“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) – taking repeated deep breaths

Be warned, this book comes with a general health warning. It is an absolutely visceral read. It tears at your heartstrings, rips at your emotions, at times plucks at your eyes like one of the vultures from ‘The Jungle Book’. On occasion, a bit like that scene in “The Martian” when you – me – come over all faint as Matt gamely has to down tools and sort his wound out (shudder), there are sections in this book that are virtually unreadable, when you have to tear your eyes off the written page and feel the need to physically put the book down and walk away from it.

It didn’t end up winning the Man Booker prize, but this work has swept onto the literary scene and run off with The Guardian readers’ top book for 2015, never mind garnering a whole gamut of nominations for various accolades. Skimming through the many My Favourite Books of 2015 reviews this month, I would guess that it is the book which appears most systematically and which receives the strongest praise (thanks, Sally, for your Powell’s Staff Top Five list, really enjoyed that).

At 720 pages, it already has the look and feel of “The Goldfinch” even before plunging into its pages, and there were several points when I was reminded of Donna Tartt’s style as the book progressed.

To say it’s not for the fainthearted is definitely understating it, and it wasn’t the cheeriest of festive reads over this Christmas period, but by golly it kept me reading into the small hours, and I found myself hoiking the heavy tome out and about with me in the hopes of getting a few more pages under my belt every time I left home. Now that I’m through the treadmill and have been spat out the other side I do agree with the critics who fall on the side of some judicious editing. There are times when as a reader you feel the ongoing variation on the theme to be a bit relentless and over-egged, erring on repetitive – but then I think that is precisely the whole point of this depiction of the unrolling of one very particular life.

In a nutshell then, aside from the ambitious length and the very distressing writing, this is an absolutely extraordinary read. Cleverly abstract with nary a mention of any current events to situate the book in a certain time period, it’s also true that it’s impossible to imagine this novel having been possible even a generation ago. It smacks very much of the here and now, and although I’ve only stepped off a plane twice so far to spend but a very few days in New York (sadly), I have the feeling that the overall atmosphere really does capture a certain flavor of the “capital” of all capital cities.

The notion of the nuclear family taking ‘second place’ to the family you create as you go through life comes through very strongly too, and I was fascinated by the crucial nature of support coming from friends when push comes to shove. I was very slightly unconvinced of the staying power of our four main men, as in all those pages we don’t really get a sense of how such enduring friendships would have been made in the first place, but hey, far be it from me to go casting aspersions. Women also play an almost unnecessary part in the book – I almost felt an apocalyptic sense of the end of the world not so far ahead of the ending of this novel, wondering will any more babies eventually ever be made. Not a criticism, don’t misread me, just saying…

It did read very much like a fable to me in parts: is it really believable that someone would have so much ‘bad luck’ as to encounter the people our hero did one after the other with barely a single ounce of goodness in them every time? It is all terribly black and white, with not a shade of grey anywhere. And is it pushing it a bit that everyone in the story is so remarkably talented or stunningly good looking – or popping off to Paris and on other exotic holidays throughout? Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of this book is actually that as you are reading every word comes across as absolutely credible, and even while it is haunting you afterwards that is no real serious detraction either – so hats off to Ms Yanagihara, basically.

Jude is a character who will remain sharply etched in our collective memories for a very long time to come. It’s our book group meeting next week, and this was our Christmas read, so I am all ears to hear what everyone else thought about it. I would also love to be a fly buzzing on the wall in a hundred years to see how “A Little Life” is perceived then. What’s certain is that it has struck an enormous chord with the public today and deeply reflects our current society. And to close, I’d agree wholeheartedly with and thankfully quote Dianah H. from Powells (which I’d love to visit one day too): “it broke my heart into a million tiny jagged pieces, but I loved every excruciating minute of it”.

Rating : a resounding ‘taking no prisoners’ 10/10

2016 : Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction; 2015 : Man Booker Prize shortlist, National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction

Images taken from here and here.
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“Lady Chatterley’s lover” by D.H. Lawrence (1928) – taking the John Thomas, sorry, the mickey – and welcome to “Whoar”, oops “War & Peace”

Back in the autumn, the BBC revisited Lady Chatterley and strapping Oliver Mellors, and after watching the rose-tinted version with a certain sense of bafflement, was tickled to pick up the battered (complete and unexpurgated) copy on the shelf and read the book again to see if all that critical indignation post showing was justified.

Well yes, on the whole it has to be said that the sanitised version is very lovely to watch and fetchingly acted by a rather too beauteous Holliday Grainger – in the book, “Constance was a ruddy, country-looking girl with soft brown hair and sturdy body and slow movements full of unused energy. She had big, wondering blue eyes and a soft, mild voice (with) rather strong, female loins…”, whereas here she is just plain gorgeous, slim as a blade and boasting a fetching line in feather plumed hair attire.

