I said there’d be a lot.
A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood
The book is better than the film. Quite a bit better, in some ways. But the film is still beautiful, wonderful, and really worth seeing.
The book has a distorted, dreamy atmosphere about it, which is hard to hold at times, but not overly so. This (and Hero, below) are quite amazing to read in concert, as they both have this shameless ablity to pick up an event and turn into a philosophy, or a question, toy with it for a little, before letting it rest as the plot progresses, while the idea floats in the back of your mind, teasing, and colouring everything you think and read for ages after. This is an ablity I envy. A lot.
Hero - Hwei Lin Lim
Beautiful. The art, words and story are simply beautiful. Recently rediscovered this (see: last night) have since read it all (for the most part again), and fallen in love, all over again. In some ways a coming-of-age story, but only just. It’s really about memory, time, and people. And cities, of course. It seems, at times, that the form and style of the comic is slipping from the artist’s control, but the next panel, next page, next sequence, shows this to be false. Wonderfully controlled and beautifully free-flowing. The characters are real, almost tangible, and their pain hurts, just as their joy thrills. A new, fantasy world is created (although it’s nothing like the ‘fantasy’ that dirties the shelves of bookshops, with their crude dragons and warrior kings), which binds the characters to it, so they are not divorced from their setting, which flows logically. The style of the writing is wonderfully organic - like thought, but without the rambles that come with ‘stream of consciousness’, and more like poetic prose. It’s a clever trick, as well, using text boxes not on the actual page, separates the words from the art, at times, which allows for two stories, almost, to run parallel, one inside the protagonist’s head, one in his physical world. Wonderful.
On an entirely different note:
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
I did enjoy this. Really I did, however sad the ending, which was tragic. Swoops from enjoyment and light-hearted fun, with only the faintest stirrings of sinister foreboding, rapidly into the actualities of the relationships between people without pause for daudling. The clarity of characters’ emotions in relation to one another is painfully wonderful. Interestingly, Nick, as the narrator, is very disconnected from the plot, allowing both the intimicy of the first person, but the omnipotence of the third. It works, though, and serves the plot exceptionally well.
Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood
This wondrous farce is, in many ways, so much better than Goodbye To Berlin. Oh, yes, it’s not the one people have chosen to make films or stage plays or musicals out of, but it’s so much more enjoyable than Goodbye To Berlin or A Single Man. The absolutely repellent nature of Mr Norris’s apperance as well as his manic behaviour, simply adds to the fascination created by this absurd character. As with Goodbye To Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains can just be read as an interesting insight into the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the ’30s. However, to do this would be to miss out on a wonderfully amusing story.
I should also mention Lions And Shadows, although good luck laying hands on a copy. I found it in a second hand bookshop, having never heard of it, and haven’t seen it since. If you do see it, though, grab hold! Isherwood’s account of his education has interesting parallels of opinion to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, although has a less definite message regarding education. No, Isherwood just wants to show the way he ended up where he did. He doesn’t even claim it to be entirely autobiographical. Some of it’s fiction. The question, therefore, is which bits?
Persuasion - Jane Austen
Ah. I will forever look back on this book as the one which got me through (or almost got me through) the most uncomfortable 22 hours of my life. There’s very little worse, I imagine, than being stuck in economy for the flight between Sydney and Heathrow without including the delay in Bankok. All in all, ugly. But then there was Persuasion.
Of course, it was the last of Austen’s finished novels, and considered by many to be her most mature and subtlest. Although I’ve only read one other (see below), I’m inclined to agree. I adored Persuasion long before I read this, ever since I watched the BBC 1995 production of it, starring Amanda Root, which is beautifully done. But now that I’ve read it…Well, I can’t say it’s changed my convictions, merely clarified them. I love the characters of Anne and Captain Wentworth. I love the way Austen pulls them together and apart again and again, and the way they struggle with each other. So, whatever happens, Persuasion will always be my favourite.
On a similar note:
Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
I try not to read two books by the same author one after another,as their particular style tends to stack up in my head if I do, so here is the clearest sign that this isn’t in anyway chronological.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading this, actually. I thought, well, yes, I did like Persuasion, but that must be an exception, must be because of its rather unique character. And, well, all of Austen’s novels tend to fall into that catagory Calvino described, where one is forever hearing “I’m re-reading” rather than “I’m reading”, and are, therefore, something you feel oblidged to read, or at least attempt to read, at some point. Yet, she does something.
