Thursday, March 31, 2011

An undeserved piece of luck and a rare bout of generosity - would you like a book?

World Book Night took place here in the UK recently on 5 March.  A committee of writers, publishers and booksellers selected 25 titles, comprising both fiction and non-fiction, based on recommendations from both the book industry and the general public.  40,000 copies of each of the titles were then given away by 20,000 volunteers to members of the public in order to encourage reading and to share the love of books with others, including many who are not regular readers.  In total, 1,000,000 books were given away.  Many events took place around the night, including a huge celebratory reading in Trafalgar Square and several TV programmes.

The night didn’t turn out quite as expected for me. I had originally intended to be one of the volunteers but, with my usual lack of organisation, failed to get my application form done in time to be considered.  Instead of giving out books, I ended up being a recipient as I was lucky enough to win an entire set of the 25 titles from The Times newspaper!  I’m not generally very lucky when it comes to competitions, draws or lotteries so I was really chuffed with this.  Here is a photo of the books which arrived last week:

If you don’t want to strain your eyes looking at the spines of the books in the photo, the selected titles are:

Kate Atkinson - Case Histories
Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin
Alan Bennett - A Life Like Other People’s
John Le Carré - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lee Child - Killing Floor
Carol Ann Duffy - The World’s Wife
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Seamus Heaney - Selected Poems
Marian Keyes - Rachel’s Holiday
Mohsin Hamid - The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Ben Macintyre - Agent Zigzag
Gabriel García Márquez - Love in the Time of Cholera
Yann Martel - Life of Pi
Alexander Masters - Stuart: A Life Backwards
Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Toni Morrison - Beloved
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
David Nicholls - One Day
Philip Pullman - Northern Lights
Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front
C J Sansom - Dissolution
Nigel Slater - Toast
Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sarah Waters - Fingersmith

This little piece of good luck has given me a bit of a warm glow inside and has nudged me towards an extremely rare gesture of generosity.

On Tuesday, I wrote a post as part of the Top Ten Tuesday meme, listing ten authors whom I consider get less appreciation than they deserve.  I’ve decided to unpadlock my wallet and put my money where my mouth is by having a small giveaway to introduce these authors to a new audience.

I am, therefore, giving away a brand, spanking new copy of a book by one of the authors on my list of underrated writers.  If you would like to try out one of them, just leave a comment below stating which of my ten authors you are curious to sample.  I will use a random number generator to determine who is the winner and will send a title (of my choice) by their chosen author to them.  I am happy to send it to anywhere with a functional postal service, although can’t guarantee how quickly it will arrive.

The closing date for requests will be 23.59 (London time) on Friday 22nd April (Good Friday) and I will reveal the winner the following day.  Please feel free to pass on the details to other people and please comment away!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: The Underrated

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish wants us to list ten authors we feel deserves more recognition.

These could range from authors who have fallen out of favour with the reading public to authors who are well known in their native country but not elsewhere.  It’s also interesting because I think that we will all spot writers on other lists whom we think are very well recognised.

Anyway, before I get going, I need to say that I have been feeling very tired, worn out and generally out of sorts and grumpy for a while now.  I have no idea why but this may flow over into my list so please give me a little latitude if I am more crotchety or flat than usual.

1.         P.G. Wodehouse.  Yes, I know he is extremely well known.  Yes, I know I go on about him all the time.  Yes, I know he is one of the most popular authors around but he still deserves more kudos, more attention and, generally, even more love.  In fact, no amount of recognition will ever be enough, as far as I’m concerned.

2.         Walter Moers.  You’ve probably not read The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear.  You really should.  It’s strange, fun, deceptive and entertaining.  It’ll make you look at things in a slightly different way.

3.         H.H. “Saki” Munro.  I love his short stories.  They are wonderfully witty and often just a little bit twisted and I think his recurring hero, Clovis Sangreal, is great.  He’s had plenty of recognition in his time but seems to have faded out of the public consciousness recently.  Go read Toys of Peace.

4.         Susan Cooper.  The ”Dark is Rising” sequence is one of the best children’s fantasy series ever written.  The five books feature hefty slabs of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon myth and folklore and have an Arthurian them running through them.  I am constantly surprised that they don’t appear to be more widely known in the blogosphere.   A film, the Seeker, was made if the series in 2007.  It is one of the most execrable book to film adaptations ever and should be avoided like the plague.  Read the books instead or buy a copy for your children.  You won’t regret it.

5.         Max Beerbohm.  Beerbohm only wrote one novel but Zuleika Dobson is great.  It was named in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century but, even so, I don’t think enough people are familiar with it.  Set in Oxford University during the Edwardian period, it tells the story of the title character, a remarkable young woman with whom men immediately fall in love but who can only love a man who does not do so.  Having caused a mass suicide at Oxford, the novel ends with her boarding a train for Cambridge, a far more suitable target for her fatal charms.

6.         Robertson Davies.  If any of you are Canadian, you will be looking at your screen in puzzlement as he was one of Canada’s most popular authors.  I firmly believe, however, that he is criminally underrated outside the Great White North.  Try High Spirits or The Cornish Trilogy to start off with.

7.         Tove Jansson.  Moomins, Moomins, Moomins.  Read them as a child, loved them, want everyone else to get hold of them for their kids.  One more time, Moomins, Moomins, Moomins!

8.         Geoff Dyer.  Probably because he refuses to stick to one type of writing, I think Geoff Dyer is unfairly overlooked.  He is a novelist, essayist and non-fiction writer.  Basically, he is just a great writer.  Try The Missing of the Somme or Paris Trance to get a flavour of the man.