“Put your shirt back on, fine sir…”

The suitably dashing Richard Madden, who wooed the crowds with his britches in Cinderella and who am girding my loins to watch at some point in the Game of Thrones does do the gamekeeper justice, with sharp intakes of breath readily taken at his Mr Darcy/Poldark moment of fame: “The man was washing himself, utterly unaware. He was naked to the hips, his velveteen breeches slipping over his slender loins… Connie backed away… In spite of herself, she had had a shock. After all, merely a man washing himself! Yet, in some curious way, it was a visionary experience: it had hit her in the middle of her body.” Solar plexus material indeed.

The key element of surprise lies in the choice of main man and general hero James Norton as the supposedly unlikeable and unsympathetic Sir Clifford. Sadly, too much poetic licence is taken here with portraying the lacklustre husband. He should be petulant and indifferent (Mellors on Clifford : “He’ll hardly know you’ve gone, after six months. He doesn’t know that anybody exists, except himself. Why the man has no use for you at all, as far as I can see: he’s entirely wrapped up in himself”). He should be slowly but mercilessly caught up in helper Mrs Bolton’s wily spider’s web casting (“Why there you are, your ladyship! I was beginning to wonder if you’d gone lost!” she said a little roguishly. “Sir Clifford hasn’t asked for you, though…”). Instead, our actor is just far too endearing and blinking attractive for the scenario to ring true: sorry, BBC, J.N. is ever lovely to watch but is completely miscast here.

There’s also a bit of a problem with content, or rather lack of it. The distinct lack of sauciness and complete absence of crude language translated from the book to the small screen makes for rather a dull story unfolding – where are all the heaving bosoms and beating breasts? We miss that whole sense of tittering behind our fanned fingers, wondering what every man in the land unfortunately named ‘John Thomas’ must have felt at the time of publishing, to have their name so suddenly become the alter ego for the gamesman’s special equipment. Romantic as it is to read such lines as “ ‘Don’t you think one lives for times like last night?’ ”, I suspect most of us are far more likely to recall the pillow talk conducted between the two of them, with –

“ ‘Ay ma lad! tha’rt theer right enough. Yi, tha mun rear thy head! … John Thomas! Dost want her? Dost want my Lady Jane? … Lift up your heads o’ ye gates, that the king of glory may come in…”.

Seriously, I think I’d rather have James Norton, sorry Sir Clifton, any time.

Hey, though, don’t know if the entire world is likewise holed up on Sunday evenings in front of the BBC or feverishly waiting for the iPlayer to kick in, watching the unfurling of the luscious adaptation of “War & Peace” – but all is forgiven. James Andrei Bolkonsky Norton is back in his britches and am totally hooked….

More gauntlets flung down and revolvers feverishly cocked for duels at dawn, with determination at all costs to get this massive book read by the time the final credits rolls. It’s now or never… Needless to say, am spending far too much time hunting for clues of the much-debated hints at incestuous goings-on, and know there will be huge chunks cut out and discarded on the editing floor because the series has been condensed down into 6 hours, but the first episode bodes well and am counting the hours till I can watch Part Two very late via the iPlayer this evening. A group of us have decided to indeed read the book as the series unfolds, so the tricky thing now is knowing where to stop each time. Am cheating by watching then reading, so my mind’s eye inevitably sees Paul Dano or Gillian Anderson every time the character is mentioned, but frankly it’s a small and welcome price to pay.

Director Peter Kosminsky is pretty scathing about these TV adaptations and comments :

“Television is such a powerful medium. Millions of people watching a programme go into their school or workplace the next day and say, ‘Did you see it?’ Imagine if that programme wasn’t War and Peace or Wolf Hall, but was something that raised real questions about the way we are governed, or how our society is structured, or the crisis over refugees and migrants. Imagine if people were going in and not saying, ‘Ooh, I didn’t half fancy her in War and Peace,’ but if they were going in and saying, ‘That made me really angry.’ We’ve become supine. We need to get up off our arses and try to rock the boat a bit more. I’d like to see leadership from the broadcasters to say, ‘Come on, we want more of this stuff.” ,

and I take his point. But I think he’s wrong to knock it – any attention thrown at the classics has to be a good or even a very great thing, surely? Rock the boat and add as much current stuff as possible, directors the world over, but please don’t stop reviving these great works of literature, BBC et al. The Telegraph listed their Top 21 greatest TV adaptations today, and it’s quite a trip down memory lane. Hope there will be as many corkers for years to come…

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” book rating : 8/10

Images taken from here, here, herehere and here.
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Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” (2013) and “A God in Ruins” (2015) – it doesn’t get much better than this

Kate Atkinson, just in case there was ever any shadow of a doubt, is the real deal. I want her to write for ever and ever and ever. Was entranced during the wee small hours recently watching her on interview links from her Facebook account (“monitored and maintained” one should add, not by Ms Atkinson herself, but by “Kate’s UK and US publishers”) and she’s right at the top of that list of women authors I’d long to eavesdrop in on if ever there should be a Desert Island Discs style dinner.

“A God in Ruins” is one of the four fiction works nominated for the 2015 Costa Book Awards and I’m pretty darn certain she’ll run away with the Category Winner announced early in January and maybe even the overall Book of the Year Winner towards the end of the month. It’s not so kind of me to dismiss the other books without having even read them – and I will, I will, and am just as sure there will be some great reading there too – but I really hope this books wins everything it can this year.

