Cornwall reads in brief

Yes, I’ve been on holiday again. This time a long weekend in Cornwall. It wasn’t what most people might consider beach weather, but that just provided an excuse to stay indoors reading while looking out at the sea and listening to the waves crash. (It’s a comforting noise, which possibly doesn’t make any sense.)

It was a lovely holiday with old friends in a place we have visited many times, so it’s like a home from home. I didn’t actually have my nose in a book the whole time – there were beach/clifftop walks, games to play, crosswords to complete, a whole lot of tasty food to eat and even (in my case very briefly because brrr) swimming in the sea.

porthcothan-beach

But I did get a lot of reading done too.

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The perils of social mobility

Pygmalion
by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.

The danger of looking away

The Last King of Scotland
by Giles Foden

While I liked the film that was made of this novel, I wasn’t sure what more I would get out of the novel. I am glad that I was encouraged to read it because there is so much more here than I expected.

Dr Nicholas Garrigan is not the most likeable narrator, but somehow he keeps you reading. Young and lacking focus, he turns up in Uganda with no clear idea of the country’s politics or why he has chosen to practice medicine there. On his first day in the country, Idi Amin seizes power, his thugs roaming the streets, making the new situation clear. The British Embassy is quick to send Nicholas out of the capital to a remote village where a hospital is run by doctors from all over the world, their wages and equipment sourced from various aid agencies.

At this point Nicholas is just trying to be a doctor, though he can be naïve, or even thoughtless, and is hopeless with women. As the political situation worsens, and his co-workers worry about Amin’s policies, Nicholas determinedly stays out of it. Except that he insists on going to hear Amin speak and is caught up by the big man’s beguiling rhetoric. So when he gets the invitation to become Amin’s personal doctor he gladly accepts, much to the consternation of everyone at the village hospital.

Nicholas is drawn in by Amin’s magnetism and seems willing to overlook the frankly bonkers content of all his conversation. He is slightly afraid of Amin, but also fascinated, and continues to turn a blind eye to the increasing evidence for beatings, torture, death and disappearances at the hands of Amin’s men.

The blurb describes the book as a thriller and to some extent it does become that toward the end, but right from the start we know that Nicholas is narrating this from a few years later, in Scotland, from his own journals, so there is no tension as to whether he survives. But he does insinuate that it got pretty bad and berate himself for his stupidity and blindness.

It’s an interesting book and I felt that I learned a lot. I don’t know where Foden got the idea but the acknowledgements indicate that he did a lot of interviews and research before writing. Which is in an odd sort of way my only quibble with the book. As with all historical fiction I wanted to know which bits were fiction and which real and I would have liked an author’s note or something along those lines.

First published in 1998 by Faber and Faber.

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.

Questionable influence

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!

Swag!

I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.

Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.

Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.

Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.

Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.

Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.

The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.

I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.

First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.