9.         G.K. Chesterton.  Although he was a reactionary old dinosaur, Chesterton remains one of the great British literary figures of the early 20th Century.  He is unfashionable these days but the Father Brown stories are timeless.  He also wrote some great novels, such as The man who was Thursday.  Described as “a colossal genius”  by GB Shaw, he was also responsible for one of the great openings, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong...”

10.       Arturo Perez Reverte.  I know he is pretty well known even outside Spain but I don’t think he gets as much recognition as he should.  Skip over the Captain Alatriste stories, as fun as they are, and go straight to The Flanders Panel or The Dumas Club.  You won’t be disappointed.

As I’ve been writing this, many others have sprung to mind, such as Ismail Kadare, Aleksandr Hemon and Manuel Vazquez Montalban.  I reckon that, generally speaking, we in the Anglophone routinely underrate authors who write in other languages.  Our publishing industries are terrible at bringing translated works to the reading public and there are many, many fantastic authors out there who are almost unknown in the Anglophone world.  What a shame for us.

Friday, March 25, 2011

1,001 Books - the next five

If any of you have been following the progress of my odyssey through the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, you may (but probably won’t) be wondering what has happened to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I was to have read as part of my last instalment of books.

I haven’t given up on it, I promise.  It is, however, turning out to be the most challenging novel I have ever started to read.  It is incredibly complex, dense and rich and, consequently, being a bear of little brain, I get brain ache every hundred pages or so.  I’ve decided that the best thing is for me to read it in stages, interspersed with other books for relief.  I am also almost certainly going to need to reflect on it for a while after I’ve finished it to get my thoughts into some kind of coherent order.

This means that I am moving forward to the next five in my 1,001 Books list.  I re-read my post listing the last five and I was amused by how different my presumptions on how I would find them were to the reality.  This doesn’t bode well for the next five as the trusty Random Number Generator has thrown up three books that I am really looking forward to.  My next five books in this journey will be:

1.         The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  I have a confession here.  I’ve just realised that , for some bizarre reason, I’ve been confusing this with Out of Africa.  I’ve not seen the film adaptations of either and have never read either book so I really don’t know how I managed to do this.  Anyway, this is the story of four damaged individuals brought together in an Italian monastery in the dying days of the Second World War.

2.         The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  Another confession.  I’d always thought this was “chick lit”.  I’m really starting to embarrass myself now.  Anyway, this is a classic story of a woman fighting against the constraints of marriage and motherhood in the late 19th Century and finding sexual and spiritual freedom.  I can’t say I’m totally enthused about this but I can’t go on using my get out of jail free cards so casually.

3.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  An epic novel about violence and depravity on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, what’s not to like?  Seriously, though, I’ve never read anything by McCarthy so here’s a good nudge to do so.

4.         An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Another well-known writer whose work I haven’t read, I am looking forward to reading the story of a Japanese artist in immediate post-War Tokyo.  I am fascinated by this period and the way that Germany and Japan rebuilt themselves and so I should enjoy this book.

5.         Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez.  I know very little about this other than it is a collection of Spanish stories for children.  I am struggling to find an English language translation so it remains to be seen whether I can actually read it.

So there we have it.  Overall, a pretty good random selection, I think.

2,567: 1,001 Books Challenge - The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

It’s not been a particularly great start to the year, has it?  Floods in Australia, Japan’s tsunami, uprisings in the Middle East and the continued economic malaise have dominated the news and our thoughts during this early part of 2011.  So, what did I do to alleviate the gloom?  Well, obviously, I’ve been reading a novel featuring poverty, death, starvation, imprisonment, civil war and oodles of general misery.  On the surface, this probably wasn’t such a good idea yet it has left me feeling strangely uplifted.

The Life and Times of Michael K is set in 1970s apartheid-era South Africa. It’s titular hero is a man, born with a hare lip, who sets out on a journey to take his dying mother back to the place where she says she was born.  She dies during the journey but Michael continues, taking her ashes back to be scattered at a now abandoned farm where she may or may not have been brought up.  Once he has done this, Michael, now alone in the world, wants nothing more than to live free and undisturbed by the world.  The world, however, has other ideas.

On one level, this is a parable of the corrosive effects of apartheid on freedom.  Not once is any character’s colour described yet we are in no doubt that Michael is black.  Authority figures are continually seeking to restrict his freedom, from his mother who places him in a children’s home to Visagie, the army deserter who seeks to make Michael his servant, to the police who capture him and put him in an internment camp.  Even the kindly medical officer at the rehabilitation camp in which he is held wants Michael to adapt to a more conventional behaviour pattern and to rejoin society.  Yet Coetzee’s lament for lost freedom extends to the white characters in the novel.  The medical officer who cares for Michael comes to view him as he is, a man seeking to live an undisturbed life, a life in which he leaves no trace behind him.  He slowly comes to believe that he too is a prisoner of the system in which he works and fantasises about following Michael in his journey.

On a more general level, Coetzee describes how difficult true individual freedom is to achieve in modern societies where there is constant pressure to participate and to conform.  Michael wants nothing but to live alone and to eat only what he has grown in the earth.  Yet society is constantly interfering with him, forcing him to work, to eat and to belong.

