Tag Archives: Literature

New books: September 2015

[This post was typed up in October, but I haven’t got round to posting it. Some of the things that I say in it are out-of-date by now, but I’m leaving the post as it was written. I’ll add the amendments at the bottom and maybe elaborate in a subsequent post.]


September threw up an unexpected surprise, as well as an unexpected sadness. I was going to do a separate post on both of these at the time, but didn’t get chance to, and it seems a tad pointless now. Anyhoo.

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  • Edmund White –  Chaos*
  • Valeria Parrella –  For Grace Received: Four Stories of Modern Naples*
  • Antoine Francois Prevost –  Manon Lescaut*
  • Todd Solondz –  Storytelling*
  • Malcolm Bradbury –  Inside Trading*
  • Gavin Young –  Something of Samoa**
  • Imme Dros –  Annelie in the Depths of the Night*
  • Philip Gross –  Marginaliens*
  • Sylvia Plath –  Collected Poems*
  • Marivaux –  The Game of Love and Chance*

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  • Nathaniel West –  The Day of the Locust.    50p
  • Thomas de Quincey –  Confessions of an English Opium Eater.    99p
  • Virginia Woolf –  Orlando
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez-  Love in the Time of Cholera***  –  In Evil Hour  –  Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Jon McGregor-  so many ways to begin***
  • Charles Dickens –  Martin Chuzzlewit***
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  • Thomas de Quincy –  On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.    80p
  • Charles Dickens –  The Signalman: A Ghost Story.    £1.99
  • Pu Singling –  Wailing Ghosts.    80p

* 20p

** 10p

*** Library book sale

Now the sad news. All of the books in the first picture were from Webberley’s, which we learnt over the summer is to close in the new year. Webberley’s is the only independent book shop in the city that sells new books (we have several second hand bookshops), and so will be a big, big loss to the city when it closes. On the plus side, there may be another sale… No, I think I’d prefer to have the bookshop still open rather than a few more bargains.

However, some good news that I wasn’t expecting this month. I knew that following the publication of ‘Autobiography’, Morrissey was working on his first novel. However, I only learnt on about the 21st that this was to be published on the 24th, so we rushed to Amazon to place an order. Yes, I know we should have gone to an independent bookshop (or at least Waterstones), but… we can be fickle. I read a few reviews of this on the day it came out, and was slightly surprised that they were so negative. I’d expected there would be some that were less-than-glowing (coz, hey, it’s Moz, and the British press love to hate him just because he is), but was shocked by just how scathing they were. This has coloured my opinion somewhat even before I read it, which I wish it hadn’t. I want to be impartial, or at least not be negatively influenced from the outset. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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[Since this post was originally written, Webberley’s has closed (mid-Jan.), and I read ‘List of the Lost’ (Nov?). Despite the rather unnatural dialogue, I didn’t think it was that bad. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in it, and the ending is actually quite shocking, even if the plot is a tad odd. I do hope he writes more, even if it is just to write a novel that is on the same level as the sublime ‘Autobiography’. I’ll do a full review eventually, but will definitely re-read it, as there are things to pull out of it with repeated readings.]

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New books: August

Now, I can’t put prices on these as I can’t recall how much I paid for some of them. However, brace yourselves. There’s a few.

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  • Victor Hugo –  Notre-Dame de Paris     50p
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald –  The Collected Short Stories     50p
  • Evan S. Connell –  Mrs Bridge     99p
  • Patrick Hamilton –  Hangover Square     99p
  • E. M. Forster –  The Obelisk     £1.49
  • Evelyn Waugh –  Vile Bodies     99p
  • Robert James Waller – The Bridges of Madison County     20p
  • Mary Shelley – Frankenstein The 1818 Text     20p
  • Roald Dahl –  The Enormous Crocodile     50p
  • Seth MacFarlane –  A Million Ways to Die in the West
  • Donald Barthelme –  Sixty Stories
  • Christopher Marlowe –  The Plays

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  • Apollodorus –  The Library of Greek Mythology
  • Herodotus –  The Histories

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  • John Kinsella –  Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful
  • William Congreve –  Incognita
  • Three Revenge Tragedies
  • Anne Fadiman –  Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
  • Brian Friel –  Translations     –     Making History
  • Edwin Morgan –  The Play of Gilgamesh
  • Beaumarchais –  The Marriage of Figaro

These seven were all from the book sale at Webberley’s, the bookshop I mentioned in the July books post.

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  • Jeffrey Brown –  Star Wars: Jedi Academy

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  • Jane Austen –  Mansfield Park
  • Jules Verne –  Around the World in Eighty Days
  • Edward Bellamy – Looking Backward

Now, the reason that I never got this post up in August or September was because in late August I ordered a number of William S. Burroughs books off eBay and Amazon, and Royal Mail being what it is, these took a while to arrive. However, there should have been another book arriving that never did, and it was waiting for this one that held me up. We contacted the seller after several weeks, and they sent another out. However, as I type this, I’m still waiting for either copy to turn up. Luckily, we were able to get our money back, but I was a little bit pissed about it.

