Station Eleven ~ Emily St John Mandel

 

This was a book I took to Brighton in the summer. Borrowed from the library after a recommendation from Sarah (read her enchanting blog here).

I’m so glad I chose this to read as it was an engrossing journey from start to finish, though it raised many questions. The story-line follows the events as the world’s population is ravaged by an infectious disease leaving only small groups of survivors to weather the subsequent collapse of civilisation.

The focus is less on the cause and details of this apocalypse than the after-effects and new meanings it brings to relationships between people and to their things. Objects we might give little significance to in our current world, a paperweight perhaps, or a couple of science fiction comics (from which comes the title) take on a whole new value in this irrevocably changed world.

I loved the way the author played with time throughout the novel. It was masterfully done, and I can’t imagine the kind of planning that went into crafting the constant to and fro between the past, present, and future. And also the way a minor character comes to the fore to play a key role at one point in the novel then recedes or disappears again at another point. The most consistently main character is Kirsten. She is a child at the beginning of the novel, acting a small role in a play of Shakespeare’s King Lear. After the apocalypse she joins a travelling group who perform Shakespearean plays and musical entertainment for the small settlements that have evolved out of the dying civilisation.

The author Emily St John Mandel was extremely courageous to attempt such an ambitious tale. It is not a long novel, but it is intricate and daring. At no point did this novel feel like a work of fantasy. This scenario is a real, if very unlikely possibility. Can you imagine a world without electricity or electronic devices; no cars or planes or the vast populations and the complex infrastructures they uphold including the food system, but still knowing what we know? It is horrifying to read about and to imagine, yet there were elements of it that were appealing. Life might not be better, but it is simpler when surviving is all you have to think about.

Inscribed on the front of the caravan in which the travelling group tour from settlement to settlement are the words ‘survival is not sufficient’, a quote from a long forgotten Star Trek episode. What is sufficient? What does make life worth living. What would be worth saving? Despite my sometimes love often hate relationship with technology, computers, the Internet, and mobile phones, like the characters in Station Eleven I know I would miss them. And I know I too would turn to books (I’d be lugging around a suitcase full of ’em), art, poetry, music, dancing and friendship for in these I find meaning in what often feels like a meaningless world.

It was a thought-provoking read and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Best-Loved Poems, A Treasury of Verse by Ana Sampson

“Poetry is personal.The poet tells us about love, grief, faith, doubt, fear or courage as they have felt it, and a receptive reader – sometimes centuries later – discovers that the verses strike a chord, and that scraps of the poem catch in their memory for ever.”

I was lucky to receive an advance copy of this poetry anthology, because of a blog post I wrote on another of Ana Sampson books (the wonders of the Internet!). What a pleasure it was to open the package and see the beautiful and striking cover. A cover which reminds me of those aged books I consider treasure when I find them in a second-hand bookshop. It perfectly reflects the timeless quality of the poems inside.

The poems are divided by theme. Chapters include Love, Relationships, Songs of War, Birds and Beasts, Poems Remembered from Childhood, ‘The Dying of the Light: Elegies and Epitaphs’ and many more.

I enjoyed revisiting old favourites like Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ and especially those which made me smile like ‘Daddy Fell Into the Pond’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Yes, I’ll Marry You My Dear’ by Pam Ayres.  

I also discovered some new ones too, like this tender romantic sonnet by Carol Ann Duffy: 

 

Hour

Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,

bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.

We find an hour together, spend it not on flowers

or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch.

 

For thousands of seconds we kiss; your hair

like treasure on the ground; the Midas light

turning your limbs to gold. Time slows, for here

we are millionaires, backhanding the night

 

so nothing dark will end our shining hour,

no jewel hold a candle to the cuckoo spit

hung from the blade of grass at your ear,

no chandelier or spotlight see you better lit

 

than here. Now. Time hates love, wants love poor,

but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw.

 

This book comes out today, a week before National Poetry Day on the 28th September. I can’t think of a nicer way to celebrate it than putting my feet up and reading some poetry along with a cup of tea to restore my sanity. I’d love to know – what would be your favourite poem to include in a treasury of verse?