Coetzee’s writing style is sparse and unemotional.  He focuses on the concrete and the practical.  He gives the reader descriptions of how Michael plants his pumpkin seeds and melons on the farm and how he builds his shelter.  Almost paradoxically, this earthy way of writing creates in Michael K an unworldly, almost spiritual being.  Michael is a man of few words (maybe because of his hare lip) and a man of little expression.  His story is not one of resistance.  It is a story of endurance.  He rolls with the punches rather than fighting back.  He acquiesces to the best of his ability in the demands of his captors.  In the rehabilitation camp, he does not refuse the orders to exercise, despite his medical condition, but complies and runs and jumps until he collapses.  Through all of his tribulations, he never gives up though.  He carries on to return his mother’s ashes to the Visagie farm and he continues to return their after his captures.

Other reviewers have seen themes relating to the value of life and the use of time in the book but, for me, the central element of the book is Michael’s seeking of purpose and freedom and the way in which he grows as a character as his quest progresses.  If we need our heroes in literature to overcome obstacles and, in doing so, to grow in stature and depth, then Michael K, a simple man, is an extraordinary hero.  Although, at the end of the book, Michael is physically back where he started in his mother’s old box room in the Cape, he is a very different man.  He has found his purpose.  He has found himself and he has found a dignified peace for himself.

If you want me to pick holes or quibble about the book, I found the section written from the medical officer’s point of view to be a bit heavy-handed in explanation and it didn’t knit with the rest of the book very well.  This would be a minor quibble, however.

Coetzee won the Booker Prize for The Life and Times of Michael K and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Having now read this book, I can easily see why.  It is not a light read but Michael K will live with me for a long, long time and I think that says a lot.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Mr Angry speaks

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish wants us to list our top ten bookish peeves.  Now, in general, I consider myself to be a fairly easy-going character although I am pretty sure that Mrs Falaise would raise an eyebrow if she were to read this.  Nevertheless, there are a certain number (OK, a pretty high number) of things that bring down the red mist over my eyes and some of these are bookish.  So here goes:

1.         People who correct typos in library books.  Why bother?  Either I will spot it myself, in which case you didn’t need to correct it for me, or I won’t spot it, in which case, it just doesn’t matter.  If you’ve got a problem with the typos, write to the publisher.  After all, they’re not going to borrow that copy of the book.  And it’s not yours!

2.         People who write comments in library books.  Again, it’s not your book!  And I’m almost certain I won’t care about your vacuous commentary.  In fact, I'm absolutely certain - I have my own stupid opinions, thank you.

3.         Misleading or irrelevant blurbs.  If you want to put a blurb on a book, at least make it a comment about that book and not about some other book the author has written.  I don’t care about the other book.  And don’t get me started on misleading blurbs.  Here’s a genuine blurb:

“The Times (London): "A chilling—sometimes terrifying—and tautly written thriller."

And now, here’s the full review line:

"Transgressions is a chilling—sometimes terrifying—and tautly written thriller, but, ultimately, it cannot fulfil its own ambitions."

And what else did the review say?

"For contrast, Dunant weaves in gobbets of the cheap Czech novel, a pretty poor pastiche of the bottom end of the market. 'When did it start,' wonders Elizabeth, 'this obsession with sexual violence?' It is hard to say, but Sarah Dunant is certainly doing her bit to feed it."

Hmmm, doesn’t sound so great now, does it?

4.         The vanishing sub-plot.  I hate it when a promising sub-plot suddenly gets dropped by the author, never to reappear.  Either deal with it properly or leave it out.

5.         Moronic celebrity autobiographies.  Firstly, you didn’t actually write it yourself.  In fact, you may well not even have read it.  Secondly, no one, I repeat, no one is so interesting that they can justify two or more auto biographies by the age of 25.  Thirdly, unless you’ve achieved something more than winning a reality TV show or getting your tits out for a magazine, I really have zero interest in you.  And finally, if you are a sportsperson, please wait until the end of your career to write your story.  It’s better that way and you might actually have gained enough maturity not to whine about being paid £100,000 per week.

6.         “Very unique”.  NO!  It’s either unique or it’s not.  You can’t qualify it.  I know this is a more general linguistic gripe as opposed to a bookish gripe but I’m in full Mr Angry mode now.  Don’t push me!

7.         Literary snobbery.  Look, I know that Dickens has greater innate quality than Dan Brown.  I’m not trying to argue some kind of theory of literary relativity where all texts are born equal but I am saying that looking down on people because they enjoy Robert Ludlum more than Dostoyevsky is a bit shabby.  Are you that insecure that you have to rubbish someone else’s choice of reading material to make yourself feel clever?  There are times when easy reading hits the spot and times when complexity is what the doctor ordered.  I’ll agree that some books have less “literary” or “intellectual” merit than others but I will never agree that readers of the latter should be condemned or laughed at.  Surely we can enjoy both?

8.         Bad Sex.  In real life, bad sex may indeed be better than no sex but in literature – not so much.  Badly written sex can kill a book stone dead in a matter of lines.  Improbable positions, toe-curling dialogue ("Ooh baby, you're so good..  Touch me there!") and descriptions like car manuals should all be outlawed.  If in doubt close the bedroom door in the reader’s face.  They’ll thank you for it later.

9.         Vampires.  Yawn. Yawn. Yawn.  Look, I get the picture.  Vampires are sexy.  Vampires get teen girl hormones rampaging.  Vampires sell.  Actually, they’re getting a bit boring now.  So much so that I’m contemplating a campaign to have bogeymen officially recognised as heartthrobs.  Are you with me?