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  • William S. Burroughs –  Naked Lunch     –     The Yage Letters Redux     –     Cities of the Red Night     –     The Burroughs File     –     The Western Lands     –     My Education: A Book of Dreams     –     Last Words: The Final Journals of William Burroughs

A slightly pedantic point: the edition of ‘Naked Lunch’ shown here isn’t actually the one that I ordered. The one I ordered was the one from the same series as ‘Last Words’ and the copies of ‘The Soft Machine’, ‘The Ticket that Exploded’ and ‘The Place of Dead Roads’ that I got from Oxford back in June. My wife says that she prefers this cover that came, but I’m not too sure.

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My book collection: Ted Hughes

I mentioned a number of blog posts ago that I’ve been going on a bit of a Ted Hughes blitz in recent months. This is due to the fact that (despite what some other bloggers and literary fans may think of him) I adore his work. You may wonder why I don’t bother just getting the collected poems, collected poems for children and other such books, but there’s a few reasons for this:

  1. I already have a good few of his books, and so don’t want these to become redundant
  2. I much prefer reading individual volumes of poems, rather than finding collections in a collected works. They are so much more convenient- they can be taken on the bus and slipped into a bag or a pocket
  3. Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems is notoriously confusing to work through, as poems are rejiggled between collections and sequences to reflect the interesting publishing history of his texts.
  4. Hey- I like books, so the more the merrier.

I may still get the collected poems for the several hundred uncollected poems that this contains, but not at any time soon.

Here are the few (…) I’ve picked up over the last few months:

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  • Meet My Folks!
  • How the Whale Became and other stories
  • Nessie the Mannerless Monster
  • The Iron Man
  • Collected Plays for Children
  • Season Songs
  • Moon Whales
  • What is the Truth?
  • Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth
  • Flowers and Insects
  • The Cat and the Cuckoo
  • Tales of the Early World
  • The Iron Woman
  • The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales
  • Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories
  • The Iron Wolf
  • Frank Wedekind – Spring Awakening
  • Jean Racine – Phedre

All of these were off ebay or Amazon, except two: The Iron Man was picked up from a charity shop for 70p, and has the original illustrations by George Adamson, rather than the Andrew Davidson illustrations that are used in the subsequent reissues (including the one I picked up last year); The Iron Woman (the companion reissue edition to The Iron Man) was found in The Last Bookshop when I went down to Oxford back in June for that conference.

A few other points. Difficulties of a Bridegroom actually contains all of the prose from the wonderful collection Wodwo, along with three other stories, and it’s these I bought it for, as I already have the other six in the parent book. It’s also a bit of a bugger to find online cheap. Moon Whales (in this edition, not the original American release), The Iron Wolf (a collection of animal poems written for children, collecting several shorter volumes) and Ffangs… are all gloriously illustrated by the fantastic Chris Riddell, and are worth getting for this point alone. The animal poems and Ffangs… are also quite good books. Moon Whales isn’t great, I must admit. I am not a big fan of when Hughes tried to rhyme, as much sounds too contrived and a bit clunky. Flowers and Insects is an interesting one, as it has never been properly reissued by Faber (except in the Collected Poems) and has never been issued in paperback. It contains some bloody awful watercolours by Leonard Baskin, whose otherwise magical line drawings graced the covers and pages of Crow, the first issue of Moon Whales, Gaudete, Cave Birds and Moortown. However, the layout of the book is also a shambles, with pictures being sliced, repasted oddly, printed more than once, or just generally reproduced badly.

Lastly, The Cat and the Cuckoo is not published by Faber, and was a nice find on ebay, but my copy is somewhat let down by the foxing on the endpages, which doesn’t make it an overly approachable volume. The poems are all (except one) in The Iron Wolf, but this edition is worth having just for the illustrations by R. J. Lloyd.

Now, for completeness I’m missing a number of his plays, as well as the individual 2011 reissues of the original versions of Remains of Elmet and River (before they were annoyingly rehashed for Three Books), but here is my Ted Hughes collection as it presently stands:

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Not a shelfie as such, but enough shelf porn to keep me going!

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Bus Reads 5: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’

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I was interested to read this book, as a friend of mine from Uni is from the Czech Republic, and the novel is set in Czechoslovakia during the turbulent 1960s, so it allowed me to see something of her nation’s story as well as giving me an idea about where she is coming from on various issues. I had no preconceived notion about this work, so the book didn’t surpass or fall below expectations, but I was surprised just how much the book revolved around sex. Now, I don’t have an issue with this, but it would be nice to be warned when I’m reading it on a bus. I feel that people may be reading over my shoulder and think I’m reading something salacious. Anyway. I’ve read much worse since.

