10 Most Influential Books – Part 1

This is a bit of a departure from my usual sort of post, but it seemed like such a pleasant thing to do that I thought I would ring the changes.   I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger  to take part in writing about the 10 Most Influential Books in your life, which was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm.  Having never been tagged before I found myself ridiculously excited at the prospect.  It also seemed like a good fit, as I think it’s a positive thing to look at books that have shaped you; hence it’s in keeping with the ethos of this blog, which is to write (mostly) positive things.  It’s also inadvertently become the ethos of this blog to never use one word where ten will do, so I’m splitting this challenge into 2 posts. So here we go: The first 5 of 10 books that have influenced me, as I thought of them today.  I’m sure if I wrote this post tomorrow I’d come up with a different 10, but onwards we go!

Middlemarch – George Eliot

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(Image: http://earlywomenmasters.net/dickinson/a_garden_tis/imaginings/slides/middlemarch_eliot.html)

I’ve blogged about this before – badly.  Middlemarch is my favourite novel ever (it’s the one I’m holding in my gravatar image) and as result I find it nigh on impossible to discuss, because I can’t get any distance.  I just adore it, and to me it has everything – love, death, humour, tragedy.  Eliot captures life by looking at a small Victorian town and its inhabitants.  It can be an intimidating read: a massive Victorian tome, but if it speaks to you, you’ll love it.  Don’t just take my word for it, Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot documents her changing relationship with the novel throughout her life, how it offers different things to readers at different times.  Which reminds me, it’s about time I re-read it….

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

Small Island – Andrea Levy

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(Image from: http://100books.co.uk/andrea-levy-discusses-her-novel-small-island-for-bbcs-world-book-club)

I’ve blogged about this novel before, too.  It changed the way I view my world, so it has to be on this list.  I grew up in London, decades after the Windrush generation had arrived.   I knew there had been a massive wave of immigration to the UK after World War II.  I knew that the UK had begged these workers to come, and then crapped all over them from a great height.  I grew up in a multi-cultural city that I loved, and went to school with kids whose parents and grandparents came from all over the world.  As the Windrush generation ages, I cared for some of them in my capacity as a healthcare professional.  I thought I had a fairly good understanding of what happened, but Small Island made me feel it like never before.  To leave your family and friends and come to a cold grey country which has promised you a grand welcome and instead treats you appallingly because of the colour of your skin.  To live in this country all these years and for it never to feel like home.  The Windrush generation are dying – talk to them now while you still can.

 “You wan’ know what your white skin make you man?  It make you white.  That is all, man.  White.  No better, no worse than me – just white.”

 Complete Works of Shakespeare

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(Image from (http://www.sky.com/tv/show/othello)

OK, so I’m cheating.  This is 39 plays (or so, debate continues), sonnet sequences, longer poems, and so on.  But he’s the love of my life, you can’t expect me to be objective about the love of my life, surely?  I survived the terrible teaching methods that cause most people to despise Shakespeare, and he’s been alongside me ever since.  If I could only have one book for the rest of my life, this is the one.  It’s all I need.  Here is Prospero’s speech from Act 4 Scene 1 of The Tempest, which many interpret as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.  Read it and weep, people:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Weir – Conor McPherson

This play was revived recently in the West End, but the tyranny of finals meant I couldn’t go.

I was so disappointed not to see it again, as it’s no exaggeration to say this play changed my life.  Until I saw The Weir, I liked theatre, but I didn’t love it.  So many people love theatre that I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t know what or how to get it.  The Weir gave it to me.  It was magical.  It held me suspended, as great drama does, in that space that the audience occupy when you’re trying to remember to breathe.  It showed me how intimate and enchanting theatre can be.  And once my eyes were opened, there was no going back.  Being in the audience of a theatre is one of my favourite places in the world.  I’m hoping to do postgraduate study from September, looking at dramatic literature and the theatre.  I’ve forgotten to breathe many times in the theatre since that night, but it was The Weir that started it all.

“He took two big slices off a fresh loaf and buttered them carefully, spreading it all around. I’ll never forget it. And then he sliced some cheese and cooked ham and an onion out of a jar, and put it all on a plate and sliced it down the middle. And, just someone doing this for me. And putting it down in front of me. ‘Get that down you, now,’ he said. […] And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat. But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me. Such a small thing. But a huge thing.” 

Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith

Delia is not my favourite cookery writer.  She’s not even close.  Her stuff is not inspirational, or even particularly interesting.  But her Complete Cookery Course is a bible for a secular foodie like me.  It’s got all the basic recipes, and it’s still the one I go to if I want to remember the right proportions for Yorkshire pudding, or pancakes.  I still use her Christmas Cake recipe (with a few tweaks) every year.  For the basics, she’s reliable.  There are no gimmicks: you know where you are with Delia.  I love cooking, and a lot of my “first goes” were from this book when I was growing up.  Here she is telling you how to make an all-in-one sponge cake.  This is why we need Delia (although I’d use butter, never margarine):

Part 2 of my 10 Most Influential Books to follow soon!

