“War & Peace” by Leo Tolstoy (1869) – whatever am I going to do with myself now?

All good things, so so sadly, must come to an eventual end. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride trying to gallop alongside the heinously cropped 6-hour adaptation of this epic novel, and I almost came out of the saddle half way through, as I fell dangerously Russian-roulette-like behind with my reading. Spots have been dancing before my mazurka-dancing eyes as I’ve been studiously working out how many pages a day I needed to devote to the very small print into the very small hours in order to finish the 1,636 page book by the time the BBC had done with it.

Well, I’ve jolly well gone and done it, and now I seriously don’t know how am going to account for my time for the foreseeable; there is going to be aching loss, and not just from carting this weighty tome around with me constantly.

Came across a very funny piece by the ever riveting Tim Dowling who recounts attempting an even more ambitious feat, and oh, how I have loved reading the weekly article written by Viv Groskop that appeared in The Guardian straight after each current instalment. With titles like “Heroes, leeches and a cast of thousands”, her writing is irreverent, straight-to-the-bone and laugh out loud funny (if she published a book I’d buy it in a flash – aye aye, see she has, temptation on a plate), but she is also clearly a self-confessed ‘fangirl’, loving the series as much as the next man. Just done the usual spot of sleuthing and see that not only has Ms Groskop got a distinction for her MA in Russian Studies, so all power to that elbow, but she is also the Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival which will take place shortly between the 26th February and the 6th March. Agony not to be able to attend the shindig and mingle with the illustrious likes of Celia Imrie and Sebastian Faulks.

Neither of whom are, of course, even remotely linked to “War & Peace”, which had enough dazzle of its own to self-ignite.

There was much well-deserved talk about the far from salubrious and often slightly salacious translation made of this six-hour romp, but by golly did it make for spellbinding viewing. Forget the fact that for a crowd of Russians everyone acted and sounded so very British, and Jim Broadbent still looked like Bridget Jones’s dad in a Shuba. Ignore any semblance of vague irritation at certain passages from the novel being cut short or bumpfed up. For there were so many frankly show-stopping moments : Tuppence Middleton is breathtakingly nefarious as the sometime survival-of-the-fittest champion Hélène, even if she comes across as far more intelligent than Tolstoy portrays her character in the text, Stephen Rea is matchless as the society-pirouetting father – and that scene with him and Rebecca Front in Episode One is just terrific… could go on and on at ridiculous length… oh yes, let’s not forget heartthrob James Norton, but beware, the edible Tom Burke as the villainous scamp Dolokhov is snapping at his heels – he was pretty great in “The Hour”, but gosh he almost steals the show outright here. It’s not often I get the urge to quote the faintly outraged Daily Mail, but “Whoar and Peace” really does just about cover it.

The thing is, quite frankly, what was not to love? I so enjoyed reading Shoshi’s blog post at the half way post, and agree with her comments – she is way ahead of me as she had already read the book before, but I do know that if this New Year had started any other way there’s a good chance the book would have been left untouched for many a moon – and what a travesty that would have been.

I did get put firmly in my place by a History prof just the other day, who raised more than a disapproving eyebrow at my confessing to loving this 2016 rendition. He’s advised us to purloin a copy of the 1967 Sergei Bondarchuk masterpiece, which apparently won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 1968 and which am sorely tempted to hunt down, despite the challenge of many hours of subtitles or a crash course in Russian. Have also got my eye on the 20-hour marathon of the BBC’s not-so-prehistoric version from the early seventies – Anthony Hopkins apparently a stouter, less rumpled and not-such-a-Mr-Darcy type hero… One thing is for sure, I do feel a bit disappointed in the 1956 film with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. I’m just over half way through it and keep expecting Natasha to burst into a heartfelt rendition of “I Could have Danced All Night”…

The book itself has blown my cotton socks off. No great shakes in noting that “War & Peace” is nothing short of epic, in fact there is nothing short about it at all. I did get completely wrapped up in its sweeping saga, and it would have been far more ambitious to tackle it as a first-timer without the visual props. Reading it one step behind the series may have hindered things slightly, by forcing the admittedly wholly flawless features of Gillian Anderson’s face into my mind’s eye when stepping into Anna Pavlovna’s social whirl, but it saved all the head-scratching over Who is Who and made the book even richer when new, more peripheral characters were introduced on the written page.