The way in which sex and love were presented through the thoughts and actions of the different characters was interesting and thought-provoking, with Tomas seeing it as nothing but another way of getting to know women better, and indeed being the only way to fully know their individual differences. This view can be understood somewhat in his profession as a surgeon, as this would precondition him to see people as the same, working in the same ways and as perhaps highly impersonal, whereas the act of sex allows him to see beyond the mechanics of the body into the personality of the individual. However, this view of sex and love as two distinct entities was something that seemed to run through the novel with all of the characters, and which begun to grate on me after a while. I can’t say that I condemned the characters for their actions and their views (that sounds a bit harsh), and indeed they were all likeable, believable figures, but I did see myself in moral and ideological opposition to them. For me, the two should be intimately intertwined, and so I was perhaps less able to empathise with the people in the novel than I have with other literary creations.

I did find the passages concerning the dog Karenin rather moving, though, which was a tad embarrassing on the bus, but Kundera did well to make Karenin as well-formed a character as the others in the text. Also, the sense of loneliness and desolation created worked well, and tinged much of the work with a quiet sadness that made it a poetic read in one respect. However, I think the biggest problem I had with the novel was that I missed the central philosophical tenets that underpinned the idea of ‘lightness’ and its opposition. Perhaps another read may be in order, in a quiet room with no distractions and a steaming mug of something rich. I feel that the book deserves a second chance, as I don’t think I’ve done it justice.

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New books: June

…and for this month’s books:

June books 1

  • Robert Louis Stevenson –  Treasure Island
  • John Osborne –  Look Back in Anger
  • Oscar Wilde –  The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Thomas Kyd –  The Spanish Tragedy
  • Oliver Goldsmith –  She Stoops to Conquer

These all came from a colleague at work who teaches in the English department, and who was offloading many of her university texts on the school library. I had first dibs on any that weren’t wanted for the students, and so I picked these few. Free books are greatly appreciated!

Now these ones I did have to pay for:

June books 2

  • John Milton –  The Portable Milton     50p
  • Andrew Motion –  Selected Poems 1976-1997     50p
  • Karel Capek –  Rossum’s Universal Robots     £2.50
  • William Golding –  The Double Tongue     £2.50
  • Kurt Vonnegut –  Breakfast of Champions  –  Armageddon in Retrospect     £2.50 each
  • William S. Burroughs –  The Soft Machine  –  The Ticket that Exploded  –  The Place of Dead Roads     £2.50 each

A few points- I already have a copy of Paradise Lost with extensive notes, and the Milton text here is a rather hefty tome, but it contains pretty much all of the poetry that he wrote, including Paradise Regained, so I thought it a worth-while purchase.

The Motion selection is also of note, as it adds to my collection of signed poetry books that I’ve managed to pick up cheap. I’ve already got two Simon Armitage and a Wendy Cope book signed.

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Ta-dah. Not bad for 50p.

Lastly, the last seven books were all picked up a few weeks back when I went down to Oxford for the day for a work conference. It’s the first time I’ve been back since the graduation in September 2013, so that was nice (even though it rained most of the time I was there), and I managed to nip to a favourite bookshop of mine. There’s a shop there called The Last Bookshop, which used to sell everything for £2, and which had quite a good run on academic texts, Faber poetry and classics. I spent  small fortune in there over the three years of my degree. It looks like it’s now under new management, and everything is now £3, but they do a nice ‘2-for-£5’ deal that led to me buying quite a few. Hopefully I can call in when I’m down again for work in the next few days!

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New books: May

Yep. I’m behind again. I’ve still got book reviews to type, and a few archaeology and anthropology posts to do. Will I ever get round to them? Perhaps not. For now, May’s books:

May books

  • Bob Dylan –  Tarantula     50p
  • Roald Dahl –  Rhyme Stew     50p
  • J.B.Priestley –  An Inspector Calls and Other Plays     £2.99
  • William Shakespeare –  Julius Caesar     20p
  • Bret Easton Ellis –  American Psycho     50p

I also picked up this:

Me, somewhat surprised with myself. I mean, come on- it's shit, isn't it? ...Isn't it...?

Me, somewhat surprised with myself. I mean, come on- it’s shit, isn’t it?

Don’t shoot me- I know it is shite, and just a cursory glance across the text and its grainy b&w plates reinforces the level of pseudo-archaeological, cod-scientific bull crap that it contains, but it is the book that got my Tutor at Oxford into archaeology, and I thought it worth buying just for that, and the comedy value. It was also only 50p. Expect a scathing deconstruction of this at some point, as I do intend on reading it soon.

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A bad week, World Book Day and other things: Life update #13

Nope, I haven’t blogged enough recently. I’m just too tired to, to be honest (the only time I usually get to blog is at night). This post is also going to be rather scattered, as I’ve a couple of things to say but no real need to make them into separate posts.


Firstly, my prat-fall last Monday. And I mean that literally. I was running for my second bus in the morning on my way to work when I slipped, fell and smacked the right side of my face on the paving slabs, knocking chunks off two of my teeth, splitting my lip and generally battering myself up. An ambulance came out, I was checked for concussion, and I ended up having to have two days off work. I’m now incredibly wary about rushing about anywhere, but at least the cuts and swelling are going down now.


That was the start of the week. To end the week, yesterday I managed to loose £20 by not looking what I was doing and managing to drop a note when I went to put it in my pocket- only realising afterwards. I think my head’s in a weird place at the minute, what with one thing and another.


