Sunday 29 November 2009

The Sign for Drowning: Review

The Sign for Drowning
By Rachel Stolzman
Published by Trumpeter Books
Published 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59030-720-5

This book was sent to me as a review copy by the author who also sent me a signed copy to use as a giveaway (which is only open until midnight Monday 30th November so get your entries in now, people!!)

This book is a visceral and very real look at the life of a woman whose life has been defined by the loss of her baby sister, Megan, through accidental drowning when she was 8 years old. Anna has, since that day, been lost in a world of uncertainly and grief, ever searching for someone or something to anchor her in the world. After meeting Adrea, a deaf child who was abandoned by her teenaged parents, in her centre for deaf children, Anna's life seems to take on a new meaning but grief still looms large, refusing to leave her family in peace.

I really enjoyed this novel - the narrative is beautifully written, reflecting Stolzman's poetic background, but without being overly lyrical - I'm a fan of a well-written sentence or a beautiful image but I hate being beaten over the head with a metaphor. It's a fine line and one that Sign balances brilliantly. For example, one of my favourite sentences was this stunner:

"She saw herself, a baby mermaid, hair streaming back, a last oxygen bubble escaping from her mouth. There were monsoon rains with every turn of her neck. Earthquakes broke fault lines with each kick of her legs. Every thrashing of her arms brought forest fires somewhere. Opening her mouth caused volcanoes to erupt. 

In this way, she left us."  (Page 62)

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was that Anna's character was so well-realised. The link between her sister's drowning and her fascination with sign language - a key aspect of her character -  is not immediately obvious and I wondered for the first few chapters how it was all going to tie in together but once revealed it's ingenious. First person confessional voice of Anna allows the reader to track along with her thoughts as she copes with grief and faces the effects it has had on her life, particularly her relationship with her mother.

Mother-daughter relationships lay at the heart of this novel as it is this relationship, both as the daughter and later the adoptive mother, that define Anna. Stolzman investigates this most emotionally fraught relationship with both delicacy and a clear eye, enabling the reader to see both Anna and her own mother as both mothers and a flawed human beings - something not easily achieved as too often portrayals of mothers become one dimensional or fall into the perfect mother/evil mother dichotomy.

The only regret I had about this book was that it wasn't longer - I felt that there were places in the novel that could have been lingered over a bit more, even if only for the reader to absorb what had happened but it felt occasionally as if we were being hustled along. This doesn't really detract from the novel - just at times I wish I'd had a bit more space and time within it to really enjoy what was happening.

Overall, I loved this novel. It is beautifully written and a thoroughly enjoyable first novel. It takes on some very big issues and handles them with finesse and intelligence. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this is one I would highly recommend that you read. It's one that will stay with me for a long time.

Image credit: Here

Saturday 21 November 2009

Where do you draw the line?

Earlier this year I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It was recommended to me by a good friend who had just finished reading it and loved it and sure enough, I also really enjoyed it. Hmm. Maybe "enjoyed" is the wrong word. It's hard to 'enjoy' the unblinking account of how two society drop-outs come to brutally murder a decent and community minded family of four... Let's just say I was gripped by it. I could not put it down nor could I read anything else until I knew how it all ended.

What made it such a compelling read? Partially, of course, Capote's writing keeps the reader involved but I think the main driving force behind this book is the fact that it is real. This happened - the facts are all real (although there is some controversy about the accuracy of Capote's reporting on some details). Capote read about these killings in the paper and immediately packed up his suitcase and went out to Holcomb, West Kansas to cover this story. This Guardian Books article looks at this case which happened fifty years ago this month - it's a cracking read, so I recommend you check it out.

Truman Capote
Image credit: Here

The article got me thinking though. It mentions that although some townspeople were happy with the book and its epic success (millions of copies sold and four movies made), there were plenty that were not. As a result of the popularity of the book and it's movie spinoffs, there has been and will undoubtedly continue to be a steady stream of people from all over the world coming through to see the place where it all happened. Bobby (now Bob) Rupp, the then-sixteen year old sweetheart of Nancy Clutter, now 66 year old father of four, grandfather of eight, stated his displeasure with the books and movies, which incidentally he has never read nor watched and never will, as he felt that this attention has made people only focus on the fact of the Clutters' bloody demise rather than on what they achieved as people during their lives.