Dubliners ~ James Joyce

My ‘Around the world in 80 books’ is taking its leisurely course. This stop is in the city of Dublin, Ireland. A place I’ve long wanted to visit, and the setting for one of my course texts, James Joyce’s Dubliners.

The fifteen short stories close in on the ordinary lives of Irish people in varying stages of their lives in an early twentieth-century city that is being both pulled back by its past and forward by the future. The people are all stuck in some way, held back by their individual and collective histories, their environments and their own personal limitations.

This is my first encounter with Joyce, and having heard that much of his other works are not easy reads, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these short stories. Even though there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout the collection, there is also this sense that things could change at any moment.

Favourite stories include – Eveline, Araby and A Little Cloud. The latter about a man ‘Little Chandler’ who dreams of becoming a poet:

‘The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures — on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens. He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.’

The familiar stereotype of the Irish, who love to drink and to laugh, is here too, but this is portrayed as an escape valve from the claustrophobia of their everyday lives. Chandler goes to a public house to meet an old friend who has long since moved away from Dublin. As he walks to meet his old friend Chandler is filled with the hope and possibility of escape:

‘Every step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own inartistic life. A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old – thirty-two. His temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity. There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy.’

Sadly, the stories do not end on a positive note. Joyce himself found his creative freedom, not in his beloved university city of Dublin, but instead once he had moved away from Ireland. Yet it seems Dublin held a special place in his heart as all his work is set in and around this city. He says:

‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal’.

For me, this goes not only for the city itself, but for the people in it, whose lives I became particularly attached to the more I read Joyce’s beautiful prose.

Trawling Swindon’s Used Bookshops

Used Book Haul

It’s funny that once you have in mind a list of books you want, they then start to appear everywhere. This was the case for me when I had a tutorial in Swindon on Saturday. I had a couple of hours to spare before my class so took a wander around the town. Swindon, I’m sorry to say is one of my least favourite places in the world. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean. Say no more. But it does have a couple of redeeming features – especially the few used bookshops.

I bought eight books that day. Not bad for a couple of hours eyeing dusty bookshelves and getting tilt-neck ache. I was thrilled to find a pristine unread copy of Moby Dick for £1.25, and a vintage penguin Rachel Carson for the same price. De Quincey’s Confessions is a book we are studying next year and I’m looking forward to reading The Tulip – the story of a flower. Goethe’s travel journal will be a welcome addition to my around the world in 80 books list and The End of Absence looks like an interesting topical read.

All in all not bad for a day’s book buying – now its time to get reading. I’ve almost finished Anne of Green Gables, so I’ll write a post about that soon. What are you reading right now?

Used Book Haul

Around the World in 80 Books

Around the world in 80 Books

As a single parent for many years, I have not had the opportunity to travel at all. While I hope this will change in the future, for now I will explore the world vicariously through the books in this challenge set up by Lucy and Sarah at one of my favourite book blogs – Hard Book Habit.

The idea is to read your way around the world sampling books from a range of countries along the way.

As you can imagine this affords great list-making opportunities, and I passed a happy few hours deciding on my choices. Thankfully, there is no time limit, which is good as it’ll take me forever to finish this lot!

I have many set books to read on my degree course over the next few years and many of those take place abroad so I have added those to my list, along with others I want to read, and several new ones discovered in my search. So…

My around the world in 80 Books List:

