Tag Archives: reading

Quote me on that… people who sneer at fiction

pleasure in a good novel Austen

Picture courtesy of ShutterHack on Flickr

Facebook is pretty annoying, but when you take out the equation the big, worse-than-annoying stuff you see (racism, homophobia, etc.) by unfriending people, one of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen was someone who wrote in their favourite books section: “I don’t read fiction, I prefer to spend my time on things which actually have some relevance in the world.”

I had to count to ten. And breathe deeply. And swore anyway.

It really annoys me when people just dismiss books as being trivial. They aren’t. This is why books are still banned and still get burned. People are scared of the ideas they contain because they have meaning and power. But you’ve no doubt heard this all before so I will leave you with an appropriate put down from Jane Austen, which you must deliver in your best impersonation of Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham the next time you see someone utter something so dismissive.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

 

My Top 5 Fictional Badgers #teambadger

Image by BadgerHero, used under the terms of Wikimedia Commons License

Badgers remind me of my childhood. Mysterious woodland animals who usually played a noble role in fiction, defending the weak, standing up for what was right… They remind me of more innocent days in my naive youth. A time when I believed that a democratically elected government had to listen to the views of the people, or, if they insisted upon taking a paternalistic approach, the mainstream of scientific opinion… you know, silly things like that…

Given the UK government’s current foray into badger fiction* (fiction in the sense that they are flying in the face of the facts/a ten-year independent scientific study into badgers and Bovine TB) I thought I would share my top five badgers in actual fiction.

 

1. The Badger Lords of the Redwall Series  by Brian Jacques

I was obsessed with the Redwall Series by the late, great Brian Jacques when I was small. I’ve always had a fondness for rodents. The Redwall books are a little like what Lord of the Rings might be if you take out the magic and replace hobbits, dwarves and orcs with mice, squirrels and wildcats.  My favourite characters always the badgers and the mice. Though the badgers are noble characters, they suffer from bloodwrath which turns their eyes red, the sign of a great warrior who will not hold back or even be able to restrain themselves in the heat of battle.

2. Badger in The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann

If you’re of a similar age to me, you’ll probably remember The Animals of Farthing Wood as a television series in which a diverse group of woodland animals  who are threatened by man’s interference in their wood, form a motley crew and journey to the safety of a woodland reserve. It doesn’t look as though this will go ahead, due to the smaller animals natural fear of the carnivores eating them, until Badger suggests they take an oath of mutual protection. It’s a very nice story about understanding other people’s limitations and supporting them (Badger carries Mole on his back because he can only walk very slowly). Someone should also read it to the Environment Secretary because it makes the point that animals under threat migrate.

3. Tommy Brock The Tale of Mr Tod Beatrix Potter

Now Tommy Brock is a very naughty badger, the kind of badger you could imagine the government wanting to do something about. Don’t be fooled by his smart waistcoat and downturned gaze. This is the kind of badger who would steal a nest of baby rabbits and hides them in Mr Tod’s oven. Now you might say that badgers don’t commonly eat rabbits in the wild. To that I say, foxes don’t commonly own ovens. We’re suspending our disbelief here. Suspended? Thank you. Many people love Beatrix Potters “good characters” but I’ve always had a soft spot for the villains. Yes, I prefer Samuel Whiskers to Tom Kitten, and I salute Tommy Brock for stealing the baby rabbits and making everyone wonder why Benjamin Bunny decided to sire a family with his first cousin Flopsy. Well, that’s rabbits for you.

4. Mr Badger The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme

I admire any badger that wears a dressing gown, and the solitary Mr Badger may have attempted to stage one of the first interventions in literature when he tried to dissuade Toad from his path of self-destruction by placing him under house arrest. Interestingly, Badger and Mole are driven out of Toad Hall by a crew of stoats and weasels. Did you know that the TB virus can survive for a very long time in empty badger setts, infecting any badgers which move into the area. Interestingly, since rats and weasels move into Toad Hall, rats, weasels and ferrets can also carry the disease. As can foxes. And deer… shoot anything that moves will be next.

