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Oh Comely Book Club: The Art of Joy

words Liz Ann Bennett

12th September 2014

It's the last day of the Oh Comely Book Club. We'd like to thank Penguin Classics for helping to make this happen. They're like a well-read friend who always has a good book to recommend.

Liz Ann Bennet was pretty confident that this Italian erotic novel would leave her joyless, but has been happily proved wrong. Here's how she's finding it:

I haven't finished The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza yet. It's nearly 700 pages, and I haven't read anything that long since I was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings ten years ago.

Besides, I knew by page 15 that this wasn't going to be my sort of book. An early scene depicts our heroine Modesta, who is on the cusp of puberty, being raped by a man who claims to be her father. I have nothing against uncomfortable scenes, but this was so soon in the story. It felt tone-setting and gratuitous.

But sometimes the things you know ain't so, and I am now on page 260 and thoroughly enjoying the book. Set in 20th-century Sicily, Modesta grows up to be a masterful manipulator and killer. Yet she is a seductive personality and the inside of her head is a fascinating place to be. Sapienza handles Modesta's bisexuality with a refreshing deftness, and I've rarely read such an absorbing and convincing account of personal growth and change. It's no Fifty Shades.

What did you think, fellow readers? How far have you got?

And, as the book club finishes, I'd also like to hear about books that pleasantly surprised you. Being immersed in the unexpected is what makes reading so special.

Here's a review by Kirstin Papworth, who also blogged it here. We give Kirstin a round of applause for completing this in time.

I read the first half of the book fairly quickly. It was gripping, intriguing and unsettling. The structure reminded me of Jane Eyre, as the protagonist Modesta recounted her early memories of childhood and led the reader through her adolescence to her adulthood as, like Jane, a strong, capable woman. Yet The Art of Joy is almost an anti-Victorian novel, an inverted Jane Eyre.

Modesta's early experiences involve sadistic masturbation to the screams of her sister and sex with a stranger who claims to be her father. Even a decade spent in a convent doesn't transform Modesta into the chaste, obedient woman she's meant behave like. But The Art of Joy isn't the typical 'fallen woman' storyline like Madame Bovary. Modesta acquires wealth, an education and status, without giving up her sexual adventures with men and women.

I read the entire novel and really enjoyed it, but thought that it was a bit too long. Modesta was a really strong and likeable character, but other characters felt two dimensional in comparison, as if they were cameo roles to indulge her as a femme fatale. This might be because I got a bit bored of the plot and skim read the last 300 pages! With incestuous relationships continuing through the novel's fifty year span and numerous characters having nicknames, I got lost in a web of characters who may or may not have been related to each other. Unfortunately Sparknotes wasn't able to help me out either!

Reader Photos: Teri Polson and Kirstin Papworth. / Read more at Penguin Classics.

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Oh Comely Documentary Film Night IV

words Jason Ward

11th September 2014

Do you fancy watching a film up in a 13th-century church tower? You've come to the right place. It's the last in our summer documentary series, and as usual there'll be an intimate audience of just 40 people, so book fast.

This documentary is one of the most visually magnificent ever made. Godfrey Reggio's seminal Koyaanisqatsi is famed for its pioneering use of time-lapse photography. The film is a wordless cinematic poem that depicts man's complicated relationship with technology. Set to a hypnotic score from composer Phillip Glass, the film's environmental concerns are perhaps even more relevant now than on its original release 32 years ago.

The screening will take place at St. Augustine's Tower in Hackney at 19:15 on Thursday, 18th September, and the doors will be open from 18:30. There will be a programme of short films followed by the main feature. Only open to the public once a month, St. Augustine's Tower is a truly special place to watch this film.

Tickets cost £7 and include a free glass of wine. Visit the event page to book your place. 

What: Koyaanisqatsi (1982, 86 minutes) and a programme of shorts.

When: Thursday 18th September at 19:15 (doors 18:30).

Where: St Augustine's Tower, Hackney, London.

The Qatsi Trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi) is available on DVD now.

St Augustine's Tower, where the screening will take place. 

Oh Comely Book Club: Crime and Punishment

words Rosanna Durham

11th September 2014

On the forth day of the Oh Comely Book Club we're reading a Russian classic, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Here's a brief summary of the book and some starting thoughts:

Written in the summer of 1865, Crime and Punishment tells the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St. Petersburg, who plans the murder of Alyona Ivanovna, a local pawnbroker.

Raskolnikov believes his act of murder to be justified by his claim to a higher purpose and plan to use the stolen cash towards a good end. But his execution of the crime falls apart when the pawnbroker's sister walks in on the murder. Raskolnikov kills them both and then lingers at the crime scene, leaving the broker's purse behind when he finally flees.