  1. IrelandDubliners, James Joyce
  2. America A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
  3. SwedenAstrid and Veronika, Linda Olsson
  4. GermanyDiary of a Pilgrimage, Jerome K. Jerome
  5. ItalyVenice, Jan Morris
  6. PatagoniaIn Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
  7. AntarcticAlone on the Ice, David Roberts
  8. ThailandTouch the Dragon, Karen Connelly
  9. The CaribbeanAn Embarrassment of Mangoes, Ann Vanderhoof
  10. Sea TravelsThe Sea Inside, Philip Hoare
  11. TravelingThe Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran
  12. AmericaOn the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice Goffman
  13. GreeceEurydice Street: A Place in Athens, Sofka Zinovieff
  14. VariousMagic Bus – On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, Rory Maclean
  15. Andalucia/SpainDriving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart
  16. CambodiaFirst They Killed My Father, Loung Ung
  17. AfghanistanThe Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad
  18. EgyptLetters from Egypt, Florence Nightingale
  19. AustraliaThe Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes
  20. Ireland Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel
  21. FranceSketchbook from the South of France, Sara Midda
  22. Around BritainTiny Islands, Dixie Wills
  23. Germany Candide, Voltaire
  24. Iraq Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee Rowlatt, May Witwit
  25. West Africa and SurinamOroonoko, Aphra Behn
  26. North KoreaEscape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden
  27. Pacific IslandsSouth Sea Tales, Robert Louis Stevenson
  28. ScotlandThe Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd
  29. Wales On Angel Mountain, Brian John
  30. Persia/IranThe Secret Rose Garden, Mahmud Ibn ‘Abd Al-Kar Shabistari
  31. Greece – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières
  32. America, India, Europe, ThailandUnaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
  33. PakistanThree Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson
  34. FranceThe Secrets of Pistoulet, Jana Kolpen
  35. ItalyLegend of the Villa della Luna, Jana Kolpen
  36. WalesUnder Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas
  37. IndiaThe God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  38. JapanHiroshima, John Hersey
  39. ChinaJourneys on the Silk Road, Joyce Morgan, Conrad Walters
  40. ColumbiaOne Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  41. ChileThe House of Spirits, Isabel Allende
  42. NorwaySophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder
  43. Palestine Fast Times in Palestine, Pamela J. Olsen
  44. SudanSeason of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih
  45. FranceGood Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys
  46. Canada Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
  47. FranceThe Lost Domain, Alain-Fournier
  48. EgyptIndigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, Jenny Balfour-Paul
  49. NorwayA Death in the Family, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  50. JapanThe Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura
  51. AlaskaIf you Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, Heather Lende
  52. Ethiopia, Sweden, AmericaYes, Chef, Marcus Samuelsson
  53. ScotlandThe Scottish Himalayan Expedition, W. H. Murray
  54. ItalyThe Land Where Lemons Grow, Helena Attlee
  55. EnglandMeadowland, John Lewis-Stempel
  56. FranceIn Search of Lost Time Vol 1: Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
  57. RussiaThe Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  58. HollandThe Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas
  59. AmericaPilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
  60. IndiaMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  61. SamoaComing of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead
  62. RussiaSpeak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
  63. Various Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky
  64. America Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  65. New ZealandLand of the Long White Cloud, Lesley Gould
  66. Peru Turn right at Machu Picchu, Mark Adams
  67. SiberiaTravels in Siberia, Ian Frazier
  68. NepalDon’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees, Thomas Hale
  69. Various Darwin’s Notebook, Jonathan Clement
  70. Various The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner
  71. SeasThe Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson
  72. TravelThe Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
  73. TravelCruising Attitude, Heather Poole
  74. ItalyDriving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart
  75. GreenlandAn African in Greenland, Kpomassie Tete-Michel
  76. IndiaOriginal Letters from India, Eliza Fay
  77. AustraliaTracks, Robyn Davidson
  78. VariousDestinations: Essays from Rolling Stone, Jan Morris
  79. Rwanda We wish to inform you…, Philip Gourevitch
  80. VariousA Writer’s World: Travels 1950-2000, Jan Morris

There are light reads along with heavier subject matter. I hope to stretch my reading horizons by reading books that I might not usually reach for straight away and learn about places in the world which I am not familiar with. This list is not set in stone, and I reserve the right to swap out a few along the way. I’ll post about each book as I read it, and link back here as well.

To find out more about the challenge do pop over to Hard Book Habit where I’m sure you’ll find some great ideas as well as at the other blogs taking part.

My suitcases are packed (with books) – off I go!

To Kill a Mockingbird ~ Harper Lee

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This is a book from my TBR 2015 challenge. A well-loved classic, particularly in the US, less so in the UK, that I had never read, but which was recommended to me by many people. I picked it up in a charity shop a few years ago and this month finally got the chance to read it. There is little I can say about it that hasn’t been said before, but my personal reaction was that I loved it.

