Monday, February 28, 2011

2,571: Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

I don’t know about you but I have a very bad habit.  Actually, I probably have many very bad habits but there’s only one that’s pertinent to this post.  You see, whenever I visit someone’s house, I don’t just check out their bookshelves, I pretty much go through them in detail to see what they read.  I’ve even been known to stand there with my head cocked on one side, reading book spines while my host or another guest is talking to me, which never fails to irritate Mrs Falaise.  I suppose it’s another attraction of blogging and reading other blogs, that you get to see what other people have on their virtual shelves.

I hope you recognise at least a little bit of you in that last paragraph and that I am not freakishly alone in this quirk.  If you do, you, like me, will probably enjoy Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, the noted author, critic and publisher.

Ms Hill spent a year reading only books she already had in the house she shares with her husband, Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, and her family in Gloucestershire and has turned that year into a part-description of that year, a part-memoir and a part-essay on her favourite books.  Her range is extensive and eclectic, covering everything from the likes of Dickens, Hardy and Trollope to lighter fare such as Fleming, Sayers and Wodehouse and, for a member of Britain’s literary establishment, she has refreshingly non-elitist views on reading materials.  This all makes for a fascinating and entertaining tour of her book collection.

She is, of course, helped by the fact that she lives in a large farmhouse with plenty of room for books and that, as one half of a bookish couple, there are no tensions over book storage (her husband even has an entire room dedicated to Shakespeare scholarship).  For anyone with limited storage space, this book is likely to rouse the green monster of jealousy repeatedly.

This will not be the only cause of envy arising from Howard’s End is on the Landing.  Susan Hill had her first novel published even before she started at university and was quickly taken up by London literary circles in the late 1960s.  As a result, she has known or met many of the most famous authors of the late 20th Century.  The memoir side of the book is replete with tales of how she bumped into E.M. Forster in the London Library as an undergraduate or how she was humiliated by Edith Sitwell or how she met Ian Fleming at a party.  Frankly, if you have ever harboured ambitions of writing, parts of this book will make you wish to be able to swap lives with Ms Hill.

In truth, the name dropping would be a little boastful or pretentious if it weren’t for the fact that the literary world is so clearly her milieu.  It is a natural place for her and it is authors and academics who people her world.  Once you accept this, it is easier to enjoy the linkage between some of her favourite works and her friends and colleagues.

She also has a number of opinions from which I differ.  She sees no point in e-readers which, as you will appreciate if you read my post on the subject, is definitely not something with which I agree (although I do have some sympathy with her viewpoint) and I find it slightly amusing that this book is now available in a Kindle version.  I am also at odds with her on the subject of P.G. Wodehouse’s short stories.  She believes that his style, “ambling up to a novel, taking the scenic route”, doesn’t work.  I believe that many of his short stories are mini-masterpieces although I accept that the best are linked chronologically in the books in which they appear.  On the whole, though, I find myself pleasingly in agreement with her.  Our views on Sayers, le Carré, Fleming and Wodehouse’s novels coincide and neither of us is fond of Austen.

If all this weren’t enough to pique your interest, she even includes as a mini-theme, the picking of a list of the 40 books she would choose if she could only have 40 books to last the rest of her life.  It seems to me that many bloggers, maybe even most book bloggers, love lists of books and so this must be the cherry on the top of this particular cake.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the highest praise I can give it is that, having read it, I would love to be able to spend an afternoon pottering about in her house examining her shelves and then to sit down for a cup of tea with her to hear more reminiscences.

Friday, February 25, 2011

2,572: 1,001 Books Challenge - Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

Humboldt’s Gift  is the story of the relationship between Von Humboldt Fleischer, a poet whose early critical success faded before he died a half-mad failure, and his protégé, Charlie Citrine, a more successful but lesser writer whose personal and professional lives disintegrate as the book progresses.  As Charlie’s life reaches a nadir, he comes into possession of a posthumous gift from Von Humboldt, which could possibly change his life forever.

 I really thought I was going to enjoy this book.  I’d read lots of things about how it considered the tension between art and commerce, how the title character was based on poet Delmore Schwartz and Citrine, the book’s central figure, was based on Bellow himself, a close friend of Schwartz, and that it was funny and wise and generally great.  I knew that Bellow was a Nobel Prize winner and that Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize.  So I opened it up with great expectations.......

.........which is pretty much where it all started to go wrong for me.  I found this one a real struggle to get through and, ultimately, a bit of a “miss”.  It’s not all bad, to be fair.  There are some very amusing passages, much of the writing is shot through with energy and verve and several of the characters, particularly minor characters such as Thaxter and the lawyers, Szathmar and Pinske are extremely well drawn.  Overall, however, I can’t help feeling that this is a novel where a good story and some interesting themes are struggling to avoid drowning in an ocean of verbiage.

To begin with, there are swathes of the book where Bellow rampages off into lengthy discussions on issues such as love, death, boredom, beauty, laziness and, most turgidly of all, anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner.  Not only do these mini-essays bludgeon the plot into submission but they are, in themselves, confused, in some cases meaningless, and several of them even read like the kind of drivelling nonsense we sometimes spout, late at night, with friends, after a couple too many whiskeys.  Now this wouldn’t matter too much if they were emanating from the mouth of Von Humboldt Fleischer who, after all, is supposed to be a crazy, half-cut poet-philosopher, whose talent has been chewed up and spat out by a tough, commercially-minded America.  This theme, at least, is successfully dealt with by Bellow.