“I like to try new things.” (Rufus Wainwright)

This post contains strong language and adult content.  If you’re not an adult, or if you are and you find such things offensive, please don’t read on.  Now to the post!

FINALS ARE OVER!  FINALS ARE OVER!  Oh, the sweet, sweet relief.  I feel like this:

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The week before I felt like this:

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Unfortunately, during exams I felt like this:

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Six exams in eight days is not the worst finals schedule, but it was more than enough for me.  Well-meaning souls kept telling me it was a marathon, not a sprint.  I don’t run marathons.  I don’t sprint. I prefer to lie on my bed with some drool coming out of my mouth as I read books & watch films.  That drool is liquid contentment, people.  Anyway, as this wittering and reliance on GIFs is ably demonstrating, I think my brain has now dribbled out of my ears, possibly never to return.  And now FINALS ARE OVER (sorry, but I can never say that phrase enough) what is a bibliophile to do?  Well, I decided to read a book highly recommended by Charl over at Miscrawl, The List by Joanna Bolouri.

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(Image from: http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/book/The-List-by-Joanna-Bolouri-ISBN_9781848663084#.U4DLzvldWSo )

I don’t normally read light comic novels, they’re generally not my cup of tea.  However, after weeks, nay months, of ploughing through some seriously heavy literature, I wanted something fun.  And The List certainly delivered on that, but that’s not why I decided to write about it here.  The reason was that I think The List offers something unfortunately all-too-rare in fiction: a recogniseably authentic female voice.  And that voice is sweary:

“Back to work today, and I had a mountain of emails to go through…Two of the emails were from Alex, who obviously didn’t know I was on holiday, and I deleted them without reading, otherwise I’d be tempted to reply ‘GET IT RIGHT UP YOU FUCKFACE’ in 72pt comic sans.”

We’ve all had emails like that.

Phoebe Henderson breaks up with her horrible boyfriend (the aforementioned Alex), and eschewing the usual New Year’s resolutions to get fit/lose weight blah blah she makes a list of 10 things she’d like to do in bed but has never had the nerve to try.  The novel takes the form of her diary over the year as she tries out these activities, some successful, some not, with a variety of people, some nice and gorgeous, some most definitely not.

Bolouri achieves quite something with Phoebe: a slightly messed up, slightly neurotic character who, rather than getting frustrated with and wanting to shake vigorously by the shoulders, I wholly recognised and wanted to take for a drink.  She’s good company.  She hates her job, hates her flat, loves her friends, is in her 30s and hasn’t quite got it all figured out yet.  Who the hell has?  Oh Phoebe, let’s get smashed on cheap cocktails, buy a dirty burger from a botulism-on-wheels van on the way home and wake up the next morning with mouths that feel like Satan’s armpit, wondering why we’re still doing this after all these years.  I love you.

Some of the list opens Phoebe’s eyes to sexual adventure, some of it leaves her feeling a bit meh.  None of it leaves her feeling worthless or degraded.  This is a woman embracing her sexuality and feeling empowered by it.  In that way the novel has something to say, and it’s made more powerful by the fact that it’s funny and entertaining, yet not entirely escapist.  Phoebe doesn’t have a perfect body & a perfect life, and not everything goes to plan, like her first attempt at talking dirty:

“I walked out of my room, naked, to get some water and he followed me in to the kitchen where we did it over the worktops.  I was unsettled for a second when I found myself face down in toast crumbs, but then he started whispering delicious obscenities in my ear.  I tried to return the favour but failed miserably: “Fucking prick.”

“What?”

“Erm, nothing. Carry on.””

I love this: the banal detail of the toast crumbs, the epic fail on dirty talk.  It’s funny, and oh-so-believeable. Balouri shows how fantasy and reality don’t match up, and it’s OK because reality can be funnier and more exciting than fantasy anyway.

Joanna Bolouri blogs on WordPress here.

I normally write on two books per post, but I’m only doing one this week, because FINALS ARE OVER (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that?) and my stamina for rational thought and writing in continuous prose is severely depleted.  I’m off to replenish with rioja and a bag of chips.  I don’t care if it is 10am – don’t judge me.  All rules are off because FINALS ARE OVER!

yay

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” (Victor Hugo)

Today is May Day, and I was thinking about the traditions of this time: celebration, revelry, pastoral fertility.  Please note I said thinking about, not participating in.  Confession time, reader: even though I’m in Oxford I didn’t want to do an all-night pub crawl/ball or get up at ridiculous o’clock to go to Magdalen Bridge for May Morning.  I lay in bed, and because Oxford is so quiet I could hear the choir and bells anyway, and it was beautiful.  Better warm in bed than in an inebriated crowd, I told myself.  Before I seem too virtuous, I should tell you that I’m really just lazy, because an hour or so later I got up for a champagne breakfast.  If this post seems even more waffly and incoherent than usual, you know why.

