Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Monday, 31 August 2020

Rats as big as cats

Homage to Catalonia You have to admire the courage of war correspondents, the journalists who place themselves in the middle of a conflict in order to bring us reports of the fighting and destruction and its effects on citizens. In December 1936, six months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell travelled to Spain "with some notion of writing newspaper articles". Unlike today's reporters he went a step further. He promptly joined the militia, "because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do". It's rather a lame explanation, ill-considered and reckless considering what happened next.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The past is a foreign country

The Go-betweenIn The Go-Between, Leo Colston, aged 60, finds his childhood diary and through its pages relives a traumatic event that impacted the course of his life. It was during the hot summer of 1900, when, approaching his 13th birthday, Leo spent three weeks in Norfolk with his schoolfriend, Marcus. He is eager to please Marcus's sister Marian, admires the rough masculinity of the farmer Ted, and is deferential to the aristocrat, Hugh.

L.P. Hartley has so beautifully crafted the character of Leo that it's impossible not to feel sorry for the youth. He is a self-conscious boy, ruled by the unspoken codes that ensure his survival at school. Unfortunately these do not transfer to the world of grown-ups. Leo's naivety leaves him utterly confused by the language and social mores of the world in which he finds himself, and leads to a fateful misapprehension of the complexities of adult relationships.

It's perhaps inevitable too, that the misunderstandings provide some humour in the story. An exchange between Leo and Marian is a worthy predecessor of The Two Ronnie's Fork Handles sketch :
Hugh asked me to tell you -
I asked you to tell me?
No, not you, Hugh.
Not you, you, [-] I can't understand a word you say.
No, [-] Hugh, you know, Hugh.
Yes, of course I know myself.
It's not you, it's Viscount Hugh.
Oh, Hugh. [-] How stupid of me.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Fast-paced page-turner for horror aficionados

Rosemary's BabyA creepy castle, a woman in distress, disturbing dreams and much, much more. Rosemary's Baby is a classic gothic horror story that takes place, not in the middle of nowhere, but right in the heart of New York City.

It starts with a young, married couple, the Woodhouses, moving into The Bramford apartment building, much in demand for its period features, "weird, gargoyles and creatures climbing up and down between the windows." Rosemary is a little insecure, having been rejected by her large, Catholic family because she moved away from home and married a Protestant. Guy, her husband, is an ambitious actor, full of self-confidence. Everyone seems envious of their good fortune in obtaining a flat in The Bram, except for Hutch, Rosemary's paternal, English friend. However the couple ignore Hutch's misgivings and are soon getting to know their strange neighbours.

Ira Levin published the story in 1967, and 50 years on, some of the characters' actions, as well as the plot machinations, teeter on the verge of incredulity. Initially, much of it relies on Rosemary's unwillingness to appear unfriendly, her choosing to ignore Guy's "signals of a shortcoming in his love for her," and his frankly appalling idea of sexual "fun." Nevertheless, it is a well-written, fast-paced page-turner of a book and a must-read for aficionados of horror.

Friday, 11 January 2019

What happens when the ones we love are enemies of the state

Home FireThe ones we love ... are enemies of the state, writes Kamila Shamsie in the epigraph to her book Home Fire. The story then, is about what happens when a family member joins a group of people whose actions are seen to be dangerous to society. It is also a contemporary telling of the ancient Greek tale of Antigone.

In the opening pages, Isma, a young woman, is stopped at the airport on her way to America on a student visa. We find out that when her parents died she had to abandon her studies in order to raise her sibling twins, a brother and sister.

The story is told from the points of view of Isma and four other characters: Eamonn, a young man and distant relative of Isma; Parvaiz, Isma's nineteen-year-old brother; Aneeka, his twin sister; Karamat, Eamonn's father. It is a tragedy about a naive boy manipulated into fighting for ISIL, believing that he will discover the truth about the father he never knew. In addition, it raises questions about the corrupting influence of power and ambition, the dangers of keeping secrets, grief, love for family, and what it is to be a man.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The giddy carousel of pop

Rock Stars Stole My Life!Oh, the "Giddy Carousel of Pop"! Mark Ellen's amusing and nostalgic memoir brought back many happy music-based memories: Dad making annoying comments during Top of the Pops; sniggering with a chum over copies of Smash Hits; being in a band.