Unfortunately, however, the majority of these perorations are made by Charlie Citrine, Bellow’s alter-ego, and as he is also the narrator of the story, they make the book flag.  Citrine himself is such a wet blanket that I felt absolutely no sympathy for him as both his personal and professional lives disintegrate around him.  He is passive to an alarming degree, pretentious, dull and pretty unappealing.  The blurb on the back of my copy of Humboldt’s Gift describes Bellow as being self-mocking – on the evidence of this book, self-loathing would be nearer the mark.  By the end of the book, Citrine has been abandoned both by his wife and by his girlfriend, Renata and is near bankrupt.  Frankly, it’s not really a surprise.

I also struggled with the whole Cantabile-Citrine sub-plot.  Cantabile is a minor hoodlum who comes into Charlie’s life while trying to collect a gambling debt and ends up attempting to bully him into a friendship.  Cantabile is constantly giving Charlie advice of a self-interested and commercial bent which is diametrically opposed to the moralistic advice Von Humboldt would give Charlie and which Charlie always ignores.  Cantabile is clearly there to contrast crass materialism with the lofty intellectualism of Von Humboldt, with Charlie stuck in the middle as a writer who has managed to become financially successful.  The problem for me is that I find Cantabile, and the situations he and Charlie get into, to be unrealistic and he therefore detracts from the book as a whole.  I suspect that Bellow could have created this contrast better by increasing the role of Julius, Charlie’s property developer brother in Texas who is also money-oriented but seems to fit into the book more naturally.

Finally, the eponymous gift itself is a disappointment.  It turns out to be pretty banal and actually not really very life-changing after all.  I was hoping for something special, maybe something that would change Charlie’s beliefs or his outlook on life, something that would free him from misery and give him a prod into taking more control.  Instead, we get something material and anti-climactic.

I’m glad there are a couple of Bellow’s other books in the 1,001 Books list as I do want to give him another try.  I didn’t enjoy this one and it frustrated me but I hope that Humboldt’s Gift was just a bad fit for me and not representative of how I am going to feel about Bellow in general.

The next on my 1,001 Books list is Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  A lot has been written about this one and it is, apparently, a very complex book.  It is also a bit of a chunky one.  So wish me luck.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2,573: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Before getting started on this, I should warn you that it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about this book without revealing some of the detail.  As it’s not a novel in the conventional sense of the word, I don’t see these as “spoilers” but if you prefer to know as little as possible about a novel before you read it, then you may want to stop here.  Obviously, please do come back again once you have read it, even if only to disagree with my thoughts.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a collection of 44 short chapters, each containing a reimagining of an episode or theme from The Odyssey.  Copying many a novel, the underlying premise is that an archaeological dig has discovered 44 lost variations to The Odyssey in the ruins of the city of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient city in Upper Egypt.  In real life, this is an important site where many important papyri have been discovered including pieces by Menander.  The premise is flimsy and does not stand up to consideration (for one thing, the book extends to cover the Trojan War as a whole and not just the events of The Odyssey).  Fortunately, it is covered in just a single page at the beginning of the novel and is then never mentioned again, giving all the focus to the variations themselves.

If you like a good, strong plot, this is not going to work for you.  There is no plot.  What Zachary Mason has done is to come up with 44 different images or tales, linked only by the underlying themes of The Odyssey.  To give you a flavour, among the chapters, we see the tale of Polyphemus as told by the Cyclops himself, Odysseus in the Imperial Chinese court, a dead Penelope, an explanation of how both The Iliad and The Odyssey were actually written by the Gods and were read by Odysseus before the event.  There is even an Odysseus who makes it back to Ithaca only to find he has been preceded and supplanted by his doppelgänger.

It would be easy to describe the various tales as independent short stories which can be dipped in and out of but this would be unfair to the book.  The themes of The Odyssey are strongly represented in the stories and link the individual chapters together in a way that, I believe, would cause the impact of the book to be lessened unless read as a whole.

I believe that the main themes of The Odyssey are those of identity, exile and yearning for home and the danger of temptation.  So here we have an Odysseus who marries Nausicaa, an Odysseus who gets home to find that Penelope has married one of the suitors and a Telemachus who goes in search of his father only to be swallowed in the ocean.  The strongest thread through this book is that of identity, its impermanence and its malleability.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is like a hall of mirrors in which our perceptions of Odysseus, Achilles, Penelope and others are constantly distorted and shifted, dancing around the reader and impossible to get a solid grasp on.  Achilles as a golem?  Odysseus as the cowardly author of The Iliad and The Odyssey?  Penelope as cruel descendant of wolves?  Helen as the bride of Odysseus?  Odysseus as his own assassin? All are here.

Mason is, I think, particularly good at melancholy.  He conjures up perfectly the sadness that his characters must feel when their struggles and journeys end in grief or, even worse, anti-climax.  In particular, the last chapter, which has an aged Odysseus retracing his steps to Troy, only to find it a tourist trap in which actors dress as Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and, yes, Odysseus, is especially poignant.

Other reviews of The Lost Books of the Odyssey often use the imagery of riffs to describe the variations and, in truth, the best parts of this book do conjure up the picture of a jazz musician free-styling within the structure of the original piece.  There is real verve in Mason’s writing and a real feeling of a creative flight of joy.  It has to be said, however, that the writing is uneven.  There are wonderful high points but there are also some chapters without a point and a couple that are so oblique and smoke filled that they become essentially meaningless.