5. Trufflehunter Prince Caspian C S Lewis

This Old Narnian badger rescues Prince Caspian and hides him when he is fleeing from his evil, murderous Uncle Miraz. As a good and true Narnian, he surely lives on in Aslan’s Country, the true Narnia. But you have to wonder what fate lies in store for less vocal members of the meles meles if the government proceed with this madness.

 

Honourable mention should go to Bill of Rupert the Bear fame and Captain Ramshackle of Automated Alice but I felt that we had one randomologist too many in the form of Owen Paterson at this time.

* Even if your name isn’t Sherlock, you will notice that I have used this post on fictional badgers to ram home my views on the cull. I make no apology for that, it is madness. A ten-year study has shown that culling will not solve the problem of Bovine TB. It may in fact make it worse as studies showed TB decreasing in cull zones but rapidly increasing in surrounding areas. 92% of the surveyed British public are against the culls so both the scientists and the people the government have been elected to represent are being ignored.

If you’re a UK resident and as annoyed about this as I am please sign this petition. It’s already been debated once and the cull was postponed. Hopefully a second debate will see the cull cancelled altogether and Bovine TB managed through vaccination, improved husbandry and better biosecurity.

Christmas Book Haul

I’m sure (ahem) that you’ve been waiting in a state of frenzied anticipation to see what books my family and friends got me for Christmas. I’ve finally managed to get my lazy bum in gear and dig out the camera to share the book love… ta da!

How lucky am I?

How lucky am I?

A definite fairytale theme going on. I’m looking forward to reading them all.

A very earnest and worthy resolution…

happy new yearHaving spoken to friends about their New Year’s Resolutions and commented on lots of blog posts in which people have carefully planned out their reading aspirations for 2013, I feel that it would be remiss of me to avoid coming up with a reading resolution of my own.

In light of this I have decided to read more books with strange, unusual, silly or quirky titles.

I will not read these titles exclusively, but as and when the mood takes me. As long as I read more of these than I did last year, I win.

I’m off to a good start as I am reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making which was a Christmas present I requested from my little sister after spotting it in a bookshop and reading a good review of it on Temperance blog.

Books and Reading in 2013

Happy new year, readers! Instead of telling you my New Years Resolutions, I’m interested to hear what you would like to see from me.

I am hoping to bring you some exciting book related posts in 2013, but am really interested to know what you would like to see on The Book and Biscuit in 2013. If you have any ideas for blog posts in 2013, please submit them via the form below.

Thanks!

Monkeys with Typewriters- Scarlett Thomas

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail  end of October and  37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.

If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.

Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.

Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.

I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.

If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.

I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.

If you read this book and fancy joining me in my appreciation of Ms Thomas, I recommend you also check out PopCo (it actually got me interested in maths) and The End of Mr Y.

Author Natasha Mostert talks about her Favourite Book

The task of choosing a favourite book is daunting because there are so many books I love and look to for inspiration. But Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is the novel I reach for whenever I feel my prose turning stale and predictable. It is the most haunting story written in the most beautiful language. There are two sentences in this book, which to me sums up the appeal of the novel: “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret.” Every time I finish reading this book, I feel as though I have visited a magic place that will continue to enchant me no matter how many times I visit, even as it stays wholly mysterious.

Rhys’s novel functions as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read Jane Eyre many years before Sargasso Sea and even then the “mad woman in the attic” fascinated me. In Sargasso Sea the destructive lunatic in Bronte’s novel is revealed as the beautiful, vulnerable and yes — mentally fragile — Antoinette Cosway, who descends into madness as her relationship with Mr. Rochester disintegrates. It is a book that deals with themes of racial inequality, displacement and the toxic attraction between one man and the woman he desires, even as he is repelled by the very sensuality of her nature, which captivated him in the first place. A stunning read.

