Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Beginnings and Teasers - 'The Ten Thousand Things' by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things: A NovelTime for one of my favourite meme-days! I love the whole sharing and teasing that happens each Tuesday! It's not good for my wallet, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

Today I'm sharing a book with you which I'm planning on starting this weekend. This book is The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling which has me ever so slightly absolutely fascinated.
In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity wit this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind.

Wang is an extraordinarily gifted artist. His paintings are at once delicate and confident; in them, one can see the wind blowing through the trees, the water rushing through rocky valleys, the infinite expanse of China’s natural beauty. But this is not a time for sitting still, and as The Ten Thousand Things unfolds, we follow Wang as he travels through an empire in turmoil. In his wanderings, he encounters, among many memorable characters, other master painters of the period, including the austere eccentric Ni Zan, a fierce female warrior known as the White Tigress who will recruit him as a military strategist, and an ugly young Buddhist monk who rises from beggary to extraordinary heights.

The Ten Thousand Things is rich with exquisite observations, and John Spurling endows every description—every detail—with the precision and depth that the real-life Wang Meng brought to his painting. But it is also a novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama, and in its seamless fusion of the epic and the intimate, it achieves a truly singular beauty. A novel that deserves to be compared to the classic Chinese novels that inspired it, The Ten Thousand Things is nothing short of a literary event.
Tuesday Intros is hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by A Daily Rhythm.

'The times are turning bad again. I have been arrested for going to see a private art collection. Can you believe it? An old man of nearly eighty, a retired magistrate, is put in prison on suspicion. Instead of sitting on a dais giving judgement, here I am sitting on a stone floor waiting to be judged. Of course I'm only on remand. No one has tried or condemned me yet for the crime I am supposed to have committed, but still I've been here for weeks - long enough almost to have got used to the stench of the bucket in the corner.' 1%
I love how Spurling consciously puts the reader on the wrong foot with his first line. With the slightest of references to Dickens' greatest opening line, Spurling seems to set a very heavy mood, only to then flip it with his hilarious second line. I can't imagine getting arrested for seeing an art collection. The beginning paragraph only seems to be getting more absurd until the reality of the protagonist's situation actually hits towards the end of it.

'The geomancer discovered an auspicious day for the funeral later that week.' 37%
TeaserTuesdays2014eI saw this line while browsing for a fun teaser and I simply couldn't  not pick it. I mean, there is something beautifully absurd and yet logical about this sentence and I can't wait to see what happens in that first third of the book to get us to this line. Also, whose funeral are we planning?

Does The Ten Thousand Things sounds like your kind of book? I personally love big sagas that span generations, so I think I'll enjoy this one very much.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Review: 'The Book of Gold Leaves' by Mirza Waheed

The Book of Gold Leaves had me fascinated the moment that I read the blurb. There was something lyrical and magical to the novel. Besides that I have been fascinated by the culture of the Kashmir area and was really happy to find a book set there. Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing me with an edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/10/2014
Publisher: Penguin Books
Mirza Waheed's extraordinary new novel The Book of Gold Leaves is a heartbreaking love story set in war-torn Kashmir. In an ancient house in the city of Srinagar, Faiz paints exquisite Papier Mache pencil boxes for tourists. Evening is beginning to slip into night when he sets off for the shrine. There he finds the woman with the long black hair. Roohi is prostrate before her God. She begs for the boy of her dreams to come and take her away. Roohi wants a love story. An age-old tale of love, war, temptation, duty and choice, The Book of Gold Leaves is a heartbreaking tale of a what might have been, what could have been, if only. ' 
I loved it. The voice is lyrical, to match the beauty of Kashmir, and yet it is tinged with melancholy and grief, as is the story it tells' Nadeem Aslam (on The Collaborator) 'Waheed's prose burns with the fever of anger and despair; the scenes in the valley are exceptional, conveying, a hallucinatory living nightmare that has become an everyday reality for Kashmiris' Metro (on The Collaborator) 
Waheed's novel is one that is infused with sentimentality, in a good way. Each page holds a beautiful description of flowers, smells, little streets, whispers exchanged by lovers in the dark, etc. As such, The Book of Gold Leaves really takes the reader on a visual and emotional journey. This is largely done through the perspective of Waheed's two main characters, Faiz and Roohi. Their love story is the heart of the novel and very much keeps it going the way a heart keeps a body going. It is at the centre of the narrative and at the same time is key to holding the novel together. The hope, love and despair that surrounds these two characters is developed beautifully by Waheed and his description of Kashmir and the surrounding areas only adds to making them and their story come to live.