This is a minor criticism, however, and this is a thought-provoking and, for the most part, delightful read.  At times I chuckled, at times I felt sorrow for the characters and it also affected my thinking on The Odyssey itself.  One word of warning: if you have not already read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, you will not get a great deal from this.  You really do need to have read them first.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Book to Movie Adaptations

This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted over at the Broke and the Bookish is our top ten book to movie adaptations.  I have to start by admitting that, on the whole I really don’t like film adaptations of books I have enjoyed.  I tend to get very grumpy when the writers and the director allow the film to stray away from being pretty faithful to the original.  At worst this can lead to a temporary lack of popularity with the people I am watching the film with (as exhibit 1 for the prosecution, see my poor behaviour both during and after Troy).  At best, I simply refuse to watch the film version of a favourite book unless it has already been vouched for by someone whose judgment I trust.

So, in making my top ten list, I have decided to adopt a little personal formula.  Firstly, did I enjoy the book?  If so, did I enjoy the film?  Finally, did the plot variations more than mildly annoy me?  On that basis, the nominees for this year’s award are, in no particular order:

1.         The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  This one just about makes the cut as the whole Faramir/Boromir thing almost sent my blood pressure sky high.  On the whole, though, I could see the reason for most of the changes from the book and Peter Jackson did everyone a favour by excising Tom Bombadil entirely.  Fundamentally, having loved the books for years, I was just relieved that the long-awaited movie was fittingly huge in scope and did the books justice.

2.         The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  The novel was a superior thriller and the film is an all-time great.  I can still remember the first time I watched this.  Shame about the sequels though.  Altogether now……… I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

3.         The 39 Steps by John Buchan.  This one is nominated largely because I love the book so much, despite (or maybe because of?) it being so anachronistic.  The movie takes some pretty big liberties with the text but I can forgive it because, hey, it’s Hitchcock and it’s a great old film for a Sunday afternoon.

4.         Watership Down by Richard Adams.  One of my favourite children’s books, the tale of Fiver, Hazel and Bigwig is a classic story which conceals important messages about freedom and tyranny under a sad but hopeful story.  The film version has also become a classic, as did the theme tune, Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel.  Tear-jerking stuff.

5.         Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick.  Bladerunner, the film based on this sci-fi novel moved a long way from the plot of the book but this is forgivable as it is a dystopian masterpiece and the main themes remain intact.  Is Deckard a replicant and what is the meaning of the unicorn?

6.         The Godfather by Mario Puzo.  Loved the book, really loved the film.  One of the greatest films ever and the book is surprisingly good.  I’ll give you a bet that everyone in the developed world over the age of 25 can quote at least one line from the movie.

7.         Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.   I am a long time proselytiser for the James Bond novels, which I believe are far better books than they are given credit for.  Goldfinger was once included in a longlist of the 50 best book to film adaptations but, in my view, the film version of Casino Royale is a more faithful replication of the underlying mood and style of the original.

8.         A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without this.  There have been countless movie versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol but I am nominated the 1951 version, Scrooge (A Christmas Carol in the USA), with Alistair Sim giving a legendary performance as Ebeneezer himself.  This version brings back all sorts of childhood memories and deserves a place on my list for this reason alone.  If you would like to read more about the book, I have posted previously about it here.

9.         The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.  He may be a thoroughly right-wing old fogey but, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Frederick Forsyth wrote a string of wonderful thrillers including The Dogs of War, The Odessa File and this story of an assassination attempt on President Charles de Gaulle of France.  Both the book and the film have a wonderful mix of fact and fiction and Edward Fox was fantastic as the English assassin.

10.       The Third Man by Graham Greene.  It’s a bit of a cheat, this one as the Greene novella was written as a preliminary treatment for the movie and wasn’t actually published until after the film was released.  Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the film is a classic and even Greene acknowledged that the changes made in the film made it a better production.  If you would like to read more about the book, I have posted previously about it .here

Putting this list together has been quite illuminating.  I have found that, on the whole, where I have enjoyed the movie, the book on which it is based is not generally speaking a “classic”.  I don’t know whether I am a harsher critic of films of books of this type or whether they are, in fact, harder to do justice to on screen.  I have also come across a number of films that are thought to be good adaptations but where I haven’t actually read the original book.  Maybe if I read some of these, the opinion I express at the beginning of this post may change.  Who knows?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Well, check me out - all Kindle'd up!

So it finally arrived at Falaise Towers late on Sunday afternoon.  The 21st Century, that is.  A very nice chap from the Royal Mail handed over a small box in exchange for my John Hancock and I became the proud possessor of a Kindle.  Yes, I have taken the plunge and bought myself an ereader.

I’ve not always been sniffy about new technology.  Right up until I turned thirty, I was an early adopter of all things gadgety.  As a young lawyer, I was always happy to part with a few extra pounds to buy a computer with the most up-to-date spec, notwithstanding the fact that I would never in a million years need to use more than a fraction of its capacity and functionality.  I’d call it “future-proofing” and smile knowingly at my more Luddite friends and colleagues.

When it came to music, I was the guy with each new format as it came out.  Creative Audio Jukebox (a very early portable MP3 player) succeeded Mini-Disc (don’t ask) only to be superseded by the very first generation iPod, followed by 2nd generation iPod, nano-iPod, iPod Touch and now my slightly battered iPhone.  Even back in the ‘80s, I was an early adopter of CD players, replacing my trusty old record player (yes, my friends, I am THAT old) with a spanking new Sony player at university.

It all started to change in my ‘30s when it finally struck me that for every game-changing piece of sexy electronic kit, there were at least two that would prove to be pointless, useless or merely too early and soon to be surpassed.  So I learned to harness my magpie-like susceptibility to the Siren call of funky graphics, cool gimmickry and slimline matt black casings and started to wait until new gadgets had become mainstream before reaching for the wallet.