More seriously, the book traces the changing face of music journalism and the consumption of music since The Beatles. It also touches on what the life of a pop/rock star might be like.

Thank you too, Mark Ellen, for puncturing the pomposity of the music snob. I guffawed at the opposing descriptions of Frank Zappa: "a cryptic genius working at the coalface of the avant-garde", versus "a hideous dullard who upended groupies and wrote lewd songs about it." And I laughed even harder at Captain Beefheart: "a brave sonic explorer patrolling the outer limits of self-expression" versus "a crashing bore whose death-rattle vocal could curdle milk and whose music knotted the knees and brought dance-floors to a shuddering halt."

Friday, 23 November 2018

Sorry Mr Orwell ...

Fifty Orwell Essays [linked table of contents]Perhaps it's a little unfair to award Orwell's collection of 50 essays a mere three out of five stars. Some of the essays are brilliant, but there are plenty that, on first reading, are just ok. For instance, it was difficult to properly enjoy his discussion of the merits of Helen's Babies, or James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution, since they mean nothing to me. I would have got more from the essay on Gulliver's Travels if I had actually read Swift's work, and my knowledge of Shakespeare's King Lear was found wanting in the reading of the essay about Tolstoy.

There are, however, absolute gems in this collection: extracts from The Road to Wigan Pier; The Lion and the Unicorn; Such, Such Were the Joys. His prose is to the point, he is not afraid to criticise injustice and speak out about totalitarianism and nationalism. The essays have provided some insight into the man, and I dare say, once I've corrected my own ignorance, I shal re-read the book and award it five stars.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Don't blame the victims

The TruantsThe Truants begins on a park bench. As dawn approaches, a vampire who has been alive since pre-history, is waiting to end his life. A teenager approaches, demands money, pulls out a knife and stabs him. In the immediate aftermath, the knife infects two children with the old-one's blood, thwarting his suicide attempt and allowing him to intermittently control the victims: Peter, an infant who has been abused since birth; Danny, a beloved son who enjoys Harry Potter.

Author Lee Markham was inspired by real life events: murders committed by children; the London riots during summer 2011. So the book shines a light on the hellish life for many in today's Britain. Generations have lived with abuse, yet society "blames the victims of [the] sins for the sins [-] perpetrated against them." It warns that once life becomes hopeless, when "there is nothing to lose, and perhaps nothing even to gain, then why not just lash out?"

Then again, if you're just after a decent horror story, the book provides some gory scenes and a gripping account of a desperate search to retrieve a bloodied knife before it infects the city.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The original psycho-biddy

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Henry Farrell's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in 1908 with the famous child star having a tantrum in public. "What's ever to become of a child like that?" comments the matron of one of Baby Jane Hudson's fidgeting fans. "It's the others I pity, the ones who'll have to live with her," is the ominous reply.

Fast forward to 1959, and we find Jane living with her sister Blanche, who has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident involving a car damaged her legs and put an end to her movie career. They remain together because their dying father told them, "You are sisters, [-] the same flesh and blood. And that means that you've always got to stick together, no matter what." The adult Jane is still having tantrums, as well as periods of dark brooding, and bouts of drunkenness. Her behaviour becomes even more erratic after the sisters watch Blanche's old movies on TV. Initially Blanche makes the excuse "that it's really all my own fault," but as her fear of her sister increases, she must secretly try to engage the help of various characters: Edna Stitt the sensible cleaner; Mrs. Bates the star-struck neighbour; Edwin Flagg, Jane's would-be musical accompanist.

There is plenty of suspense and the story is told with a fast pace. It is a great example of gothic horror, all the more disturbing because fear is caused by someone experiencing psychosis rather than by something supernatural.

The ending is the best bit, and it will make you reassess the whole tale.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

American market, American methods

England Made Me"She might have been waiting for her lover." So opens Graham Greene's book, England Made Me, in a railway station cafe, where Kate Ferrant is expecting to meet her twin brother Anthony. She intends to persuade her boss, Swedish industrialist Erik Krogh, to give a job to the feckless twin, who is unable to "open his mouth without lying."