There are a number of shifts within The Book of Gold Leaves which happen on different levels. On the one hand there is a constant shift between narrators between the different chapters, but on the other hand there is a continuing shift in atmosphere and tone. The decision to shift between narrators is always a tricky one since it can very easily go wrong. Not every character is equally interesting to readers and a narrative can easily run out of steam if the wrong character is narrating a crucial scene. In The Book of Gold Leaves, none of this happened. All scenes were narrated by the right people, making sure that each narrator added something unique and definitive to their narration. It's a similar story with the shifts in atmosphere which occur throughout the novel. As Kashmir becomes more dangerous there is a sense of nostalgia to the simpler, earlier parts of the novel. As the characters find themselves in danger, the mood of the novel becomes darker. It must be a conscious choice on the side of the author, but the reader will find himself only recognizing the shift later on which makes for a very interesting reading experience.

The Book of Gold Leaves has a very interesting authorial presence. The reader and the author are, in many ways, one throughout the novel and operate as 'we'. We are an outside party and Waheed's occasional references to the way in which the story has come down to us is always interesting. Similarly, The Book of Gold Leaves is not historical in the sense that it recounts specific events and functions as a time-line. Rather, the novel feels as a memoir and ode to an area torn apart by war and chaos. This sense is aided by Waheed's descriptions but is also down to his way of presenting twists and turns in unexpected places, some of which are surprisingly shocking, giving the reader the feeling that the characters exist in a dangerous world.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Waheed's The Book of Gold Leaves. It was a story that constantly draws you back in and is infused with a sense of beauty and longing that will remain with the reader for a long time. Although I would recommend it to historical fiction fans, I wouldn't classify it as historical fiction perse. It is full of fascinating characters of all backgrounds, classes and genders and purely for their development The Book of Gold Leaves is worth reading.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

R.I.P. Abdullah Hussain

Yesterday the news broke that famous Urdu author Abdullah Hussain, who called himself an 'accidental writer', had passed away.

Hussain was nominated for the 'Kamal-e-Fun' award in 2012, which is Pakistan's highest literary award for achievement in creative and research work. Other won awards included the 'Adamjee Award'. His death has been marked by Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Minister for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage, Pervaiz Rasheed, expressed what the loss of Hussain means:
"Pakistan has lost one of its shining stars and its pride in the passing away of Abdullah Hussain, a great author, writer, novelist and intellectual." (Dawn)
Hussain's most famous novel, lauded as a landmark text of Urdu literature, was Udaas Naslain. Even fifty years after its publishing it is still a key novel. In English it was published as The Weary Generations.

The Weary GenerationsPublished ahead of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and long before Midnight’s Children, Abdullah Hussein’s ambitious saga of social struggle The Weary Generations was a bestseller in Urdu. Published in 1963 and now beyond its 40th edition, it has never been out of print. A vivid depiction of the widespread disillusionment and seismic upheavals of the Partition era that lead to the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, there has never been a more opportune time to discover one of the most important writings about the post-colonial trauma in the region. Naim, son of a peasant, marries Azra, the daughter of a rich landowner. Fighting for the British during World War I he loses an arm. Invalided home, he becomes angered at the subjugation of his countrymen under the Raj and aligns himself with the opposition. His ideals are swept away after Independence in 1947 when he realizes that, as Muslims, his family is no longer safe in their Indian home and that they must migrate to the newly created Pakistan. Regarded as one of the half-dozen most influential novels dealing with Partition or post-colonial malaise, this is an immensely powerful novel in its own right and is essential reading for English language readers seeking to comprehend the historical origins of the tensions in the Indian subcontinent.
I previously wrote about the need for translation to go both ways. Hussain's writing is an example of that. As one of the most important authors to a culture which has been intricately linked with the West in the last century, it is remarkable that Udaas Naslain, or The Weary Generations, isn't better known.

