Putting the story into history

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

This book is very much about its settings. The time and place of events is irrevocably linked to the story and I found that intriguing. It doesn’t hurt that I have a long-held fascination with India and it is India, perhaps unsurprisingly, that is depicted with the greatest affection.

I found the writing more accessible than I had expected, which was good because a lot of the story is set in war-torn Kashmir and I’m not a big fan of war stories (Yes they’re very important and the genre includes some genuinely great writing but sitting down day after day to read about military tactics and lots of people dying in gruesome ways? Not my cup of tea), so I needed something to keep me in.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to the novel than that. It centres around four characters: Max Ophuls – an aged ambassador for the US and World War II Resistance hero, his daughter India – named for the country of her birth though she has no memory of it, Max’s killer – an Indian chauffeur who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, and Boonyi – the Kashmiri beauty who links their lives.

The story begins with Max’s murder on India’s doorstep. It is bloody and calculated. We then go back to learn why it happened. What was it about Max’s past and Shalimar’s that led to this event?

This book isn’t about the plot twists or the ending. The plot is mostly given away from the start. I remember reading once that in India the endings of stories – books and films – are openly discussed without concern for who does or does not know the details already. That was my experience here and it’s a definite break from what I’m used to. Not only does this novel give away it’s own ending but it also discussed the endings of three or four major films.

What makes this book great is the depiction of moments in history from one or just a few people’s perspective. Max was a Jew in Strasbourg in the years leading up to and during World War II and there’s a lot of detail about the gradual change in daily life packed into a small number of pages. A later section is set in LA during the riots of 1992 and again there’s so much detail that the chapter could almost pass for a history essay, if there weren’t a few fictional characters mixed in there.

Boonyi’s Kashmir is described in adoring detail, from the earthly paradise of her youth, when whole villages made a living from traditional arts and crafts and families of different faiths lived side by side without it being an issue (in fact they sometimes helped each other celebrate their religion); to the increasingly fractious, suspicious Kashmir following the India–Pakistan divide, when the valley gradually came under fire from all sides and your religion became all-important; to the deeply scarred warzone that Kashmir had become by the 1990s. It is a tale of tragic loss, of human idiocy and impotence. There were details that were appallingly horrific and, though this is fiction, I don’t doubt closely resemble real events and that sickens me.

The loss of the beauty and happiness of Kashmir is mirrored in the tale of Boonyi. A combination of history and human fallacies lead her ever downward and the world around her follows suit.

There are no particularly sympathetic main characters. Or at least, there weren’t for me. The love stories are touching but the characters involved are too cold or too single-minded for me to like them. My favourite character – and I’m sure the reader is meant to react this way – was the Sikh governor Sardar Harbans Singh who stayed true to his love of Kashmir to the end.

As with any novel with a historical setting it was sometimes unclear which bits were real history and which were fiction. I suppose it doesn’t matter really , except perhaps when words are put in the mouths of real historical figures. Is that okay? Is that allowed?

I greatly enjoyed this and was sad when it ended but it’s not a cheerful book. Consider yourself warned.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

Celebrate your freedom to read

This week is Banned Books Week in US and UK libraries, with the aim of raising awareness of the freedom to read, hopefully with an added bonus of getting people talking about censorship and its ramifications. I don’t know how big an event it is outside of getting book bloggers excited. There’s nothing on my local library’s website about it. But even if it’s just a series of articles in the Guardian, I hope that it does get this issue talked about.

I have certainly seen plenty of mentions on Twitter, and books blogs For Books’ Sake and Books on the Nightstand have some interesting things to say. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

These days censorship mostly seems to centre (at least in the UK and US, to my knowledge) around children’s books, or books that are deemed as being aimed at children. There’s a whole range of objections that stem from the viewpoint that parents know best – and not just for their own children but for all children. I understand a parent who knows their own child worrying that a particular book may be wrong for their child at that time and gently suggesting that they wait a year or three, but to insist that any book is banned from a school or public library is denying other children the opportunity to read a book, often classics. It is making the arrogant assumption that you know better than other people. And what does it achieve?