Krogh employs Anthony as his bodyguard as he secretively works to ensure the success of his business expansion. The Swede's greed leads him to practise insider-trading, selling short, and suppressing workers' rights. It can be seen as a critical observation of international capitalism, as Krogh justifies his actions because "he had entered the American market, he had to be prepared for American methods." He believes "there's no such thing [-] as actual value. [-] There's only the price people are willing to pay."

This idea of value is also examined in the story's treatment of the class system. Krogh, from a working class background, can afford to buy all the trappings of the rich, upper-class circles to which his business success has brought him, but he struggles to fit in. He also struggles to appreciate art, literature and opera, seeing them only as reflections of wealth. Anthony, the product of a public school education, understands them but thinks they are boring and consequently worthless. He describes Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as "just about a fellow who sends his friend to bring him back a wife." He would rather go dancing with a girl at the Tivoli amusement park.

Anthony eventually becomes disillusioned with Sweden and recognizes his own inability to settle into a different class role, that of someone who must earn a living. He feels he is an "exile from his country and his class," without the resources to hold his place in society and "so conditioned" that he "hadn't the vigour to resist." He decides to return to England, but as with most Graham Greene stories, there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

He who loves money never has enough

The Ballad of a Small PlayerI used to imagine Hell as a Sisyphean search for friends in a packed, Covent Garden Piano & Pitcher bar on a Friday night. In The Ballad of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne describes a different version of purgatory, that of the impossible task of making money in the garish interiors and themed decors of casinos. Anyone who has wandered through Las Vegas gaming palaces will recognize the oppressive setting of Osborne's story, where addicts are oblivious to the passing of time. He conjures up a seedy world where logic, reason and causality are replaced by a belief in coincidence and luck.

The action takes place over a short period of time in the life of Lord Doyle, who is not a lord, and whose name may not be Doyle. He is an English con man, living in exile in a casino hotel in Macau, surviving by gambling stolen money. When we meet him, he is on a losing streak and down to his last few thousand HK dollars.

Doyle is a lonely character, although he claims to have two male friends. The three men beg money from each other when they lose, and lie in order to avoid paying their debts. They attract female company only when they have cash to spare. In a brief encounter with one of these women, named Dao-Ming, Doyle is forced to look at himself as he really is: "Something about her had made me feel ashamed, [-] how repulsive I must be, how oppressive and pitiful."

And so the book is essentially a study of Doyle's character; sad, lonely, stuck in his way of life, haunted by his failures and crimes, unable and unwilling to escape what is a living hell. The oppressive atmosphere and a feeling that the protagonist is drifting toward destruction are very Graham Greene-ish, something that other reviewers have commented on. About half way through one senses that something in Doyle's world is not quite right, but in terms of plot, one might say that not much happens except that a man loses money and makes money, and in the process, loses his soul.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Inventing a universe is tough work

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories"Inventing a universe is tough work," confesses Ursula Le Guin in the Foreword to this collection of short stories. Reading about it can be quite tough too, as I found out the first time I tried to start the book. I failed to get past page four, such was my inability to get to grips with Sov Thade Tage em Ereb's explanation about Sedern Geger, the Harges, and Argaven. The visual bombardment of strange words of unknown pronunciation put me off and served to increase my belief that sci-fi stories of weird planets, aliens and space ships were not for me.

But I like short stories and I enjoy speculative fiction, especially by female writers, so I tried again. This time, before starting on the tales, I spent time reading the Foreword, where Le Guin explains what the eight stories are about, and what inspired them. The first six, and possibly the seventh, take place on worlds of her invented universe of Ekumen. The last is primarily set on a space ship that is on its way to a new world that earth-dwellers hope to inhabit.

With a bit of advance warning and understanding I began reading about characters who, although from other worlds, were credible and likeable, because, regardless of their differences, they all behaved in understandably human ways. Their traditions and mores were of greater interest. How would society develop if a child's sex was not determined until puberty? What would a marriage of four people look like? How would a community of introverts interact?

Of the eight stories, three stood out.

The Matter of Seggri observes a world where there are very few men. It is told in a series of reports: two by researchers from other worlds, two by Seggri women, and one by a native male. The men are highly valued, but their only function is to enable women to become pregnant. I laughed at the irony that men were refused employment because their "hormones would make male workers unreliable."