10.       Pointless information.  It tends to make the story leaden and adds nothing.  “As Brad exhaled, he squeezed the double pull trigger of his 5.56mm semi-auto, gas operated Sig Sauer SG 550.  Renkov dropped like a stone.”  Ugh.  Yes, you know all about guns.  Who cares – just tell the story.  It gets worse when the random information spreads over paragraphs.  See Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for prime examples although there are many others.

Monday, March 21, 2011

2,568: The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

This is the third Classics Circuit Tour in which I’ve participated.  So far, I’ve written about an unfamiliar book by an author with whom I’m familiar (Trollope) and a familiar work by a familiar author (Aristophanes).  Today, I’m going to talk a little about an unfamiliar book by an author who is unfamiliar to me – E.E. (or e.e.) Cummings.

Cummings was a fully paid-up member of the Lost Generation.  The phrase was, according to Hemingway, coined by a garage owner who serviced Gertrude Stein’s car in France. As originally used, it refers to that entire generation of young men who came of age in the First World War.  Hemingway later popularised the phrase by using it as an epigraph in his novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Technically, the Lost Generation encompasses not only those young Americans such as Cummings, John Dos Passos and Hemingway but also young Britons, Frenchmen and Germans who had their innocence and hope stripped away in the trenches of Northern France and Belgium.

It has slipped into common usage, however, as a short hand phrase for the generation of young American writers who spent time in Paris just after the end of the First World War.  Cummings, like Hemingway, was a volunteer ambulance driver and, although he is much better known as one of America’s greatest modern poets wrote an autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, telling of his time in war-time France.

There isn’t actually anything much about his experiences of the war in the book as, almost from the beginning, this is a book about prison life.  Cummings was close to another young American volunteer, William Slater Brown.  The two of them were seen as being rather odd by the other members of their unit as they had learned French and preferred the company of their French colleagues to their fellow Americans.  Brown had written a number of letters in which he expressed “war weariness” and other pacifist sentiments.  Intercepted by the censors, these were enough to have him arrested.  Cummings too was detained, apparently on the grounds that, as Brown’s friend, he must also be a suspicious character.

Cummings was given the opportunity to win his freedom by disavowing his friend and by declaring his hatred for all Germans.  Friendship won out over personal liberty and Cummings refused to take his chance.  He, therefore, followed Brown to La Ferté-Macé, a kind of purgatory in the French prison system, where unconvicted prisoners were sent, pending the decision by a commission on whether they should be convicted or released.  Both Cummings and Brown have the misfortune to arrive just days after the commission has left and so are condemned to spending several months locked up until the commission is due to return.

The major part of the Enormous Room deals with Cummings’ life in La Ferté-Macé.  All of the male detainees are kept in the titular enormous room under pretty dreadful coniditions – straw pallets for beds, buckets of urine lined up against a wall, inedible food and a cold bath once a week.  They are also physically separated from the female prisoners who include not just suspects but also the wives and families of male prisoners who have elected to stay with them.

There is no real plot to this section of the book.  It centres around descriptions of everyday life, anecdotes about events that took place during his stay there and a number of picaresque character sketches of his fellow inmates and the detention centre staff.  Men such as Judas, the Fighting Sheeny, Rockyfeller, Mexique and, most notably, Jean le Nègre all flit across the pages of The Enormous Room to be described in energetic and vivid prose.
Cummings’ writing is very distinctive here.  It is the voice of the privileged young American who, despite his unfortunate circumstances, is determined to rise above it all and to treat everything as a bit of a joke, safe in the knowledge that things will turn out well in the end.  It is even vaguely reminiscent in tone (if not in language) to upper-class English literary heroes of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, determined to face insurmountable odds with a joke and a stiff upper lip.  The grammar is also slightly unorthodox and the language use is quirky, foreshadowing his later poetry.

Yet, underlying the lighthearted tone, Cummings is scathing of the French bureaucracy and the conditions in which the detainees are kept. It is shocking to read about the physical state of the detention centre and the treatment of the inmates when one considers that these are people who have not been convicted of any time.  If the commission does convict a prisoner, they are immediately sent off to a true prison and one hesitates to even try and imagine what the conditions there must have been like.

There is a happy ending to all of this.  On the commission’s return to La Ferté-Macé, Cummings was permitted a supervised release to any place he chose in France.  At the same time, his father, a well-known minister in Boston and a former lecturer at Harvard who had been writing letters to try and obtain his son’s release, finally managed to get a letter to the President.  Diplomatic intervention ensued and, as Cummings was about to leave for Oloron-Sainte-Marie, news of his unconditional release arrived and, instead, he was put on a train to Paris.

The Enormous Room is an interesting and unusual part of the canon of novels and poems that were born out of the First World War.  It tells of what must have been an extremely unpleasant experience in a deceptively light-hearted fashion and is an often amusing read. 

Although not a commercial success, it was hailed by critics and reviewers as a unique novel.  Writing in 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald commented:

Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings....Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality.”

For this tour, I wanted to read something new to me.  Neither Cummings nor this type of novel spring naturally to mind when one is thinking about the US expat writing scene in 1920s Paris and I am really glad I did choose this – it’s always a pleasure to discover and enjoy a new writer and book.

I shall be following the tour as it progresses and I hope that you will visit the blogs of the other tour participants.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: What should we read before the dying of the light?

Literary Blog Hop
This week, the Literary Blog Hop, brought to us by the Blue Bookcase, is asking:

”What one literary work must you read before you die?”