And so I witnessed the advent of the ereader in interested but restrained anticipation.  It is true that on several occasions I had to exercise great self-control to stop myself from signing up for an iPad that does nothing that my laptop and Blackberry won’t do.  What changed?  Well, oddly enough, a trip to my basement.

You see, my basement is my main book repository.  One of the walls is lined with shelves that I have colonised with my books and I can even, if Mrs Falaise isn’t looking, sneak a box of books behind the sofa down there.  The physical limits of this storage space do, however, mean that every couple of months, I have to sacrifice a few boxes of books to the local charity shop, something which never ceases to pain me as I am a natural born hoarder.  And this is where the Kindle comes in.

My brand new, ultra-slim Kindle can store up to 3,500 books, according to the good folks at Amazon.  Yes, up to 3,500 books.  I need never buy book storage again.  Literally.  As you may have gathered from the title of this blog, I may only have another 2,606 books left to read before I shuffle off this mortal coil.  Even fewer now as I’ve read a few more since starting the blog.  I have several hundred physical books in the basement, in my office and squirreled away in several other places.  When added to the 3,500 potential additions to the Kindle, I will need to live at least ten years beyond my allotted span even to require the purchase of a single other book shelf, cupboard or ereader.  I have, in fact,just completed my life’s purchases of book storage units.  I can’t deny it; it’s a slightly uncomfortable thought. 

I’d shied away from ereaders partly on the grounds that I wasn’t sure about reading from a screen and partly because I just like having books on a shelf.  As the latter is an insoluble problem, I can cope with this and I have been very pleasantly surprised with the whole Kindle reading experience.  It is especially good when standing on a packed Tube train and is well-designed for single-handed usage.

So, what are its bad points?  Well, it is just too damn easy to buy books on it.  No need to mess around trying to find a computer or having to log into accounts, with just a few clicks the book you want is downloaded and ready to go.  It’s a bit like a bookworms version of crack cocaine.

Conversely, the lack of available books can also irritate.  Although there are apparently over half a million titles available, it is surprising how often an item on my TBR list is only available in paper.  I am sure this will change over time but it currently means that there is a certain amount of randomness about the catalogue.

Overall, however, I love my new Kindle.  I am a convert.  I know that lots of (snobbish) people, especially “literary” authors sneer at ereaders but I am very happy with mine so far.  Having said that, I have had it for only 24 hours so I may change my mind before too long.  I will report back when I have had time to get used to it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Blogger Hop: A Night at the Movies

Book Blogger Hop
I’m a little bit off the pace this week so my contribution to the Book Blogger Hop, hosted at Crazy for Books, is a touch late.  The question posed this time by Jessica from a Great Read is:

“What book(s) would you like to see turned into a movie?”

In reality, my answer is quite straightforward: none, none, none!  In fact, I would go as far as to say that if any Hollywood producers happen to be reading this (as of course they do) and are considering giving the green light to filming a book I like, please just say no.  Put the book down and focus on something totally different because, in general, I hate film versions of books I have enjoyed.  Although I’m not OCD’ish and am not particularly details-oriented in my everyday life, I don’t cope very well with film adaptations that move away from a faithful reproduction of the original book.   So, really and truly, I don’t want any more movie versions of books.  Too many disappointments , too many shockers.

I know that this sort of defeats the point of the question though so I will try and answer it.  I’d start off by suggesting that the moviemakers go back and try and correct some of their previous excesses.  Maybe they could redo turkeys like Dune, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or even Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not a BAD film, just not a patch on the Capote novel).  And these only touch the surface – Disney’s version of Hunchback of Notre Dame, anyone?

Assuming past grotesqueries have to be left unavenged, however, I would suggest the following two books as suitable candidates:

The Dark is Rising.  I have always felt that Susan Cooper’s  five book sequence is criminally underrated as a piece of children’s literature and a decent film adaptation might help to give it some long overdue recognition.  It is a wonderful saga of confrontation between the Dark and the Light incorporating elements of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Arthurian legend and myth.  A film version of The Dark is Rising, the second in the sequence, has been made but it was sooooooo bad and soooo unfaithful to the book that it should really be buried in a lead-lined casket and consigned to one of the lower circles of Hell.  It deserves so much better.

Feeding Frenzy.  This is a slightly quirky choice but I could see it working as an indie flick, with someone like Paul Giamatti as the lead.  Stuart Stevens came to Europe in the company of a six foot tall fashion assistant called Rat, got hold of a Mustang and attempted to eat in all of the (then) 29 three Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe.....on consecutive nights.  The result?  A kind of Hunter Thompson gonzo trek across the continent. Total chaos, great book, I’d go and see the film.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop: A Book Before Dying

Literary Blog Hop
It’s Literary Book Blog Hop time again, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  This week’s question is posed by Mel U from The Reading Life who asks:

“If you were going off to war (or some other similarly horrific situation) and could only take one book with you, which book would you take and why?”

These days, I suppose one could take an e-reader with a thousand different books but that is probably a bit of a cheat and slightly defeats the purpose of the question!

I have actually recently read a couple of books that do actually address the relationship of soldiers (or at least officers) to literature.  From an American perspective, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet is a fascinating account of her experience as an English teacher at West Point and her relationships with the young men and women whom she taught there.  A more English viewpoint is provided by Patrick Henessey in his account of Sandhurst, Afghanistan and Iraq in The Junior Officer’s Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars.  Both are definitely worth a read (although the latter is as much a war memoir as anything else) but neither is at hand to assist me in this post.