So, the traditions of May Day, and choosing books for this post made me think about the carnivalesque in novels.  Mikhail Bakhtin said that the carnivalesque (this is a shockingly rough paraphrase) is a time when social hierarchies are overthrown in energetic riot: as norms are disregarded, reversed and subverted, anything can happen.  Sounds like the spirit of May Day to me. Hence, for this post I’ve picked two novels that are carnivalesque/subversive in some way.

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The Battle Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1599 (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._066.jpg )

My first choice is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984, Chatto & Windus).  The minute I started to think about carnivalesque, this is what sprang to mind. I thought the summary on the dust jacket was spot-on, so here it is:

Fevvers: the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the greatest aerialiste of her time. Fevvers: somersaulting lazily through the air, hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between old dreams and new beginnings, born up by the spread of wings that can’t be real! Or- can they? Fevvers: the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings, the coarsely lively and lovely heroine…Obsessed with Fevvers, constantly bamboozled by the anarchist sorcery of her dresser and confidante, Lizzie, the dashing young journalist Jack Walser stumbles into a journey which takes him from London to Siberia via legendary St Petersburg and out of his male certainties, into a transforming world of danger and joy, the world of Colonel Kearney’s circus…Featuring a cast of thousands, including : the clown’s requiem, the tigers’ waltz, the educated apes, the bashful brigands, the structuralist wizard. Not forgetting Sybil, the Mystic Pig.”

Just brilliant. I’ve said before that there’s no-one like Angela Carter, and Nights at the Circus is her writing at her very best.  Fevvers voice leaps of the page at you in the first paragraph:

“Lor’ love you sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing…Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!”

If that all sounds a bit “cor-blimey-luvvaduck-rent-a-cockney”, don’t worry.  With Angela Carter you are never in the land of the stereotype, but in an exuberant world of characters the like of which you will never have met before, or since.  She is master of the original and evocative image (“like dustbin lids”) and while her work is carnivalesque and destabilising, it’s also great fun.  The circus is Carter’s world, which means anything can happen.  But beneath all the sparkle and pizzazz, she creates a world of substance.  Buffo the clown reflects:

“We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always and abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour.”

Carter uses magic realism to explore how we construct reality, and how easily it can be deconstructed.  Where better to do that than the circus? She plays with notions of gender and sexuality, challenging the idea that they are fixed entities, and explores how identity can be constantly created and recreated.  Jack falls in love with Fevvers, unsure of who, or what, it is he loves: if he gets behind the image of the Cockney Venus, who will be there?  Is she part bird?  And who will he be in response?:

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself. As he contemplated the stranger peering interrogatively back at him out of the glass, he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom , that, during all the time he spent with the Colonel, never quite evaporated; until that last moment where they parted company and Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, with dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.”

Angela Carter clearly had a fierce intellect and something interesting to say about how we make our worlds.  But she also didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Nights at the Circus is a fantastic read, in all the senses of the word.

Secondly, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, full text available online).  Obviously, this novel is hugely famous (even if you haven’t read it I bet you know what physical feature distinguishes a Lilliputian).  Lemuel Gulliver relates fantastical tales of his travels, and in the process Swift offers a satire on travel narratives (which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century as people travelled further and wider) and on the human condition.  I chose it for this theme as it is full of inversions and reversals; Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is a giant, then to Brobdingnag where he is minute; to Laputa which he considers crude and unenlightened, then to the Houyhnhnms who consider him a “yahoo”.  Gulliver’s Travels is episodic, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of events.  Firstly, one of the most famous ones: many writers at the time were obsessed by bodily functions, and Swift is no different, though thankfully not nearly as scatological as some of his contemporaries.  Here is Gulliver putting his urine to good use in Lilliput:

I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awaked, I was in some kind of terror….her imperial majesty’s apartment was on fire, by the carelessness of a maid of honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a romance.  I got up in an instant; and orders being given to clear the way before me, and it being likewise a moonshine night, I made a shift to get to the palace without trampling on any of the people.  I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance.  These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good… this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine called glimigrim, (the Blefuscudians call it flunec, but ours is esteemed the better sort,) which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

And just to finish, here is a bit of the more heavy-handed satire for you, when the king of Brobdingnag responds to a summary of British politics:

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if such motivations have left politics these days…

Gulliver’s Travels is a complex book, and one that is very hard to pin down: it is funny, it is sad, it can be read to children, it is baffling to adults.  It shifts meaning and genre according to who is reading it: truly carnivalesque.

I was hoping to end with a clip of Bellowhead performing One May Morning Early: apt, no?  But YouTube failed me.  So here they are singing about a carnival romance instead:

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (probably).  It’s almost definitely his death day, but that has a less festive feel to it, so let’s go with birthday.  Happy Birthday, Bard!

