Warmth behind the sadness

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

I have been putting off reading this book for years because I expected a very dark, heavygoing affair. In fact, though it’s hardly light reading, it was much more readable and warm than anticipated. And, of course, the language is exquisite.

Plath had clearly borrowed heavily from her own life in this tale of New England college girl Esther Greenwood who is winning writing prizes and attracting men and has the world at her feet but somehow feels distant from it all, as though she doesn’t fit in, as if the rest of the life stretching out before her is terrifying and dull. As she recedes into herself her depression worsens and a long series of doctors and potential cures are tried.

So it goes to some dark places, certainly. Esther develops an obsession with methods of suicide, collecting press cuttings and secretly reading the scandal sheets. But her tone throughout is chatty and open, with amusingly catty descriptions of the people around her and a sense of humour even when she’s talking about death or when she’s confused and hallucinating due to drugs or lack of sleep.

I should have thought, considering the real life of the author, that this is a very genuine, realistic account of depression and I find it interesting that, while there are moments of melancholia and sadness, that isn’t the overriding theme or tone of the narrative. It’s more about loneliness, being somehow different, not understanding and being convinced that everyone else does understand and is together and fits in. Though of course the realisation that that isn’t true isn’t a cure for Esther, it is a step forward.

Knowing a little about the author from newspaper articles, excerpts of her journals and the film Sylvia (which I loved) I did find it a little creepy reading the parts that I knew were closely if not directly autobiographical. Chills down the spine may be a good effect for some books to achieve but here it was horror tinged with deep sorrow.

I definitely recommend this to everyone. The language is beautiful and yet straightforward. It’s not a hard read but it does effectively cover a hard subject.

First published 1963 by William Heinemann.

See also: reviews by Novel Insights and Farm Lane Books.

Man Booker winner: must-read item?

I’m a fan of the Booker Prize. It tends toward my personal taste and I have read and enjoyed many past winners, not to mention runners up. With my TBR pile teetering as high as it is I’m unlikely to rush out and buy this year’s winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, but I will probably read it eventually.

All of which has got me thinking about book-buying habits. Would you buy a book just because it won a particular prize – e.g. the Orange Prize or the Hugo Award? Do you tend to buy books on a whim, maybe based on a combination of title, cover and synopsis? Do you only ever follow recommendations or stick to known authors? Do you possibly even read book reviews with the actual purpose of finding out about books you might like?

Personally I do all of the above, hence my TBR. None of them is guaranteed to lead to a great reading experience. My favourite books have come from all sorts of sources but I have also had recommendations, prizewinners and promising bookshop finds turn out to be a bit rubbish. Or at least, not to my taste.

The savage beast who’s innocent

Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre

It’s Booker season again, and in honour of Tuesday’s announcement I thought I would read and review one of the former prizewinners from my TBR. This was the 2003 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

This book kind of smacks you in the face and forces you to keep reading. It’s rough, savage even, with the darkest of dark humour and language that reminded me of Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs. But with more swearing.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it greatly. It didn’t take me long to read and I frequently laughed out loud. But I still felt a little bit like I’d been assaulted with someone’s secretest dirtiest fantasy. Disturbing. But funny.

The story is told by teenager Vernon Gregory Little whose best friend Jesus took a gun to school and massacred his classmates before killing himself. The only witness is so badly wounded he can’t speak, which means he can’t confirm that Vernon wasn’t there. A series of people and events bewilder Vernon into incriminating himself and soon the whole country is baying for his blood.

Vernon isn’t a sweet likeable misunderstood hero. He’s a foul-mouthed, judgemental, difficult, slimy piece of work who struggles to say anything coherent out loud and I didn’t empathise with him very often (though there was a bit of a reveal at the end that made me like him more). But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the way he describes his life, people and places. Some of the phrasing is actually quite beautiful, yet still distinctly him. There were some very original descriptions that I went back to re-read and even underlined, which I hadn’t done in years. Here’s one:

“A shimmer rises off the hood of Pam’s ole Mercury. Martirio’s tight-assed buildings quiver through it, oil pumpjacks melt and sparkle along the length of Gurie Street…all the money, and folk’s interest in fixing things, parade around the center of town, then spread outwards in a dying wave…Just a broken ole muffler shop on the outskirts; no more sprinklers, no more lawns.”