STOP PRESS: it is in fact the evening of the 4th January – general blaring of trumpets and doing a war dance round the living room (to cat and daughter’s general consternation) : came home from spending a very happy hour over coffee with a fellow book-lover to realise that the Costa Book Award winners were to be announced on Radio 4’s “Front Row” just now – and lo and behold the fabulous “A God in Ruins” has not only won the Novel Award Winner prize, yippidooda, but Kate Atkinson herself was in the studio to talk about the book during the programme. It was just like having her sat on the sofa! Cup is overflowing, and other such hyperbole…

Back to the business in hand… The author’s début novel “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, which knocked my socks off all that time ago and is due for a re-read, won this prize two decades ago, and this latest work seems to be on everyone’s 2015 rave-about book list (Printers Row Journal for the Chicago Tribune, TIME’s Top 10 Fiction Books, The Guardian’s Readers and Writers Picks of the Year, the Saltire Literary Awards, etceteraaa, etceteraaa). There is something so disarming about listening to this author speak, too; she is not exactly self-deprecating, and clearly knows her strengths, but she is so down to earth and matter of fact about her uncanny edge in portraying her characters. I now know, though, from eavesdropping on YouTube that she finds Jason Isaacs from the “Case Histories” series still haunts her, as it were, by being rather too good-looking for the faceless Jackson Brodie she had in her mind’s eye while writing him, so that has somewhat scuppered inspiration from that direction. Hope the memory fades in due course and we may be entreated to more of the same in the not too distant…

It’s impossible really to talk about “A God in Ruins” without referring to its predecessor, “Life After Life”. By the by, this later book is deemed to be a ‘companion novel’ to “Life After Life” and while I appreciate that it is a stand-alone read, it would be a shame to forego the pleasure of reading them both – and if so, it’s definitely better I think to read them in order.

Published in 2013, it introduces main protagonist and sometime heroine Ursula, whose USP is that she is born, then dies, but is then disconcertingly reborn, only to die again, over and over again, with the upshot being that the author plays with time and writing techniques in a quite mind-blowing way. If you’ve read it, you’ve probably loved it (or possibly been frustrated if you didn’t buy into the Groundhog Day approach). It does take a while to gather your wits and stop feeling dizzy at the start of this Good Reads book of the year. You’ve also got to be ready to concentrate a bit and remember who is who and where you’re at, no easy feat either, but it is so, so worth this small labour of love. As one of the characters comments, “ History is all about ‘what ifs’ ”, and part of the idea (I think) is that the book questions what could happen if you had the chance to live your life again and again until you perhaps actually got it right. Ursula is also absolutely fascinating :

“She had taken the wrong path, opened the wrong door, and was unable to find her way back. Suddenly, horribly, she frightened herself by wailing, the wretched sound of utter despondency. The owner of the shop came rushing from behind the counter…she made her sit and have a cup of tea and a biscuit and Ursula couldn’t begin to express her gratitude for this simple kindness”.

In someone else’s hands, I am certain this book could fall foul and be hoisted with his/her own pétard, but the way she writes is so beguiling and engaging and generally charismatic that I think it would be hard to not be enchanted once the initial ‘what’s going on’ feeling has subsided. With some authors you just know that you are in good hands, and I really did feel this way while reading “Life After Life”. I also loved her comments during one of the interviews Down Under on this whole issue of writing technique – with barely a twitch after dismissing Facebook as purely a marketing necessity, she comes out with the non sequitur, “Huh, this book isn’t written for a Kindle” (so that’s us told!). But she does also explain that “Writing is about rescuing the past… ‘Life After Life’ is a way of finding a place for history – the Second World War is about to go out of living memory, and that’s an incredibly poignant point in time, because everything changes once it goes out of living history”. Fab-u-lous.

Aware that she wasn’t ‘done’ with recent history and things being lost irretrievably, she came up with the genius idea of coming at the same period of time from a very different perspective. Teddy plays a relatively small role in the earlier novel, and I felt a bit wary about returning to a world where nothing had been set in stone and where the outcome slipped around inexorably right through to the end.

How wrong I was to have even the slightest doubt! This book is the bee’s knees, the genuine article, a Top Book of the Year. In a totally different way, time is yet again played with, and her control over what you read and perceive is maintained right through to the very last page – and I would go so far as to say it’s perhaps the closest you can get to a perfect novel. Reading this book is like figuratively sinking into a comfy armchair and plunging into a world where of course you don’t know the people and yet you feel they are walking around somewhere in blessed 3D. We get to know Teddy and his entourage terribly well without of course knowing them at all. We are transported to and fro along that elusive timeline : “But that was in the future…. He would have been surprised to know that he still had another decade and more ahead of him”; “Teddy supposed his own son would have to go there too (the family-honoured school), although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine. He didn’t need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter…”.