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(Image from http://tudorhistory.org/people/shakespeare/ )

I love Shakespeare.  I was lucky enough to fall in love with him at school and I love him still.  I know he’s not for everyone, so I’m only going to discuss one play. But firstly, I thought I’d try and convince you of what I firmly believe, that he is for everyone.  This has probably been done before, so if it has and it was you, please accept my sincere apologies and let me know and I’ll credit you.  I promise I haven’t stolen this from anyone as far as I know.  I thought I’d try one of those “if you liked…” lists that are so annoying  when used by retailers to try & get you to buy more stuff, only in this case I’m using (mainly) Hollywood films (the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play) to try and get you to buy into the drama.  In no order at all, just how they occurred to me:

If you liked…. Then you may like to try… Because…
The Godfather Julius Caesar/Coriolanus There are power struggles, machinations & murder
Rom coms Much Ado about Nothing/As You Like It Bit obvious, this one
 
Indecent Proposal Measure for Measure Sexual bribery abounds
   
Lord of the Rings The Tempest It’s magic
   
Hansel & Gretel/Snow White Macbeth Witches & violence
   
   
The Simpsons’ Movie Henry IV parts 1&2 I’ve totally stolen this idea from Dr Emma Smith, who convincingly draws parallels between Homer & Falstaff
   
Scarface Titus Andronicus It’s a bloodbath
   
Grease Love’s Labour’s Lost There are boys, there are girls, they all get together
   
War films Henry V Battles & bloodshed
 
   
Trading Places Comedy Of Errors Mistaken identities, a focus on money, it all works out in the end
   
John Grisham adaptations Merchant of Venice Features the greatest courtroom speech ever, even better than “You can’t handle the truth!” (seriously)
   
In the Loop/Political thrillers Richard III Power corrupts…
   
Game of Thrones King Lear A kingdom is divided, power struggles and torture ensue (no incest or wedding massacres though)
   
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Midsummer Night’s Dream It’s trippy…
The Wolf of Wall Street Timon of Athens Money is the root of all evil
   
Romeo + Juliet   Um, ….Romeo and Juliet Take a guess…

Any further or different suggestions are very welcome!

For the second part of this post I thought I’d discuss one of the plays that isn’t that well-known (for a Shakespeare play) or frequently performed, but I really like it, and I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s ignored: King John. King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a history play that looks at arguments around royal succession. If that sounds yawnsome, the arguments involve battles, betrayals and murder, as so often in the medieval history plays.

What makes this play so interesting is the central character, who arguably isn’t King John, but his half-brother Phillip Falconbridge (who has more lines than anyone else).  However, no-one calls him by this rather dashing name, or the new one he is given at the start of the play, Richard Plantagenet; he is consistently referred to in the text as The Bastard.  As the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, he is of royal lineage, but legitimacy being of huge significance at the time, he is not an heir.  Other illegitimate children in Shakespeare are somewhat troublesome: Edmund in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado both cause no end of grief.  The Bastard however, is one of the more appealing characters in a play filled with dark, devious, self-serving manipulators.  He has a way with words, and his own morality is uninfluenced by society.  His response to his mother about Richard the Lionheart being his father does not berate her for stigmatizing him:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s. Ay, my mother,
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
…Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin;
And they shall say, when Richard me begot,
If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin:
Who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.

Pretty liberal for the time.  He goes on to fight for King John, and prove himself brave, clever, and more humane than others in what is quite a bleak play:

But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear: 

Cheeky and irreverent when he’s in court, The Bastard is a man of action who is actually a more accomplished leader than any of the courtly power-wielders. His illegitimacy places him outside of things, and as such he is able to cast a wry and sardonic glance at the action. “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” King John is weak, and the play demonstrates that rather than a god-given right to rule, kings are as flawed and human as the rest.   The Bastard gets the last lines of the play, and in his mouth the words:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

become not an assertion of England’s strength, but an ironic observation on the weakness and hypocrisy of rulers. The Bastard isn’t a historical figure or in any of Shakespeare’s sources.  He is entirely invented, and one of the many reasons that Shakespeare is still as Ben Jonson described him: “The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”.  Happy Birthday William Shakespeare – “Shine forth, thou star of poets!”

To end, one of the most famous portrayals of King John, back in the days when he was still a prince:

“I’ve met a lot of hardboiled eggs in my time, but you’re twenty minutes.” (Billy Wilder)

Happy Easter!  For those of you who don’t celebrate this festival, I hope you’re enjoying the long weekend (and possibly an abundance of chocolate).

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(Image from: http://www.sproutcontent.com/ )

For a theme for this post I was thinking about Easter, about sacrifice and redemption, and also about Spring, the season of renewal and regeneration that it coincides with.  I’ve opted for a novel with a self-sacrificing main character, and a poem that starts in April. They’re both quite odd texts: here’s to a weird Bank Holiday!