My immediate response is that the literary work that I must read before I die is whichever book I decide to postpone reading until I am sitting in my favourite chair, surrounded by my grandchildren (I am not going to live to meet my great-grandchildren unless both my daughter and her offspring become teen parents) at the age of 100!

I am pretty sure that’s not the answer that everyone is looking for so I’ll put on my thinking cap.  

Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Trollope, Dickens, Waugh, Defoe, Swift, Nabokov, Twain, Austen, Brontë (C), Brontë (E), Whitman, Eliot, Auden, Shaw, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Beckett, Poe, Dante, Cervantes, Wordsworth, Dumas, Borges, Forster, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Zola, Amis (K), Amis (M), Kafka, Woolf, Hugo, Maupassant, Wodehouse, Banks, Mishima, Eco, Saki, Fitzgerald, Homer, Kazantzakis, Mailer, Bulgakov, Updike, Pynchon.

There we go. Fifty writers off the top of my head and that is only scratching the tip of the iceberg.  There are simply too many books.  I don’t know what the “one” book is that I must read before I die.  Should it be a book I “should” read or a book I “want” to read?

Ultimately, I think it needs to be a book that, if I haven’t read it before I die, I will look back from my afterlife and give my decaying body a spiritual clip round the ear for not having done so.  On that basis, and acknowledging that it is impossible to narrow it down to a single book, I nominate Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess.

Any Old Iron is Burgess’ updating of the legend of Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical blade, and tells the story of a Welsh-Jewish family’s progress through the first half of the 20th Century, leading up to the creation of Israel.  I have had a copy kicking around for most of the past 25 years and have started it several times but have never finished it.  This isn’t because it is dull or difficult.  For some strange reason, every time I have picked it up, there has been a distraction or a supervening need to read something else that has interrupted me.  So, if there is one book I am determined to finish before I pop my clogs, this is it.

As an alternative, I am currently trying to read Gravity’s Rainbow as part of my 1,001 Book challenge and it is, unquestionably, the most difficult novel I have ever read.  There is so much going on in it and it is so complex that I can only manage a hundred pages or so before I have to read something (anything!) else as mental relief.  Again, I will not let it defeat me -  I will finish it, if it is the last thing I ever do.  And it may well be.

But, hold on a minute.  What if the question isn’t about me but about you?  What if it is asking me to nominate a book that you must read before you keel over?

Again, I will mentally stamp my foot, pout and declare that it is a sheer impossibility to nominate but a single book as the only “must” read for anyone.  So, just because I nominate this one, don’t think that there aren’t a host of others I think you should read.  Oh, no!

Anyway, as I am only allowed one nomination, I would suggest that your literary life will not be complete unless you have read Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Why?  Because it is fab.  It has everything – a cool plotline, memorable characters, some classic quotes and the greatest villainess ever.  It is melodramatic, over the top and simply great fun.  It’s my favourite Shakespeare play and, if you haven’t already read it, I suggest you drop everything (unless you are holding your baby) and run out to buy a copy.  After all, who knows when the Grim Reaper will come a-knocking!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A late Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Family Members

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, brought to us by  The Broke and the Bookish wants us to list ten characters from books that we would love to have in our family.

I found this one a little tricky as literature is chock-full of wicked mothers and deadbeat or abusive fathers but sweet, nurturing mummies and strong, protective daddies are pretty thin on the ground or at least they are in the books I read!  It’s also possible that this theme could turn out to be a bit of a land mine.  Each of the characters in everyone’s lists will have their own special qualities and I can just imagine family members scouring the lists and thinking, “So what are you saying here?  Aren’t I smoulderingly handsome/witty/clever/kind (delete as appropriate)?”  It could cause all kinds of arguments and sulks.

So I want to start by pointing out that my family is, on the whole, pretty damn wonderful.  I love them all very much, from my one remaining grandparent all the way down (in terms of age) to mini-Falaise and my cousins’ kids.  I wouldn’t swap any of them (well, maybe just the occasional one!) for anyone in this list.  Honestly.

But, in an alternative universe, where they had all vanished into the ether, maybe, just maybe, some of the following could serve as (wholly inadequate) replacements:

1.         Lady Polgara from David Eddings’ novels.  She’s a fantastic cook, extremely beautiful and she can do magic.  She made a pretty handy aunt for Belgarion to have around but I suspect she would also be a pretty cool mother.

2.         Ebeneezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Work with me on this one.  He’s wealthy, child-free and has just been terrified into becoming generous and kindly.  Wouldn’t that make for a useful uncle?

3.         Aunt Augusta from Travels with my Aunt by John Steinbeck.  She’s dotty, domineering and utterly wonderful.  We all need an aunt like Augusta.

4.         Mrs Weasley from the Harry Potter series.  Well, why not.  She is pure essence of motherliness and incredibly protective of her offspring.

5.         Aunt Dahlia from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels.  Being described as Bertie’s favourite aunt is faint praise, given his aversion to Aunt Agatha and his other aunts but Dahlia is a generally good egg and wouldn’t disgrace any nephew’s auntly slate provided it is remembered that Aunts aren’t Gentlemen.

6.         The Famous Five from Enid Blyton.  When I was small, I would have loved these four (the fifth, Timmy, was a dog) to have been in my family.  They had exciting adventures and there was always ginger beer at tea time.

7.         Jean Valjean from Les Misérables.  I believe that Jean Valjean is one of the greatest heroes in literature.  His tale is one of redemption and growth, of his struggle to become the man he wants to be.  I admire him immensely and he gets his place in this list for his love and care for his “grand-daughter”, Cosette.  