The middle of the week, by contrast, seemed to go okay. Thursday was World Book Day, and at work lots of us staff dressed up as literary characters, with me going as Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. Predictably, none of the students got it, with most thinking I was Bond due to my Tux and black tie. However, my eldest son came out with the best comment of the day. In the morning, he decided to tell me that I looked like Basil Fawlty, from Fawlty Towers. Fine, as my wife has likened me to John Cleese’s character once or twice. It wasn’t until I got home and he said it again that I begun to think about what he’d said.

“But Basil Fawlty doesn’t really wear a bow tie. He only wears a dinner jacket and bow tie in one episode…”

“No Dad, you look like other Basil.”

“Other Basil? Oh…”

It then dawned on me that “Other Basil” meant that lovable yet ever-so-slightly-stupid Spanish waiter Manuel. Harumph. Owned by a four-year-old.


I’ve still got about a dozen book review posts to write, with my reading from pretty much the past year, but I just thought that I’d mention that I’m nearly finished reading J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash. Let’s just say for now that it is certainly the most painful book to read that I’ve ever come across. I’m not cut out for that sort of thing…


I’ll leave this post with something thought-provoking. I can’t remember where I found it, so apologies for the lack of image credit.

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One resolution down! Life Update #11

Well, it’s often the case that resolutions made at New Year never seem to last much past January, and indeed it seems that the first resolution I made has already been broken. You may notice that this is only my third blog post this year, and I still haven’t got any more book reviews up. Sorry. However, there is one that I have already done- the tattoo. No I’m only joking. Last weekend though I did submit some of the poems from my completed book to a publisher. If you’ve been reading this blog since I started it, you will know that this is quite a big thing, as I have up until now never had the courage to actually take the plunge and do this. I don’t think I’ll actually get published, but still- I’ve actually submitted something, which is further than I’ve ever got with it before. Wish me luck!

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New books: September and October

What with one thing or another, I didn’t get around to posting a ‘New books’ post for September, so thought that I may as well include it with October’s.

Here’s September:

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  • Tim Moore –  I Believe in Yesterday: A 2,000 Year Tour Through the Filth and Fury of Living History     10p
  • Roddy Doyle –  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha     10p
  • Thomas Hardy –  Jude the Obscure     10p
  • Theocritus –  The Idylls     10p
  • Jennifer Hargreaves –  Sporting Females: Critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports     10p

These were all from two local library sales, hence the ridiculous prices. Also, astute readers may notice that I had this same edition of the Hardy book from a library sale (indeed, from the same library) several months back, but this copy here is in far better condition, so it replaces my previous version.

…and now October:

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  • Janni Howker –  Isaac Campion     50p
  • Daniel Defoe –  Robinson Crusoe     50p
  • Peter Schneider –  The Wall Jumper     £4
  • Jules Verne –  Journey to the Centre of the Earth     50p
  • Terry Pratchett –  The Colour of Magic     50p
  • Thomas a Kempis –  The Imitation of Christ     1 of 3 for £2
  • Gustav Flaubert –  Madame Bovary     2 of 3 for £2
  • Bernard McCabe –  Bottle Rabbit and Friends      3 of 3 for £2

I’ve already got a copy of Robinson Crusoe, but this is an Oxford World Classics edition, and infinitely nicer than my existing edition, and I’ve alredy got a copy of the Verne novel (a rather nice Folio Society one), but this newly-acquired edition will take up less room on a bookcase, and is slightly more reader-friendly. Also of vague interest is the fact that I met Janni Howker back in 2005 when she ran a creative writing course for schools in our area, and have meant to get one of her books to try since then- only managing to do so 9 years later! The purchase of her book and the last book listed are also examples of my point about adult and children’s literature (which I will at some point get round to writing a full post on), as I’m beginning to blur the distinction between the two when it comes to my choice of reading. And the latter is illustrated by Axel Scheffler. He illustrated The Gruffalo and is a personal favourite illustrator of mine, which is my excuse for getting it. He’s illustrated a copy of T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats which is high on my book wish list too.

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Bus Reads 3: Thoughts on Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

joyce youngI daren’t say when I begun to read this book, or indeed when I finished it. However, I’ve got six more books to review after this one in order to catch up with where I’m at now with my reading. Hmm. The reason I’ve put this off for so long is that I’ve not really known what to say about this work. I mean, it is sublime, in my opinion. I adored it from start to finish, and find it so beautifully poetic that I took in more of the sound of the text and the feel of the words rather than any actual meaning. I probably read it in the way that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are better read, actually, considering that A Portrait of the Artist… does have a conceivable and intelligible plot.