Recently, I was in Bath, where I visited the Jane Austen Centre. The introductory talk was given by a young woman who obviously knew what she was talking about, as she discussed Austen and her family, and their association with the city of Bath, her feelings towards it, etc. Amid all this interesting and relevent information, which one is prone to forget at the instant of departure from the premises, the woman raised the point that it’s Austen’s more minor characters that truely bring colour to her work. Sense and Sensibility has utterly convinced me of this. We may forget Elinor and Marianne, however dear they may become to us, in favour of Mrs Jennings, Sir John, Charlotte and Mr Palmer (a character endlessly endearing to me by virtue of the fact that he’s played rather brilliantly by that wonderful man, Hugh Laurie). This, I think, is what really brings us back again and again to Austen’s work. Her entire cast, after all, is compelling. One of them, surely, is going to strike the right tone.
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
This is fun. In so many ways. Somewhere, I think, Gaiman describes it as “a fairy tale for adults”. Somewhere else, he admits that the ‘for adults’ part is mostly because he manages to squeeze in, in very small font, one tiny ‘fuck’. All the same, it is a fairytale for adults. It’s simple and compelling. Magical and rational. There are ‘good’ guys, there are ‘bad’ guys, and then there are those in between, generally wearing very large hats and of uncertain species. In some ways, it typifies Gaiman - it’s a little quirky, very enjoyable, and you just get swept along in this rush of the kind of completely rational decision-making which lands protagonists on the tops of clouds while chained to pretty women with broken legs.
On Writing - Stephen King
I’ve never read a word of King’s fiction. Even after reading this, I’ve no desire to. However, that doesn’t mean I regretted reading this. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, although I have to admit I skipped the chapter or two where he describes in detail the precise state of his injuries and the treatments necessary after being hit by a car. That sort of thing, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t need to know. His view on writing, though, and reading, and words in general, is compelling, helped by the fact that his style is far from unbearable. Even if you had not the slightest desire to begin writing fiction, I’d suggest reading it. Language is something that maybe shouldn’t be treated quite so carelessly as it is.
On The Road - Jack Kerouac
It was a little inevitable that I’d get round to this book. It started by a recommendation to read Ginsberg’s Howl, and my reaction was much the same - at first, it was completely unintelligible, but then something suddenly falls into place, and it becomes completely enthralling. Even now, in my day-to-day existance, I see or hear things that make me think of Ginsberg or Kerouac.
On The Road is, initally, hard to get a grip on properly because it seems so totally aimless. It wasn’t until they were heading back to New York for…I think it was the third time, that it suddenly struck me that this is a story of movement. Which, I know, seems very obvious. Just look at the title. But it’s more than that. It’s about travelling to get away from the shit we are so good at burying ourselves in, about going somewhere, anywhere, new because anything has to be better than this. It’s about finding a spark in someone else and following that light across continents, just to see more of it. In that respect, it kind of reminds me of a Patrick Wolf song, “Hard Times”, where he pledges to work “harder, and harder for razzle”. God knows we could use some.
George Orwell - Essays
No, I have not read them all. I’ve not even read half of them. I have, however, read quite a few. Orwell seems, to me, to have been one of those men who, after sitting and watching a collection of humanity passing before him for a few hours, say at a party or over dinner, sits down to bitch about some aspect of it which, striking him suddenly at the beginning of the evening, continued to annoy him throughout. The difference, of course, in this case, is that he bitched on paper, with exceptional eloquence. It’s a technique I’ve been attempting to imitate recently, although I’ve no idea how successful I’ve been. For a start, literary magazines seem to have entirely died out. Orwell’s willingness to tackle subjects ranging from the mark WWI left on his society to boys weeklies is wonderful to see. As is his changing perspective. “Shooting an Elephant”, for example, is written as a narrative, prompting the introduction (written by a man whose name escapes me) to question the truth in the account. (I find this amusing: the author of this introduction was apparently so intrigued by this that, discussing the subject with Orwell’s widow over lunch one day, he drove her so mad that she yelled “of course he shot the fucking elephant!”) While the tone of “My Country Right or Left” is decidedly sober - a sincere reflection on the nature of patriotism and the reaction war provokes as a result.
I’ve also recently read “The Crucible”, by Arthur Miller, and, while I found the way it began to pull on my brain about halfway through (at first I thought it rather boring) fascinating, I’ve nothing in particular to say on the subject. Later, maybe, although I’ve moved on to the wonders of Wodehouse, whose use of language overjoys me.