Everything is just that much more – many more incidents are covered, so many more details of the times and the social mores are identified and explored, the characters do take on much fuller roles than Andrew Davies can portray – and as a reader, you are so much more taken in by Tolstoy’s cheeky use of unlikely coincidence than you can be on the screen. I know they all move in the same hallowed circles, but considering it’s such a big country Prince Andrei and young Rostov and co do have a unerring knack for being in the right place at the right time when it suits the narrator.

It’s a pretty thankless task being a pleb in Tolstoy’s world, and we observe the masses mainly as faithful servants to the main characters whose every move we follow, or as the nameless horde who by and large gets killed off in such great numbers during the lengthy battle scenes. Much time is given to portraying the dreadful conditions of the walking wounded, and we do get a sense of the larger public as the mass exoduses are described near the aptly named Bald Hills and as Moscow empties, but most of the time we tend to forget about the hoi poloi because we are concentrating so hard on the swirl of life at the top end of the social scale.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov, dashing 1920s Prince

Andrei is not just any old Andrew, he is aristocratic Prince Bolkonski, haughty heir presumptive to the last, and when push comes to shove he goes straight to the front of the queue : as he enters the VIP lounge on a stretcher,

Murmurs arose among the wounded who were waiting. ‘It seems that even in the next world only the gentry are to have a chance!’ remarked one”. Hmph.

Anthony ‘Pierre’ Hopkins sporting a fine set of sideburns

Pierre likewise is not just your regular bloke Pete, he just happens to also be the illegitimate son of wealthy Count Bezukhov and makes a rags to riches leap in one foul swoop when his dad helpfully pops his clogs at the very start of the yarn, fortuitously recognising him as heir to that throne just in time with a dying breath that is intensely observed by all in sundry. Some boys get all the luck.

One of the characters I loved the very most throughout the story, though, falls dangerously close to the wrong side of the blanket, as it were. Sonya, the “sterile flower”, does not have an exotic relation ready to transform her existence and is very much dependent upon the Rostovs for maintaining her tenuous situation in life, and it is utterly fascinating to accompany her through the book. In another tale she could be the Jane Eyre heroine of the story, but here she is relegated to eternally stoic poor relation, and my heart just kept gently breaking for her.

“He’s all mine…” – Dream on…

There is a memorable scene when the family finally decides to take to its collective heels and retreat from Moscow. The Countess is in one corner practically having a fit of the vapours, the Count is as usual wandering around ineffectually wondering how all this could actually be happening, Natasha is frisking about with her younger brother (including a reference to their playful behaviour being outright “lover-like”, who says Tolstoy keeps a hat on it here, eh?) – meanwhile, Sonya just quietly and conscientiously gets on with the practicalities while the others twitter on about her beloved Nick’s prospects elsewhere. “It was very bitter for her. But despite her grief, or perhaps just because of it, she took on herself all the difficult work of directing the storing and packing of their things”. Sigh. For let it not be forgotten that if it weren’t for Sonya’s timely intervention, pal Natasha could well have been in Very Hot Water if the alarm hadn’t been raised and she’d managed to slip the loop and slope off with old you-know-who earlier on in the book, causing no end of intrigue… Just as likewise it is unsung heroine Sonya who spots Prince Andrei when further into the book he comes trundling along in a calèche quite undetected by everyone else (“‘But who is it? What’s his name?’ ‘It’s our intended that was’ replied the maid with a sigh”). Three cheers for Jane Eyre. Except when she turns Dolokhov down early on, mind you. Now that was just plain daft. Other than that, I found her to be a very vivid character who does not, unlike plain but equally stoic Mary-with-the-silver-spoon, get her just desserts. I realise this all fits in with Tolstoy’s philosophy on (wo)man’s free will and predestination and don’t know if it’s any small consolation, but Sonya would be the first one I’d pick to join my team any time.