Firstly, I think that this text works so well due to its nature as a bildungsroman based upon Joyce’s own youth, and interestingly, the actual text almost ‘comes-of-age’ along with Stephen due to the clever way in which the writing style alters almost imperceptibly throughout the story. Morrissey stated recently that when writing his Autobiography, he “…wrote the childhood sequence almost as a child might, and the adolescent period as an adolescent might, and the adult section as a ‘suicidalist’ might”, and save for the last point, this rings true for Joyce here. In the same way as a person ages imperceptibly if you see them over a long period, the text also matures and develops in a way that is not really noticeable unless you stop and take a step back. I was unable to tell when the writing begun to alter until it had done so for many pages, and see in this part of Joyce’s genius, as the text is so fluid and well crafted.

I also quite enjoyed the way in which religion is given such a prominent role in the text and shown to have influenced and shaped Stephen in various ways, but have been debating with myself recently whether or not the tortuously long sermon was required at the length it was. I suppose that the length and somewhat repetitive and cyclical nature of this highlighted the nature of religion to Stephen and to Joyce, not only in focus (mainly sin and salvation) and the way in which this the affects the narrative and the way that the protagonist views himself and his actions, but in its almost smothering, incessant inability to go away (as the sermon seems to have no way of ending). However, this did make it rather heavy going, as it was a lot more preachy than the sermons I am personally used to hearing, but did also show me another side to Joyce, as I didn’t realise he was able to write such text.

The section I had most issue with, though, was the way in which the book ended. After the way in which the blurb built the end of the text up, with Stephen’s final break with everything around him and need for Wildeian artistic freedom, I felt that this didn’t really come across. It was a bit of a damp squib, really- somewhat akin to a child having a tantrum, and then calmly walking out of the room. Perhaps it needs a second read to pick up on everything here.

That said, I  adored the book, and can only look towards my next reading of it!

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By Gove! I MUST apologise!

Following on from my post two days ago regarding Michael Gove and his horrendous idea for the GCSE English Literature syllabus, I must issue a correction and an apology. That great sociologist and educational reformer (cough) was not saying that American literature should be banned from the curriculum, but rather that there should be… well. I’ll quote from the DfE:

“It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.”

This new criteria also includes Romantic poetry, which is fine- but not a great vote-winner with teenagers, to be brutally honest. The Great Reformer (for it is he) has also said:

“I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

Riiiight. So the possibility of studying a post-1914 US text still stands then, does it? Thought not. I can see their point that ‘Of Mice and Men’ is studied by the vast majority of schools, and that many students read this and no other novel whilst at school, with very few (around 1%) studying ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, but- I still don’t like the approach that has been taken.

Oh- wasn’t this meant to be an apology to someone who will never ever read or know of the existence of this blog? Okay- I’m sorry that I didn’t read all of the facts first. Big slap on the wrists for naughty little me. But everything I said in that previous post still stands. And I still think that Gove is a dick.

Image: stiffstiches.com

Image: stiffstiches.com

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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Thoughts on Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

FearAndLoathingInLasVegasWallpapers2

I never expected that this would be the case when I started to read it, but Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ has become one of my favourite books. I can’t really say why, either, other than it is a great read and highly entertaining, as well as being really engaging due to the relaxed first-person narrative. The subject matter is not one that I particularly like (i.e. excessive drinking and drug taking-  although I’m looking forward to reading Burrough’s ‘Junky’, and am currently getting absorbed by Amis’s ‘Money’ with its permanently sozzled narrator), but it does make for some highly-interesting and surprisingly amusing scenes. Also, the descriptions are rather poetic, too. Indeed, the first few lines of the book set the pace for the tone of much of the rest of the work:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process.

As with ‘On the Road’, much of this novel is a road-trip story that is a dramatised account of the author’s real-life experiences, and in a similar way, the main protagonists all seem somewhat lacking in intention and direction. However, unlike Kerouac, Thompson is travelling as part of a journalism assignment, with the drug-taking and illegal activities taking place whilst carrying out this intention, and with little regard for the consequences; Thompson (or ‘Raoul Duke’) and his Samoan attorney will return to their real lives as soon as the events of the novel are over. In ‘On the Road’, the travelling and the events that occur are still an escape from the author’s usual life, but are also integral to creating his life, and allowing him to experiment with new avenues and paths down which to move on with his life.

I managed to surprise myself reading this text in part as well because some of my favourite passages and scenes involved the characters getting incredibly high or wasted whilst locked in their hotel rooms, and the light way in which their drug taking is approached. I think that it appealed to me so much simply because these actions are so far removed from both what I know and what I would usually read, and it made an incredibly fresh change. Also, the Ralph Steadman images make the book interesting, as besides being wonderfully evocative and lively (if a little chaotic and disturbing), they also give an incredibly adult book a somewhat childish air, as very few adult novels have in-text drawings.

This is definitely a text that I would recommend, and will happily read it again when I get the chance. Also, it has given me many ideas for my own writing, which can only be a good thing!

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Iggle Piggle and Chaucer: New Statesman 11/09/2013

DHX MEDIA LTD. - DHX Media acquires Ragdoll Worldwide

 

Regular readers of this blog will know by now that I have two children, and like many 2 and 3 year-olds, one of their favourite television programmes is the BBC’s ‘In the Night Garden‘. Personally, I really dislike it and find Iggle Piggle- the blue idiot in the centre of the above image- incredibly irritating, but they seem to find it facinating. However, I have not realised until now that there are perhaps deeper meanings to this programme. I can’t really paraphrase this, and so will post the whole article. It’s taken from the New Statesman website, posted on 11th September 2013.