I believe in reading as wide a range of books as possible, especially as a child. In a privileged sheltered life reading is your greatest opportunity to learn more about the world, how other people think and live. While I would prefer that children not have to see a dead body until they’re grown up, I do think they should learn about death and reading is a good way of doing that. I also don’t see any point in hiding them from knowledge of war, prejudice, disability, disfigurement because they will find out that those things exist and wouldn’t it be nice if they were able to come to terms with that in the safety and comfort of their own bedroom? I definitely think children should learn about the normalities of life that aren’t talked about much with the young like what puberty is really like, relationships, sex, masturbation, religion, class/money, and books are the best way to learn about things like that.

I think children are often underestimated, that they understand and can cope with far more than adults give them credit for. I also think it’s important to expose children to lots of different concepts and viewpoints to prevent prejudices growing from not knowing anyone who’s black/gay/Mormon/whatever or indeed from believing playground talk, where “gay” and “spaz” are often accepted pejoratives. And if that child does think they might have different religious beliefs from their parents or want to stop eating meat (or start!) or stop wearing skirts even though they’re a girl won’t that be easier to talk about in the real world if they’ve encountered it in a few books and seen how it can work out?

Yes, there are some people who will write books that to most other people are hate-inciting, prejudiced, dangerous even. But the problem with any level of censorship is that someone, with their own personal set of morals, gets to choose what is and isn’t acceptable and to me that is a far more dangerous position. If I can read a story with an anti-Semitic narrator I can decide for myself that I don’t agree with their views but also learn a little about why they think that way, what exactly it is they believe and, being widely read, I will probably figure out that their hate is based on lies/misinformation/assumptions made with no basis. By not letting that person speak all we have is a hatred that no-one understands and therefore no-one talks about. And by letting someone choose what is and isn’t acceptable we risk letting books about important issues be banned because that person is in the small minority who don’t want children to hear the word sex before they turn 21. But that’s a whole different matter…

I have rambled on a bit, haven’t I? But this is important. Read everything! Let children read everything! And then teach them that the written word is not always the truth, even if it sounds like a fact. If they haven’t already figured that out from reading so much.

Action hero with an immaculate beehive

Modesty Blaise: Top Traitor
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Jim Holdaway (art)

Modesty Blaise is proper pulp fiction. Her adventures were told over 40 years in newspaper comic strips, novels and a graphic novel. Creator Peter O’Donnell lovingly crafted this magnificent heroine scenario after scenario in which to show off her…particular skills.

This collection, recently re-released, gathers together the strips of three stories – about a missing spy, a robbers ring and some deadly secretaries. They are from early in the character’s run and, while dribs and drabs about her past are revealed, there’s still a lot of mystery.

So who is Modesty Blaise? She is the former head of a criminal gang, now putting her talents to better use as a sort-of independent crime solver. Imagine Charlie’s Angels if all the angels and Charlie were one character with absolutely no affiliation to any government or government agency.

Modesty is wealthy (now), well spoken, well dressed and knows a lot of important people. She’s also smart, skilled with an array of weapons (including her body) and fearless. In these particular stories she’s a very 1960s heroine, with a beehive, unnaturally long eyelashes and an endless supply of turtleneck sweaters.

This collection includes an interview with Peter O’Donnell in which he is at great pains to point out that she is not a spy (despite what the film posters said in 1967) and that she’s not a feminist. She’s a fantastically strong female lead who does usually save the day herself, by leading her team, but she doesn’t spout any political or socialist morals and she’s certainly not afraid to use her body to get what she wants. And that is one of the things that makes this series so very pulpy. Modesty gets naked or near-naked a lot. She sometimes has a man in her bed. She answers to no-one.

She doesn’t do it all alone, though. Her faithful right-hand man and best friend is Willie Garvin. He is the muscle – and the artwork really emphasises that – and has a particular skill at throwing knives. He’s rougher than Modesty, with a broader accent and a little difficulty blending in at the smarter places they attend. He’s not as clever as she is but he knows her so well that he can predict her every move and vice versa. It’s a fantastic relationship made all the more sweet by the complete lack of sex. They frequently undress – or find themselves in a state of undress – around each other and do not bat an eyelid. Willie has his girls and Modesty has her men and that’s separate.