8.         Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Firstly, you can never have too many eccentric aunts and uncles.  Secondly, free trips on his chocolate river!

9.                  The Hon. Galahad Threepwood from P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings novels.  There has to be a black sheep in every family and they don’t come more resourceful and entertaining than Gally.  Given his age, he would have to be the great-uncle no-one talks about.

10.              Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series.  If you have to have a sister, then it may as well be an ace Jurisfiction agent with a pet dodo and a multi-coloured sports car.

Monday, March 14, 2011

2,569: 1,001 Books Challenge - The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas - Part 1

It feels like the Three Musketeers has been a part of my cultural consciousness for almost as long as I have been alive.  Whether it was the animated version that formed one of the segments in the Banana Splits show (re-runs I hasten to add), the Tom and Jerry classic “two mouseketeers” sequence or even the later Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, the Dumas classic reaches way beyond the bookshelves to hook in the younger reader.  So, even when I first came to read the book many years ago, I was already familiar with the tropes found in it.  Long before I accompanied D’Artagnan to Paris, it was axiomatic to me that “all for one and one for all” was a motto to live by.

This kind of implicit familiarity with a book I had never read interests me greatly.  There are many books that are so central to our collective Western heritage that most of us have absorbed their basic plots and are aware of the main characters even without having read them.  The Iliad, the Odyssey, Oliver Twist, the Three Musketeers, A Christmas Carol are just some of them – I am sure you can think of others.  This begs the question of what it means to have read a book.  

If, for example, I read a book a number of years ago – the Children of the New Forest would be a good example – but can remember absolutely nothing about it, can I really say I have read it other than as a literal statement of fact. I can’t discuss it with anyone and have no lasting appreciation of it.  At best, I can put a line through it in a list of books.  By contrast, I could converse sensibly on aspects of the books I’ve listed above even before I had read them for the first time.  In any meaningful sense I had more knowledge and understanding of books I had not actually read than some I had technically read.  In the sense that I think a lot of us use the phrase “I have read” - i.e. I am familiar with the plot, the characters, the ideas and the place in history of this book – I’ve actually “read” the books I haven’t and vice versa.  On this basis, the act of transporting words from page to brain via eyes seems to be just a small part of “reading”.  I shall soon be reading How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard which examines the meaning of reading in greater depth and, hopefully, will have a bit more insight into this thought.

Anyway, I digress.  Let’s return to Paris at the turn of the 17th Century.  In taking part in Allie’s readalong at A Literary Odyssey, I wanted to explore whether The Three Musketeers would give me the same pleasure that it gave me as a child all those years ago when I first read it.  Way back then, I found it an exciting, swashbuckling adventure in which I was firmly on the side of the impossibly brave and honourable D’Artagnan and his three loyal friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  This time?  Not so much.  It’s still a breezy read but, at the halfway point, I am finding myself becoming slightly disgruntled with it all.

My real problem with it lies in the moral and social code that the main characters display.  I’m not talking about things like their views on gender, race, politics or the “big” issues but, instead,  I’m really focussing on their day to day personal behaviour and the kinds of behaviour that are considered “honourable” or that are expected of gentlemen of quality.  I should qualify this by acknowledging that Dumas was writing a story set over 200 years earlier and so we are seeing his interpretation of the moral code of the 1600s.  He may even be exaggerating the differences to contrast with the values of mid-19th Century France.

Firstly, it seems perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of comment for the musketeers to take money from friends and admirers and, in effect, to live a parasitical existence dependent on handouts.  Porthos wheedles cash from the lawyer’s wife whom he is romancing, D’Artagnan accepts cash from the king and there are several refernces to the Musketeers obtaining or seeking to obtain funds from amenable ladies:

At this epoch, the ideas of pride which are in fashion in our days did not prevail.  A gentleman received, from hand to hand, money from the king, and was not the least in the world humiliated.”

Maybe I have an odd attitude to this but there is something demeaning and weak about the way the four friends support themselves in this way.  I want my heroes to have a bit more pride and self-respect than that.

I also found that the attitude of the political figures in the book towards matters of state to be disappointing.  Their own personal desires always seem to be more important than the needs of France as a nation.  For example, the Queen is prepared to persuade her family to declare war on France merely to get rid of Cardinal Richelieu, her personal enemy.  What is more, the King is less concerned by this than the thought that she might be in love with Buckingham:

“The queen pressed her brother and the Emperor of Austria to appear to be wounded……to declare war against France, and as a condition of peace, to insist upon the dismissal of the cardinal; but as to love, there was not a single word about it in all the letter.  The king, quite delighted……”

“In his eyes and to his conviction, Mme. de Chevreuse not only served the queen in her political intrigues, but, what tormented him still more, in her amorous intrigues.”

Although I appreciate this kind of behaviour is necessary to enable the plot of The Three Musketeers to progress, the cavalier way in which the queen treats France is unsettling and the seeming disregard of the king for her political treachery is breathtaking.  The king, in particular, comes across as immature and jealous.

Indeed, one of the main themes I have picked up from the first half of the book is the primacy of personal friendship and love over duty to one’s king or country.  I am not a single-minded patriot but the disregard that Dumas’ characters show for matters with which their loves and friendships conflict is quite alien to me.  Buckingham, again:

“Anne of Austria is my true queen.  Upon a word from her, I would betray my country, I would betray my king, I would betray my God.  She asked me not to send the Protestants of La Rochelle the assistance I promised them; I have not done so.  I broke my word, it is true; but what signifies that?”