Mountain Ways is one of two tales that relate the complexities of love in a culture where a marriage consists of two males and two females. Isolated farming communities have the additional problem of a lack of sufficient partners. Le Guin describes it as a "comedy of manners."

Finally, Paradises Lost, the longest tale in the book, observes what happens to a generation of travellers who have never seen the world from which their ancestors departed, nor will they set foot on the new world to which their children are heading. What would it be like if your "world" is a means of transport and your life is literally a journey?

The book's writing style often reflects that of a disinterested observer or researcher, which precludes an immersive reading experience. However, it does tend to raise more questions for the reader about how and why these alien societies developed as they did. More importantly, it provokes the same thoughts and questions about our own world.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Like looking through someone's holiday photos

The Innocents AbroadThe purpose of Mark Twain's 19th century travel guide is "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him."

Reading the book was a little like looking through the photographs of a friend who has recently returned from holiday. There are lots of boring descriptions of works of art and landscapes, interspersed with very entertaining adventures. The "pleasure excursion" begins on board the USS Quaker City, delayed, like many 21st century holidays, due to bad weather. After a rather dull boat journey across the Atlantic, the ship enters the Mediterranean Sea, and stops at various places to allow its passengers to venture further inland for sight-seeing.

Twain's first encounter with the locals is quite disagreeable. He gives us his opinion of the Portuguese, who are "slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy." On reaching France he finds the Marseillaises never "wash with their soap themselves." These stereotypical character descriptions are rude, but Twain asserts in his preface, "I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not." He entertains us with his cynical opinion of venerated Catholic relics and pokes fun at tourist guides and tourist sites. Once the group arrives in the Holy Land, it becomes apparent that the so-called Pilgrims who had made the journey for religious reasons are no more righteous than Twain and his fellow Sinners.

Traveling through the Holy Land, the heat becomes oppressive and the poverty too conspicuous to be ignored. By the end of the book I was as glad as I think Twain was himself to end the long journey.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Being fine is not enough

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Eleanor Oliphant is odd. People don't understand her and she finds it difficult to make friends. We very quickly learn that she's had at least one abusive experience, since she turned up for a job interview "with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm." But there are little clues in the text that lead us to suspect that Eleanor has suffered something much more dreadful, and this has probably influenced her behaviour and self-imposed loneliness. Things start to change when Eleanor finds the love of her life wearing "the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened", and when she develops a friendship with the office IT guy, Raymond, who wears "a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog, lying on top of its kennel".

Set in Glasgow, the story is narrated by Eleanor, but the expressions she uses and her way of talking give the impression that something is not quite right. She says things that don't make sense, suggesting her version of events is not necessarily reliable. Her language is very formal, and her use of the word "Mummy" is particularly unsettling.

The story was tragicomic, in that it made me both laugh and cry. Eleanor's description of Hell was very amusing: "the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of 'show tunes' drawn from the annals of musical theatre." Her dislike of geraniums took me right back to childhood: "that rich, sticky scent when you brush against them, a brackish, vegetable smell that's the opposite of floral." And then I shed a tear quite a few times with Eleanor, even tho' I was uncertain of just what she was crying about.

It's Gail Honeyman's first novel, and just like another favourite of mine, Notes on a Scandal , its treatment of loneliness had an emotional appeal. Eleanor Oliphant thought she was fine but I wanted her to be more than that. I wanted her to be happy.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Bally foolishness

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1) There were four of them --- George, and William Samuel Harris, and J., and Montmorency the dog. They were sitting in J.'s lodgings, comparing their ailments, and reached the conclusion that they needed rest, a "change of scene, and absence of the necessity for thought." Two weeks in a hired rowing boat on the River Thames was chosen as the best remedy, although Montmorency thought "the whole thing bally foolishness". The three friends packed their bags and set off to enjoy themselves.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) follows the narrator J. and George and Harris from Kingston to Oxford. There is enough information for those who wish to follow in the men's wake, but the book is not really about the traveling. It is about friendship. The men argue, lose their tempers and break things, but at the end of their vacation they have had a wonderful time.