Hussain passed away at 84 on Saturday in Lahore after suffering from blood cancer.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Spot the Trope #1: the Gay Best Friend

Some time ago I wrote a post about the frequent use of love-triangles in contemporary Young Adult literature and the damage that I believe it does to female characters and the perception of female characters in literature. Recently I read a book which seemed to be made up solely of tropes. Page upon page was filled with recognizable story-lines and standard characterization with nothing new being added. Although I don't believe the author did so on purpose, she included many tropes which once started off as interesting but are now stereotypical and damaging. After reading this book I decided that it might be interesting to take a look at some of the most established tropes currently around and have a look at what they really say. This series won't focus solely on literature but aims to analyse an aspect of story-telling which is often ignored.

What is a trope?
The word 'trope' comes from the Greek word τρόπος (tropos) which means 'turn, direction, way'. Initially this referred to figurative language, the use of a word or phrase for artistic effect, examples being metaphor and hyperbole. More and more, however, the word has come to mean frequently occurring literary devices such as 'the old mentor' or 'the fairy god mother'. Tropes are recognizable and can be used to settle the piece of literature in a genre or in a certain time period. Nowadays readers easily refer to tropes while reading books or watching television, recognizing them instantly and even selecting reads based on their use of certain tropes. These tropes direct the narrative of literary works in a certain way and make them, unfortunately, quite predictable at times. They also hide some very archaic and damaging stereotypes by repackaging them as either fun or recognizable and therefore comfortable. Up today is: the Gay Best Friend

What is 'the Gay Best Friend'?
The Gay Best Friend (also known as GBF) was one of the first "token diversity characters" which was embraced with open arms by the audience, by literature and by TV shows as well. The GFB is there to add some diversity and representation of the "other" to an otherwise completely straight-laced story of any number of hetero-sexuals falling in love. When the protagonist is female, they are always the best friend she could possibly have because apparently gay men have an amazing insight into both male and female behaviour. When the protagonist is male, they are always a good friend with a secret crush on the protagonist. Mind, the GBF is almost always male. The gay men in these books or shows are usually about as stereotypical as can be. They are fashion aware, incredibly chatty, camp, promiscuous, and forever alone and therefore available to their female friends. The GBF is, more crudely but perhaps more honestly, sometime also known as the 'Pet Homosexual'.

What's good about it?
For a long, and dark, time homosexuality was linked by many people with paedophilia. Aside from this, it was also illegal for a long time to be openly gay and gay marriage was only recently legalized in America. Hence, they hardly featured in popular culture for a long time, except as a cheap joke. The GBF was a different way for homosexual characters to be part of normal and popular narratives. However, at its most stereotypical, the GBF only allows space for one kind of homosexuality, one which is usually ridiculed and presents no danger to the masculinity of the book.

When done well, as, to a certain extent, in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, the male gay character isn't reduced to just a friend without their own personality, but is rather an independent character with an independent character arc. Patrick goes through his own struggles, not necessarily with his sexuality, but with the outside response to it. Although his story-line moves along some pretty stereotypical lines such as the the Jock and the overt flamboyancy, his characterization is still insightful and well done which is why the book has made such an impact. However, Patrick's independence as a character is exactly why he doesn't fit into the GBF trope.

Why is it questionable?
As I've hinted at above, the GBF only really gives space to the over-the-top, fashion-aware and promiscuous gay man, despite the fact that this is hardly an accurate portrayal of the average gay man. Fundamentally, the GBF is not there as an independent character. He is part of a support structure and is like a Genie who appears  whenever the protagonist needs advice and then disappears. They are incredibly close with the, usually female, main characters to an extent that their presence often suggests deep friendships can't exist between straight members of the opposite sex, or even between members of the same sex. As a support character, their story arc often revolves completely around the protagonist and leads to enforcing the stereotype around gay people. They are usually referred to as 'my GBF' which has only strengthened the fetishizing of the gay community. A 2013 film, aptly titled GBF, documented the bizarre chasing after a gay men by the whole female population of an American high school.