This and the ethically thorny issue of profiting from re-telling someone else's misery are commonly raised when literature deals with tragedy and disaster. Even though I haven't even started writing it yet, I have come across this in my thesis about post 9/11 literature. Some people have reacted angrily to those who wish to portray the events of that day through any media - be it literature, in films, through photography... And this is understandable. For those suffering the loss of someone, their grief is a very personal experience and any intrusion into the sacred space of the memory of their loved one be it direct or indirect is intolerable. However, for events such as 9/11, there is another grief at work: public grief. This grief is predicated on not personal loss but societal loss, the collective trauma of seeing, time and time again, from various angles the planes flying into the towers and their subsequent collapse, knowing we were watching people lose their lives. There's also the grief for the loss of a sense of security and loss of stability.

Image credit: photographer unknown

To work through a collective trauma it seems that representations of the event are necessary, but that doesn't mean that those who feel intruded upon are likely to be any more understanding. It seems to me to be a necessary evil, that these events must be memorialised and entrenched into our history through the written word and film. Because, as painful as it is that these things happened and though we may wish we could, we cannot and should not forget them.

I have to wonder about In Cold Blood, though. Was it necessary to have this gruesome murder written so definitively into America's history?

What are your thoughts on this? What do you think of representations of human tragedy and disaster? Historically and socially necessary or ethically and morally questionable?

Friday 20 November 2009

Saturday by Ian McEwan: Review

Image credit: Here

When I was searching for novels that fell into the "Post 9/11 Literature" category I was really excited to see that Saturday was considered to be one. Although I had at that stage only ever read one other of McEwan's novels, I knew that I would enjoy anything he had written. I was right.

Saturday is set in the course of a single day but this fact is easy to forget as this novel moves along at such a pace and so much happens that only once you've finished and are sitting back, reflecting that you think crikey - that was all just one day! The novel follows Henry Perowne, a well-known neurosurgeon living a life of affluence and contentment in Central London on a day that is anything but normal. A cascading series of events happen that culminate in a heart stopping climax that has the reader in the grip of a powerful suspense and intrigue. McEwan has painted these micro level events on the background of 2003, post 9/11 pre-Iraq London in what appears to me to be a reflection of the macro scale political happenings at the interpersonal level.

I'm loathed to give any further details away about the plot as part of the beauty of this novel is that these details surprise, delight and horrify. Knowing that they are coming won't do a potential reader any good. I read (luckily, after the fact) a review that was basically a plot summary that gave everything away which I thought was a horrible shame. I'm glad that I hadn't seen this before I read it.

This novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for McEwan in 2006, a highly prestigious award based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I'm not surprised, it really is a masterpiece and a very thoughtful and clear-headed view of the world, post 9/11, unlike some other novels I have read which seem to grab desperately at the straws of patriotism and "us vs them" - all understandable reactions but not particularly helpful literary contributions.

I'd highly recommend this novel - especially to those who enjoy a good read that has intelligent content, a gripping story-line and characters with such depth that you feel like you actually know them.

Have you read this or any of McEwan's other books? Which have you enjoyed the most?

[Image of Ian McEwan credit: Here]

Tuesday 17 November 2009

International Giveaway: Autographed copy of Sign for Drowning

This is my very first giveaway so I'm pretty excited - and I'm even more excited that the book is autographed by the author! 

Ok! So without further ado, here are the details of the giveaway:

Title: The sign for drowning
Author: Rachel Stolzman
Published by: Trumpeter Books, Boston
Year published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59030-720-5

The blurb on the back says:
"Anna has grown up haunted by her younger sister's death. In the life she constructs as a barrier against the emotional wreckage of her family tragedy, Anna settles comfortably into a career as a teacher of deaf children. But a challenge arrives - in the form of a young girl. Adrea's disarming vulnerability and obvious need for love offer Anna the possibility of reconnecting with the world around her - if she has the courage to open her heart."

About the author:
Rachel is a New York based writer. She has received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College - initially she planned to focus on poetry in her MFA but given that she was already an accomplished and published poet, she decided to work on her fiction writing skills. This is Rachel's first novel. For further information, please see Rachel's website.

Terms and conditions of the competition:

1) To enter, please comment on this post and tell me something about Rachel that you read on her website that I haven't already mentioned here.
2) For an additional entry, become a follower of my blog and mention this in your post (if you're already a follower please notify me of this also).
3) For another additional entry, comment on another of my posts and let me know.
4) For an additional 5 entries, put a link to my giveaway on your blog and tell me about it.
5) This giveaway is open internationally.
6) I also have a review copy of this book so your copy will be unread.
7) Closing date for entries will be 30th November 2009 at midnight Taiwan time.
8) I will announce the winner on or before 7th December 2009.
9) I your email address is not included on your profile, please email it to me so I can contact you if you win.

All images from Rachel Stolzman's website.

For my review of this book, please see here.

Monday 16 November 2009

The Beeb banned Blyton??!