The fallout from Raskolnikov's misdeed is a portrait of his decent into madness and--at the encouragement of his friend, a prostitute named Sonya--his admission of guilt, eventual confession and punishment.

What did readers think of the book? Some starting points that interested me were as follows. When Raskolnikov admits his crime to Sonia, he comments: "Did I really kill the old woman? No, it was myself I killed … As for the old woman, it was the devil who killed her, not I." What do you make of this statement? How do you view the female characters in the book, and their part in the narrative?

A final note on the edition we've been reading, which is Penguin Classic's new translation by Oxford academic Oliver Ready. Oliver has attempted to convey the stylistic peculiarities of Dostoyevsky's language to an English audience using a fresh, modern idiom. The book is presented with an evocative cover drawing of axe-wielding Raskolnikov by Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin.

Here's what Hayley Miller thought:

I don't know where my idea of what Crime and Punishment would be like came from. I try to avoid preconceptions, to be aware of judgements I feel creeping into my mind that aren't formed by my own experience of books and films and yet when I held the 658 pages I realised it felt smaller than I imagined, in a strange way sort of vulnerable. I suppose I had pictured a great brick of classic literature, heavy and imposing. I had prepared for a fight with confusing dialogue and as it turned out my opponent wasn't a muscular presence but a lanky, unhealthy shadow.

I began the first paragraph with a little apprehension but as soon as I read, the school teachers furrowed brow vanished from my mind's eye and, I was right there; or he was somehow right here.

The English garden I sat reading in became a Russian street, the shed the shadow of a rundown building filled with the clouded thoughts of a troubled mind. My own thoughts became unsettled as though by reading Dostoevsky's words I had allowed the crime to unfold, as though I had become Raskolnikov's accomplice.

Photos by emilyfordham and Hayley M. / Read more at Penguin Classics.

Oh Comely Book Club: Liveforever

words Tamara Vos

10th September 2014

The Oh Comely Book Club is well under way, and we're celebrating its third day with Adrés Caicedo's shout-out to youth, Liveforever. Our online editor Tamara gives us her thoughts on the book:

Maria wakes up as usual, but rather than go to school she decides instead to wander into the streets of Columbia in search of fun and life. From here the plot is swept away in a never-ending current of parties, rumbas and gigs, with Maria always at their centre. Drugs and sex run rife throughout, and the prose reflects their heady, intoxicating effect through Maria's erratic stream-of-consciousness. Caicedo also carefully documents each song that the protagonist comes across, sometimes dedicating a whole page to writing out its lyrics; this reminded me of the obsessive and almost talismanic way in which my classmates and I used to devour music as teenagers. 

The book is repetitive and its narrator not very likeable, but I found myself racing through with nervous anticipation for what might come. Although not a book for those who like a strong plot and clear beginning, middle and end, Andrés Caicedo captures a certain type of youth brilliantly, leaving behind the bitter taste of stale smoke and tired eyes once the last page was over. 

Here's what some of you thought:

This wasn’t a comfortable read and the constant drug use and increasing violence wasn’t my thing at all. I admired the vision of the writer, the attempt to get inside the skin of what music can mean but ultimately found it depressing, particularly when I discovered the writer actually committed suicide on the day his book was originally published.

Rebecca Kershaw. 

The book started off well but as it continued I found it rather repetitive, rambling and difficult to follow. I didn’t connect with the narrator or care about her outcome. The back cover describes the book as “a wild celebration of youth,” but I didn’t feel this and found it more a description of Maria’s decline into drug addiction and ultimately prostitution. I had hoped it would be a reminder of the excitement of being young, but actually found it to be negative and disturbing, especially the violence.

Lynn Hall, Newcastle.

I think I'd give this 3.5 stars but I always round up.

I have to say I didn't like the narrator; I found her to be a bit of a brat. She was all "I'm so special because of my blonde hair" and "all the boys love to see me because I'm so beautiful" which was really annoying. In my head she was mid-20's but in fact she was in her late teens, which maybe makes her selfish attitude a little more understandable. An awful lot of her "friends" kill themselves and this doesn't seem to upset her or bother her in any way.  

One thing I didn't understand was Maria's attitude to sex. It seemed like she wasn't bothered by it and she talked about how having sex with her caused the men pain. I didn't get it, and I felt sad for her that she didn't experience something more loving.

Dennie White.

At the beginning I was really enjoying this book, but the pace dropped all of a sudden and I found I a bit dull.

Matt Blackstock.

Reader Photos: martarchi and kate_and_cloud. / Read more at Penguin Classics.

Oh Comely Book Club: Near to the Wild Heart

words Tamara Vos

8th September 2014

It's Tuesday, and time for book two of the Oh Comely's Book Club: Near to the Wild Heart, by Clarice Lispector.

Today's discussion is hosted by Tara Caimi, a writer whose pieces have appeared in Oh ComelyWriter’s ChronicleFire & Knives (sadly, out of print) and Whereabouts: Stepping Out of Place. Her memoir Mush: from sled dogs to celiac, the scenic detour of my life is forthcoming with Plain View Press. Here's what she thought of the book:

Clarice Lispector's lyrical language and sensory descriptions in Near to the Wild Heart read like nothing I've come across before and like nothing I'm likely to come across again. The plot is secondary, with bits emerging like white caps on a turbulent sea as the reader sinks, trancelike, into the depths of the protagonist's musings. One has to wonder, with language this beautiful, how much has been lost in translation.

Joana's mother is dead, and her father has little time for her. We see her retreating into her mind, detaching from the world around her. By the time her father dies, Joana has learned to rely on her imagination for comfort and support. She goes to live with relatives, but they cannot relate to her reticence. She is withdrawn and introspective, and they actually fear her. They send her to boarding school where she makes a connection with a teacher, but even he eventually succumbs to his own domestic concerns.

While Joana goes through the motions of life, the substance is inside her head. She searches for truth and explores the essence of existence, analyzing her observations with circuitous logic. She marries a man who has an affair with his ex-fiancé. When she learns of the affair, Joana takes a lover of her own but, true to her detached nature, chooses not to learn the man's name. When her lover is mysteriously taken away, Joana finds herself physically alone. Only then does she recognize and accept her power - a power that is fuelled by the inner workings of her mind.

Did you pick Near to the Wild Heart as your Book Club choice? What did you think? Head to our Facebook Page to join the discussion.

Here's what some of you thought: 

Near to the Wild Heart follows the life of Joana as she marries the faithless Otavio and moves through an array of emotional states. The story's almost dreamlike and the short sentences and vivid descriptions have you racing through the pages. In scenes which could be described as grotesque in manner, only a few words are needed for the reader to understand the action.

The final chapter ‘The Journey’ is just beautiful and the repetition of ‘De Profundis’ meaning ‘from the depths’ throughout makes you vividly imagine Joana standing, speaking out loud this last phase before the book ends. Rather more like a poem than a novel, the repetition of words and noises created through Lispector's beautiful descriptions make you tuck underneath the duvets just a touch more.

Not something I would normally pick up but something I would definitely recommend. 

Emily Smith. 

Although it was beautifully written, I felt like I was lost in a stream-of-consciousness sea! I was missing a sense of story. I wanted something to happen.

Anonymous. 

My experience of trying to read this book is best described by the first sentence of page 23: 'I get distracted a lot'. No matter how much I read my mind just kept wandering!

Hannah.

Reader photos from top: twoeggtartsplease and annastarra. / Read more at Penguin Classics.

Oh Comely Book Club: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

words Tamara Vos

8th September 2014

It's Oh Comely Book Club Week, and to kick off we have our first Penguin Classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. 

This short and eerie Gothic masterpiece is told by young Merricat, who lives alone with her sister Constance after the rest of their family were murdered one lunchtime by a generous dose of arsenic. Although Constance had cooked the lunch, she was acquitted of all charges, and now the sisters live hidden away in Blackwood Estate, away from the taunts and stares of the village. Merricat likes it that way though; she loves being spoilt by her sister, she loves their undisturbed lives, and she loves being carried away by her fantasies. All is as it should be, until a distant cousin arrives on their doorstep and threatens to rock the fairytale world that the sisters have created for themselves.

As quick and smooth to read as swallowing a lozenge, I raced through the pages with pleasant chills running down my spine. Rarely do I become so engrossed by a narrator's story, but Merricat's voice dripped with such dark and disturbing naivety that I couldn't put the book down until it was over. 

What did you think? Were you transported into Merricat's Gothic world, or were you unconvinced by the twist at the end? Join in the discussion on our Facebook page. 

Here's what some of you thought:

Throughout this tale of tangled relationships and concealed malice, an atmosphere of creeping unease pervades. As the reader is drawn into the Blackwood sisters’ claustrophobic world, sinister revelations unfold and the novel is propelled towards a conclusion which is strangely inevitable and yet subversively unexpected. We Have Always Lived in the Castle leaves us with thoughts of Merricat and Constance that remain, puzzling and wraith-like, long after the novel’s pages have closed.

Laura Pashby, www.circleofpinetrees.com

Read during my holiday, I was transported into the eccentric world of Merricat and Constance. There's an almost fairytale quality to the story, with buried treasure, charms and sisters living in their own gingerbread house. But as in all good fairytales there is a darkness, one that runs from the first page to the last, with talk of werewolves and witches. But in between the tale is a simple one, one that is chillingly real and surrounds a deep secret that the reader is trusted to carry.

This is a beautifully crafted book, one that I would recommend and all ready have.

Natalie McFadyen White.

I loved this story; I found it both enchanting and frightening, and since finishing the book I've bought more of Shirley Jackson's work. I will also be nagging my manager to order some copies for the senior school library, where I work, as I think the pupils will find it accessible and very different from their course texts. 

Cecily Fleming, Somerset. 

It didn't take me long to become hooked on this book, and what did it was the mention of arsenic. It instantly reminded me of the many Agatha Christie books I read as a teenager. Unlike the tales of Miss Marple however, it was me that was the detective, attempting to work out from the clues in the dialogue, who was ultimately responsible for wiping out the majority of The Blackwood family. The book was also infinitely creepier than a Christie novel. Very dark and in a strange way, very funny.

Sally Gill. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle has the perfect balance of dark and light, of good and of evil, of hope and of tragedy.

Viki.
 
 
Reader photos from top: Laura Pashby, Natalie McFadyen White, nessatownley. / Read more at Penguin Classics.

Sponsored Post: A Short Film by Johnnie Walker Blue Label

words Rosie Blunt

5th September 2014

Do you like whiskey? If so, you'll appreciate Johnnie Walker Blue Label. It's a blend of Scotland's rare whiskies: I'm told that only one in ten-thousand casks is of sufficient quality to be chosen for the Blue Label blend.

With this standard in mind, the team behind Johnnie Walker Blue Label recently set out to make a short film to encapsulate the character of their whiskey. Called The Gentleman's Wager, it stars Jude Law and Giancarlo Giannini and begins on an old, beautiful boat in the Caribbean. 

While the film's scenario is miles away from anywhere I'd imagine myself to be hanging out, its exoticism is precisely the point. One pleasure of enjoying a good whiskey are the fantasies of the drink's history and persona that blend together one fine sip at a time.

This is a sponsored post.

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They Came Together: Interview with Director David Wain

words Jason Ward

3rd September 2014

Diligently replicating the tropes employed by countless romantic comedies – from third act contrivances to thinly-drawn friends that exist only as sounding boards – They Came Together is both a merciless parody of the genre's well-worn conventions and an affectionate homage to them.

Starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as archetypal business rivals-turned-romantic interests, the film shares its absurdist tone with the other work of director David Wain, which includes Wet Hot American Summer and seminal sketch show The State. Ahead of its upcoming release in cinemas and on VOD we spoke to David about the project's long gestation and why romantic comedies hold an enduring appeal.

You co-wrote They Came Together with Michael Showalter in 2002. What stopped it getting made then?

Originally we wrote it for a big studio as a more straightforward spoof that was in vogue at the time, more like Scary Movie, but the studio believed that the audience for those kinds of movies and the people who are interested in romantic comedies don't generally overlap. They were probably right: it wouldn't have been a great studio project. I'm happier with the way we made it now, more in our own voice. It seems to makes sense in this configuration: it's a smaller movie, and it's come at a time when the audience is more caught up to the people involved and our sense of humour.

Is it freeing to make something for a lower budget, or does it bring other challenges?

I tend to say it's more freeing because of the different stakes. For better or worse, we had the ability to make the movie we wanted to make, which is the only way it could have worked. Unless you happen to fall into a situation where a studio really understands your work and wants to protect it, the normal development and oversight process is creatively very hard on comedy that's from a specific point of view.  

They Came Together picks apart romantic comedies but it seems that to make it you'd have to have a genuine passion for the genre too. Do you?

I have a huge passion for them. Romantic comedies are among my favourite films. Michael and I have been friends since we were 18 years old and we bonded over talking about romantic comedies and the ones we love. Truthfully, even the ones that aren't great we love too. There's just something comforting and wonderful about the rom-com formula and we both have real nostalgia and love for it. Along with that comes having fun pointing out the tropes. My feeling is that They Came Together isn't saying romantic comedies are stupid, it's saying the opposite. They're worthy of being made fun of.

The formula works even as it's being deconstructed: you can't help being a little swept up in the story's romance.

Exactly. In a way if there's any investment in these characters that's a true testament to the genre formula. We are doing our best to undercut it at every single moment but still the chemistry and charisma of our two leads and the basic tent poles of the formula overrides that to some degree.

What would you say is the most egregious romantic comedy trope for you?

There are so many. From top to bottom there are requisite situations in romantic comedies that don't bear any resemblance to most people's real lives. One of the most bizarre ones is the larger narrative structure: more often than not the boy and girl are really in love and things fall apart based on a single event that is often very simplistic, and then the reason they make up is even more simplistic – one goes up to the other one and says the right thing at the right moment and all is forgiven. It grossly simplifies and romanticises the real nature of relationships, which I think is exactly why we love these movies. They avoid the complexity and frustration and messiness of actual relationships.

They Came Together is out in UK cinemas on the 5th of September.