I started by thinking I might take something that I could turn to during the tough times to remind me of my reasons for fighting and for having joined up in the first place or to rekindle any feelings of honour or patriotism that had been extinguished in the field.  This might be David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty, in which he restates a philosophical principle that appears to have largely been forgotten, namely that, as individuals, we owe duties and obligations to our fellow citizens and to our communities as much as we have individual rights.  Alternatively, I might go for something less dry and more emotional, such as a volume of poetry from the early days of the First World War when poets such as Rupert Brooke could still write un-self-consciously about sacrifice:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”

On reflection, however, I may have become too heartsore or hardened in spirit for this kind of writing to speak to me.  I may be frightened and, in anticipation of death, may rediscover the faith I lost as a teenager in which event a copy of The Bible or The English Book of Common Prayer may be what I need.

I’m not convinced that this would actually happen though and, even if it did, I can still remember sufficient to be able to pray and console myself from memory.  I guess that, to answer this question properly, I have to face up to the fact that it would be entirely possible that the book I choose might well be the last book I would ever read.  What book would I want to be fresh in my mind when I go to meet my Maker?

Should it be a Great Classic, a volume from the canon of world literature?  Something of great merit and wisdom so that, should I cease upon the midnight (although I suspect with rather than without pain), my mind would be filled with deep thoughts?  Shakespeare, maybe, or Homer?  Dumas? Trollope? How about some Victor Hugo? Dickens might well work – possibly Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers.  Not too heavy but just heavy enough.  I’ve never read Don Quixote, Ulysses or War and Peace and I could die with a sense of satisfaction if one of these were my last read.

But, no.  I don’t think so.  I would want some comfort and relief with my final book.  I would have my mind fly away to a better, warmer place than a muddy foxhole.  There are so many to choose from, too many really.  The Lord of the Rings would be a strong contender.  I used to read it once a year and, as well as being a great story, it would bring back happy memories of my childhood.  Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers similarly has an entertaining plot, is set in my old university and brings back enjoyable memories.  What else?  Well, as anyone who has read any of my other posts will know, I am a P.G. Wodehouse nut and so one of his Blandings books would be a true mental flight to a sunnier world.  I’d like to be greedy and take one of the several omnibus editions but, if I am pinned to a single volume, it would be Summer Lightning, a classic tale, in which the Empress has disappeared, leaving Lord Emsworth devastated and Gally writing his memoirs which have the potential to embarrass almost the entire aristocracy.  This would definitely transport me away from the battlefield.  I could read this over and over again and not be bored.

Yes, that’s it.  In war, I would want humour and escapism so Wodehouse gets the nod.  But actually, were I on the front line and facing death, the final thing I would want to read would be a letter from Mrs Falaise and mini-Falaise, sending their love and thoughts, with a nice photo of the pair of them.  That would be more precious than any author’s writings could be.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Are you in the mood for lurve?

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme from the Broke and the Bookish ties in to yesterday’s homage to St Valentine, the patron saint of love, beekeepers and the plague and asks us to list our top ten love stories in books.   I have deliberately avoided including Romeo and Juliet or anything from Austen or the Brontës because, frankly, that would be just too obvious.  So, turn up the Marvin Gaye or the Barry White (or Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin if you're feeling a bit European), settle down with a long-stemmed rose, a glass of champagne and a box of soft-centred chocolates and, in no particular order, we have:

1.         Hero and Leander.  Hero is a priestess who lives on the European side of the Hellespont.  Leander lives on the other side.  Every night, he swims across the strait to be with his beloved, guided by the lamp she sets in the window of her tower.  Then, one dark and stormy night (is there any other kind in literature?), the winds blow her lamp out, the waves toss him about, he loses his way and he drowns.  In her grief, Hero hurls herself from her tower and also perishes.  Ovid, Marlowe and de la Vega all wrote versions of this myth and Shakespeare alludes to it in four of his plays.

  2.       James Bond and Teresa di Vicenzo.  In Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, having been asked by Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Unione Corse, to romance his suicidal daughter Tracy (Teresa), everyone’s favourite womanising secret agent actually does fall in love and 007 and Tracy get married after he destroys Blofeld’s Swiss hideout, Piz Gloria.  Blofeld manages to escape and, shortly after the wedding, he murders Tracy in a drive by shooting.  Altogether now………we have all the time in the world, time enough for life to unfold…...

3.         Aragorn and Arwen Evenstar.  She was more than 2700 years old; he was 20.  He fell in love with her and 30 years later, they got engaged.  This would be yucky and wrong anywhere other than Tolkien’s Middle Earth but she was an Elven princess so the 2,680 year age gap is absolutely fine.  Über-cougar!  We all know how it ends.  He becomes King of Gondor, she opts for mortality.  They get married and, in the fullness of time, die.  Aaah.

4.         Othello and Desdemona.  Let’s leave aside the inconvenient detail that he kills her for a second.  She agrees to marry a black man in medieval Venice, in a total rejection of the racial conventions of the time and loves him right up until the moment he smothers her.  He loves her with such a passion that, having defied her powerful father to marry her, he is driven mad with rage when he suspects her of infidelity.  Ignore the unacceptability of his response, feel the raw emotion. I prefer this Shakespeare love story to Romeo and Juliet whom I find a little bit nauseating and childish.  So there.

5.         Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings.  No mere bagatelle, this love story.  Lord Emsworth’s prize porker, the Empress of Blandings, is, it is fair to say, the true love of his life.  She has won the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show and is constantly under threat from Lord Emsworth’s rival, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe.  Emsworth will go to any trouble to ensure the happiness and continued weight of his beloved Empress, including acceding to the demands and caprices of George Cyril Wellbeloved, prince of pig men.  He is even prepared to defy his fearsome sister Connie over the engagement of her daughter Angela to the unsuitable James Belford when Belford teaches him the infallible pig call, “pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey”.  More brilliance from P.G. Wodehouse.