Enid Blyton
Image credit: Here

As a pint-sized bookworm I read whatever I could get my hands on but majority of what I cut my literary teeth on as a nipper were the many and varied works of the one and only Enid Blyton. I fantasized about being in the Secret Seven, I wished I went to school at a boarding school and I have a vivid idea of what Toffee Shocks, Pop Biscuits and Google Buns taste like. I absolutely worshipped Enid Blyton. 

So when I read this article on I was agog. The BBC banned Enid Blyton?! Apparently it was because her books didn't "have enough literary value". Literary value? Seven year olds were reading this, not uni students! Her books were ripping good reads and gave many a child an outlet for their "let's get away from the parents and roam the moors" daydreams (or was that just me?) At least, according to the article, some of her work was eventually featured on the BBC - a mere 5 years before her death. It's a little too late but it's something, I guess. 

I suspect that if I were to revisit some of these childhood faves now they will have lost some of their magic (blast being an adult!) and apparently dear old Enid wasn't exactly the nicest person alive, but all the same. These books have shaped not only my childhood but the childhoods of millions of children all over the world.

Did you read Enid Blyton? If so, what was your favourite book/ series from her? Vote in the poll!

I'm throwing my hat in for Malory Towers. 

Image credit: Enid Blyton Society

Saturday 14 November 2009

'Kathmeista Weekly' Top Ten

Publisher's Weekly released their Top 100 list this month and as a result have created quite a stir due to a complete and total lack of women writers in their Top 10 list. This despite Hilary Mantel winning the Booker for Wolf Hall, A.S. Byatt being nominated for the same award and literary giant Margaret Atwood releasing a new novel in September. They claim a lack of bias, gender or otherwise. I raise my eyebrows in a skeptical manner and say "Oh really."

After listening to Books on the Nightstand last night I decided that it would only be right and fair, given my skepticism, to have good look at my shelves and see what, if any, bias lurked there. Actually, its more to measure the extent of the bias as I know right off the bat that I have a strong preference for women writers. Just how strong was what I wanted to know.

As it happens, my bookshelves comprise (currently) 125 books - not a huge number but then I live in a not-huge apartment in Taiwan, so bear with me. Of those books, 39% were written by men, 60% were written by women and 1% were written by women under male pseudonyms. A strongly biased sample, yes - because frankly, I don't think it's possible to avoid bias in literature. It all comes down to taste after all and if mainly men are picking the lists, then I'm not surprised if male authors are winning the top spots. If it were up to me, I'd end up picking an almost all-female cast. Perhaps the gender balance of the judging panel should be re-examined.

In any case - it's just a list after all. It's a matter of opinion. My Top Ten is below.... what are your top ten books on your shelves?

'Kathmeista Weekly' Top Ten from my shelf (not just 2009):

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
4. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
6. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
8. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
9. Look at me by Anita Brookner
10. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

From Darkness to Light: Review

Image credit: Here

From Darkness to Light: My journey back from a brain filled with blood
By Lynn Christopher Roby
Published by Outskirts Press, Inc.
Published on July 17th 2009

I was sent my copy of From Darkness to Light as a review copy after responding to a press release about this book. The blurb promised a memoir about author Lynn's struggle back to a normal way of life after suffering an aneurysm but as I discovered upon reading it, what you get is a whole lot more than this.

From start to finish, this story takes up 118 pages but this is by no means a lightweight read. Lynn takes us through the journey of her life from tough and abusive beginnings to alcoholism and recovery through to her aneurysm her recovery from that. In fact, the majority of the book focuses on Lynn's recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction which is very interesting and gives the reader an insight into the 12 steps and how they later also aided her recovery from a serious brain injury.

Although God is mentioned a lot throughout this book, this is not an evangelical nor a Christian book per se. Lynn's relationship with her Creator is a personal one and an integral part of her journey but at no time does this book turn into a plug for any particular religion. In fact, Lynn doesn't try to define her God  - she practices and teaches Kripalu Yoga and is a Reiki Master in addition to being an addictions counsellor. If there is one thing that Lynn is not, it's living within the confines of a box or externally set boundaries.

This book came to me at an interesting time. I have been finding of late that books about yoga and meditation keep coming across my path. I took this book to be the final hint and finally cracked out my Yoga DVD that I've been promising to try "one day" and have found that even after just a couple of days I can feel some benefits of practicing yoga. Reading this book has certainly inspired me and touched me in a number of ways (not just the yoga) and I think it will touch anyone who reads it. You don't have to have suffered brain trauma or struggled with an addiction. You just merely need to have struggled in some way in your life. Reading this book will uplift and reassure you that, with the right attitude and people around you, you can overcome anything. Lynn writes honestly and openly in such an engaging way that it feels like she's right there telling you this story over a cup of tea.