I loved the way Harper Lee painted the characters, especially Scout and Jem and their antics, so clearly it was as if I had watched a film of them. You don’t feel like you are reading a book, so seamlessly does the author transition from one scene to the next. I was completely immersed. Even as if I had been there playing in the dust, snipping the tops of Mrs Dubose’s Camellias, or struggling along in the dark dressed as a joint of ham.

I could relate to the childhood pain and confusion at having to witness the often incomprehensible choices that humans make. Of learning to live in a world where bad things happen. But also where good things happen too. The value of community struck me – as well as its petty prejudices.

There are many miles in distance and time between the setting of this book and my life here in contemporary Britain. Despite this, To Kill a Mockingbird gets to the essence of the human condition in such a realistic and warm way, that I know it is a book that will stay with me for a very long time.

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde

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This is another book from my TBR 2015 challenge. A secondhand Collector’s Library edition, it’s a beautiful little book that has been on my bookshelf a while.

It is a well-known and intriguing gothic tale based on the Faustian myth. In 19th century England, a young and handsome man, Dorian, has his portrait painted. He desires to stay forever as pure and beautiful as the man in the portrait.

“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that — for that — I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”

As events unfold over time his immorality grows. He throws himself into a life of debauchery, art and pleasure, yet on the surface he remains as young looking and untouched as ever. The only evidence of the state of his soul is the portrait which, locked in a room in his house, reveals the horrifying reality.

While I enjoyed the story, I grew irritated by Oscar Wilde’s style. When I was younger I used to enjoy this kind of witticism in writing. His writing is clever and full of wise words, curious epigrams and sentences designed to shock, but I wonder if (like the character Lord Henry) he actually believes all that he says. I nearly gave up in chapter eleven when Wilde goes into intricate  and agonising detail about the excesses of decadence and overindulgence. It was boring, though perhaps this was Wilde’s point.

I did enjoy the films based on Oscar Wilde’s comedic plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, but I’ve had enough of 19th century England and its high society, for the time being anyway.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

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This is one of the books from my TBR pile which I finished a couple of weeks ago, and am finally getting around to creating a post about.

I have mixed views about this book. It is a gentle and helpful guide. It was also a long read, and a little too esoteric for me in places. I am interested in general Buddhist philosophy but have no desire to become a Buddhist myself. However, I got a lot out of reading this book none the less.

The book is separated into four main parts. The first deals with living. The Buddhist secret of dying well is first of all to learn to live well. There is some excellent information in this section especially insights on meditation and why we all would benefit from the practice.

“We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home.

Meditation, then, is bringing the mind home.”

The second section of the book is called ‘dying’. In our culture so little is said about the taboo subject of dying that it is a relief to read words that address this essential part of the human experience. Death is largely ignored by society. The dying are hidden out of sight and mind and the subject is swept under the carpet, until, when a loved one or we ourselves become terminally ill,  we are stunned into facing this most difficult part of our journey.

In my own life people I loved have died, both sudden and slow deaths. I was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the situations. When my grandmother was dying of breast cancer in hospital years ago, I am ashamed to say I ran out of the hospital in tears unable to face her pain and sickness. When my brother lay in a coma for nine days before his death I was lost in an ocean of fear and confusion. I was scared and naive and had no understanding of how to be with a person who is dying or how to cope once a person has gone. This is the normal state of things in the Western world. In the time since I have been grateful to be able to remedy this lack in some way by reading and learning about the process of death.

It is not morbid to want to learn about death, if anything it makes living richer. We more deeply appreciate what we have now, when we bravely face the fact that our lives do not last forever.

“Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”

The third section is on death and rebirth and focuses mainly on the Buddhist theories of what happens beyond death. I found this section difficult to follow and nearly gave up reading it altogether.

The final section is the conclusion, bringing together the previous sections and calling on readers to become a part of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the way we look at death and care for the dying. A revolution too, in fact, that will bring greater peace and compassion to the way we live and the way we care for the living.

I recommend this book if you are willing to keep an open mind and be enlightened by ideas that may be very different to the one’s you currently hold.