Let’s put this in context:  Buckingham was the King of England's Chief Minister.  France was one of England’s chief foes at the time.  A successful rebellion by La Rochelle, one of the French navy’s key ports, could have done serious damage to France.  Yet Buckingham was prepared to refuse assistance that they had requested because he fancied the Queen of France.  I suspect this verges on the treasonous.  The real story, of course, is not the same as this.

The characters also have an overweening obsession with their appearance and image and, consequently, I am finding them to be selfish, vain and immature.  My negative impression of them has largely erased my previous enjoyment of the book.

I am starting to think that The Three Musketeers will turn out to be a book that should have stayed as a childhood memory.  It may be that I am a bit too old, a bit too jaded, even a bit dull in my middle age.  I haven’t refound the pleasure of my earlier experience with the book and, as I start the second half of the readalong, I am hoping that things will change but have my doubts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

2,570: Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse

The many references to P.G. Wodehouse and the Blandings Castle books in particular have prompted me to start re-reading them in chronological order to see whether I still feel justified in praising them so frequently.

Something Fresh is the first book in the series and was published in the UK and US in 1915.  Prior to its publication in book form, it had been serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.  The book introduces us to several of the recurring characters in the series including Lord Emsworth himself, his half-witted younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, Beech the butler and Lord Emsworth’s secretary, the Efficient Baxter.  Most of these are, at least to begin with, typical Wodehousian archetypes – Freddie, the half-wit younger son, Beech, the majestic butler and Emsworth, the muddle-headed old gentleman and Baxter.

The plot too gives us several of the Wodehouse standards. There is a stolen object to recover (in this case the valuable scarab owned by Freddie’s prospective father-in-law) and the settling of various romantic entanglements (in this case, Freddie’s engagement and the partnering-up of his former fiancée with her soul mate, George Emerson and the bringing together of the book’s nominal protagonists, Ashe Marson and Joan Valentine).  As with the character types, these themes crop up so often in his books that one could form the view that they tend to blend into one after a while.

That would, however, be to miss the point.  The glories of Wodehouse derive from his use of language, from the farcical nature of the situations into which he plunges his characters and the sheer lack of malice or pessimism in his writings.  He described his writing in the following terms:

“I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”

I can’t actually think of a more precise way to describe what it is that Wodehouse actually does.  Reading his best work is like ice skating, gliding over frictionless ice with ease and grace.  There is a smoothness about it that disguises the rich and complex way he structures sentences.

Again, the relatively limited plot variation is almost irrelevant given the sheer verve and inventiveness of the detail of each plot.  The bizarre schemes that his characters come up with to achieve their goals are wickedly funny and rarely repeated.

There are other aspects to Wodehouse’s novels and stories that I will talk about in future posts but which do not really crop up in Something Fresh.  Although, as I have already said, it contains many of the Wodehouse hallmarks, it is somehow a bit flat and a little unsatisfactory.  Prior to Something Fresh, Wodehouse’s fictional output had been limited to his public school stories (which are really juvenilia), the Psmith stories that were born out of the school stories and some of his earlier “one off” novels.  These, like Something Fresh have an anachronistic feel to the language.

One of the things that strikes me most about Wodehouse is the agelessness of his voice.  Once you accept his English upper-class, inter-war milieu, the language of his books is remarkably timeless.  Wodehouse’s first novel was published in 1902 and his last (excluding a couple of posthumous publications) in 1974, shortly before his death.  Over this period of time, English (and, I would guess, American) speech patterns and language use changed quite significantly and yet if you were to pick up almost any of the books he wrote between, say the late 1930s to the end of the 1960s, I think you would, taking his settings into account, have a hard time pinpointing when it was written. His earlier books, however, including Something Fresh, do have a very “period” feel to the writing.  It is not just the archaic slang but the overall feel of the writing.  At this early point in his career, his unique voice has not yet been fully realised and I think that this detracts from the book.

Also, and again by comparison to the bulk of his work, the characters are a little lightweight.  As opposed to the later books in the series, Blandings is merely a location.  The focus is not on Emsworth and the rest of the Blandings household but more on the other characters like Ashe, Joan, Mr Peters and Empson.  None of these recur in other books and there is little character development. I feel it is only technically part of the Blandings saga rather than a real part of it, if that makes any sense.

Overall, Something Fresh, whilst a pleasant enough read is very clearly a rough draft for later Blandings books and is a definite part of Wodehouse’s early period before the true flowering of his talent.

One final curiosity about the book.  The American edition was called Something New and was actually published a few months before the UK version.  In the US version, the two main characters are Americans and there are differences in dialogue to reflect this.  There is also an entire scene that was included in the US version but omitted from the UK version.  I don’t know if that remains true of later editions but it is slightly peculiar.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Dynamic Duos (but no Caped Crusaders!)

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish asks us to list our top ten “dynamic duos”, being those best friends, power couples or partnerships that we really love.

It’s not even a month after Valentine’s Day where we all listed our top ten love stories or pairs of lovers so I’m not going to include romantic relationships in my list.  Turning to non-romantic pairings, there are some classic examples in literature – Frodo and Sam, Tom Sawyer and Huckeberry Finn, Phineas Fogg and Passepartout, Noddy and Big Ears, Jeeves and Wooster, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Don Camillo and Peppone to name but a few.  Indeed, with a little thought, it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a top twenty list.