There are constant cultural references to King Lear, to Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’, to strokes of Vermeer and the painting in the National Gallery with the woman seated at her virginal. It’s all quite brilliant. A whole visual world is created within the framework of the difficulty of maneuvering round human relationships – his daughter Viola is a piece of work in so many ways, yet who cannot warm to her over the course of the story? Initially protective of her father (“He had passed her on the street once, when she was a teenager. She was with friends from school and she had looked right through him when she passed. A son called Hugh would never have done such a thing”), we see other facets as the plot progresses: “If she was in a Forster novel she would meet the love of her life at this point (she would also be forty years younger) and be wrenched emotionally and at the end she would have her view”. Yet this is also a woman who is capable of outrageously un-maternal behaviour: “A fractious Sunny had to be prised off the body of the woman in the Lost Children hut like a limpet from a rock. ‘The poor little pet,’ the woman said and Viola said, ‘You can keep him if you want,’ which obviously the Lost-Children-hut woman thought was a joke”. All of which highlights all the more the naturally caring side of our beloved Teddy. Atkinson refers to him wanting to be like Candide and cultivating his garden, and entitles one section of the book ‘His Little Unremembered Acts of Kindness and of Love’. There is one such example between grandfather and grandson:

“Sunny’s heart was so full he could hardly speak… ‘How about we go inside? I know I need a cup of tea and I’m sure you’d like some milk and cake, wouldn’t you, Sunny? I made your favourite – chocolate,’ Sunny thought his heart would burst and spill over with happiness”.

Our ‘God in Ruins’ is far from a sugar-sweet unflawed character, yet this commitment of his to “resolve that he would try always to be kind. It was the best he could do. It was all that he could do” is not only credible yet almost magical. I know I am overegging it here, but this is one of those books you put down and pat tenderly and want to instantly start all over again. It’s quite simply that good.

Rating : an unequivocal 10/10 for both.

Life After Life – 2013 Winner of Costa Book Award, Good Reads Choice Winner, Paris Review Best of the Best, Shortlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlisted for Walter Scott Prize for Fiction, Shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year.

A God in Ruins  – currently nominated for various awards, will update. Winner of the Costa Novel Award Prize 2015… 

Images taken from here, here and here.
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Two on the trot: it’s definitely holiday time… Throwing down the gauntlet – The TBR Triple Dog Dare 1st January to 1st April 2016

tbr-final-dareFor last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Thus spake T.S. Eliot quite some time ago, and part of beginning every new year is the cheery prospect of breaking the same old time-honoured resolutions yet again. Nothing boring about it whatsoever.

This year it is all going to be SO different. This year it’s not “go on a diet”, it’s “eat healthily”. It’s not “give up hangovers”, it’s “join the January alcohol-free” crew. It’s not “do more crushing exercise”, it’s “carry on pottering round the avenue de Breteuil green patch so as to hopefully jog La Parisienne a little more respectably second time around next September”. Time will tell…

But the most exciting prospect of all is joining the 50+-strong squadron of fellow book-lovers and bloggers who have risen to the James Reads Books “TBR Triple Dog” dare – no more secret squirrelling away of new book purchases for the first three months of the year, or passing Go on Amazon, and instead plenty of reading tomes that are already sitting patiently on the shelves.

We’re allowed to tweak the rules, so will purchase book group reads with great alacrity, but will exercise the appropriate restraint on every other count and add any sources of temptation to the Wish List rather than the Oh I’ll Just Buy It Now Anyway collection.

As the New Year is upon us, the gauntlet has already been thrown down, so am going to go at it with as much gusto as those other resolutions. Three months! It’s going to be quite a challenge. But now I’ve said it out loud now, I’ve just got to keep to it.

“Courage, mon brave!” (that’s the inner soul speaking). Onward and upward. Gulp.

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Wish List 2016: New Year’s Resolutions, plus The BBC’s 100 Greatest British Novels

Well, it wouldn’t feel right to end the year without a nosy at what everyone is deeming the best reads of the year. The New York Times includes Elena Ferrante’s twin protagonists and Helen Macdonald’s in its 10 Best Books of 2015, then opens up a whacking great can of worms with its 100 Notable Books: of its 50 fiction works, there are less than a dozen that seem familiar, so am clearly way off the mark and hideously out of touch with what is what in the Big Apple. Feel too overwhelmed to even take a pot shot at any challenges with this little lot…

Treading back into more familiar territory, Marta Bausells from The Guardian sums up the ten books favoured by The Guardian readers from last year, and there is quite a lot here that does feel more achievable and desirable on the To Read/Tick That Box front.

 

  1. A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara – now read, 10/10
  2. “The Story of a Lost Child” by Elena Ferrante, now read, 10/10
  3. A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson – 10/10
  4. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James
  5. A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler – 9/10
  6. “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen
  7. “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro
  8. “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett
  9. “Common Ground” by Rob Cowen
  10. “Last Man Off” by Rob Lewis.

Still have 4 of their Top Ten from last year to complete, but most of the ones I did read were cracking yarns (“The Goldfinch“, “Do No Harm“, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” to name but a handful), so am sure the same will be true of this new batch.