I can tell Tolstoy has definitely got a soft spot for her too, though, and I read somewhere that Sonya is also the fictional representation of his beloved Aunt Tatyana Aleksandrovna Yergolskaya (try saying that after a drink), one of the most important influences in his life. She indeed would have married Tolstoy’s own father had the grandfather not, a little like the overly generous Count Rostov, succeeded in mismanaging the finances to such a pitch that his Offspring was duty bound to seek marriage to a wealthy heiress to resolve the family’s plight… aha…

Well, the ‘badaptation’ has succeeded in wrapping the whole huge tome up in 6 neat episodes, and I can only imagine how having the opportunity to study this book would be totally all-consuming and completely enthralling, just as a delving into a world of times gone by has been. It’s been an adventure and a race against the clock, and I am sorely going to miss Pierre pushing his spectacles up his nose or enjoying a baked potato to such a degree, just as I will miss observing the Countess’s slow decline and loss of her waspishness in her dotage, and Rebecca Front, sorry, Anna Drubetskaya lording it over everyone when her son finally lands his millionairess. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, mind, for as Anna Mikhaylovna (that’s the same Anna, naturally confusingly by using of course yet another name) describes early on in the book, “‘God grant you may never know what it is to be left a widow without means and with a son you love to distraction. One learns many things then… When I want to see one of those big people I write a note and then I take a cab and go myself, two, three or four times – till I get what I want”.”

I will miss reading about the superstitions of the time when the same countess “spat a little for luck as she returned to the drawing-room”, when the whole family literally sit it out to fit with tradition before they set off on their journey, and as Napoleon tweaks his officiers’ ears as a sign of favouritism. I even feel nostalgic already for the page upon page of chit chat while eye-popping General Kutuzov pontificates about the next strategic move during the occasionally ever-so-slightly interminable battle scenes. So I don’t think it’s going to be that long before a mammoth viewing of “Война и мир” complete with sub-titles is on the cards.

The only faintly jarring note is the overtly bucolic nature of the whopping great Epilogue that portrays idyllic life in the Rostov and Bezukhov households a good seven years after Napoleon has stuck his tail between his legs and rolled off home on his trusty sledge. Not only do we find Sonya acting “like a cat… she had attached herself not to the people but to the home”, doing endless good and “rendering the small services for which she had a gift, unconsciously accepted with insufficient gratitude“, but Natasha!!!! oh Natasha! What has happened to Natasha? I suppose in this Tolstoy is reflecting the times he lives in, but I rather wish he hadn’t. Be a bit much to expect a streak of feminism or a bout of equality for women back in the 1870s, I suppose. As for the rest, it’s absolutely bloody marvellous. And, do you know, I already can’t wait to read it all over again.

Rating – a rousing, epic 10/10

Images taken from here, here and here, here and here, here, herehere and here.
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“A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale – almost hits the spot

A departure from the norm for this much-loved author, in the sense that this time he places his protagonist in a historical setting and the farming moves across the waters from Cornwall to Canada. Based in a context that follows the timing of the trials and tribulations of Oscar Wilde, it delves into a world when love between two people of the same sex was not only illicit, but in many cases involved ostracism from the world and an abandonment by everyone around him.

Harry is married and a father when an amorous liaison leads to him finding himself obliged by friends and foe – and family – to opt for a new life the other side of the globe, in order to save face above all for his allegedly nearest and dearest. As the tale unfolds, much adjustment and hard toil results in our main man not only forging a future for himself, but in the event embracing a real possibility of personal happiness.