Firstly, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989, Black Swan).  Irving is an enormously popular author and Owen Meany is one of his most-loved protagonists: a boy “with a wrecked voice” who is so tiny people can’t resist picking him up, his skin “the colour of a gravestone; the light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times”.  The story is narrated by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who is trying to come to terms with the role Owen has played in his life.  When they are 11, Owen hits a foul ball that kills Johnny’s mother immediately.  The boys reconcile by swopping their most treasured possessions: “He gave me his baseball cards, but he really wanted them back, and I gave him my stuffed armadillo, which I certainly hoped he’d give back to me – all because it was impossible for us to say to each other how we really felt.” 

When he returns the armadillo, Owen has taken its claws, which Johnny comes to realise is Owen’s way of telling him:  “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.” Owen’s speech is always in capitals to represent his bizarre voice, and as a device it really works, marking him out not only against the other characters but also in the book itself – you can flick through and find Owen immediately.  So, Owen is already unusual, but is even more extraordinary than people realise.  He thinks he is God’s instrument, and certainly Johnny agrees: “I now believe that Owen Meany always knew; he knew everything.” The events of their lives mean not only that “Owen Meany rescued me” and gave Johnny Christian faith, but that Owen’s absolute conviction in a greater scheme of things and his capacity for self-sacrifice are tested to the extreme. It’s so hard to say any more without giving away spoilers, but I urge you to read it.  A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel as truly original as its protagonist, funny and sad, elegiac and uplifting.

Secondly, The Waste Land by TS Eliot, a hugely famous and notoriously difficult poem.  For what it’s worth, I would say don’t let the reputation it put you off.  If you fancy giving it a go, read it and let the “heap of broken images” wash over you, see what it brings.  You can always re-read using the footnotes (which will be copious – and Eliot’s own notes add more confusion rather than explication) to translate the Latin, Greek etc  and find out about the plethora of allusions.  The poem begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding  

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing         

Memory and desire, stirring      

Dull roots with spring rain.

These lines are an allusion to the start of The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes…

As you can see, Eliot takes the same premise but where Chaucer sees pastoral idyll (admittedly evoked a little ironically) Eliot sees something bleaker, death amongst the renewal, cruelty amongst the desire.  The Waste Land is an odd, unsettling poem; its original title was going to be He Do the Police in Different Voices (a line from Our Mutual Friend) and The Waste Land is certainly a cacophony of voices, evoking different times, places and stories.  As an embittered commuter who used to cross London Bridge every day, the following passage always sticks in my mind:

Unreal City,         

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,               

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, 

I had not thought death had undone so many.  

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,       

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.    

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,          

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

The Waste Land does this frequently, takes images that almost seem commonplace, like commuters walking over a bridge, and then undermines it, in this instance when you realise they are all ghosts, their movement seemingly without purpose. The Waste Land is a poem that defies easy explanation and raises far more questions than it answers.  It can be a frustrating read, but also a hugely rewarding one that benefits from multiple readings.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?              

When I count, there are only you and I together             

But when I look ahead up the white road            

There is always another one walking beside you             

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded          

I do not know whether a man or a woman          

—But who is that on the other side of you?

For a very interesting discussion on The Waste Land and how we read, head over to Necromancy Never Pays.

I feel like I should picture the books with an egg as odd and unsettling as the books themselves, a dinosaur egg or something.  (Or an armadillo egg?  But I’m feeling too lazy to make them, it is a Bank Holiday after all…) So here they are instead with a reassuringly chocolatey easter egg, a present from my brother:

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“One should sympathise with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life.” (Oscar Wilde)

Happy Mother’s Day (for those of you in the UK)!  My finals are seriously impacting on my blogging capacity, and although I had a plan for two novels to look at for Mother’s Day, I didn’t have time.  So instead I’m going to share a poem in its entirety with you.  It’s a poem my mother introduced me to, and it’s one of our favourites.  No matter how many times I read it the last line always makes me cry.  It’s by Peter Dixon and in my edition it’s called Rotten Reader, but I notice in lots of editions it’s now called The Colour of My Dreams.  Happy Mother’s Day Maman!

I’m a really rotten reader
the worst in all the class,
the sort of rotten reader
that makes you want to laugh.

I’m last in all the readin’ tests,
my score’s not on the page
and when I read to teacher
she gets in such a rage.

She says I cannot form my words
she says I can’t build up
and that I don’t know phonics
and don’t know a c-a-t from k-u-p.

They say that I’m dyxlectic
(that’s a word they’ve just found out)
but when I get some plasticine
I know what that’s about.

I make these scary monsters
I draw these secret lands
and get my hair all sticky
and paint on all me hands.

I make these super models,
I build these smashing towers
that reach up to the ceiling
and take me hours and hours.