Visit Natasha at her website (which has one of the coolest front pages I’ve seen in a long time) or on her Facebook page. I’ve said it before, but if you’re interested in reading supernatural fiction with a grown up edge, a good starting point is Natasha’s Season of the Witch. I’m also looking forward to reading Dark Prayer.

Author Peter Salmon talks about his Favourite Book

Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story

I always wonder what books authors like to read, so I recently contacted some of the great authors who have featured on my blog in recent years to ask what their favourite book is and why they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to introduce the first guest post from Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story.  I’m adding it straight to my reading list.

The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow
‘On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass … With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul … The day was hot and overcast … and the traffic was wondering – I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going … This is a Tinline felt-tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79c made in USA by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing room … Daniel, a tall young man of twenty-five …’

From the moment I started The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, I knew nothing would be the same. This is the most vicious, passionate, desperate, glorious and brilliant book I have ever read – The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off, and I’d owe Doctorow royalties if I earned any.

I won’t go into the plot – it’s loosely based on the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying in 50s USA –  but I do want to talk about it as a piece of writing. This was the book that first taught me that ANYTHING is possible in the novel – being a paid up member of the artsy wanky pomo clan before I read this, I was well versed in narrative techniques and saw them as some sort of intellectual game. Then this book came along and made me realise that when you embark on a novel the thing is to use every possible method to speak the narrative truth required. The Book of Daniel uses discontinuous narrative, time-shifts, POV shifts, not as a game, but because it’s a story that – literally cannot be told any other way.

And Doctorow tried. The first version of the book was written third person, calm, collected etc etc. Doctorow finished and realised he’d failed. So (and I’m exaggerating for effect, but not much) he threw the whole thing in the bin, and in sheer bloody frustration, wrote the opening paragraph above. And produced a howl of rage and pain that, in the end, can only be described by his own – Daniel’s own, summation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, halfway through the book…

‘But historians of America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive, Poe, who wore a hole through the parchment, and let the darkness pour though… It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America.’

Astonishing.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter

100 Artists for Literacy

 

100 Artists for Literacy

100 Artists for Literacy.

I loved the above post on Anni Cardi’s blog, which links you to a charity Doedemee selling posters of redesigned book covers to help raise money to fight illiteracy.

Guess where I’m shopping this month! I think I’ll probably get the Wuthering Heights design for myself,  because it’s completely gorgeous AND one of my favourite books.

The posters for Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland, Anna Karenina, Wind in the Willows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atonement and Northern Lights are also amazing. I might ask for some for my birthday/Christmas.

When God Was A Rabbit

I have to admit that it was the title that drew me to this book. The idea that God, for a time at least, might have been a rabbit intrigued me much more than the blurb which didn’t really seem to summarise the plot, but having read the book, I now understand that this was something of an impossible task.

Narrated by Elly, When God was a Rabbit  follows her family and their friends from 70s suburbia to the early years of the 21st century. Though deeply concerned with the relationship between Elly and her older brother Joe, who she idolizes, it also observes the family’s wider relationships with a colourful array of characters with a curious mixture of dark humour and crushing pathos as they live through nativity plays, pool winnings and the aftermath of 9/11.

Though the plot of the novel is loose, perhaps best described as a group bildungsroman which has wandered into the terrain of magic realism, the novel is glued together though vivid characterisation and the plot’s momentum is driven by their responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Just a smattering of characters you should look out for include Jenny Penny, a gritty urban Pippy Longstocking; Nancy, the lesbian actress aunt who is deeply in love with her brother’s wife; Arthur Henry, a retired academic/diplomat who knows the precise moment he will die and has budgeted accordingly; and of course, God, the eponymous rabbit.

Without wanting to sound too much like a stock blurb, this is an epic story of family, but above all friendship, which runs the gamut between happiness and heartbreak, innocence lost and absolution found, and all the while you will be laughing and crying along with the characters. Even if you are on an aeroplane and attempting to maintain some composure, you won’t be able to. You’ll get lost in the story. Read it, read it or you will never truly appreciate how good it is.