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In the Night Garden is secretly teaching our toddlers Chaucer

By Amy Licence

On weekdays at 6.20pm, CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for the under-4s, screens the popular show In the Night Garden. Toddlers across the UK watch Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and their friends having adventures in fairy-tale woodlands filled with sunshine and flowers. Described by the BBC as representing a “magical place that exists between waking and sleeping in a child’s imagination,” the programme is both enjoyable and educational. The explanatory webpage emphasises its playfulness and confidence-building repetition, plus its use of words, rhyme and music, which create a “happy world” of “loveable characters” and “nursery rhyme nonsense.” Pre-schoolers love to sing along with the characters and add to their collection of the show’s merchandise, from talking toys to clothing, play-doh sets and lunch boxes. Parents can be reassured by the BBC’s admission that the “tone of the programme is deliberately literary” although it is perhaps more literary than they realise. What these tots are actually getting is a dose of the conventions of medieval poetry. Specifically, Chaucer’s dream visions.

Chaucer is best remembered today for his unfinished collection of stories The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fifteenth century. It is vibrant with humour, irony and brilliant characters. But this is only a portion of his work. He also made a translation of the French dream vision The Romance of the Rose and wrote several of his own versions of the genre. In these, characterisation takes a back seat in favour of more early forms of allegory, where figures were less individuals, than representations of abstract virtues and vices. Chaucer’s poems, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, follow strict conventions, like a tick-list, of details relating to structure, setting and characters. And, funnily enough, CBeebies’ In the Night Garden contains many of them too.

The programme begins with a sleepy-eyed toddler, lying in bed, having the palm of their hand stroked soothingly. “The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep” begins the song, almost hypnotically. Just as the toddler drifts off, so dream poetry often begin with the narrator lying down restlessly and hoping for the onset of sleep. As “the day began to fail and the dark night” arrives, as in The Parliament of Fowls, the boundaries blur between the conscious and waking worlds. Here, Chaucer’s narrator often meets a guide, who helps him navigate through this dream world. For CBeebies’ sleepy toddlers, there is the blue, fluffy figure of Iggle Piggle, perhaps child-speak for “Little Pickle.” Presented like a toddler’s drawing of a man, with his little shock of red hair and matching blanket, he is the “everyman” bridge between the worlds.

Iggle Piggle journeys to the realm of dreams in a boat. He drifts away on the dark waves, with a little light at the top of his mast showing the way through the gloom. This is timeless literary convention, a common metaphor for the process of sleep, and puts distance between the real world and the imagined. We recognise it as a journey, a temporary measure before we enter the dream proper. Iggle Piggle’s boat never lands. We don’t see him beach it on a distant shore and climb out. This is where the magic begins. Chaucer might supply us with a sudden capsize: “the steering oar did suddenly drag him overboard in his sleep” but the BBC’s explanation is far more toddler-friendly. As we watch, the stars turn into white flowers, which bud and open, like unfolding dreams. A symbolic barrier has been crossed, like falling asleep or dying, passing mysteriously into another realm. This is the world of the Night Garden.

Iggle Piggle finds himself in a landscape of bright colours. Friends await him in an idealised garden where the sun always shines, large stylised flowers bloom and others cluster in bright balls, like gems. It is an eternal, temperate summer, as the dream convention demands; the sun is “clad all new again,” almost in an inversion of the winter of Narnia. Chaucer’s gardens have “no awkwardness of hot or cold” in their “summer sunlight” and “blue, bright, clear” air. His woodland is lush and green, with trees “fresh and green as emerald” and sweet grass “embroidered” with flowers. The BBC’s landscape is reminiscent of this, with “blossoming boughs beside a river” and “ flowers white, blue, yellow and red,” peopled by a cast of unusual imaginary figures. Yet it is Upsy Daisy whom Iggle Piggle most wants to see: “of all the flowers in the mead, love I the white and red I see, such as men call daisies.”  There is no doubt in the children’s minds that she is his BFF, his best friend forever.

Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy’s love affair is a chaste one. They hold hands and even sometimes give each other cloth-mouthed kisses but theirs is a courtly love in the best of medieval traditions. In appearance Upsy Daisy is very feminine, the opposite to Iggle Piggle, with her pink and orange hair and clothes contrasting with his blueness, the epitomic symbols of masculinity and femininity. She is aptly named. Chaucer reverences the humble flower as “the eye of day, the empress and flower of flowers all,” “a daisy is crowned with white petals light,” suggestive of the character’s sticking up coronet of hair. Chaucer’s idealised women, often the Goddess Flora, are the “flower of flowers,” colourful, bright and full of life. Upsy Daisy is also accomplished and affectionate; she sings, dances and kisses flowers, causing them to grow, as Chaucer’s Flora does. The narrator of The Book of the Duchess watches “her dance so gracefully, carol and sing so sweetly.”