I paint these lovely pictures
in thick green drippy paint
that gets all on the carpet
and makes the cleaners faint.

I build great magic forests
weave bushes out of string
and paint pink panderellos
and birds that really sing.

I play my world of real believe
I play it every day
and teachers stand and watch me
but don’t know what to say.

They give me diagnostic tests,
they try out reading schemes,
but none of them will ever know
the colour of my dreams.

Just wonderful. I hope you liked it.

To end, here is a picture from Holi celebrations (this year it was 17 March), an annual explosion of colour which I thought suited the poem:

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(Image from: http://www.boloji.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=Articles&ArticleID=14222 )

“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” (Cary Grant)

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!  In my post for Valentine’s Day last year (which was also late…) I pointed out that St Valentine is the patron saint for bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and against fainting, as well as for lovers.  Last year I wrote on bee-keeping and plague  but this year I’m going to be more romantic and tell you about the man in my life.  He’s always been there, but these last few weeks it’s like I’m seeing him with new eyes; now I’m obsessed and we spend hours together every day.  The title quote may have given it away: he’s Cary Grant.

Let me explain.  For my last paper before finals (FINALS!  I’ve just broken out in a cold sweat….) we were given some optional papers to choose from, and I chose Film Criticism.  We’ve been looking at Hollywood Golden Age, a genre Cary Grant sits astride like a tanned, debonair, mid-Atlantic-accented colossus.  Having watched soooooo many of films again (and again, and again) I have a new-found appreciation for this actor with his exquisite comic timing.  It’s not that I didn’t like him before, I just took him for (ahem) granted.  This is how good he is: I had to analyse a scene from a film, and I chose something from Bringing Up Baby.  It was 3 minutes 39 seconds long.  I spent an entire day watching and re-watching the scene.  Think about how many 3 minutes and 39 seconds there are in a day.  That’s how many times I watched it. At the end of  the day I was still laughing at his performance.  The man is a genius.  In the spirit of Valentine’s Day here he is with long-term boyfriend totally-platonic-friend-who-he-just-happened-to-live-with-for-twelve-years, Randolph Scott.

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(Image from http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/2010/09/cary_grant_and.php)

What a ridiculously good looking pair.  Anyway, I thought for this post I would look at two of his favourite novels.  According to IMDB he was a voracious reader.  Do you think I can find out what he liked to read?  Google, thou hast failed me.  (Probably now I’ll be told that it’s really well-known that he loved Moby Dick or something, but I couldn’t find it). So instead I’ve chosen a James Bond novel as apparently the character was partly modelled on him and he was considered for the role in Dr No, and a short story by a writer who like Archie Leach was famous under a pseudonym.

Firstly, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953).  I’ll be honest, I went into this novel with very low expectations.  Even the most avid Fleming fan will tell you that some of the novels are absolute bilge; apparently the quality of the Bond novels varies widely.  This was the first Bond novel written and the first one I’d read, and I was pleasantly surprised.  OK, Fleming isn’t a grand literary genius, but I doubt he ever proclaimed himself as such.  Casino Royale is a decently written spy story.  It’s quite different to the film, although similarities remain.   I was expecting a flashy, superficial story but it’s a bit more reflective than that.  It opens:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Bond has been sent to Royale-le-Eaux to take down a Russian spy, Le Chiffre, by bankrupting him at gambling.  This being the Cold War, of course the baddies are Russian, and there’s also the rather sinister SMERSH, a Russian covert group whose name means “death to spies” lurking in the background.  That’s the very simple premise of the story.  Along the way there are lingering descriptions of clothes, cars and food (Fleming was clearly something of a gourmand), but the presentation of Bond is more complex than I was expecting.  I don’t think the reader is supposed to wholly like him or trust him:

“His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt […] Then he slept, with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.”

Bond is more human than in the films (he vomits in the gory aftermath of an explosion). He’s also damaged and flawed, more in keeping with the later filmic representations.  Very much of its time, however, is the misogyny:

“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work.  Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.”

As well as this general sexism, there’s also a worryingly easy conflation of sex with violence:

“Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued.”

Truly obnoxious and offensive. But in Fleming’s defence I would say that he seems more emotionally intelligent than his protagonist and we’re not supposed to see Bond as a role model in this sense.  There’s also a good dose of humour in the novel which encourages us not to take Bond entirely as seriously as he takes himself:

 “Englishmen are so odd.  They are like a nest of Chinese boxes.  It takes a very long time to get to the centre of them.  When one gets there the result is unrewarding, but the process is instructive and entertaining.”

So, Casino Royale was better than I expected.  It’s attitudes to women and Eastern Europeans are dated and offensive but as I said, I don’t get the sense the novel fully endorsed the attitude of its protagonist.  It’s a quick, light read (although the descriptions of gambling dragged a bit in places) and for me it was good introduction to the Bond novels.