There will hopefully be plenty more of these ‘best of’ lists flying around, but would be good for Yours Truly to keep the blinkers on and not get carried away biting off more than I can digest this end for the next few months – guilty as charged, m’lud, of not ending the year with a clean sweep and quite some catching up still to do on the reading challenge fronts:

 End of year ‘school’ report – “could do better” …

The Classics Club ambles gently along, but oh to break with the tedious habit of always having the same unfulfilled New Year’s Resolutions (lose weight, do more exercise, blah blah blah) and actually manage to finish the other three reading challenges before this time next year.

Read-into-2016As the clock strikes at midnight on the 31st, I may or may not have turned the very last page (720) of “A Little Life” – thanks to Karen at BookerTalk for suggesting we share our reads that take us sailing into the New Year – this book has certainly been quite a strong one to close the old year on, and am still not sure whether I can’t wait for it to end, or not, and what I will feel about it when I finally place it gently on the “Read” pile. It’s pretty unputdownable, but a punch in the gut comes with nearly every page – so much for reading something Christmassy over the festive period…

In the meantime, though, thrilled to share Charley’s Books and Bakes 1 blog joy at the BBC conducting a poll with book critics outside the UK to produce a magnificent list of the 100 Greatest British Novels to “give an outsider’s perspective on the best in British literature” and to end the year in style. Quite a lot naturally overlaps with their earlier Big Read selection, but this one is smack up to date and includes Ali and Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters – what a blast.

100. The Code of the Woosters (PG Wodehouse, 1938)
99. There but for the (Ali Smith, 2011)
98. Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry,1947)
97. The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis, 1949-1954), 10/10
96. Memoirs of a Survivor (Doris Lessing, 1974)
95. The Buddha of Suburbia (Hanif Kureishi, 1990)
94. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824)
93. Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954), 8/10
92. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons, 1932)
91. The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy, 1922)
90. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins, 1859)
89. The Horse’s Mouth (Joyce Cary, 1944)
88. The Death of the Heart (Elizabeth Bowen, 1938)
87. The Old Wives’ Tale (Arnold Bennett,1908)
86. A Legacy (Sybille Bedford, 1956)
85. Regeneration Trilogy (Pat Barker, 1991-1995), 10/10
84. Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
83. Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope, 1857)
82. The Patrick Melrose Novels (Edward St Aubyn, 1992-2012), 9/10
81. The Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott, 1966)
80. Excellent Women (Barbara Pym, 1952), 10/10
79. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman, 1995-2000)
78. A House for Mr Biswas (VS Naipaul, 1961)
77. Of Human Bondage (W Somerset Maugham, 1915)
76. Small Island (Andrea Levy, 2004), 10/10
75. Women in Love (DH Lawrence, 1920)
74. The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy, 1886)
73. The Blue Flower (Penelope Fitzgerald, 1995)
72. The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene, 1948)
71. Old Filth (Jane Gardam, 2004)
70. Daniel Deronda (George Eliot, 1876)
69. Nostromo (Joseph Conrad, 1904)
68. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)
67. Crash (JG  Ballard 1973)
66. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen, 1811), 10/10
65. Orlando (Virginia Woolf, 1928)
64. The Way We Live Now (Anthony Trollope, 1875)
63. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961), 10/10
62. Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945), 8/10
61. The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)
60. Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence, 1913)
59. The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst, 2004), now read, 7/10
58. Loving (Henry Green, 1945)
57. Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford, 1924-1928)
56. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson, 1985), 7/10
55. Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726)
54. NW (Zadie Smith, 2012), 10/10
53. Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966), 7/10
52. New Grub Street (George Gissing, 1891)
51. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy, 1891), 10/10
50. A Passage to India (EM Forster, 1924)
49. Possession (AS Byatt, 1990)
48. Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
47. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1759)
46. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie, 1981)
45. The Little Stranger  (Sarah Waters, 2009), 10/10
44. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009), 7/10
43. The Swimming Pool Library (Alan Hollinghurst, 1988)
42. Brighton Rock (Graham Greene, 1938), 9/10
41. Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1848)
40. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865), 9/10
39. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes, 2011), 10/10
38. The Passion (Jeanette Winterson, 1987)
37. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh, 1928)
36. A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell, 1951-1975)
35. Remainder (Tom McCarthy, 2005)
34. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005), 8/10
33. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame, 1908), 8/10
32. A Room with a View (EM Forster, 1908), 8/10
31. The End of the Affair (Graham Greene, 1951), 10/10
30. Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe, 1722)
29. Brick Lane (Monica Ali, 2003), 10/10
28. Villette (Charlotte Brontë, 1853)
27. Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe, 1719)
26. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien, 1954)
25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000), 10/10
24. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817), now read, 8/10
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815), 10/10
18. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989), 10/10
17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001), 10/10
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson,1748)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915), 5/10
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949), 10/10
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813), 10/10
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850), 10/10
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847), 10/10
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853), 10/10
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847), 10/10
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861), 10/10
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925), 7/10 (am heathen)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874), 10/10.

Of the 100, have read but 37, so I guess there’s only one way to go – add to the To Be Read list yet again…

  • BBC 100 Greatest British Novels update – 36 read, 64 to go.
  • BBC Big Reads – 59 read, 41 to go.