Upsy Daisy looks like, and is, a child’s doll. The heroines of Chaucer’s dreams are also similarly mannequinesque, with “golden hair and wide bright eyes.” One is even strangely boneless and unreal; her neck is “smooth and flat without hollow or collarbone” and “every limb rounded, fleshy and not over-thin,” while another is “a feminine creature, that never formed by nature, was such another seen.” They are as animate as the toys that people the Night Garden. Iggle Piggle’s little fabric heart, however, has been won. Quick to swoon in situations of intense emotion, such as a sneeze, he recalls the guide of The Book of the Duchess, eager “to worship her and serve as best I then could,” who declares his love but “she never gave a straw for all my tale.” The toys play with the ball, symbolic of the to and fro of romance. They are the lovers of medieval legend, forever enclosed within their perfect garden but childlike, safe and innocent. And, just as in The Parliament of Fowls, they have their own Cupid, the dumpy brown Makka Pakka, reminiscent of a little Renaissance putto.

Upsy Daisy’s bed is a potent symbol. Seemingly with a life of its own, it is always rushing through the landscape to music, coming to rest among the daisies. A bright yellow, it recalls Venus’s “bed of gold” as described by Chaucer. Unsurprisingly, it is an entirely chaste bed, given over to sleep alone, although its playful trickery reminds us of the illusion and deception of dreams. Only Upsy Daisy is allowed to occupy this bed, as her sleeping and waking, in fact her existence as a dream-woman, are functions of Iggle Piggle’s subconscious.

Just like the dream visions, In the Night Garden never deviates from its structure. The beginning of the end is signalled by the BBC’s own parliament of fowls, a multi-coloured collection of birds signing in harmony. These are a common symbol for Chaucer, ranging from a “sweet” or “angelic” chorus in most poems, to gathering on St Valentine’s day in order to select a mate. The “lays of love” they sing in The Legend of Good Women “upon the branches full of blossom soft” could describe their serenading of the toys in the sunshine as well as signalling the approach of bedtime to their young audience. After this, all the characters come together to sing. As in Chaucer’s poems, the landscape is peopled with other gods and goddesses, mysterious and allegorical figures. From the giant Haahoos to the tiny Pontipines, to the train-like Ninky Nonk and flying Pinky Ponk, we are reminded of dream-like discrepancies in perspective and alternative, child-like ways of viewing the world.

Together, the toys sing and dance under a gazebo, decorated with their images and flashing with coloured lights. It’s a bit of a love-in. As the BBC’s website declares, all characters “interact and love each other… unconditionally.” Chaucer’s poems contain descriptions of various temples to Venus, made of glass, with long pillars and ornamented with images. Women, in The Parliament of Fowls “danced they there, that was their duty, year on year.” It is a happy, utopian vision, attractive and inclusive to children, who sing or sway along with the familiar moves.

After the song, the vision is ended by sleep. The characters stop playing, say good night and close their eyes. Only Iggle Piggle is left awake, although ironically, as the narrator, he is actually asleep in the external “reality” of the structure. He still clutches his red blanket, a constant reminder throughout of his dormant state and imminent return home. The cessation of the dream world signals to the audience that he is about to awake and that the program will end. The credits roll over the image of him in the boat again and the watching toddlers, symbolised by the child falling asleep at the start, “wake” again from its spell. That is when the real bedtime arrives and the hard work for the parents begins. With any luck, someone they “know is safe and snug and drifting off to sleep.”

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Books from the past few weeks

A few more books purchased over the past couple of weeks:

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  • Mary Wolstonecraft –  A Vindication of the Rights of Men & A Vindication of the Rights of Woman     50p
  • Iain Banks –  The Wasp Factory     40p
  • Oscar Wilde –  The Happy Prince     20p
  • Ernest Hemingway –  The Old Man and the Sea     99p
  • Jeanette Winterson –  Sexing the Cherry     50p
  • Virago at 40: A Celebration     50p
  • George and Weedon Grossmith –  The Diary of a Nobody     50p
  • Laurie Lee –  Cider with Rosie     50p
  • S.E. Hinton –  The Outsiders     Free (swapped with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
  • Ross Raisin –  God’s Own Country     Free (swapped with Through the Looking Glass)

The last two came from a book swap we’ve had at work for the past week, and I swapped my individual copies of Lewis Carroll’s wonderful work, as I’ve also got an Oxford Classics edition with both volumes in one book.

Interestingly, the Hinton book is one that I recognised but didn’t know why, and eventually realised it’s because I’d seen it advertised on the Penguin Classics website. This, however, is a Puffin edition, which I thought was interesting, showing again that the distinction between children’s books and adult texts is often blurred. I feel that I should do a post about that soon.

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Thoughts on Donald Barthelme’s ‘Forty Stories’

Forty Stories

 

It is perhaps interesting that for me the best part of this book was the introduction written by somebody else.

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Q: And why was this?

A: Because it was the most entertaining part and made the most sense.

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-Surely not?

-Why yes.

-Really?