Secondly, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867) by Mark Twain. What an irresistible title.  Twain was a fairly prolific short story writer, but this was only the second one he wrote.  You can read the full text of it here. It really is a very short tale, and shows how much can be done in so limited a space by an accomplished writer.  It opens:

In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.

As you can see, Twain’s humour is at the forefront (if you hadn’t already guessed by the title) and the mix of the ridiculous (“Leonidas W Smiley is a myth”) and the dry (“as long and tedious as it should be useless”) makes the story hugely entertaining.  It’s certainly a confident writer who tells a tale he says will be tedious, and Twain does this not once but twice: “Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.”  Simon Wheeler’s story of a gambling addict (Jim Smiley) who will bet on anything is directly reported, and he has one of the distinctive Southern voices Twain is so famed for, such as when he’s recounting how Jim trains the titular frog:

“He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat.”

There are some lovely touches in this story.  I particularly liked the line: “Smiley said all a frog wanted was education” and the fact that the frog is endowed with the decidedly un-froggy full name of “Dan’l Webster”. A quick read that children and adults will enjoy.

To end, here is a clip from The Philadelphia Story, and just possibly the most charming 3 minutes and 46 seconds ever committed to celluloid.  Apparently the bit where Cary Grant says “excuse me” was ad-libbed & that’s why he & James Stewart are trying not to laugh. Enjoy!

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Variously attributed)

I was thinking about how this blog is supposed to be themes that relate books to life and how there are gaping holes in what I’ve covered so far.  This week I attempt to redress the balance by picking something that is a huge part of most people’s lives: music.  However, as the title quote shows, I may be digging myself the most enormous hole here, as trying to capture an aural experience through words is nigh on impossible.  Let’s take a breath and have some music so if nothing else this post does make some sort of melodic offering.  One of my favourite bands, and one of my mother’s favourite songs, Frogs Legs and Dragon’s Teeth by Bellowhead:

That was for you Maman!  Right, back to books, and two brave writers who’ve made music a big part of their novels.

Firstly The Courage Consort by Michel Faber (Canongate, 2002).  I’m fan of Michel Faber’s writing – I love his sparse style and unpredictability.  Anything can happen his books, there’s no “typical Faber”.  The Courage Consort is a novella (121 pages in my edition) told from the point of view of Catherine, one of five members of the titular a capella group headed by her husband, Roger.  Catherine is emotionally fragile (we are introduced to her trying to decide whether to jump out of the window) and her husband seemingly oblivious to her pain.  They join three others to rehearse an insanely complex piece called Partitum Mutante in an eighteenth-century chateau in Belgium.  The composer arrives briefly to assist them, a madman who attacked his ex with a stiletto in an airport and tells them to make their singing “more extreme, but more soft also…quiet but loud”.  Working on this seemingly doomed project, the disparate personalities that make up “the seventh most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world” start to come into conflict, but not in an entirely predictable way.

Faber creates a believably comic situation and the characters are generally well-observed, if bordering on national stereotypes at times.  The character of Catherine is sympathetic and Faber shows how music carries over into her musings about life in general:

“Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it.  Even the way a sustained A flat tended to make an auditorium’s air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately.  It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all soundwaves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping-paper off it.   But too much sonic nakedness wasn’t good for the spirit.  At least that was what she was finding lately, since she’d started coming…adrift.”

But things are not necessarily what they seem: Catherine hears screaming in the night and is told a ghost story about the forest that surrounds them.  No-one else hears it, and Catherine goes on to have an experience in the forest which is not told to the reader.  This lack of explication stops The Courage Consort being a straightforwardly comic novel, as an eeriness creeps around the house and its inhabitants.  Things do not go as planned, but ultimately the group comes to fully comprehend just how healing the experience of music can be.

Secondly, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty (Vintage, 1997).  Grace Notes tells the story of another Catherine, this one a composer struggling to manage her art alongside the demands of her life.  These demands include a new baby and ensuing post-natal depression, her father’s death, and conflict with her mother.  Musicality comes naturally to her, and she has an innate understanding form an early age:

“One day, when she was only three or four, she’d slipped away from the kitchen as her mother baked and listened to the radio.  On this particular day the piano lid was open.  Catherine had reached up above her head and pressed the keys as softly as she could.  No sound came from them.  She had to press harder to make the sound come.  It frightened her when it did.  Dar, deep , thundery.  The booming faded away and the noise of the birds outside came back.  She tried further up the piano where the notes were nicer, not so frightening.  She pressed a single note, again and again.  It wasn’t the note which made her feel funny – it was the sound it made as it faded away.  The afterwards.  It made her feel lonely. “

This idea, later defined as “the notes between the notes” – grace notes – is the novel’s theme and main image: what happens in the spaces between events, what is left unsaid, what is defined and what is undefinable.    Catherine gradually comes to terms with her life throughout the course of the novel and moves onwards, creating a new symphony, but the grace notes continue: “it began with a wisp of music, barely there – a whispered five-note phrase on the violins and she was right back on that beach with her baby. […] Like the artist’s hand which moves to begin a drawing but makes no mark”.  Having described Catherine’s life in an interwoven way – memories that come to her interspersed with descriptions of her life in the present – MacLaverty describes her music similiarly, the literal description of the action of instruments interwoven with the images that have inspired Catherine as she writes the symphony.  It’s a highly effective method, and probably the nearest I’ve read to a representation of sound, and the feeling it evokes, written down.