Following Harry Cane’s travails came as a good foil to having just finished the literary assault that is “A Little Life”, for while he had not endured the terrible abuse that Jude reveals to us, there are nevertheless parallel tracks with the potential hopelessness each character feels at certain times of their lives. Patrick Gale’s treatment is however a very different one. While Yanigahara’s work is relentlessly excruciating and painful and in some ways our focus looks backwards constantly, Harry’s transportation to Winter is far more action-packed with adventures as he learns how to become a homesteader, the hard way, and the author employs (slightly unsuccessfully) a series of flashbacks along the way to spice up the journey.

Gale explains that his inspiration for the book came from unconfirmed family stories handed down and shadowing his own emigrated great grandfather, and I think his ambition works – to a degree. The tale is credible and well recounted and I did enjoy it reading it very much, just as it was fascinating to explore this unknown territory and little-reported territory, but I was a little disappointed overall and didn’t find the author to be as at ease with this historical context. It seemed a slightly surprising nomination for the Costa novel of the year, actually, although have read many ecstatic reviews of this shortlisted book, so maybe I am in the minority. I just felt that his characters came over as less nuanced and a tad two-dimensional here and there, and the structure is nevertheless less convincing and had a strongly fictional almost fabled feel at times. Along the way, we are even introduced to a tyrannical character called (rather memorably) Troels Munck, whose reprehensible actions seem a far stretch and whose frequent reappearance feels very much a narrative convenience. Maybe there are just too many themes knocking around in this place called Winter…

Overall: thumbs up for the lyrical writing, and quite a cracking yarn, but hope the next novel brings a return to the present, where I feel Patrick Gale is much more at home.

Rating : 8/10

Shortlisted for the Costa Award 2015

Images taken from here and here
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Colm Tóibín – a man for all seasons? – the jury’s out…

Having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time over previous days proposing wildly romantic things for people to do in Paris over the Saint Valentin period, it struck me that the main character of Colm Toibin’s recent novel “Nora Webster” could really do with someone to sweep her off her feet and transport her down the Seine on a bateau mouche, or to knock her socks off with an inappropriately large bouquet of roses and a bottle of Moet-Chandon awaiting her as she flings open that luxurious hotel door… but then couldn’t we all…

Reality all too often checks in, and what happens in Toibin’s books is in fairness really more likely and realistic than any flurries of extravagance coming out of left bank. Yet as with the other novels by this author that I have read (and there’s still a little way to go), there is a constant air of ambivalence which makes it hard to decide whether I unequivocally admire his work and love his writing, or feel just slightly short-changed without being able to put a finger on quite why I don’t get swept away by it either.

I confess also to regularly confusing Colm Tóibín with Colum McCann for some reason and much to my chagrin – their writing style is completely different, so it must be the similarity of their Christian names, but even seeing “TransAtlantic” on the shop bookshelves the other day made me think instantly of “Brooklyn”. Wrong chap, although they certainly both know how to coin a phrase …

I first came to Tóibín via “The Master”, which won no end of accolades and was shortlisted for the Man Booker back in 2004, losing out to “The Line Of Beauty”.  I don’t know if I am the only person in the world not to have been bowled over the ‘factionalised’ story of four years in the life of Henry James, but confess to now barely being able to remember much more than the bare bones of the tale that was told. I do recall being irritated by a repetitive use of a phrase like “I can imagine” and there being, I believe, a series of indeed imaginary conversations. I know the writing was beautiful and possibly poignant, yet my own imagination was not captured at the time and unlike several other books I feel I’d like to revisit and give a second shot, somehow this isn’t one of them. Have I missed the plot completely here?

