Sunday, 20 November 2011

Sunday Salon: Caution! Thesis in Progress.

We're finally at that magical stage, folks, when the months of reading and thinking and changing directions and reading some more is coming to fruition: the real writing of my thesis. Don't get me wrong, I've been banging away on the keyboard for quite a few months now but now I can feel it all pulling together. It's making sense. It's going in a logical progression. I can see the map to the finish line. Thank Gawd. I'm taking December to focus exclusively on final write up (yay for supportive bosses!!) so hopefully by the time new year rolls around I will be all but done. That just means being a hermit for a month. Wish me luck.

In other news, it is time for Le Grande Book Club Nominations. Although I already have far too many ideas (I have a list of 7 possibles, limit per person is 2) I would like to humbly ask you to suggest others or give feedback on my choices so far. The list is:
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The Submission by Amy Waldman
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Marriage Plot by Jeffry Eugenides
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Also, it was my birthday this month so hubby took me to Sun Moon Lake here in Taiwan to celebrate. It was startlingly beautiful so I wanted to share a few pics here with you...

Sun Moon Lake
The lake at dawn

Sun Moon Lake
Heading off for a day up the mountain

Sun Moon Lake
Looking across the lake

Sun Moon Lake
Coming down the mountain on the gondola

Hope everyone is well and enjoying November!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Burned by the Blurb

Image credit
Oh, that feeling of anticipation as you open up a new book. The delicious smell of the print floats off the pages, inviting you in as you settle down into the corner of the couch to start what you're sure will be a beautiful new relationship. Perhaps one for the ages! With cup of steaming tea by your elbow and dog snuggled up on your feet, you turn to the first page. Ah, bliss... Part way through the book, however, you realise that something is amiss. Something, somewhere is not quite ringing true. While it's not bad, this book is not going in the direction that you thought it would be - at least the direction you thought it would be when you read the blurb on the back... 

About eighteen months ago, I read A Gate at the Stairs in preparation for my thesis about post-9/11 literature. I had heard rave reviews about it and so I was really looking forward to digging in. As is my habit, before I started reading it properly, I read the synopsis on the inner flap of the cover (I'd splashed out and bought a hardback - that's how much I'd wanted to get my hands on this book) to get an idea of what I was in for. This is where my problems began. You see, this 300-word synopsis of the book was, in my opinion, completely misleading. I don't mean "misleading" in the Star Wars is a tender love story set in the Bronx during the 1930's kind of way. I mean more in the main relationship in Star Wars is the brotherhood between C3P0 and R2-D2 kind of way. I was expecting, and therefore looking for, the wrong plot line and in the end, the story I ended up reading didn't resemble the one I thought I was going to read at all. As you might imagine - vague disappointment ensued.

You could very well argue that it was my fault to go into something with expectations and assumptions and smugly claim some tripe about making an ass out of you and me - yes yes all of this is true - but really. Who among us buys a book, let alone reads it without at least checking out the back cover? I know I never do. Normally, this isn't a problem but this time I was well and truly burned by the blurb. It turned what I thought would be a fabulous book into an unsatisfying reading experience, but through no fault of the novel itself. 

Luckily, there is a happy end to this story. I just re-read it, freed of the false impressions of the previous reading and enjoyed it far better this time. I did enjoy it last time but without that thundercloud of "I've been duped!" hanging over me, this time I was able to fully engage in the brilliance of it. In fact, the difference in reading experience was so striking that it got me wondering if anyone else had ever had this kind of problem before with any other book or if anyone had actually read this book (and synopsis) and had no problems whatsoever. Or have you had this problem and had the chance (or inclination) to re-read the book to see if you could fix the issue? 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Glass Castle: Review

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Published by Virago
Published in 2005
ISBN: 978-1-84408-182-0

I read this book for book club and purchased this book myself. I was not paid for this review. 

When a well-meaning parent who has done nothing more outrageous than apply some necessary discipline gets “I HATE you! You're ruining my life!!” thrown at them by their offspring it must really really sting. I'm sure that part of the parenting experience (of which I have not partaken as yet!) is to develop the ability to shake this kind of thing off but still. It's got to hurt. Especially when you happen across a memoir such as this about parents that really were, in many ways, ruining their kids' lives – yet these kids seem to raise far fewer protests in this book than the average teenager would in a calendar month.

When I first started thinking about this book I was in two minds as to whether this memoir displays the immense resilience of children or the worrying enmeshment that often happens within dysfunctional families. When you've been dragged from pillar to post by your emotionally immature and responsibility-shirking mother and father, experienced neglect, witnessed violence and endured the most abject poverty, to come out as well-adjusted and normal as Jeannette Walls is no mean feat. From the outside, it seems that despite the occasional rays of warmth and love that provide light relief throughout what is undeniably a very grim tale, the behaviour of her parents is unforgivable. You have to wonder how on earth she has come through all of this and been able to write such a balanced view of her life. In the end, however, I decided that although the enmeshment is definitely there, it would be doing this book an immense injustice to focus on that rather than on the resilience of Jeannette and her siblings.

The second in a family of four kids, Jeannette was daughter to Rex and Rose Mary – both highly intelligent people who simply did not fit within regular society. Rex dreamed of being an entrepreneur, of building his glass castle – a solar heated mansion for his family, of striking it rich in the gold mines but his addiction to alcohol as well as his near complete failure to apply himself left those dreams in the dust. Rose Mary was a prolific artist who just could not see the point of domestic chores and the hard work of raising four children when she could be working on her next painting. During Jeannette's childhood they lived a nomadic existence, moving from place to place across the desert until they finally, incomprehensibly, settled down in her father's loathed hometown of Welch – a damp and by all accounts fairly dire small town in West Virginia in the vice-like grip of joblessness and poverty. This is where they remain for the majority of Jeannette's adolescence and where, I feel, the magic slowly drains out of her view of her parents, especially her father whom she had always idolised.

In an interview about this book, Jeannette points out that although some people may see the concept of the glass castle as just another of her father's drunken promises that was inevitably broken, you can also choose to see it as a hope for the future. It's all a matter of perspective. Despite this viewpoint being incredibly hopeful and uplifting, personally I can't buy into it. Her story made me very angry, frustrated me beyond belief and broke my heart. I despised her parents for their selfishness and the pain they had visited upon their own children – the best part of the whole story in my view was the fact that she and two of her siblings, Lori and Brian, banded together to help each other escape from their destitution and build a better life for themselves in New York. For me, the hopeful thing is that these kids got out and went on to flourish proving that nobody is necessarily defined by their circumstances or their past if they are given a chance to break free of it. I suspect that everyone who reads this will have their own reaction to it based on their life experiences which is what makes this book so worthy of picking up and reading.

This book probably wouldn't be a good choice if you're looking for for something light. It is heavy-going and for some people it will touch a raw nerve but above all it is an unforgettable tale of the strength of the human spirit. It's a book that will stay with me for a very long time.