6.         Batman and Robin.  Let’s face it.  If you've read any of the comics from the late ‘40s and the ‘50s or seen the ‘60s TV show or the last two films in the ‘90s movie series, you have to believe there is some real man-love going on between the Camp Crusader and his irritating side-kick.  I know it’s only loosely literary but it’s time to loosen up and “out” Bruce and Dick.

7.         Odysseus and Penelope.  For this to count, we have to accept that Calypso really was holding him hostage as her lover against his will.  I am prepared to do this as it required the intervention of Hermes to free him and so, on this assumption, this has to be one of the greatest of all love stories.  For 20 years, he battles his way home from Troy, rejecting the overtures of Circe, to be with his queen.  She remains faithful for two decades, trusting blindly that he will return and fending off the attentions of the horde of suitors, eager to replace her husband.  That really is love and commitment.

8.         Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  Possibly one of the most embarrassing love stories in modern literature, the Wimsey-Vane romance is a thread that runs through four of Dorothy L. Sayers Wimsey novels and several of her short stories.  Their tale begins in Strong Poison, when Vane is on trial for murder and, by the time they are married in Busman’s Holiday, the last full length Peter Wimsey novel, their story is so central that it was described as, “a love story with detective interruptions”.

9.         Lancelot and Guinevere.   A cautionary tale of the destructive power of love, Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love, despite Guinevere being married to King Arthur.  According to several Arthurian romances, including Le Morte d’Arthur,  for years they try to maintain their honour and purity by avoiding each other until, one night, they break and become lovers, cuckolding Arthur.  Soon, two of the other knights of the Round Table, Agravaine and Mordred, discover and reveal their affair to Arthur who is forced to have Guinevere burned at the stake.  Lancelot mounts a rescue attempt which precipitates the breaking of the Round Table and the fall of Camelot.

And, finally, one unrequited love…………..

10.       Quasimodo and Esmerelda.  This is heart-rending stuff.  He is the gentle but deformed hunchback who lives in Notre-Dame cathedral.  She is a beautiful gypsy girl.  Despite his kindness to her as she is hunted by Frollo, the Archdeacon and Quasimodo’s adopted father, she remains repelled by his ugliness and does not love him, even though he continues to protect her.  In the end, Esmerelda is captured and hung by Frollo.  In his grief, Quasimodo murders Frollo and runs away from Notre-Dame.  He searches out Esmerelda’s body in a graveyard and dies holding her.  The Hunchback of Notre-Dame ends with the excavation of the site years later.  The excavators find their bodies entwined and, when they try to separate them, Quasimodo’s bones crumble.  Go on, read the book and then try and tell me you didn’t shed at least one tear.

And now, over to you.  Which bookish couples (or triangles – I’m no prude) float your love boat?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Books of my Life II

I wasn’t going to write this, the second of my posts on important books in my life, for a while.  I have a backlog of reviews to write and a rather busy schedule at the moment so getting this one written is a bit of an ask.  Given the date, though, it feels right to do it now.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was a pupil at a small public school in the East of England.  Although the school itself had been founded in the 16th Century, most of the main school buildings had been built in the Victorian period and were pretty fine examples of Victorian Gothic architecture.  The school library was in one of these buildings and was exactly how you would imagine an old library to be.

In the summer, the sun used to shine in through the leaded windows and it always seemed that there were motes of dust dancing in the beams.  A smell of wood polish pervaded the entire room and, if it was a hot day, sleep came very easily to any boy bored with his work.

When I wasn’t in lessons or out on the sports field, I loved spending hours in there, rummaging around in the shelves.  It was full of slightly odd volumes as well as the expected sets of classic authors and academic texts.  There was an excellent collection of early 20th Century drama and a wide range of general fiction, largely ignored by most of the school, which was only interested in books relating to their schoolwork.

Once we were past the first year at school, there was a system by which, depending upon the academic options you chose, you would have a certain number of free periods during the week, known as “spares”.  As I was taking an unusual combination of subjects and had  also taken some exams early, I always managed to end up with more spares than anyone else in my year and, although they were intended for use as time for study, I spent mine reading random books from the library (except when I was sneaking in an extra sleep).

Anyway, one warm day in the summer, I was pottering about amongst the fiction shelves when I saw two shelves filled with books by one author, a writer I had never come across before.  I picked one out at random, thinking that if I liked him, there was plenty of reading material for me to get stuck into.

I started reading this book in my next spare and it was the start of a love affair that has lasted to this day.  I have read most of his 96 books, many of them several times.  They never stale although the world that they depict has long since vanished, if indeed it ever really existed.  They are guaranteed to raise a smile, to cheer up a sad soul and to make the world seem a lighter and better place.

The author?  P.G. Wodehouse.  That first book?  The Code of the Woosters.  A classic instalment in the Jeeves and Wooster canon, The Code of the Woosters sees Jeeves somehow extricate Bertie from being thrown into prison, being beaten to a pulp by Roderick Spode and he has preserved two engagements and ensured that Bertie’s Uncle Tom obtains possession of a prized silver cow creamer from the aforesaid Spode.

