fellow book clubbers, go out, buy Norwegian Wood, and get reading.

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

Music can carry memories, of a time, a place or a feeling. ‘Norwegian Wood’, the melancholy Beatles song, has this effect on Toru Watanabe, who, as he hears the first sad notes, is swept back almost twenty years, to his time spent studying in Tokyo.  A time filled with confusion and rebellion, student life in the late 1960s was rife with protests, social unrest, and nationwide movements against the establishment. For Wanatabe life is just as tumultuous – filled with strange encounters, casual sex, meaningless friendships, and an undying commitment towards a gentle but troubled girl from his childhood. Life is confusing, but monotonous, until an impulsive young woman, with wide-open eyes and an attitude to match, streams into Wanatabe’s life, and he finds himself forced to make a choice, the future, or the past.

I fell completely in love with this book and, I can safely say having explored some more of his work, with Murikami himself. I know one or two members of the club didn’t feel quite the same as I did, but as we foolishly kept our discussions to a minimum, choosing to save our thoughts for the meeting which never occurred, I was unable to discuss it at length with anyone. So, if any of you have read the book and want to discuss it, in the comment sections or via email, I would be more than happy.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to think about, or to discuss with your own book clubs:

What were your feelings towards the main characters, Wanatabe, Naoko and Midori – how do they differ?
What is the relevance of the song ‘Norwegian Wood’? Does this relate to more than just a song?
Wanatabe often draws on his love of the book The Great Gatsby , why do you think this is?
How do you interpret Wantabe’s friendship with Nagasawa?
How, if at all, do you think the sexual encounter between Wanatabe and Naoko influence Naoko’s mental state?
Why do you think Wanatabe makes his final choice? Does he, in fact, make a choice at all?
How do you interpet the novel’s ending? What is happening to Wanatabe during this final exchange?
The book begins looking back, and never returns to the original tense, why do you think this is?
What do you think Wantabes ‘current’ situation is? Where did he end up?
Norwegian Wood is considered to be the most autobiographical of all Murikami’s books – what elements do you think speak of autobiographical moments?

 

 

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

“If you have a sister and she dies, do you stop saying you have one? Or are you always a sister, even when the other half of the equation is gone?” ― Jodi Picoult

the-lovely-bones-9781447275206I had wanted to read this book for so long. I would often find myself seeking it out in bookshops just after it was released, picking it up and stroking the cover, reading the blurb on the back for the umpteenth time

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighbourhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer.

But I never bought it.

I have obsessed over the idea of this book for the best part of a decade – a story told by the spirit of a murdered girl, however macabre it may sound, is right up my street. I am fascinated by anything to do with the paranormal and spirituality. I wanted to get to know Susie Salmon better; I wanted to read her story.

So when my good friend Kate over at The Little Crocodile bought me the book last month for my birthday I was over the moon!

The Lovely Bones is a haunting tale told by the spirit of murdered school girl Susie Salmon. Looking down from her heaven Susie observes her family and friends. She watches the devastation and destruction that her murder causes, rippling through her small town, and shaking the community to its very core. Susie watches her family as they struggle to comprehend life without her, leaving the porch light on well after they know she is no longer coming home. As time goes on, and Susie watches her siblings and friends grow older, she learns that she must let go of her anger to allow those left behind to heal.

This book is not for the faint hearted. I become much more emotionally invested in a book than I ever have in film or TV and this one really got to me. I’ve had unsettlingly emotional episodes with books in the past; I grieved for Sirius black after reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Anybody out there? by Marian Keyes threw me into the depths of despair for a good few weeks. This one was different though. Sebold’s writing gave me nightmares, and at some points I doubted whether I would actually be able to finish it.