Surely the overlapping left, right and centre has got to be the way to go – here’s to wishing you all some storming reads in 2016 and beyond… and a truly Happy New Year to one and all.

Images taken from here and here and here.
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Clichés abound : “the first step in a thousand miles” …

My favourite person of the female sex (never let it be said that am not keeping up with the world in terms of political correctness) will be turning 18 next September. Over recent months she has started tackling some of the heavyweights like “Lolita” and “The Age of Innocence” with great gusto, and as such a book lover myself this has clearly been manna to my proverbial ears. I took to thinking about a friend’s brilliant story some time back about everyone being invited to offer their own all-time favourite book to her daughter as she turned 18, or was it 21, and remembering being all ears again to know which authors and which books had come flying through the postbox.

So as a variation on a theme, decided this Christmas to place a grand total of nine individually wrapped books under the tree for Daisy. Nine now, and one every month over the next 9 months, so that by the time her 18th birthday arrives she will have received one beautiful novel per year to start her “adult” collection.

It’s been a lot of fun picking the titles. How do you choose under twenty books and single them out as Absolute Must Haves to start a library of a lifetime? In the end I plumped for the top ten to all have women in the starring role, and seven of them have ended up being penned by females, to boot. Here’s the lowdown so far :

      

1 “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy – the great unsung heroine, and THAT scene with the letter slipped under the doormat;

2 “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte – unfettered nature and unchecked insanity on the moors, la grande passion as it should always be, the tapping on the windowsill… ;

3 “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert – beware domestic bliss! Overjoyed and misty-eyed still about picking up a two-volume edition from the little antique Jousseaume bookshop in the Galerie Vivienne;

4 “Emma” by Jane Austen – maybe Daisy will bristle with indignation at the depiction of the misled heroine, but oh! the depiction of the vicar’s wife – and all those clues strewn along the way! ;

5 “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy – Vronksy’s swirling moustache and Anna’s iconic fur hat and collar – and the first ever memorable BBC adaptation seen at probably Daisy’s age with the unforgettable Nicola Pagett;

6 “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen – Kate Atkinson’s favourite book so that’s automatically good for me;

7 “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte – probably the book that resonated the most growing up: the concept of good deeds being recognised in the long run (but resulting in marrying the local squire? maybe I’d sprinkle salt on that these days…);

8 “Middlemarch” by George Eliot – having only come to this myself this past year, hoping many more years of pleasure will be had by perhaps coming to it earlier;

9 “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott – will never, ever forget reading this out loud to the Offspring one balmy summer when Daisy was about six or seven – and her stopping me when Beth first falls ill. It was all too much to bear. Even spoiling the story by saying she was going to get better (well, in book one at least) didn’t help, and so it was put on one side for the forseeable. I think that was one of the moments when the power of fiction really hit home.

So bring it on. Happy holidays to one and all and here’s to centuries of wonderful books ahead.

Image taken from here, here, here and here.
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“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett (2009) – a whole new take on ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’

It’s taken me all this time to watch the film of the book I enjoyed reading so much the year it was published, with its Stepford Wives’ flavour and heady swipe at the treatment of the hired help in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Here’s Mr P’s take on the novel:

An amazing first novel, which was, ironically, rejected by 60 literary agents before acceptance. I struggled a little with the Mississippi black vernacular, but it slowly developed a rhythm and melody of its own which played well in my imagination and helped evoke believable visions of personality and character. By listening to my mind’s voice as I tackled the unfamiliar diction, it was as if my sensory perception was helping in the process of re-creating KS’s personal narrative realm. Gosh, I do sound convoluted. What would Minnie say if she read that last sentence? She probably wouldn’t say much, just collapse in a fit of laughter, no doubt.

 I liked the book’s innate humanity and particularly the way it resisted the temptation to pitch everything into polar opposites, black or white, good or evil, pure or sullied. Life is more complicated than that, more nuanced, and KS was able to capture some of that ambiguity. Comedy rippled in the sunshine from time to time and tragedy loomed and receded in shadowy waves, but more than anything I felt my empathy was won over as the players struggled to get it right. And what an awful climate to have to struggle in! In a way like the subject matter: lurching from one extreme to another.

Quite agree, Mr P.

The film adaptation is also quite the treat. Like Tim, I had also had a spot of bother with the book’s use of the patois depending on who was saying what when, and confess it irked me quite a bit throughout the reading. That aside, or maybe because of it, the movie rendition just perfectly captures the essence of the book and the times it conveys: those cameo scenes with the contrast inside the kitchen and out are so well done!   I really enjoyed watching this film on the small screen: the actors so perfectly convey the contrasts of the social situation of the epoch.

We get to share the belly laughs of Aibileen and Minny who are Downstairs to the various Misseys throwing their weight around Upstairs; we of course can’t help but condemn the heinous attitude of the poisonous Hilly and revel in that moment of gluttonous revenge (don’t want to spoil the story, but if you’ve read the book or seen the film you’ll of course know exactly which scene am referring to).