The Memorial - Christopher Isherwood
Like all of Isherwood’s writing, so very gentle and lovely. As ever, his best talents like in potraits. It’s interesting to look at it from the perspective of his semi-autobiographical examination of his education in the ’20s - Lions and Shadows - which also deals with the emotional after effects of WWI. The gentle romance between Ronald and Mrs Vernon is glorious, while Isherwood’s ability to show effects without causes, while it necessitates all the action happening off stage, as it were, prevents the book becoming about actions, but leaves it rather to be about people.
Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy - John Le Carré
I have to admit that I only bought this because it was cheap, and I think the title is rather good. Also, I quite like the posters for the film. That said, I really did thoroughly enjoy reading this. It was captivating and thrilling, peverse and surprising. I heard it described a few months ago as “one of those books where not a lot happens”, and, in a way, that’s true. But that should not be seen as a reason to put it down. Le Carré’s characters are both gentle and violent, soft and cruel, honest and deceptive. I’m not one of those people who, when confonted with a book about a mystery, tries to solve it before the author reveals the answer. I don’t see the point in doing that. So I truely did not see the answer coming before George Smiley pointed it out, but it really did surprise me. And what more can you ask from a Cold War era spy novel?
The Girl in Blue - P. G. Wodehouse
I may have mentioned before, but I am something of a Wodehouse fan. Although Jeeves & Wooster will forever have a place in my heart - Fry & Laurie’s TV series being my introduction in to the wonderful Wodehousian world - Wodehouse absolutely never fails to please and delight. From the young men and women, falling desperately in love with the right people, but getting engaged to the wrong people, and parading about town ‘what-ho!’-ing and stealing policemen’s helmets, to the oldies, like Lord Emsworth, who lives entirely in his own head and never looks to see what’s happened to the world beyond his pigs and his flowerbeds. Above all, I adore Sir P. G.’s use of language. It is, always is, an unparalleled delight.
The Girl In Blue has a lot of these elements. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it has all of these things, and more. As does every Wodehouse book I’ve read. Any book by Wodehouse is the right book for me. The Girl In Blue is no exception.
Stories - Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio (ed)
To be honest, I was a little disappointed. Of course, there were a few very good short stories in this colletion - Roddy Doyle’s Blood, for example, or Diana Waynne Jones’ Samantha’s Diary stand out, although there are others worthy of note - but, on the whole, it was rather disappointing.
I’ve read and adored a lot of Gaiman’s writing over the years. Neverwhere continues to be one of my all-time favourite books, and his previous short story collections - Fragile Things and Smoke & Mirrors - were positively bursting with fantastic little pieces. This, however, was not.
I can’t really cast judgement on Sarrantonio, never having read any of his other works, except to say that The Cult of the Nose, his personal contribution to the anthology, was bizarre, and not necessarily in a good way. That said, it was, in my opinion, a better short story than Gaiman’s The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
Perhaps I expected a little too much from it, but, really, the anthology doesn’t compare at all to Gaiman’s previous work, both in terms of his contribution and the collection as a whole. As I mentioned, however, there were some good short stories worth reading, but most seemed to be significantly below par, generally attempting to create the fantasy element, upon which the collection is built, by attempting to make some central aspect ‘mysterious’, but in reality just making it confusing and inconclusive. Jodi Picoult’s Weights And Measures is a good example of this. I really have no idea what was going on there.
Fatherland - Robert Harris
This isn’t, really, the kind of thing I would normally read. I never think it bodes well when the author’s name is in a significantly bigger font than the title, the words ‘No.1 Bestseller’ don’t encourage me, and the queston ‘What if Hitler had won?’ sounds more melodramatic than intriguing to me. Moreover, Harris is the writer responsible for the abonimable damage done to Alan Turing’s character in the book, then later film, Enigma. However, this was far from an unenjoyable read. It was interesting. I wouldn’t say it was great writing, nor was it entirely original, but it was interesting. The romantic storyline was utterly ridiculous, but never mind - they often are.
Water For Elephants - Sara Gruen
Hm. My attitude towards this book has changed a little since I learnt that Robert Patterson plays the protagonist in the film, which I have not seen. But I will try not to let it affect me too much. This book was good. Nicely written, an engaging plot, absorbing side-characters and a positively entrancing setting. The truly interesting thing, I found, was that once they stepped away from the circus train, and were forced to escape a raid on a speak-easy, all the glamour fell away, and it’s obvious that this actually is America in the ’30s. But then, they go back to to the circus, and it’s all glorious lights and colours and fantastic animals. It’s a book about escapism. And, almost unfortunately for the story, love.