Book choice for April 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray [suggested by Amy Gregg]

front cover

A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant?  Why not both?  After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man's portrait, his subject's frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true.  Dorian Gray's picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent.  After he kills a young woman, "as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife," Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings.  "The roses are not less lovely for all that.  The birds sing just as happily in my garden."

As Hallward tries to make sense of his creation, his epigram-happy friend Lord Henry Wotton encourages Dorian in his sensual quest with any number of Wildean paradoxes, including the delightful "When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy."  But despite its many languorous pleasures, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an imperfect work.  Compared to the two (voyeuristic) older men, Dorian is a bore, and his search for ever new sensations far less fun than the novel's drawing-room discussions.  Even more oddly, the moral message of the novel contradicts many of Wilde's supposed aims, not least "no artist has ethical sympathies.  An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style."  Nonetheless, the glamour boy gets his just deserts.  And Wilde, defending Dorian Gray, had it both ways: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment."

[review from]

Naturally this book is so famous it has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Oscar Wilde needs no further purple biographising prose on this humble website.

Here is an extract from the biography on his "official website"

Oscar Wilde's rich and dramatic portrayals of the human condition came during the height of the Victorian Era that swept through London in the late 19th century.  At a time when all citizens of Britain were finally able to embrace literature the wealthy and educated could only once afford, Wilde wrote many short stories, plays and poems that continue to inspire millions around the world.

Read more here, or see what Wikipedia has to say.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can now decide whether to bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected).  This month, Amy suggested three books, the others being:

The English Patient

The English Patient

Haunting and harrowing, as beautiful as it is disturbing, The English Patient tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in an Italian monastery as the second world war ends.  The exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burn victim who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of sheet lightning.  In lyrical prose informed by a poetic consciousness, Michael Ondaatje weaves these characters together, pulls them tight, then unravels the threads with unsettling acumen.

[review from]

About the Author

Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka on 12 September 1943. He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since.  He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971.  He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983.  His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998).

His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden.  The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996.  Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells the story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group .

Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick.  His new novel is Divisadero (2007).

[borrowed from the Contemporary Writers website, and there's a Wikipedia page too]


Small Island

Small Island

Andrea Levy's award winning book 'Small Island' is a story about prejudice: Britain's and American GI's racism towards the "invading darkies"; middle-class Londoners snobbery towards the Cockneys; the Jamaicans towards the "small islanders"; the British empires treatment of its Caribbean and Indian colonies.

Told from the perspective of four different characters, it tells the story of the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain following World War II, through the life of Airman Joseph Gilbert and his wife Hortense. Despite fighting against the Nazi's as a member of the RAF, when Gilbert returns to his 'Mother Country' with ambitions of training to become a Lawyer, all he finds in London is unfriendly faces, hatred, and a job as Royal Mail driver. However, he does find accommodation with Queenie Bligh, who, in need of rent, lets the empty rooms of her house to immigrants and faces just as much scorn and hatred from her neighbours as a result. Events soon come to a head when Queenie's husband, Bernard, returns home from India two years after the War has ended.

Andrea Levy's writing is superb - rich, observant, engaging and funny - her characters each have a unique voice and the story or characters are never patronising or preaching, which is a great achievement for a book about racism and bigotry. 'Small Island' is a beautiful and accomplished novel, and well worth reading.

[review from amazon]

About the Author

Andrea Levy is a child of the Windrush.  She is the daughter of one of the pioneers who sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush ship.  Her father and later her mother came to Britain in 1948 in search of a better life.  For the British born Levy this meant that she grew up black in a very white England.  This experience has given her an unusual perspective on the country of her birth � neither feeling totally part of the society nor a total outsider.

In her novel Small Island she puts this perspective to work.  She examines the experiences of those of her father's generation who returned to Britain after being in the RAF during the Second World War.  But more than just the story of the Jamaicans who came looking for a new life in the Mother Country, she uses her understanding of the white society to show the adjustments and problems faced by the English people whom those Jamaicans came to live amongst.  Immigration changes everyone's lives and in Small Island Levy examines not only the conflicts of two cultures thrown together after a terrible war, but also the kindness and strength people can show to each other.  The Second World War was a great catalyst that has led to the multi-cultural society Britain has become.  For Andrea Levy acknowledging the role played by all sides in this change is an important part of understanding the process so we can go on to create a better future together.


...or check out good old Wikipedia.


Previous Months' Book Choices

March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006