That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book – I did. It was everything I hoped for, and a little more. The effect that this book had on me speaks of the power of Sebold’s words – I was upset by Susie’s death, horrified by the circumstances and devastated by the effect that this had on the family. But more than this, I was distressed by Susie’s position in all this, as an outsider looking in on the effect that her death had in her community. She was intercepted by her neighbour on the way home from school that cold winter’s day in 1973; she never made it home. Susie’s story is incredibly moving in that it details her spirit’s journey, still attempting to find her way home after so many years; she may be in heaven, but her true place will always be on Earth.

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Sebold has taken a story about a murdered school girl and completely turned it around, presenting an intricate analysis into grief and resolution. Fans of crime fiction may be put off to know that there is no secret as to who the killer is, you know him from the start, and if you begin the book hoping for a revelation in which Susie’s killer is brought to justice you will likely feel disappointed. But approach Sebold’s work with an open mind and you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Lovely Bones is beautifully written and hauntingly captivating and will leave you quietly contemplating Susie long after you have finished her story. It is difficult to say who I would recommend the book to – so I will simply say that if you feel intrigued by my review, then give it a go.

Has anyone else read this book? I’d love to hear from you to find out what you thought. Drop me a line or comment below.

To Kill a Mockingbird ten-day (re)read challenge

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” – Atticus Finch

Penguin Random House have today launched a ten-day social media campaign to get people to (re)read To Kill a Mockingbird, ahead of the release of Harper Lee’s highly-anticipated second novel Go Set a Watchman.

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The ten-day challenge, which will run from 21–31 May, is described as a ‘a read-along for readers old and new, (re)discovering and discussing the book together to a loose ten day plan.’

‘We’ll together be reading this brilliant piece of work by Harper Lee in preparation for Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, out on the 14th July.’

You can keep up with what’s going on by following the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr sites that have been set up for Go Set a Watchman.

‘During this time we’ll be releasing lots of Mockingbird material, like family tree infographics, story guides and our favourite quotes,’ A Random House spokesperson has said. ‘We’ll also be making a call-out for everyone to share photos of their well-loved copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and hosting competitions to win copies of Go Set A Watchman to be sent out to lucky recipients as soon as the book is published in July.’

I don’t own a well-loved copy, although I did buy a copy of the new edition a couple of months back in anticipation of the release of Go Set a Watchman. I’m just so keen that I jumped ahead of the game!

Haven’t got a copy yet? Click here to solve that problem.

Go Set a Watchman, which sees Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird return to Maycomb as an adult, will be released on 14th July.

****GIVEAWAY****

In keeping with the spirit of the campaign I’ve decided to give you a chance to win a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. So if you want to take part in the challenge, but don’t have a copy of the book here’s your chance to get one. Just comment on this post by Sunday 24th May to be in with a chance of winning. The winner will be selected at random.

Good luck!

I’m having another … Wordless Wednesday

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“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C. S. Lewis

Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

“All I know is that when I whisper to dirt, my conversations are less than meaningful.” ― Maggie Stiefvater

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I was drawn to Middle Eastern literature after reviewing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed the book so much that I had to see what else there was on offer. Also, and this may seem a bit naïve on my part, I have really enjoyed other translated texts I have read, in particular French translations, and the work of Haruki Murakami – so I was interested to see how an Arabic translation would read.

I chose this book in particular because I was intrigued by the synopsis in the publisher’s catalogue:

Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank.

Sex, drink and drugs – it seemed like it could be interesting, so I requested a copy.

For me the book got off to a good start, you know I am a sucker for a rich description, and I was drawn into el-Gazzar’s initial portrayal of Giza square:

Behind us, Giza square is a raucous pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to overflowing with bodies, objects, and goods of every conceivable kind. The square is a giant, twisted oblong bathed in the evening lights shining from the buildings and tall towers scattered about the corners of its celebrated streets: Murad, University, el-Sanadeeli, Saad Zaghloul, Salah Salim.

This wasn’t the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, but it really appealed to me. This scene does not paint Giza Square in a particularly romantic of light, or spread the square out in front of the eyes of the reader to scrutinise in the smallest details, there is no description of the buildings themselves, or the eyes of the people encased within the square. Instead it is described in its entirety as a teeming cess pool of activity filled with bodies crawling over one another, likes rats in a ship’s hold.