Above all, the book is funny. It is one of the funniest book I've read, managing to not only provide chuckles and guffaws throughout, but in several places causing me to laugh out loud. The best episode, I thought, was J.'s explanation of why neither "paraffine" oil nor cheese should ever be included in a list of items to be taken on a boat trip. His retelling of Harris's experience with swans came a close second. Jerome's writing occasionally lurches from the comic and vernacular to poetic musings on landscape, but this serves to throw the humour into relief.

Anyone who has been away with a group of mates will relate to the book. If the holiday was spent outdoors in Britain, even more so. I believe that is what continues to make Three Men in a Boat so popular nearly 130 years after it was written. It so wonderfully held a mirror up to the plucky British character, the types who, no matter how dreadful the situation in which they found themselves, insisted "We had come out for a fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the river we meant to have.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The injustice of man's justice

It's a Battlefield "Do you believe in the way the country is organized?" asks Caroline Bury in It's a Battlefield. She's a woman who's connected, who "had chosen to exercise her passion for charity" in the territory of politics. The story follows Caroline and others as they try to prevent a London bus driver named Jim Drover from hanging.

Graham Greene described the book as his 'first overtly political novel'. It was published in 1934, when Britain was experiencing the effects of the Great Depression. Although the story references unemployment and poverty, for example when the Assistant Commissioner considers that "the beggar did not beg because he would not work", it's not primarily concerned with them (check out Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier for this). Instead, Greene claimed its theme is 'the injustice of man's justice'.

The Assistant Commissioner, perhaps the story's primary character, questions a justice system which allowed a company director convicted of income tax fraud to repay his debt at "twelve shillings in the pound to save [him] from bankruptcy, to save him from a nervous breakdown." In comparison "men who stole a little jewellery from a rich man's house" might go to gaol for five years, because laws, he says, are made to protect property.

The book also conjures up the experiences of working class females in a matchbox factory. Greene uses the same phrases with which he'd earlier written about life in prison, and the women come out worse. Certain prisoners "have certain privileges", "as many library books as they want", and "more butter with their bread", whereas the girls, from eight in the morning until six in the evening stood "between death and disfigurement, unemployment and the streets, between the cog-wheels and the shafting." They worked until they married, like Milly Drover, the condemned man's wife, who will have to return to the factory whatever happens to her husband. If his sentence is repealed she'll face 18 years waiting for him. Would it not be better if he were to hang?

It's all very bleak, apart from Kay Rimmer, Milly's sister, who was determined to have a good time whilst seeking a husband. I particularly enjoyed the episode where Jules takes her away for a night. Greene very briskly gets the sex scene out of the way: "He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune."

The writing style in the first chapter reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in how it follows individual characters as they travel around London between work, home and leisure, exposing their thoughts, worries and hopes. Greene opens a new section to clearly demarcate the shift from one character to another, although I was occasionally confused by the much too similar names of Conrad, the condemned man's brother, and Conder, the journalist.

This is the first time I've read It's a Battlefield, although in my early 20s I used to devour Graham Greene books. What attracted me to the author then was the way in which he juxtaposes religion (Catholicism) and communism, and this book did not disappoint. I re-read Stamboul Train last year and am now determined to tackle all his books again.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bunkum and claptrap

Veronika Decides to Die Just what is wrong with being a librarian? Around half way through Veronika Decides To Die, we learn that "Veronika [-] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian." This is not the sort of thing that endears an ex-librarian to a narrator. But I'd already made up my mind about Paolo Coelho's book before the end of the first chapter.

The story is about a young Slovenian woman called Veronika, who tries to commit suicide but fails. She wakes up in La Villete mental institution in Ljubljana, where the action is mainly set, and is told she has only a few days to live. The story then deals with how Veronika's prognosis affects her and the other inmates.

Many years ago I read Coelho's blockbuster The Alchemist and remember wondering what all the fuss was about. My overriding memory was that it was very twee. Veronika Decides To Die has not improved my opinion of the author. It was full of bunkum and claptrap. The style left me cold because there was so little descriptive depth that I found it impossible to immerse myself in the story. It consists mainly of ensuring that I get the message by hitting me over the head with it. And it was a particularly worrying message. The author's thesis appears to be that people who suffer from mental health problems are not ill, they just want to live outside the accepted norms of society. According to the character Dr. Igor, the cure for these people is "an awareness of life" and the medication is "an awareness of death".