There is a reason why the GBF is so popular: because he is a male presence that is presented as a non-threat. He can stay the night, be taken underwear shopping or be complained to without the female characters having to fear that he will take advantage. This seems to continue the belief that men are incapable of controlling their sexual instincts and form a danger to every woman who seems available. This has also led to the rise of the 'fake GBF', a man who pretends to be gay so he can get emotionally close to a woman he likes in the hope she'll fall in love with him. Although films and TV shows present this as romantic, it is actually inherently creepy and, again, gives both men and gay men a bad name. The GBF isn't just "safe" for women though. For the male romantic lead, a gay man is no threat and maybe even a help. He is a male presence in the woman's life who will not steal her away and maybe even help his cause. This also leads to a woman being surrounded by a lot of men who are "good" for her, whereas a female friendship is often presented as having issues. 

What the GBF trope leads to is the idea that there are no real stories to be told by gay characters, or that their sexuality is the only thing that identifies them. It puts a label on a large section of humanity and prevents literature, and cinema, from exploring these characters more. As the need for diversity is given more attention, it is also important to look at our existing uses of diversity and reassess them. The GBF-trope isn't representation but damaging. For an author it may be an easy way to get a romance plot on the road, but it often looks like lazy writing and characterization. Although the GBF may have started off trying to include gay characters in mainstream popular culture, by now the trope is trailing behind actual social changes to be more open and acceptant of homosexuality. 

And to finish this post off, here's one of the many 'Sassy Gay Friend' sketches, which illustrate the use of gay men to prop up female characters quite well. They're also hilarious!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Beginnings and Teasers - 'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence It's been a busy week and I am once again back in London because apparently that is what I do nowadays, spend every weekend in London. I've got some reviews ready for next week, so hopefully my next week won't be as dry as this week has been. Today I'm using The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
Newland Archer saw little to envy in the marriages of his friends, yet he prided himself that in May Welland he had found the companion of his needs--tender and impressionable, with equal purity of mind and manners. The engagement was announced discreetly, but all of New York society was soon privy to this most perfect match, a union of families and circumstances cemented by affection. 
        Enter Countess Olenska, a woman of quick wit sharpened by experience, not afraid to flout convention and determined to find freedom in divorce. Against his judgment, Newland is drawn to the socially ostracized Ellen Olenska, who opens his eyes and has the power to make him feel. He knows that in sweet-tempered May, he can expect stability and the steadying comfort of duty. But what new worlds could he discover with Ellen? Written with elegance and wry precision, Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece is a tragic love story and a powerful homily about the perils of a perfect marriage.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader and Freda at Freda's Voice respectively.

'On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remove metropolitan distances "above the Forties", of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy.' p.1
I like this beginning. You get a bit of a sense of this 'world of fashion'. And Wharton's writing style is simple beautiful! I can't wait to dig into this one.

'As he wrote a word on his card and waited for an envelope he glanced about the embowered shop, and his eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her - there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.' p.56
I loved how this moment shifted in perspective. Initially you start focusing on 'him' writing, but then it moves to the flowers and from there to May. Also, the last sentence is absolutely beautiful, I'm not quite sure why. It just really is.

So, that was me done for today! What are you teasing?