Unfortunately, after my initial delight at the author’s descriptions, it all went downhill.

I first got the inclination I wasn’t going to like the book when al-Gazzar introduced Simone, the beautiful, fair-skinned street walker. Any liking I had had for the author’s description of Giza went out of the window with his crude analysis of Simone. Her breasts are, ‘round and large as pomegranates’, she is chewing a ‘large piece of bubble gum in her small mouth’ which she rolls around with her ‘red tongue, popping it like a child.’ – These description are nothing like as evoking as those previously used. They are almost childlike, and then, as if to prove my point, he rounds off his description by summing up her face as ‘innocent and attractive’ – one of the vaguest statements I have ever read.

The introduction of Simone seems like a good time to bring in the sexual aspect of the book, I say ‘aspect’ but really there is little in the book which is not sexualised to the highest degree possible. I don’t mind overly sexual books, but this one is nothing short of obscene and downright ludicrous. I was most perturbed by the protagonist’s sudden interruption of his friend in the midst of doing the dirty with the fair Simone:

Impetuous and crafty, I galloped towards them like a donkey in heat, grabbed her breasts hard with both hands, plastered myself against her from behind, and plunged it between her white buttocks.
I lifted her thighs from the floor and put her into a kneeling position so that she looked like a coddled white bitch quietly standing there, and then I spread her legs apart till her buttocks clenched and quivered.
With schooled professionalism, she raised her backside into the air and displayed her two red passages.’

I didn’t just dislike this description; it made me cringe to think that anyone would ever describe sex, however primitive, in this way.  The idea of someone raising their backside up with ‘schooled professionalism’ is completely perplexing, even more so is the fact that she displayed her ‘two red passages’ – I’ve never heard the female anatomy described in this way before, and I don’t think anyone should ever use it again.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a too-long succession of sex scenes, perverted streams of consciousness, and other randomly sexualised scenarios. The most ridiculous of which is a lengthy tale about a young girl possessed by a demon who made her overly sexual in every way shape and form:

Her family lived in constant fear that her breasts would burst forth in the faces of the passersby, that she might on some occasion reach down to her drawers, rip them to pieces, and throw them in people’s faces.

Yes, her family lived in fear that ‘her breasts would burst forth in the faces of passersby’. I’ll leave that at that, I don’t feel as though I need to explain why I found this ridiculous and unnecessarily perverse. By all means be in fear of the fact that she may disgrace the family, but not that her breasts will ‘burst forth’, no one lives in fear of that.

I felt at one point close to the end, when the three day-drink and drug binge which gave birth to two hundred pages of perverted stream of consciousness and overly self-pitying reflection was over, that the protagonist may have been about to redeem himself. After his wife had spent three nights devotedly feeding him warm milk while he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, I thought that perhaps he would see this as an opportunity to make things right with her, to start again, from fresh, but I was to be disappointed.  Instead, after eating the food his wife prepared for him he went out again to smoke and feel sorry for himself some more.

One the whole, I found the book to be, not only perverted and grotesque, but completely self-obsessed and self-pitying. The protagonist was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever come across. I was so relieved to have finished the book, after committing far too much of my time to struggling through each and every page.

With this as my first experience of an Arabic translation I have to say that I do not think it works well in English at all. Perhaps it reads much better in its native language, but I found it to be difficult and ugly to read. There was no beauty used to the language; it was harsh, and awkward. The whole experience has put me off of the idea of reading Arabic literature, if not for good, then for a while at least. Perhaps I will try again with something a little less controversial, but for now I feel happy to be ending this chapter of my reading life.

I was sent a copy of Private Pleasures by the publisher in exchange for a review.

World Book Night – Amazon freebie!

In celebration of World Book Night I have teamed up with author N Caraway to offer you all the chance to read his novels for free on your kindles.

World Book Night is an annual celebration of reading and books that takes place in the UK on 23 April. Across the country volunteers give out hundreds of thousands pre-chosen books in their communities to share their love of reading with people who don’t own books or are unable to read regularly.

This years book list has some cracking reads on it – check out the World Book Night website for more information, and to locate participating venues.

And for those of your who can’t participate in any of tonight’s events head on over to Amazon, or Amazon UK, and grab yourself a free ebook to sink your teeth into instead.

Click on the book covers to get yourself a copy.

The Manneken Pis

maneA lonely old man is living out the last days of his life in Brussels, a city that alternates between small-town non-entity and extreme surrealist quirkiness, symbolised by the famous statue of a small boy urinating. Increasingly confused by the effects of a heart attack, he tries to find meaning in one last rational act of kindness before he dies.

Set in the capital of a rapidly ageing Europe, the second novel by N Caraway is a tragicomic study of solitude and growing old that also provides a surprising new take on the theme of the classic Frank Capra movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

The Humanitarian

51W+tDMNtgLAfter decades of civil war a peace deal is in the offing for the ravaged land of South Sudan, where the United Nations and a plethora of non-government organisations have come together to deliver emergency aid to the thousands of displaced and homeless people scattered in camps and villages across the vast wilderness of swamps and scrubland.

Richards is a UN official on his final mission, leading a small team to a remote region. For him it is not just the war which is ending, but the world he has come to inhabit. Detachment and isolation from all that is around him begin to take hold and memories of another life threaten to break through the thin walls he has built around himself. As he sinks deeper into inner darkness a chance meeting with a young priest seems to offer the hope of a way back to belief in humanity and meaning, but the road is rough.

Payday splurge! Bookish treats to get me though April

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” ― Oscar Wilde

It’s the end of the month, which means it’s finally time to treat myself after a few penniless weeks. Check out my haul!

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester

the-hourglass-factory-9781471139307_hr1912 and London is in turmoil…

The suffragette movement is reaching fever pitch but for broke Fleet Street tomboy Frankie George, just getting by in the cut-throat world of newspapers is hard enough. Sent to interview trapeze artist Ebony Diamond, Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly laced acrobat and follows her across London to a Mayfair corset shop that hides more than one dark secret.

Then Ebony Diamond mysteriously disappears in the middle of a performance, and Frankie is drawn into a world of tricks, society columnists, corset fetishists, suffragettes and circus freaks. How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory?

From the newsrooms of Fleet Street to the drawing rooms of high society, the missing Ebony Diamond leads Frankie to the trail of a murderous villain with a plot more deadly than anyone could have imagined…

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The-Book-Thief-cover1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

It’s a small story, about:
a girl
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.

The House at the End of Hope Street – Menna Van Praag

9780143124948_p0_v1_s260x420When Alba Ashby, the youngest Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, suffers the Worst Event of Her Life, she finds herself at the door of 11 Hope Street. There, a beautiful older woman named Peggy invites Alba to stay on the house’s unusual conditions: she’ll have ninety-nine nights, and no more, to turn her life around.

Once inside, Alba discovers that 11 Hope Street is no ordinary house. Past residents include Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie, who all stayed there at hopeless times in their lives and who still hang around – quite literally – in talking portraits on the walls. With their help Alba begins to piece her life back together and embarks on a journey that may save her life.

Ladder of Years – Anne Tyler

{D611CA94-A3E1-4F0E-AA1C-260F3312C980}Img400Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is last seen strolling down the Delaware shore, wearing nothing more than a bathing suit and carrying a beach tote with five hundred dollars tucked inside.

To her husband and three almost-grown children, she has vanished without trace or reason. But for Delia, who feels like a tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges, “walking away from it all” is not a premeditated act, but an impulse that will lead her into a new, exciting, and unimagined life…

Did you treat yourself to any literary goodies this payday?