As the novels are about two musical women, here they are pictured with two more musical women: Dusty Springfield and Lily Allen Cooper:

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“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):

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“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill)

10 November was Remembrance Sunday, and so for this post I thought I would look at two novels dealing with the theme of war.

Firstly, Regeneration by Pat Barker (Penguin, 1991).  This was the first novel Barker wrote in the Regeneration trilogy, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.  I actually think The Ghost Road is the strongest of the three, but Regeneration is still an expertly crafted novel, and although each novel in the trilogy stands alone, I think it’s preferable to start at the beginning.  Regeneration tells the story of Dr WHR Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart hospital during the First World War, and his shell-shocked soldier patients, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Although fiction, the novel is based on true events and Dr Rivers is a real-life character as well as the poets.  Barker said she chose the character of Rivers as, not being a soldier herself, she had to find a voice with some distance from the trenches.  Although this is the case, the way Barker looks at the horrors of war is unflinching.  I’m about to quote something truly atrocious, brace yourselves or scan past it:

“Burns arms were goose-pimpled, though the room was not cold.  The smell of vomit lingered on his breath.  Rivers sat down beside him.  He didn’t know what to say, and thought it better to say nothing.  After a while he felt the bed begin to shake and put his arm round Burns’ shoulders.  “It doesn’t get any better, does it?” […]

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him.  What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature.  He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly and had ruptured on impact.  Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realise that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh.  Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred.  Nightly he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting.”

Horrors like this are almost impossible to contemplate, and even more upsetting when you realise things like this actually happened.  Within this context, amongst their traumatised and screaming comrades, Sassoon and Owen try to express their disgust and anger through verse:

““What draft is this?”

“Lost count,” said Owen. “You did tell me to sweat my guts out.”

“Did I really? What an inelegant expression. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I see we got to the slaughterhouse in the end.” Sassoon read through the poem. When he’d finished, he didn’t immediately comment.

“It’s better isn’t it?”

“Better.  It’s transformed.” […]  He thought for a moment, crossed one word out, substituted another.  “There you are,” he said, handing the page back, smiling. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.””

Regeneration is not a long novel, 249 pages in my edition, but Barker crams so much in and I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  Alongside the issues of war, she considers themes of madness, what society expects from men, and what it expects from women.  How the state can betray its citizens, and what we can give to each other in times of crisis.

Here is a clip from Gilles MacKinnon’s excellent 1995 adaptation of Regeneration (released as Behind the Lines in some countries), including some lines from one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems, Dulce et Decorum Est:

Secondly, further back in time to the Crimean War, Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus, 1998).  This was the novel for which Bainbridge was posthumously awarded a Booker Prize in 2011, with a special prize, the Best of Beryl.  I haven’t read all of Bainbridge’s books, so I can’t vouch for whether it’s her best, but it’s certainly highly accomplished.  It tells the story of George Hardy, a surgeon and photographer who, after a family tragedy, decides to leave Liverpool for the Crimea.  His adoptive sister Myrtle and geologist brother-in-law Dr Potter accompany him, alongside fire-eater and sometime lover of George, Pompey Jones.  These three voices narrate the story, and learning about the eponymous character from others is entirely appropriate, as George is an enigmatic and conflicted man, as obscure as one of his blackened and fading photographic images .  As Myrtle observes:

“There’s a sameness about death that makes the emotions stiffen – which is for the best, else one would be uselessly crying all day long.  It’s why Georgie often seems insensitive to other people’s feelings.  Dealing with the dying, one must either blunt the senses or go mad.”

Amongst the filth and squalor of the Crimean battlefields, all see death more often than not.  Bainbridge presents it in a determinedly low-key way; the Charge of Light Brigade happens outside the story, and Dr Potter’s pragmatic response speaks volumes about the dehumanising effects of war:

“I am in two minds as to whether I should bother to pack my tent, it being in a wretched state, perfectly sodden and much holed.  It would be better for my health if I slept in the hospital tent, though that too is in a deplorable condition.  I am at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley.”

It may not be “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…” but while Bainbridge shuns Tennyson’s pomp, her use of small detail says more than enough about the futility of the combat and the waste of human lives.  Master Georgie is a haunting novel that stayed with me long after I finished it.

Here are the novels with the symbol of Remembrance Sunday, a poppy:

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