   

As a spectator, we also share the upset when we witness Skeeter’s mother’s unforgivable treatment of Constantine the maid, inevitably almost more maternal in our secret journalist’s eyes than her own mater. And let’s not forget Celia, played so well by Jessica Chastain – the working-class outcast whom the pack revile and humiliate for so long, yet who by the end of the book and film comes such a long way in no small part due to The Help afforded her by Minny the Maid. Who in turn gets to take life-changing decisions that we wouldn’t have expected at the outset. Great theatre, terrible times. Just loved it.

Mr P rating: A very likeable read: 9/10

Nicola book rating: 8/10

Images taken from here and here, here and here.
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Classics Club Challenge – taking a gamble

Classics club logoThis is rather like Russian roulette with none of the blood and guts. While for some all this avid list-compiling would no doubt be like having teeth pulled, it is of course totally up my persnickety compulsive alley.

Having embarked upon the marvellous “Classic Club Challenge” earlier in the year in the hopes of finally reading more of those timeless works that have oft heard of and even know the plot of but shamefully have never opened, am now on tenterhooks to see which tome am going to be diving into next.

Early this week the Classics Club Spin masterminds are going to throw a number at us between 1 and 20, and that will be the masterpiece we collectively pledge to read by February of next year.

Feels like Christmas has come early, sigh.

Post Script : Ooh, just in the nick of time, crack went the pistol… and the wheel span to N° 19. John Steinbeck and Henry Fonda, here we come… 

Update 8th March – having failed miserably to read “The Grapes of Wrath” in time, the next challenge has already come around and this morning the die landed on N° 8 so am adding “A Prayer for Owen Meany” to the mix. Hoping to do better this time around.

Simply can’t wait to read:

  • Austen, Jane: Persuasion (#7)
  • Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White (#3)
  • Eliot, George: The Mill on the Floss (#16)
  • Hardy, Thomas : Tess of the D’Urbervilles (#13) –sneaky re-read I
  • Lawrence, D.H.: The Rainbow (#20)

Somewhat in trepidation:

  • Dickens, Charles: Hard Times (#11)
  • Galsworthy, John: The Forsyte Saga (#4)
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (#18)
  • Proust, Marcel: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Du Côté de chez Swann (#9) – sneaky re-read II
  • Thackeray, William Makepeace: Vanity Fair (#15)

‘Thoroughly modern Millies’, time-wise :

  • Gibbons, Stella: Cold Comfort Farm (#17)
  • Greene, Graham: Brighton Rock (#6)
  • Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News (#10)
  • Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children (#1)
  • Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited (#5)

And bringing up the rear, as it were :

  • Dickens, Charles: Tale of Two Cities (#14)
  • Eco, Umberto: The Name of the Rose (#2)
  • Eliot, George: Silas Marner (#12)
  • Irving, John: A Prayer for Owen Meany (#8) – second on the Spin List
  • Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath (#19) – was last on the list but is clearly now first…
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Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Best of the Decade OR “What a blinkin’ performance!”

“Non, Madame, le système a changé…”

It took an imminently expiring passport (you know that sinking “how did you let this happen” feeling?) and a belligerent bloke at the British Consulate here in Paree – “Désolé, Madame, mais le système a changé...” – to force a welcome albeit slightly frantic and decidedly speedy sortie back to Blighty on the Eurostar last month.

Involved much ingratiating obsequiousness from Yours Truly at the counter at the 9 o’clock appointment, followed by plentiful berating of self, not to say self-flagellation, during the prescribed nail-biting wait, suitably concluded with even less attractive but very sincere tugging of grateful forelock and baring of teeth on duly collecting the renewed-and-good-to-go-for-wow-ten-years passport just four hours later. Dickens would have had a field day. (Oh, and HRH and Gov.Uk, I salute you).

The reason for all this straying off topic is because as well as then being able to enjoy dazzling pre-Christmas London for 48 hours and spend some even more glorious catch up time with nearest and dearest, destiny had also played a hand in my trip coinciding with the Baileys “Best of the Best Live” event at the Piccadilly Theatre, announcing the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction top book of the decade. Deep joy. Managed to procure a ticket and a glass of Prosecco and be sat in prime position all afroth with excitement as the 10 illustrious Chairs of Judges, plus “Nooooo, Yes it is” Stanley bloody Tucci and “you have to be kidding” none other than Sheila Hancock all took to the stage right before my very eyes. HRH and Gov.Uk, I salute you a second time.

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“The anticipation is killing me…”

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Clock Stanley extreme LHS, Sheila 3 along

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, everyone now knows that the worthy winner of the title is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the astonishingly brilliant “Half of a Yellow Sun” (which I think many of us had hoped and predicted would be the case). Would have dropped my glass of Prosecco and fallen over the balcony if the authoress had walked onto that stage to collect her Bessie statuette, but fortunately for all she appeared but virtually to deliver her modest and eloquent acceptance speech on screen to rapturous applause.

HOAYS

So much has been written about this book so would only add a couple of words – I think it is a must read, a landmark novel and a huge achievement. It documents the shocking events of the times while creating characters you care intensely about, and I believe it will stand the test of time only too well. Furthermore, it was penned before C.G.A.’s 30th birthday, so is all the more extraordinary for that alone.