When “Brooklyn” came along X years later remember leaping at the chance to read it after it scooped up the Costa Award and the author got nominated one more time for the Booker. We read it with our wondrous Monceau book group that I still have such waves of nostalgia for, especially now we are all scattered round the globe and so many of you flew the coop and waved goodbye to Paree, not unlike the heroine of the book herself. Not all of the group were utterly enamoured with the tale, as I hazily recall, although I enjoyed it much, more more than its predecessor. What I did rather like was the gentle, understated tone, but this too risks leaning over into an odd one-dimensional bent here and there so it’s well nigh impossible to empathise with Eilis, because we can’t really get into her head at all.

Consequently, throughout the reading I didn’t feel particularly involved or hopelessly caught up in our main girl’s plight – her homesickness when she arrives so far from home is very tangible, and her dilemma is real enough, but in a funny sort of way I was far more intrigued by wondering just what was really going on in her Mammy’s mind while all the repressed emotion was kicking in during the final chapters of the novel.

Having said that, without this book there could never have been the film, and having now seen it am still reeling from just how good it is. Much has to do with the filming and the capturing of the times in ways that seem much more fluid than the written word in this instance. It’s just like stepping back in time, and Saoirse Ronan, she whose-name-I-wish-I-could-pronounce, is Sheer Perfection in this role. She seems to have so much more oomph than the character she represents from the book, and while I spent much of the time wishing Eilis would not be so darn passive while turning the pages, on the big screen she comes across as far stronger and somehow more dignified than I expected. Maybe I was mis-reading Tóibín and this was how he too saw her in his mind’s eye – so maybe once again have fallen short.

And now I’ve just finished “Nora Webster” – and here we go, all over again. We’re back in Wexford, Ireland, and Eilie’s Mammy even makes a speedy appearance at the very beginning of this story, telling us more in two lines than she imparted in the whole of the previous novel: “‘And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see’…May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag”. But this story is all about someone who stayed the course – Nora Webster finds herself widowed in her early forties, raising the two children who remain at home on her own, and facing demons of necessity she had not expected to encounter at her age (“Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that”).

Contrary to Eilie, the grown-up Nora, while still verging on the compliant at times, does seem to exercise much more welly and determination, and my understanding of the book was a validation of her starting to come to terms with taking ownership of her life and beginning to peel back the layers, as the opinions of those around come to matter less and less. “They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it”.

I quite admire Nora. I liked the bits that weren’t said out loud and the parts where she realized she was a far from perfect parent. I enjoyed the passages when a rebellious streak manifests itself, such as “‘Here we are again, Nora, then’ Peggy said, speaking like a doctor to a patient who had come to have her bandages removed or her blood pressure taken. Nora looked at her coldly”. I was as thrilled as I think she was when she was entranced by the music pouring out of the stereo record player in Cloake’s electrical shop in Rafter street where’s buying, of course, a new iron.

I managed this time to sink much more deeply into the restrained language and subtle depiction of a claustrophobic existence that I am learning the author portrays so well – but once again, I wanted to love Nora and wanted to love the book wholeheartedly, and found that I couldn’t. Grrrr.

I listened to Colm Tóibín on Desert Island Discs just the other day. His recounting of having a stammer and of being shipped off for a while like the two boys in “Nora Webster”, his tales of a household full of woman chattering on while he was growing up and the fact that “nothing they said escaped me” have made me all the more curious to read more rather than abandon ship just yet. “The Heather Blazing” could well be the next venture – mind you, on the back cover, we are entreated to the snippet that “Eamon Redmond is a judge in Ireland’s high court, a man remote from his wife, his son and daughter and, at last outwardly, from …” Do we spot a bit of a recurring theme here? I suppose there’s only one way to find out …

The Master: 6/10, Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004, Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, etc 

Brooklyn: 8/10 – Costa Book Award Winner 2009, Longlisted for the Man Booker, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Nominated 

Nora Webster: 8/10 – Costa Book Nominated 2014, Folio Prize Nominated 2015

Images taken from here, herehere and here, here and here.
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“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.
Posted in Book Reviews, Books on the Big Screen, Classics Club Challenge | Tagged , | 10 Comments

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.

Posted in Reading Challenge | 7 Comments