So Modesty Blaise is a great character, but are they great stories? I think “great” might be too far. They’re good fun. More realistic and single-purpose than Bond but predictable enough that you’re not on the edge of your seat when Modesty and/or Willie are in trouble. The dialogue isn’t particularly realistic and I think if I only had access to these stories as one strip per week I’d have lost interest. However, it was and still is hugely successful, in syndication all over the world. The artwork is very good but the reproduction lets it down, with some strips having the appearance of a bad photocopy.

There has been talk for years of Tarantino making a Modesty Blaise film, possibly even using the screenplay Peter O’Donnell wrote in 2002. It would be a perfect mix and I hope that it eventually happens.

These strips first published 1965–66 in the London Evening Standard.
This collection published 2004 by Titan Books.

UPDATE: I just watched the 2003 film My Name is Modesty, which Tarantino appears to have stuck his name on at the last minute (“presented by”) in lieu of making a Modesty film himself. It’s US produced, filmed in Romania, with British lead actors and not using O’Donnell’s script. It’s an origin story and I actually quite enjoyed it, after expecting an extremely cheesy affair based on the cover of the DVD that we picked up cheap as an ex-rental from an off-license.

Wackiness: not just for kids

My Uncle Oswald
by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was insane. The end.

Okay, just kidding. Sort of. But you know how his children’s books were so original, wacky, different but we tend to put that down to knowing what it takes to write well for children? His adult short stories give a bit of a clue that it’s just how Dahl’s brain worked but this book really rammed it home for me. It is crazy. But also good, well written and moreish.

This is written in the form of an excerpt from a faux memoir, that of the author’s uncle Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a self-made millionaire and hopeless womaniser (who apparently also stars in some of Dahl’s short stories). He is over-the-top, unapologetic, extreme in his exploits, manner and voice and reminded me of both Byron’s Don Juan and Blackadder’s Flash. No, really. He has no self-doubt and is both offensively unlikeable and at the same time funny and fascinating enough to keep you interested.

The story is about how Oswald made his fortune. He has two get-rich schemes that he details, both of which are outlandish and involve the rich and famous and a whole lot of sex. It’s risqué and definitely not politically correct. There are judgements made on dwarfs, gay men, women, artists versus intellectuals and probably others that I have forgotten and at first it grated but it also fits as part of the Oswald character and after a while you just shrug and accept that he’s a bigoted bastard.

Wikipedia describes this as akin to the ribald tales a gentleman tells over brandy and I dare say that’s true (I’ve never been in that room myself). I found this very interesting reading after having not long ago finished The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant, which made it clear that Dahl’s spy work was in no small part based around his ability to charm high-ranking ladies into bed. He was also unafraid of ruffling feathers with controversial statements, so the Oswald character treads a fine line between parody and idealised self-image.

I thought this completed my Dahl reading but apparently he published another adult novel in 1948 and there may well be some short stories that have escaped me. I am sure they will all be worth searching for.

Published 1979 by Michael Joseph.

Never lend a book?

When you’re a bibliophile, lending books can be problematic. They may come back damaged or dirty or not come back at all. The borrower may declare that they hate the book that you only loaned because you thought they’d love it. Many people choose not to ever lend books, instead only giving them away or keeping them.

For me, there is nothing worse than leaving books neglected and unread. I have a lot of books and, though I try my best to only keep the ones I think I will want to read again and/or that I want to pass on to my children, most of them will spend decades sat on a shelf. So I do lend books, even though some of them have never come back to me (I currently have two-thirds of the His Dark Materials trilogy…if anyone has my copy of The Subtle Knife I would greatly appreciate it back!), because I want them to be read again and again. I love that my copy of Lord of the Rings has become separated from its cover and is bent in several directions because it’s been read so many times, by various people. (I should say, though – if you lend me a book I will endeavour not to leave it in that state, or one approaching it. Really.)

I’m not precious about the state of my books – if it makes it easier to read it I will break the spine and I often carry them around in my handbag (but don’t worry – I remind myself to be careful with other people’s). So a little bit of damage to a book of mine that I’ve loaned out isn’t going to bother me. But something that seems to bother other booklovers that I really don’t mind is when others don’t like the books I have loaned them, or vice versa.

I don’t expect to like all the same books as my friends. There are so many books out there that it would be odd if we did. And I’m a critical reader; I rarely rave unreservedly about a book. I enjoy discussing books with people but if that conversation just went “I loved it!” “Me too!” wouldn’t that be dull?

What about you? Do you have any strong feelings about lending books?

At the end

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood

This is probably a book I should have saved for 30 or so years, because it’s difficult to sympathise with a meditation on old age when you’re fairly far from being old. I’ll have to read it again later in life to see if my reaction is any different.

I picked this up because Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of the best books I have ever read. This was written much later in his life and it shows. The characterisation is much improved (which is odd seeing as both have strong elements of autobiography) but the atmosphere is very different. The similarly self-involved lead characters have rather different lives about which to obsess.

The single man of the title is George, an Englishman living in California, teaching literature, approaching old age and trying not to think too much about his dead gay lover Jim. He has distractions – the noisy neighbourhood children, the eclectic ever-so-young students and a few friends – but invariably his mind returns to Jim.

In the manner of Ulysses this book covers one day in George’s life in great detail, including his morning bowel movement, a drunken romp and a, er, act of self-pleasure. In fact, I’m sure if I went back and looked carefully I’d find more similarities – the detailed routes of each journey that George takes, for instance. But (thankfully?) this book is 160 pages, not 600, and it sticks to just the one writing style.

Like George himself, the tone is slightly sad, romantic, angry, bitter, occasionally hopeful and eventually accepting. George has his faults – some bizarre notions about women, for instance – but overall he is a sweet, intelligent man trying to grow old gracefully in a world that does not make it easy. He may be living in ultramodern LA but in the 1960s it was still illegal to be a practising homosexual there and the secrecy that this requires of George has clearly taken its toll. It is heartbreaking that he feels he has to bury his grief around most people for fear of what it will reveal but this is the way the world was not so long ago and in some places still is.

The writing is undeniably brilliant. George came to life for me right from page one and his interaction with a favourite student was particularly well played. And yet – I was not hooked. I wanted more excitement of some kind and it wasn’t there. As I said, I’ll take this book out again when I’m older and maybe the added empathy will make it more meaningful for me.

First published 1964 by Eyre Methuen & Co

Learning from history

Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists
by Jim Ottaviani

This book greatly appealed to me from the get-go: it’s a graphic novel about women scientists, concentrating on five examples: Hedy Lamarr, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McLintock and Biruté Galdikas. I am ashamed to say that I had no idea what any of those women should be famous for, in fact I’d not heard of two of them at all, and even now I feel that I only know a little about each one. My curiosity has definitely been piqued and I will be adding some books from the extensive references section to my wishlist.

A lot of different artists worked on this and I found the changes in style quite disconcerting, though at times it was used to good effect. For example, in the story of Rosalind Franklin there were pages supposedly narrated by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in turn, and the different drawing styles definitely helped prevent the change in voice from being confusing (and hopefully those names have told you what Rosalind Franklin is famous for, if you didn’t know before!).

This book definitely makes more sense if you read all the notes and references. The comic sections don’t always make it clear what the scientific achievement of each person is, and the inclusion of Hedy Lamarr (more of an engineer and, oh yes – actress) may seem a little odd when so many women scientists have been omitted, but as the notes explain – this is really just a taster and therefore concentrates on interesting stories rather than universal coverage. Marie Curie stars in a brief epilogue and prologue, apparently because her letters to her daughter Irene were too fascinating not to use!

There’s a definite sense of humour at work, as you might expect in a graphic novel, and the stories are mostly accessible to the layman. I’m not sure this would get any very young girls enthusing about a science career because the language, historical contexts and science depicted are too dense for that, but it could certainly be a good book to give a teenage girl with a modicum of interest in science or history. And there’s no reason not to give it to boys either because there’s no particular feminist slant aside from the choice of protagonists.

I liked the different levels of success of the women depicted, and the different reasons for it. Lamarr was treated as a pretty girl playing at science (though she wasn’t exactly pushed into acting – she broke off two engagements because the men wouldn’t let her continue acting), Meitner missed out a Nobel prize that she deserved part of (for nuclear fission, on the back of the evidence here anyway, I will read more before I give a definitive view on that), Franklin’s abrupt personality made her difficult to work with and she was snide about Francis and Crick’s model work but she did get an acknowledgement in their paper and in the Nobel acceptance speech (she was dead by then so could not have received the award, which is not given posthumously), McLintock did get a Nobel prize and Galdikas is apparently internationally renowned and respected for her work with orangutans, which continues to this day.

I will admit that I found the story of McLintock pretty dull. I understand the desire to include someone who chose an unusual thing to research (corn genetics) and stuck with that for life, leading to notable advances in the field, but it’s pretty dull and the one interesting thing about her life – that she struggled for years to get a faculty position because of her gender and her chosen area of research and the one position she did get early on was in Germany in 1933, which she had to leave pretty quickly because of the political situation – is not made at all clear in the comic section, only in the later notes.

However, the rest of the book was very interesting indeed. Incidentally, the title Dignifying Science comes from one of Marie Curie’s letters, where she is talking about the problems of being a famous scientist. She continues: “What is not deniable is the sincerity of all the people who do this kind of thing and the necessity of doing it.”

Published 2003 by GT Labs
ISBN 978-0-9660-1064-0

Long hot summer…on and off

Well I think the rain is confirming that summer is now over. It’s been a busy one and as a result I haven’t blogged or read as much as I had hoped to. I have, however, had a lot of fun, some of which was caught on film – or rather, camera sensor. Here are some photographic highlights.

Chilling with good friends,

a trip to Cornwall,

impressive acrobatics at Bristol Harbourside Festival,
Flight

an astronomy fair during a trip to Devon

and some more meanders around Bristol with good friends.
Sparkly summertime

Edit: I just noticed that this is my 50th post, which doesn’t seem that many at all, but it’s still a milestone so yay! 50 posts!

Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

The Character of Rain
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Timothy Bent

I discovered Amélie Nothomb five or six years ago and I love her quirky style. Her books are novels and yet in most of them she casts herself as the main character and uses her own life for the bare bones of the story. She has a surreal sense of humour and, assuming any of it’s true, an interesting life to draw upon.

This book covers Nothomb’s first three years, which were spent in Japan where her father was the Belgian consul. The very fact that her main character is so young and yet narrates in the first person suggests that the story must be mostly fiction, and that’s before taking the heavy Kafka references into account.

The early part of the book covers the first two years in immensely strange fashion and could not possibly be considered to be a serious straight of-this-world story, but rather an odd analogy for the development of the ego – as I said, Kafkaesque. This is also borne out in the French title of the book: Métaphysiques des tubes – the Tube being her metaphor for a baby (things go in one end and come out the other, with not a lot else going on). I’m not sure if us Brits are considered less au fait with philosophy and the nature of things or if the UK publisher just found that title too plain weird.

The bulk of the book deals with the third year in the child’s life, giving the book an ending point that has particular significance in Japan. Traditionally the Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which point they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Nothomb briefly recounts this belief partway through the novel but it is clearly the basis for the entire story.

The child is introduced to us as God. As it becomes self-aware, it narrates as though the world revolves around it – “naming” people and objects, for example, through its first words. If these were truly the thoughts and actions of a two-year-old child it would be an extremely precocious toddler, and maybe Nothomb was, but more likely the far-too-adult speech is used to convey the point – the child gradually becoming aware of more of the world and, even at this early age, losing some of its security. There is also a lot of secrecy, of “me versus the world” which, as far as I remember, is a pretty accurate way of describing childhood.

There is an extent to which this book is also about Nothomb’s love for Japan. Her family left Japan when she was five and she returned there for a few years as an adult. The land of her birth clearly holds a special place in her heart and this is eloquently conveyed in the intense, passionate voice of the child.

The English title, by the way, has a neat little etymology of its own. “Rain” is one of the meanings of the kanji character for the child’s name (it would be interesting to know if the word actually is said “amelie” – anyone know?) so the title could just mean that this is about the development of a character called Rain. However, the child is also a water-lover and holds a particular fondness for heavy summer rain, imbuing it with various significances.

For a short book, this isn’t a light read but it is enjoyable and stays just this side of too plain weird for my taste.

First published in France in 2000 by Editions Albin Michel.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Faber and Faber.