This kind of language isn’t all that easy to read at first but you soon get into it and it adds an awful lot to the characterisation. As long as you don’t mind lots of swearing.

Sometimes this book got so dark and twisted that I wondered if I was meant to take it as satire, rather than sort-of realistic storyline of bad shit getting worse, and to be honest that never became clear. Certainly the involvement of the media seemed more satirical than anything. It’s definitely humour aimed at the worse aspects of modern American society, including obesity, consumerism and lazy policing.

One thing that did concern me – there are two men in this book who turn out to be guilty of taking advantage of boys in their care and it is suggested that Jesus (a mass murderer) may have been gay. There are no other gay characters. Perhaps the implication was unintentional, but it has a pretty homophobic whiff about it. Of course, that could just be part of the world view of Vernon, who isn’t the most open-minded teenager.

For a book with such a coarse, not particularly bright narrator, this is a clever book with some subtle plot development (no, really) and it definitely deserves the outpouring of praise and prizes it got.

Published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Examining happiness

Happy Creatures
by Ángela Vallvey
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

This is an odd book. I know this because every time I mentioned a scene to my friends they were incredulous as to why I would want to read such a book. But even with the weirdness, I thought it pretty good.

It’s also cerebral, much in the manner of Sophie’s World. There’s a simple storyline told in simple language but you rarely get through a paragraph without learning some philosophy.

You can tell it’s going to be cerebral from the start because the main characters are Ulysses, Penelope and their infant son Telemachus. They’re living in modern-day Madrid and very much aware of the provenance of their names (in fact it’s why they named their son as they did) but that doesn’t stop the author comparing their life events to episodes in The Odyssey.

Ulysses and Penelope are separated. She left him holding the baby when Telemachus was just three months old to pursue her career in fashion design. This episode is not told fully until more than halfway through the book, though it is referred to often. The first section of the novel is told from Ulysses’ perspective so it is a bit of a jolt to finally hear Penelope’s side of things and realise she had her reasons, and not bad ones either. I was impressed by how this was handled.

Another large element of the first part of the novel is Penelope’s father Vili’s class that he teaches at the Academy about the philosophy of happiness. Vallvey details a lot of conversations held at these classes, and also snapshots of the lives of several class members. These add interesting colour around Ulysses’ seemingly endless search for his own happiness.

So far so good, although the endless quotes do get a bit tiresome. But what I found disconcerting was how…comfortable the characters are with their bodies and discussing sex. I’m no prude but there were a couple of scenes at which I cringed and struggled to believe could be real. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing.

It was an entertaining read with some good comic moments and some interesting observations. However, I found the philosophising a little tedious and felt there was too much of a tendency to judge characters’ actions.

First published in Spain in 2002 by Ediciones Destino.
This translation first published in Great Britain in 2004 by Viking.

All the way from the US of A

Today I got my Snailr postcard from Anna Pickard. It’s postmarked 17 September so it took its time but now it’s here! Yay! Here’s me looking a lot less pleased about it than I actually am:

(I am not good at taking self-portraits, it turns out.)

This was part of a fantastic, or should I say brilliant, project that Anna devised to combine business, pleasure and travel writing in a novel fashion on a recent train journey around America. Rather than noting down her travel-related thoughts and anecdotes for herself to blog, she wrote them on postcards and sent them to fellow internet folks all over the world. Here’s my card:

"Wee kin hilp you"

(Yes I did very nearly forget to erase my address. That would have been bad.)

I loved this idea. It combines the old-fashioned fun of getting actual post with the super-modern ability to instantly connect with people all over the globe. Plus Anna is funny. Thanks for including me!

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?