I was hooked from page one.  The characters, the stories, the ridiculous scrapes that the younger characters are continually getting into are all captivating but, above all, Wodehouse’s use of language is simply other-worldly.  His turns of phrase are justly legendary.  Just a couple of examples to whet your appetite:

I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

“A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

“As a rule, you see, I'm not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James's letter about Cousin Mabel's peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle ('Please read this carefully and send it on Jane') the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It's one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor - and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that.”

I could – and, given a little encouragement, would – go on all day like this.  Having started with Jeeves and Wooster, I rapidly worked my way through Lord Emsworth, Psmith, Ukridge, Ickenham, the Golf stories, the school stories, Mr Mulliner and his many other works.  It is difficult to pick a favourite but I think now that the Blandings stories have overtaken Jeeves and Wooster in my heart.

Wodehouse self-confessedly was not interested in serious issues or writing deep and meaningful books.  He wanted to entertain and delight and still does so today.  I hope that I am preaching to the choir about him but, if you have not already tried him, please do so I implore you. 

I mentioned above that I felt I had to write this post today.  You see, thirty-six years ago today, roughly a decade before I found him, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse died, aged 93, six weeks after being knighted for his services to literature. Thank you, Sir Pelham, for all the joy you have given me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

2,574: The American Civil War by Sir John Keegan

The American Civil War claimed the lives of over 820,000 Americans, including some 30% of all Southern men between the ages of 18 and 40 and 10% of all Northern men between 20 and 45.  It ran for 4 years and encompassed as many as 10,000 battles.  It was fought over vast areas of land and, if anyone had been paying attention in Europe, presaged many of the military and technological developments that were later to turn Northern France and Belgium into the charnel houses of the First World War.

By any measure, this was a major historical event, either the first modern war or the last old war, depending on your point of view.  It remains the only large scale, civil war fought in a democratic nation.  Yet I, like most Britons, was almost wholly ignorant of it.  Sure, I had heard of Gettysburg and Antietam.  I knew about Lincoln, that he made the Gettysburg Address and that he wanted to abolish slavery in the South.  The names of Jackson, Lee and Grant were familiar.  However, I really didn’t know much about it, certainly by comparison to the Napoleonic Wars or the First and Second World Wars and, as a keen reader about history felt this gap in my knowledge keenly.

So, a Christmas gift of Sir John Keegan’s single-volume history of the American Civil War and the fact that the Civil War forms the War Through the Generations 2011 theme gave me the kickstart I needed to start finding out about this conflict.

For those of you who are not aware of him, Sir John Keegan is a British military historian who is widely regarded as one of the leading military historians of our time.  His book, The Face of Battle, has been credited with changing the way in which historians approach the writing of military history and, in addition to having been the senior lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he has also held professorships at Yale and Vassar colleges in the US.

With this pedigree and having enjoyed several of his earlier books, I was really looking forward to his take on the Civil War.  I thought that, as a non-American writer, he might have a fresh perspective to bring to the table.  Yet, overall, I came away feeling slightly disappointed.

The American Civil War is not, strictly speaking, a narrative history of the war.  It sets out to answer certain questions relating to the war such as why was the war fought the way it was, could the South have ever won, why did members of the same nation fight each other so intensely.  Nevertheless, in order to answer these questions, it was necessary for Keegan to deal with the chronology and this is where the problems start.

The book seems to be split into roughly three sections: six chapters setting the scene and dealing with the run-up to the outbreak of war, 9 chapters dealing with the chronology of the war and then 6 thematic chapters dealing with specific aspects of the war such as the experience of the black soldier, the military leaderships of the two sides and a quirky little chapter on Walt Whitman.  The book ends with a rather cursory chapter wrapping up the end of the war and setting out some of his conclusions.

This structure creates two problems.  Firstly, it is, frankly, impossible to cram a proper narrative, even in summary form, of the Civil War into 9 chapters of a book which is only 365 pages in total.  The amount of information he has had to cram into this part makes it confusing and difficult to follow in parts and, conversely, he has had to leave out so much that it becomes unhelpful to the novice and facile for the expert.  Having said that, his section on the Battle of Gettysburg is a wonderful piece of descriptive writing.

The second problem with the structure is that of repetition.  As he moves from the narrative to the thematic chapters, he is forced to repeat much of what he has said earlier in order to explain his themes fully.  This is very irritating.

Where Keegan is excellent is in the insights he brings to the war.  He is able to use the breadth of his historical knowledge to draw comparisons with other conflicts ranging from the Napoleonic Wars through to Vietnam.  He also emphasises the degree to which the war was dictated by the physical geography of the theatre of war.  Not only did this drive the strategy of both sides but it also impacted upon individual tactics and was a key factor in the number of casualties.  Keegan highlights Grant’s ability to deal with the topography of the battleground as one of his leading qualities.

Keegan is very good at analysing the various military commanders on each side.  His conclusion is that there were two outstanding Union commanders in Grant and Sherman and one on the Confederate side in Lee who he rates just behind the Union two.  Otherwise, he is rather dismissive of the majority of the main generals, especially on the Union side.  His admiration of Grant knows no bounds and he skims over his willingness to send large numbers of men to their deaths.  Indeed, Keegan contends that driving the body count up on both sides and the depredations of Sherman’s March to the Sea were necessary elements of the Union’s eventual victory and appears to approve of Sherman’s notion that the war had to be carried to the civilian population of the South, although many Americans might bristle at his comparison of this to Hitler’s progress through Eastern Europe in 1941.  Nevertheless, there are echoes of what would become known as total war in Sherman’s campaign and Keegan has a point when he says that the key to victory was not to destroy Confederate cities, industries or even armies but to break the Southern mind.