Monday, 29 June 2015

Review: 'G.K. Chesterton Quotes' by Bob Blaisdell

Not long after reading Chesterton's brilliant The Man Who Was Thursday I stumbled across Blaisdell's G.K. Chesterton Quotes on Netgalley. Part of the genius of Chesterton's prose was his strong sense of character and independence. So why wouldn't I want to read a book full of his quotes? Thanks to Netgalley and Dover Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/06/2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
"There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person," declared the philosopher and wit G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936). The extent and variety of the author's writings―comprising journalism, history, biography, apologetics, poetry, plays, and detective fiction―attest to his own diversity of enthusiasms. This rich and thought-provoking anthology draws from Chesterton's vast treasury of publications to present his most trenchant observations on education, humor, literature, religion, politics, class, and other topics. 
Editor Bob Blaisdell offers an insightful introduction to Chesterton's life and works and identifies the source of each quotation. Organized thematically, the quotes range from quips from Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries ("The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.") and novels ("Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.") to his newspaper columns ("An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.") and essays ("No man must be superior to the things that are common to men.… Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.")
G.K. Chesterton was an Absurdist writer and a biographer, a Christian and seemingly a socialist. He wrote about almost anything, as long as it interested him, and he did so well. This book of quotes covers his whole career and does really well in showing from when and where the quote is. The main challenge that faced Blaisdell was how to bring this selection of quotes together in a way that doesn't feel uterly random and, maybe, even pointless. In this book, though, the quotes seem to naturally follow one another by theme and it means that it is actually interesting to keep reading them to see how Chesterton's mind changed throughout the years.

It's always an interesting question to consider to what extent personal opinion is interesting. It is a question I often come back to when writing for this blog as well. A personal opinion, it seems, is only interesting if it is well-informed, outside of the box or comes from someone famous. In this case, Chesterton is a bit of all of those. His opinions are interesting because some of them are out there, others because he is in a better position than us to judge and others simply because they come from him. His writing is funny, insightful and at times slightly ridiculous and his quotes reflect that. Some of them hit really deep, showing his dedication to what he is writing about, but also his willingness to mock himself and those around us.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

If you're  a fan of Chesterton's writing than Blaisdell's quote collection will be great for you. Blaisdell's own introduction is also very interesting. G.K. Chesterton Quotes is the kind of book that would do great on a coffee table, ready to be picked up and browsed through at random times.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

In Celebration of the Supreme Court Ruling: Ten Classic Works of Love

Same-sex marriage
Mladen Antonov / AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday was a historic day for America, as the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favour of legalizing gay marriage in ALL 50 States. This decision means more than "just" the ability to actually get married. It now means that gay and lesbian couples have access to a whole slew of federal benefits which are normal to straight couples. Just a few of these are:
  • file joint income taxes
  • have joint parenting rights
  • have next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions
  • have family visitation rights
  • qualify for domestic violence intervention
  • inherit property
  • and many more.
This decision will fundamentally change the lives of gay and lesbian people in the United States and is a major step forward on the road to equality.  The Majority Opinion, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, ends very lyrically while also getting to the depths of why this decision is so important.
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
 So, as a celebration of this milestone decision and of love, here are ten of my favourite classic works which show that no matter who you are, where you are and who you love, love is real. 

E.M. Forster - Maurice
Set in the elegant Edwardian world of Cambridge undergraduate life, this story by a master novelist introduces us to Maurice Hall when he is fourteen. We follow him through public school and Cambridge, and on into his father's firm, Hill and Hall, Stock Brokers. In a highly structured society, Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way, "stepping into the niche that England had prepared for him": except that his is homosexual.
Written during 1913 and 1914, after an interlude of writer's block following the publication of Howards End, and not published until 1971, Maurice was ahead of its time in its theme and in its affirmation that love between men can be happy. "Happiness," Forster wrote, "is its keynote….In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him."
The Well of LonelinessRadclyffe Hall - The Well of Loneliness
A powerful novel of love between women, THE WELL OF LONELINESS brought about the most famous legal trial for obscenity in the history of British law. Banned on publication in 1928, it then went on to become a classic bestseller. Stephen Gordon (named by a father desperate for a son) is not like other girls: she hunts, she fences, she reads books, wears trousers and longs to cut her hair. As she grows up amidst the stifling grandeur of Morton Hall, the locals begin to draw away from her, aware of some indefinable thing that sets her apart. And when Stephen Gordon reaches maturity, she falls passionately in love - with another woman.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson - Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Winner of the Whitbread Prize for best first fiction, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a coming-out novel from Winterson, the acclaimed author ofThe Passion and Sexing the Cherry. The narrator, Jeanette, cuts her teeth on the knowledge that she is one of God’s elect, but as this budding evangelical comes of age, and comes to terms with her preference for her own sex, the peculiar balance of her God-fearing household crumbles.
Angels in America:  A Gay Fantasia on National ThemesTony Kushner - Angels in America
In two full-length plays--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika--Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs