Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan / Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi / The Ark Before Noah by Dr Irving Finkel

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I'm glad I didn't allow the effusive praise on the cover of The Spinning Heart to put me off reading the novel as I thoroughly enjoyed it and, for a debut author, this is an impressive achievement. The eponymous heart does not refer to that of a lovelorn Irish lass, as might be expected from the presentation, but to a creaking metal heart on the worn gate of a bitter old man, one of the many characters we meet during the course of this story.

Ryan allocates each chapter to a different inhabitant of a small bankrupt town in Ireland. Bobby, Kate, Bridie, Lily and others speak to us directly, with distinctive voices, and as each describes their situation and passes along the latest gossip, we come to understand their sad circumstances. I remember a few years ago seeing a TV documentary which visited an Irish estate where only a couple of the new houses were sold and inhabited, the rest simply decaying around them. The plight of the families trapped in these unsellable homes was disturbing and Ryan explores what led to the phenomenon in The Spinning Heart. I liked the way Ryan intertwines each chapter. He allows enough repetition of facts to quickly establish the relationship of the speaker to other people I had already met. However, he never overdoes this or allows it to slow the pace of the work. The voices sound authentic so I could easily empathise and understand their choices even if I didn't agree with their actions. Perhaps I could have done without the voice of a ghost though.

The Spinning Heart is a quick read at just 156 pages, but packs quite a punch. The colloquial language used enhances the atmosphere and several of the chapters were emotional to read.

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Books by Donal Ryan / Contemporary fiction / Books from Ireland


Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I was attracted to Reading Lolita In Tehran by its promise of revealing life within Iran and also by the Margaret Atwood quote on the front of 'A book lover's tale'. Published as memoir, Nafisi does state right at the start that she had to change names and events in order to protect those remaining in Iran therefore it is hard to tell how much is actually true and how much flavoured by truth but essentially fiction. What is overwhelmingly apparent throughout is Nafisi's obsessive love for the greats of Western fiction and the energy she devotes to spreading this love as far as she can.

Always a teacher, I did feel hectored by her tone at certain points in the book and there are frequent swings off into pure literary criticism. I wasn't expecting so much of a book about books so it took me a while to adjust to 'joining her class'. However, I now have several of the titles added to my To Be Read list as Nafisi's enthusiasm is inspiring. I'm not sure that I agree with all her critical conclusions and some of the connections drawn between the literary worlds and Iran seemed tenuous, but not having been in such a situation myself, I cannot tell how my reading of the books would be coloured by the daily lives these women lead.

The title of Reading Lolita In Tehran is obviously meant to be titillatingly eyecatching to a potential Western reader and I think it actually detracts from the content of the memoir. Yes, Lolita is one of the many books discussed, but the choice of this for the title seems cynical to me.
I wanted to learn how Iranian people adjusted to the restrictions on their lives after the Revolution. The difference between the neutral view presented of people who are religious Muslims and anger at those in power who used their interpretation of Islam to enforce the rigid lifestyle is interesting. Nafisi did seem to glide a line that allowed her to get away with transgressions for which her students were punished, even jailed. Perhaps her family name is more powerful than admitted or perhaps her previous Westernisation marked her as a lost cause compared to the younger girls. I was frustrated by her lack of external attention, several times admitting she hadn't noticed or asked something at the time that I would have loved to have learned. However, I feel I now have a basic understanding of Iran at this time as well as, of course, many insights into classic novels that I must get around to reading.

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Books by Azar Nafisi / Biography and memoir / Books from Iran


The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I downloaded The Ark Before Noah from Audible in a version which is read by the author, Dr Irving Finkel. For the first few minutes, I found his unpolished narrating style awkward to listen to and wondered if I had made a mistake. However, once his wonderful enthusiasm began to shine through, I was hooked. Finkel discusses his academic life, British Museum career and fabulous fairly-recent discovery of an ancient clay tablet containing details concerning the story of the ark and the flood. He also introduces us to the earliest origins of the story - waaay before the Hebrew Bible - and collects together other tablets with parts of the famous tale and shows how it evolved over some 4000 years into what we know today.

I was particularly fascinated by the comprehensive comparisons of the different tablets and their meshing story versions. As I have only heard the heroes' names, I am not going to attempt to spell them, but it had not previously occurred to me that Noah wasn't always called Noah! The earliest flood version wasn't occasioned by sin either - humans had simply become too noisy for the Gods to endure! Finkel goes into immense detail in his tablet comparions. He examines ark building techniques, mountain landing sites, and intricacies of language in a way that could be too in depth for less nerdy souls. I appreciated his dry humour throughout but am unsure whether this would come across via the printed page. This purely aural version obviously didn't contain images though so I think now a trip to the British Museum is called for so I can see the Ark tablet and Babylonian Map tablet 'in the flesh'. I am so intrigued by their existence that I might visit even if it's not raining!

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Books by Irving Finkel / History / Books from England

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