He also draws a clear distinction between the Civil War and the First World War, with which it is often compared.  He writes:

"The Great War is always spoken of with regret in Europe.  It is the Continent's tragedy, the cause of many of its persisting troubles, the war without justification or point.  No such regrets attach to the Civil War, which is remembered as the struggle which completed the Revolution and made possible the realisation of the ideals on which the Founding Fathers launched the republic in the 1770s."

Unfortunately, Keegan’s insights and analysis are outweighed by contradictions in the text and also a number of fairly fundamental inaccuracies.  By way of example, he comments on the deep hostility that existed between soldiers on the two sides by stating that the Union treated the Confederate dead worse than the Germans and the Western Allies treated the dead of the other side in the World Wars but then misinterprets Lincoln’s Gettysburg address by claiming it was reconciliatory.  He argues that it praised the dead of both sides when even I know that it was only aimed at the Union dead. Also, and most egregiously for a British historian, he not only gets the name of the British Prime Minsiter of the time wrong but also places him in the wrong political party.  Not good at all.

When Keegan’s book came out around eighteen months ago, it had a mixed reception.  The non-American press (mainly British and Australian) gave it broadly favourable reviews whereas American reviewers were largely critical, notably this scathing (and a little mean-spirited) review by James McPherson in the New York Times.  Some blog commentators even went as far as to claim that non-Americans shouldn’t write about the Civil War, which seems a little parochial and small-minded to me.

Ultimately, I think The American Civil War has to be judged a failure and a rare disappointment amongst Keegan’s oeuvre.  I shall be turning later in the year to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom to be my narrative guide to the Civil War and will also be reading Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire.  This is a transatlantic view of the Civil War, dealing with the way Britain reacted to it and how it affected relations between the two countries.  If you are new to Keegan, do not be put off but, instead, turn to either The Face of Battle or The Mask of Command, both far better pieces.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Memories Are Made of This

Last night, Mrs Falaise and I settled down in front of the TV to watch the first episode of the CBS remake of Hawaii Five-O which is now being shown in the UK.  We are both old enough to remember the original version from our childhoods and so were curious to see how we would feel about the new version.  As the familiar drum roll sounded, we both relaxed before joining in with the theme tune which, sensibly, has not been mucked about with.

The tune brings back a very vivid memory from my childhood.  When I was six, we were living in Yorkshire.  My father had just got a new job which required us to move down to the Home Counties and he had started the job before finding a house for us to move into.  This meant that he had to stay down south during the week, making the long drive back up the M1 on a Friday evening to spend the weekend with us.  As I hadn’t seen him all week, I would be allowed to stay up late to wait for him to arrive and when he did finally get home, there would always be a box of Airfix plastic soldiers for me as a present.  Before he arrived, however, I had to have my bath and be ready for bed and, each week, as I was soaking away, the strident tones of the Hawaii Five-O theme tune would drift up the stairs from the TV downstairs where my mother would be waiting for Dad to arrive.

For some reason, that image has stuck with me for thirty-five years and still comes back clearly whenever I hear that music.  It’s the same with certain foods, pictures and songs.  Some of them, and not necessarily the ones I like best, have become inextricably bound up with personal memories and experiences.  And, it’s also the same with books.  There are some which conjure up times of my life whenever I read them or even references to them. They aren’t necessarily good books or books I would want to re-read but they are important to me and will probably become even more so as I continue to age and begin to lose my marbles.  I’d like to share these with you in a series of occasional posts.

The first of these special books is Animal Farm by George Orwell.  I suppose I must have been about nine or ten, maybe eleven but no older than that.  I was certainly still at an age where Christmas Eve was a trial specifically created to torment me.  A good sleeper as a rule, it was the one night where I was guaranteed to have insomnia, where the light on the landing outside my bedroom would shine more brightly and where my bedclothes would be less comfortable than usual.  Finally I drifted off to sleep.  Only a few hours later, I woke again.  I can still feel the odd sensation of the hot radiator next to my bed and the contrasting cold draught from the window.  I know I shouldn’t have but I couldn’t help looking at my stocking which lay at the foot of my bed and which had filled up with presents during the short time I had been asleep.  The house was dark and silent.

I couldn’t wait and started to open the presents inside.  Fortunately, one of the first things to come out of the stocking was a torch, followed by a couple of now-forgotten items before my hand fell on the unmistakeable shape of a book.  I ripped the wrapping paper off it.  On the black front cover was a photograph of a large, pink pig and the title – Animal Farm.

Putting the rest of the stocking to one side, I opened the book and started to read, thinking I would just “do a few pages”.  Several hours later, totally enthralled, I had finished the whole thing in one clandestine, under the covers reading.

Now, I don’t claim to have been some kind of politically aware prodigy.  I didn’t understand that it was a detailed allegory of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist state.  I didn’t realise that Old Major, Snowball and Napoleon were modelled on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin respectively or that Boxer represented the proletariat.  I had no idea of Orwell's disillusionment with Stalin and Soviet Russia.  My father would explain all that to me later.  To me, it was simply a gripping story.  But I was aware of the hypocrisy of the pigs and how they had manipulated and exploited the rest of the animals through lies and propaganda.  I was upset at the treatment of Boxer and felt a chill of horror at the final scenes in the farm house (please note – desperately trying to avoid spoilers here).

I kept that paperback with me all the way through boarding school and university, increasingly tatty and covered in ink stains.  It’s gone now, lost at some point.  I still love Animal Farm and will read it again, at which point I will review it fully here but I will never forget the first time I read it……….or the strange looks I got the next day from my parents and grandparents when I spent most of Christmas Day yawning and being distinctly uninterested in proceedings.