Don’t know if this rings true if you’ve seen it too, but suggest the film adaptation starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton is worth giving a wide berth, however: not because it’s a particularly bad film, but because it should never have been attempted. The book is just so much more, and while its far from unequivocal ending works so perfectly on paper, found it deeply unsatisfactory on the big (or small) screen – the tale appears to tail off, hmmm.

As for the book: well I think every man, woman and child should read it. End of story!

Rating : 10/10 – A FAVOURITE READ

Winner of the Orange/Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007 and Best of the Decade in 2015

Images taken from herehere and here.
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“Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee (1959) – poetry in motion

Nothing whatsoever to do with “Under Milk Wood”, in fact couldn’t be a more innocent portrayal of youth in many ways – and there’s nothing even remotely as flamboyant about this man’s somewhat idyllic childhood in a remote village set in a world we will never return to – yet I did find myself thinking of Dylan Thomas many a time while reading this gorgeously poetic book. Knew this novel goes down in the annals as one of the best-loved (semi-)autobiographies of all time, and did open it feeling a little guilty that I was only coming to it for the first time at the ripe old age of mm-mm, but it definitely lived up to all expectations.

Little Laurie Lee is but a babe in arms when he starts to tell his tale.

It is with a “sense of bewilderment and terror” that his life in this tiny Cotswold village begins and unfolds, and from the very first page we can picture this small boy taking his first colt-like steps into the big bad world: “The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept… I was lost and I did not expect to be found again. I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully”. You cannot help but be entranced by the strong visual descriptions of day-to-day living that set your senses spinning and tingling – “The scullery was water, and everything else that was related to water: thick steam of Mondays edgy with starch; soapsuds boiling, bellying and popping, creaking and whispering, rainbowed with light and winking with a million windows. Bubble bubble, toil and grumble, rinsing and slapping of sheets and shirts, and panting Mother rowing her red arms like oars in the steaming waves”.

Domestic life abounds, and after meeting the many eccentric personages that inhabit his world, like the marvellous sparring duo of Grannies Trill and Warren, we are entreated to tales of school days post First World War with the cranky teacher Crabby B with her “bunched and punitive little body” and her predisposition for lashing out at her hapless charges (“one seldom knew why; one was always off guard, for the punishment preceded the charge”) – and there are strong hints of violence between the grown-ups at various points in an otherwise remarkably benevolent environment, where Laurie’s older sisters are every bit as maternal as Mother herself. For it’s this home front that really leaves a marked impression. While well into the book we realise that our protagonist is inevitably going to grow too large for his small village and will set off on his travels elsewhere, and while it is no great shock that she of the cider-imbibing will not become a permanent fixture in Laurie Lee’s life (hope it is not too much of a clanger to quote that “pretty Jo grew fat with a Painswick baker, lusty Bet went to breed in Australia, and Rosie, having baptised me with her cidrous kisses, married a soldier and I lost her forever”), it is the great abiding love of family that is the signature of this lovely novel.

As readers, we fall head over heels just as he does with the “sprawling, cumbersome, countrified brood too incongruous” for the absent Father to deal with, from the eldest half-sister Marjorie, a “blonde Aphrodite” who was unconscious of her apparent grace and beauty, to “wispy imp” Dorothy, as pretty and “perilous as a firework”. In the recent BBC adaptation much of the poetry and eloquence of this wordsmith was very faithfully and lyrically rendered, but inevitably parts of the story line had to be sacrificed and it was well nigh impossible to convey the melodious imagery and vocabulary in quite the same way.

Hats off to Samantha Morton though, for capturing the essence of Mother to a tee (although I would like to see the Juliet Stevenson version from 1998, as have a feeling she might have been pretty jolly good as well). What I think I loved best of all about this slim novel is the clever depiction of a quite simply marvellous female character.

When Laurie is little he reports, “I was still young enough then to be sleeping with my Mother, which to me seemed life’s whole purpose”.  Later on, he describes her slumbering at the end of a long and noisy day : “My Mother would sleep like a happy child, humped in her nightdress, breathing innocently and making soft drinking sounds in the pillow. In her flights of dream she held me close, like a parachute to her back; or rolled and enclosed me with her great tired body so that I was snug as a mouse in a hayrick”. What’s not to love.

She is larger than life and dripping with emotion and affection – “she clouted you one moment and hugged you the next”; above all she “possessed an indestructible gaiety which welled up like a thermal spring”. She spends her whole adult life waiting for a man she and we know will never choose to come home, but by golly she is not going to be undone by this. Which is why the final pages of this book are not only redolent with youth and hope and optimism as Laurie plans to set off to meet the bigger, ‘badder’ world, but they are also tinged with melancholy and an unwritten nostalgia as the nest empties. “Serenely unkempt were those final years, free from conflict, doubt or dismay, while she reverted gently to a rustic simplicity as a moss-rose reverts to a wild one”. Here’s to serenely unkempt then, in whatever form that takes…

Rating : 10/10

Classics Club read N° 39

Images taken from here, here, here, here and here.
Posted in Book Reviews, Classics Club Challenge, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 20 Comments