There is one type of book though that seems particularly fond of the dynamic duo concept.  I am, of course, talking about detective fiction and, more specifically, vintage crime fiction.  There seems to be something about this genre that lends itself to the use by the main character of a sidekick or partner whether good cop – bad cop, genius detective – dense sidekick or upper-class sleuth – helpful servant to do the dirty work.  So, without more ado, here are my top ten detective fiction duos:

1.         Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.  It would have just been wrong not to put these two top of the list.  From the moment they meet in A Study in Scarlet they become inseparable.  As well as being the foil by which Holmes can display his genius – “Elementary, my dear Watson!” – the good doctor is also Holmes’ Boswell, faithful chronicler of his cases.  All but four of the 56 short stories and 4 novels that feature Sherlock are narrated by his faithful friend.  Despite Holmes' cool persona, ther is real affection between the two.

2.         Hercule Poirot and Hastings.  Mais bien sûr, mes amis!  There are real similarities in the Poirot-Hastings dynamic to the Holmes-Watson relationship with Hastings acting as sounding board, dull-witted assistant and chronicler.  Hastings is, however, despite being Poirot’s best friend, less important to Poirot overall, appearing in only 8 of the 35 Poirot novels (although in most of the short stories) and not featuring in either of Christie’s best-known Poirot stories, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

3.         Commissario Brunetti and Vianello.  As they have progressed, Donna Leon’s Venice-set Brunetti novels have given more and more importance to his relationship with his wife, Paola and he also has a rather ambiguous relationship (non-sexual I hasten to add) with Signora Elettra, his superior’s secretary.  As I am eschewing the romantic or quasi-romantic, however, Brunetti’s partnership with his sergeant (and later, inspector) Vianello deserves to be included here.  They have a comfortingly solid friendship, with shared ideals and a mutual distrust of Vice-Questore Patta, their boss.

4.         Dalziel and Pascoe.  The deep friendship that exists between the uncouth and rough Detective Superintendant Dalziel and the university-educated Detective Sergeant Pascoe is an important feature of Reginald Hill’s novels despite Dalziel’s constant efforts to be crusty and curmudgeonly towards Pascoe.

5.         Albert Campion and Magersfontein Lugg.  Margery Allingham originally created Campion as a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey but he developed an existence of his own as her novels grew in popularity.  Campion is a scion of an English aristocratic family who has adopted his name as a pseudonym.  He is aided in his adventures by his faithful manservant, Lugg, an ex-burglar who gave up his nefarious activities to work for Campion and who takes care of any dirty business.

6.         Charlie Mortdecai and Jock Strapp.  I bet you’ve not come across these two before but they are fantastic.  Created by Kyril Bonfiglioli whose style and novel structure has been compared to Wodehouse, Charlie Mortdecai is an art dealer who has been described as an amoral Bertie Wooster with occasional psychopathic tendencies.  He tries to detect crimes but often ends up being the detectee.  His faithful manservant, Jock Strapp, is a drunken but loyal thug, described by the author as “a sort of anti-Jeeves”.  The four Mortdecai novels are great fun but not for the easily offended.

7.         Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell.  Dave is a recovering alcoholic detective who is subject to bouts of depression.  Cletus is a violent, alcoholic bail-bondsman.  They are best buddies, naturally.  James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels deal with the seedy underbelly of Louisiana and are gritty.  They are characterised by their moral ambiguity and their fabulous sense of place.  Forget great crime writing, James Lee Burke is simply a wonderful writer full stop.

8.         Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and Raymond “Mouse” Alexander.  These two have been lifelong friends since their childhood in Texas.  Easy is a black PI in Los Angeles at the dawn of the civil rights era.  He is idealistic (and a bit of a drunk) and a fighter for social justice.  Mouse is amoral and a near-psychopath who Easy turns to when he needs muscle.  One of his best lines: “If you didn’t want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?”  Great stuff.  Incidentally, Mouse and Sherlock Holmes share the distinction of having survived being killed off by their creators and making a return from the dead in later books.

9.         Father Brown and Hercule Flambeau.  One of the more complex friendships in detective fiction, Father Brown is the dumpy Catholic priest who catches criminals by using intuitive methods, focussing on philosophical ideas.  He is a kind of mirror image of Holmes in this respect.  Flambeau begins his association with Father Brown as his chief adversary, a master criminal.  Father Brown eventually reforms him and he becomes his friend and colleague.  G.K. Chesteron’s creation seems to be a bit of a Marmite experience – you either love him or hate him.  Me? I have loved Father Brown since I first read him at school.  And you certainly don’t have to be a Catholic or even religious to do so.

10.       Thomson and Thompson.  I haven’t run out of ideas, I just love Hergé’s wonderfully incompetent detectives.  Despite pursuing either Tintin or another completely innocent suspect, failing ever to catch the real crook and getting into improbable scrapes, Thomson and Thompson keep being entrusted with secret missions, thus ensuring they will come across Tintin again.  Despite looking identical, Thomson and Thompson are not related. They act as super sub-plots to Tintin’s adventures and deserve a place here for having inspired the name of one of the best British 1980s pop bands, the Thompson Twins, and for having made a crossover appearance in an Asterix story.  Legends!

I would also like to give honourable mentions to Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Hawk and Fisher and Tommy and Tuppence, who would have made the cut had it not been for their romantic entanglements and also to Thursday Next and Pickwick the dodo, who narrowly missed out to Thomson and Thompson because I just couldn’t bring myself to include a dodo in my list.