Coelho has said that "when you write a book, you use your experience", and in the Afterword he relates his own detention in a mental institution as a teenager. This was the best bit of the book for me (because it is the most truthful). He has also said "if you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul." I'm obviously not Coelho's target audience. I found this book very boring and thought it suffered from a lack of research. My preference is for intelligent writing, and I don't really care about the author's soul, which in Paolo Coelho's case seems to resemble an ego as big as a planet.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Strange noises and messages written on walls

The Haunting of Hill House On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House is a straightforward ghost story, where four strangers meet in an isolated gothic mansion and experience supernatural phenomena. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, has rented the haunted house for three months. He hopes to make his fame and fortune "upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances." His search for suitable assistants unearths Eleanor Vance, who had dutifully cared for her mother for eleven years, leading a life of "small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair." Two others agree to join the Doctor, Theodora, for whom duty and conscience are "attributes which belonged properly to Girl Scouts", and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit Hill House, and who "was a liar" and "also a thief."

There is one memorable scene early in the book that depicts the strange folk in the town of Hillsdale, but other than this the action takes place in and around Hill House. The quartet of characters are subjected to strange noises, inexplicable temperature variations and messages written on walls. But these are not what make the story frightening. It is how the characters think and react that provoke feelings of unease and dread.

Although I found the characters fascinating, the ghostly events are somewhat cliched. Shirley Jackson's writing style is very evocative of 1950s America and the dialogue reads like a film script. My personal preference however is for a British, more modern setting, such as The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley or Sheep by Simon Maginn, both of which contained more psychological terror. The Haunting of Hill House feels dated compared to these, but it is nonetheless a classic of the horror genre.

Surprisingly there was a fair amount of humour provided by the unwavering Mrs. Dudley and Dr. Montague's eager wife. The star of the book however is Eleanor. Throughout the story she repeats a line from a song by Shakespeare, "Journeys end in lovers' meeting", but I thought a more suitable refrain would be from The Smiths's There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: "I never never want to go home, Please don't take me home, Because I haven't got one".

Monday, 19 March 2018

But. nothing happens!

Mrs. Dalloway I imagine that many youths have developed a loathing for Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because they have been forced to study it. The story begins with Clarissa Dalloway setting out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing later at her home in London. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of several characters, follows them as they wander through streets and parks, and accompanies them to appointments. "But nothing happens!" I can hear the teens cry. Having been exposed to Proust's reflections on tea and cake at school, I understand their anguish.

Woolf takes us into the minds of her characters using a stream-of-consciousness technique. As a writer, I was enthralled by the style and will more than likely read Mrs. Dalloway again. As a reader, I found it much less endearing. Without the usual narrative breaks of chapters, it's impossible to gage how much to read in any single session. There weren't even any section dividers in the ebook I used. This lack of visual markers, combined with the need for great concentration often resulted in my own thoughts drifting away from the narrative.

And yet I did like the book. The three main characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith and Peter Walsh and the action takes place a few years after the European War (when Woolf was writing there had been no second disaster). Clarissa has recently had a heart attack and Septimus suffers from shell-shock. They are two sides of the same coin. Peter had proposed marriage to Clarissa many years before, but she had turned him down because, "in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house." She had chosen Richard Dalloway for that reason rather than Peter, with whom "everything had to be shared".

I can't say that I related much to the primarily upper-middle-class characters, but Woolf's way of taking the reader on a walk with their thoughts was very appealing. It made me long to be in London again, on a hot day in June, experiencing the bustle, enjoying window-shopping, hearing Big Ben chime, wandering the streets I know very well. Mrs. Dalloway is a classic of early 20th century literature and the first of Virginia Woolf's books that I have read. It has changed my opinion of stream-of-consciousness, but I won't be reading Ulysses any time soon.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A proud mummy's boy

Barry Lyndon 'I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.' Barry Lyndon is not shy of praising himself in the book that bears his name. The subject of Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is self-explanatory. Redmond Barry is brought up by his mother, who fills his head with heroic tales of his ancestry. He is a belligerent boy, proud and naive, and grows into a wild teenager, who, in one of my favourite episodes of the book, becomes involved in a duel for the love of a local Irish girl.