Definitely keep a look out for this book. It's impossible to read it and not be moved in some way.

Note: Yoga image credit: Here

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Coming soon - my very first giveaway!

I am very exited to announce that I will soon be holding my very first giveaway. Rachel Stolzman is mailing me a signed copy of her first novel The Sign for Drowning. More details will follow once I have it in my possession. Watch this space!
Image credit: Here

Monday 9 November 2009

Greer takes on Proust. Greer wins.

Germaine Greer at Humber Mouth Festival 2006
Image credit: Here

Germaine's never been one to hold back. If she's got an opinion, she'll let you know it and frankly, although I don't always agree with what she's saying, I think it's a damn good thing that we have someone like her around. It takes a lot of grit to come out and say what you're really thinking, particularly if it's not the kind of thing that's 'supposed' to be said out loud and kudos to her for doing it.

This article is yet another example of Greer's refreshing (and occasionally scathing) honesty. This woman is a fully fledged card-carrying member of the literati - a PhD from Cambridge and Professor Emeritus in Literature and Comparative Studies of University of Warwick, one of the most influential feminist theorists in the 20th century - and yet here she is, yet again, saying what no other literary person would dare to say publicly: If you haven't read Proust, don't bother. It's a waste of your time. She herself has, of course, made the epic journey through all five volumes and goes on to give a critical commentary of the many and varied translations but basically, the first paragraph said it all for me. There are, according to Greer, better things to do with your time than hauling yourself through this book - such as visiting a demented relative or walking the dog.

Thank you, Germaine, for alleviating some of my "I really should have read that" literature anxiety. I knew I'd never read this but now I don't feel bad about it. Not even a little bit.

Sunday 8 November 2009

I'm sorry Mr. Roth, but I have to disagree

Philip Roth. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis

I saw this article about 10 days ago but didn't have the chance to properly comment on it until now for one reason and another. I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it though because I disagree so very strongly with it.

It's not often that I find myself in disagreement with great authors and people I hold in very high esteem but I guess there's always an exception. Basically, Philip Roth, the American writer who has written around 30 novels and been awarded numerous literary awards has said that he thinks that within 25 years the novel will have become a fringe cult, something only enjoyed by a select few. And that's an optimistic time frame, he thinks, due to the mass onslaught of media these days. With options like the movies, the internet, iPods and suchlike who'd want to pick up a humble book?

Well, me, for one. But I very much doubt that I will be the only one. The one thing that convinces me most strongly about this is what I see every single time I walk into a book store here in Taiwan. Taiwan is arguably one of the most technology-saturated nations on this planet - more than half of the population at any given time seems to be "plugged in" in one way or another and yet what do I see when I walk into the bookstores? Hoards of people with their nose buried in a book. Never before in my life have I had to pick my way along the aisles of a bookstore so carefully - folks here think nothing of finding themselves a wee corner and tucking into whichever book they happen to have picked up - the place is strewn with reading bodies! Moreover, when I catch the train into Taipei, half of the carriage is reading something, more often than not a novel.

Image credit: Here

How, then, can this claim that the novel is going extinct be true? It has survived the advent of the radio, the TV and the internet. In actual fact, the internet has probably done more to promote and facilitate the activity of reading through the invention of blogs and websites such as Bookcrossing. Book blogs abound out there, all of them written by avid readers who would choke on the very idea that books and reading could ever be pushed aside by technology. In fact, for a laugh I googled "book blogs" and "technology blogs" and found that the book blogs outweighed their technological cousins nearly 2:1. It's not a scientific study, but it's an interesting indication.

I guess the thing I found the worst about this claim was that Philip Roth is one of us - one of the bookworm club - and here he was, seemingly attacking the thing we all love the most. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having one of the post-publication panics he talks about in the article. Who knows? One thing is for sure though - I look forward to being around 25 years from now and seeing the printed word still going strong.

What do you think? Do you agree with Roth or do you think the novel will prevail? Add a comment or vote in the poll!

Saturday 7 November 2009

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The most awesome wedding invites. Ever.

As anyone who knows me will know, I am a complete nut for not only books but stationery, pens and all things paper-based. I was that kid who couldn't wait for summer to be over so I could buy new exercise books and colour-coordinate my folders. My favourite thing about planning my wedding was making the invitations. And I thought my invites were pretty darn cool.... until I saw these on Jessica Claire's website/blog:

If you'd like to see the genius behind these invites, have a look at her website.

I take my hat off. In fact, they're so beautiful I almost want to cry.