Following the duel, Barry joins the British army and spends his late teenage years and early twenties involved in the Seven Years' War. After successfully extricating himself from military service, he calls himself Redmond de Balibari and joins his uncle in making a fortune and reputation through gambling. Up to this point, I found the character to be something of a cheeky rogue, but this changed once Redmond decides to obtain his money through marriage to a rich heiress.

Women, Barry Lyndon would have us believe, are his downfall. The 'only women who never deceive a man, and whose affection remains constant through all trials' are mothers. He tells us, 'Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it', and blames everyone but himself for his misfortunes. But his wife is the worst of all. Lady Lyndon, was a blue-stocking and Redmond initially had no interest in her. However, when he hears she has said that he smells 'too much of the stable to be admitted to ladies' society', his pride is wounded. He felt 'equal in blood and breeding to any Lyndon in Christendom, and determined to bend this haughty lady.' His actions from this point can only be described as those of a stalker and a psychopath.

I didn't get a sense of Thackeray trying to put across a moral theme in the actions of his characters. Indeed he has said that 'the true end of fiction lay not in pointing morals but in the art of representing a subject, whether sordid or pleasing.' My own reading of the story did bring up the question of why certain activities are fine if you happen to be upper-class, but are seen as degenerate if you are poor. Redmond de Balibari sees society's hypocrisy in considering the profession of the law as honourable, 'where a man will lie for any bidder', and yet 'the gallant man who sits him down before the baize [-] is proscribed by your modern moral world'.

I had enjoyed the Kubrick film, which follows the story fairly closely. The book is Thackeray's first substantial work of fiction and as such I thought it lacked the skill with which his later book, Vanity Fair, was written. The use of the protagonists own voice to narrate the story was very satisfying. It's clear from the start that Barry Lyndon is unreliable in remembering and telling his story, which makes it impossible to be sure how much was truthful. Some of the inaccuracies are revealed through footnotes written by Thackeray's fictitious commissioner of the work, FitzBoodle, but the other characters are never given a voice except through the protagonist. Readers must decide for themselves on the veracity of Barry Lyndon's tale.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

It's not just about revenge

The Life and Loves of a She Devil Ruth Patchett has a good life. Her husband Bobbo tells her so. Ruth is lucky to have such a good-looking husband. The neighbours often remark on it. With so little self confidence, it's no surprise that Ruth falls apart when Bobbo begins an affair with the romantic fiction writer Mary Fisher.

Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She Devil follows Ruth Patchett's journey in the aftermath of her husband's desertion. It's Bobbo who calls Ruth a she devil, and her acceptance of his accusation sets her free from the downtrodden life she has led up to then. Ruth sets about transforming herself and her life, appropriating power, and in so doing, she exacts revenge on the lovers.

Ruth is the protagonist and narrates some of the story, but her husband and the 'other woman' are strong characters too. Bobbo is nasty and self-centred, insisting on discussing his affair with Ruth, saying, ‘If it hurts you, I’m sorry. But let me share it with you, at least.’ He blames his wife for the break down of their marriage, and when his adulterous life starts to fall apart, he blames his lover, Mary Fisher. She seems to be living the life of one of her own romantic heroines, in love with Bobbo and exercising power over him through her beauty. But as she takes on responsibilities and must deal with day-to-day practicalities, she loses her lustre.

The story has some elements of speculative fiction in questioning what effects extreme physical alteration might have on one's character and life. It also reminded me of Thackeray's Vanity Fair with its lack of a hero and picaresque elements. As such it satirises religion, the justice system, care of the elderly, even feminists. My favourite episode was Ruth's sojourn with The Wimmin commune. It was not for her, as 'She wished to live in the giddy mainstream of the world, not tucked away in this muddy corner of integrity.' There was a fairy tale feel to the book too, with Mary Fisher's High Tower, below which the sea crashed against the cliffs. But probably the story's greatest appeal is in its theme of revenge. Weldon herself has insisted that the story is about envy, but it is also about control, autonomy and transformation.

I really liked the book. Most women will associate with the desire to be more attractive and some may experience schadenfreude at Ruth's revenge. If there is one thing I would change, it would be the ending, but that's difficult to explain without spoilers.