-As sure as eggs is eggs is eggs. With bacon. Fried in chocolate for the delectation of the discerning middle classes.

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The expectation that was assumed to be in evidence was not proved to be as such when the reading actually commenced following the cesation of the previous tome which previously I have reviewed and thought upon prior to this thinking and musing and thought about, leaving the reader in no doubt as to what this reader thinks re: this forty-storey book of stories (not as tall as first thought- blame the government and the recession and the teachers on strike along with the bloody airport staff) that you may or may not have come across. Therefore the sense of what I write (along with the logic of illogical executions, randomly placed lions and latter-day saints living in apartment blocks) will either be all perfectly sensible or unknown to the extreme.

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-So is he like Kafka?

-What?

-Kafka.

-Who?

-Kafka.

-Yes.

-How?

-They’re both dead.

-More specific…

-Is that not specific enough?

-No.

-Not like Kafka, no. More scatological and less obvious. And without the questionable presence of insects. But similar in some ways-

[insert b&w engraving of a Victorian lady in a bathing costume, a woodlouse and a Greek temple]

-Even better, let’s use a bold black circle as a discussion point. You must reference Ghandi, the Buddha and Jacques Cousteau. In any order. Your time begins once the porcupines have registered and taken their seats on the plane. Any second now…

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Kaboom and kaballah. Bismillah and bar mitzvah. Etcetera. Etc. Et. E.

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And so on.

And a bit more.

-Did it inform you about the present state of the state’s present president? Or Global Warming?

-No.

-Did you enjoy it?

-Ask me another question.

-Did you derive pleasure from it?

-That’s the same question.

-But different wording.

-I don’t know. Yes and no.

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Q: Why yes?

A: Because some of the stories were interesting and surreal but in a good way.

Q: And why no?

A: Because some of the stories were unintelligible and surreal but in a bad way.

*

Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby. That was a good one. As was The temptation of St. Anthony. And Porcupines at the university. And Lightening. And Sakrete. And The genius.

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Somebody else = Dave Eggers (as per Penguin Modern Classics edition ISBN on request. Send a postcard.)

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I may read this book again at some point but at the present moment I know not when but I do hope to at some point as then I may learn to understand the intricacies of the many texts [40 to be more or less precise- Ed.] in this book cut and spliced from other Bartheleme books of short tales and stories and vignettes and randomness that I will never bother to read due to the bad taste and headache this volume left upon the counter next to the coffee mug i drowned my sorrows in, and which was not as good as either the cover (always judge a book by it) or the introduction (never judge a book by it) made it out to be.

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Now go and make me an omlette using only the words on this page and the pages of fifteen separate newspapers from the day on which your favourite uncle turned into a teenager. Then tune in next time for the next exciting installment. Leave your comments and likes and etceteras below, above, behind and all around like love. Here is the author:

tentacled man

Image: Dan Hillier

Now enjoy with a selection of chocolates from around the world, presented on a seaweed platter. And don’t forget the bacon.

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Thoughts on Tove Jansson’s ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’

Moominpappa's new hat

Yes, I know that this is technically a children’s book. However, as I’ve said before about Roald Dahl, I think it’s fine to read children’s book when adult if they are classics, and Jansson’s Moomin books fit that label magnificently.

Finn Family Moomintroll is the third Moomin book, published in 1948, but was marketed as the first in the series when published in the UK in the 1961. I honestly can’t remember whether I’ve read it before, as I did read several of the stories when I was younger, and remember that I really enjoyed them. Upon reading this book now, I was impressed by the fact that it is not all light and airy, and indeed the series gets progressively darker in the later books Moominland Midwinter, Moominpappa at Sea, and Moominvalley in November. Strangely, this darker tone appeals to me, and I would be interested to read these volumes.

Finn Family Moomintroll revolves around the discovery of a magician’s hat which can transform anything placed inside it into something else, and this makes for some inspired and entertaining exploits. I particularly liked the clouds that appeared from an eggshell placed in the hat, and found the entire plot extremely satisfying.

There’s very little else to say about this, but I did enjoy it, and hope to read more, with the eventual hope that I can introduce my children to this series, and have a new excuse to buy them all!

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Thoughts on Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’

The original scroll manuscript of 'On the Road'. Image: theguardian.com

The original scroll manuscript of ‘On the Road’. Image: theguardian.com

I approached this text with an almost reverential awe, but have to say that in all, I didn’t find it as good as I had expected it to be. This was because the style was not quite as experimental and radical as I had imagined it to be, with the ‘Spontaneous Prose’ style not as free and ‘spontaneous’ as it was built up to be when I was researching Kerouac and the book prior to reading it. I expected it to be slightly more fragmentary and random, rather than simply free-flowing, and to not follow a narrative structure as closely as it does. That isn’t to say that the book does not come across as relaxed and almost conversational, though, because it does, and this is a source of a great deal of the book’s charm for me.

Within the novel, there are some passages of great lyrical beauty. For example, I particularly liked this section from Part 2 Chapter 10:

And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine lat in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn’t die, and walked our miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou’s hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit it up. I was too young to know what had happened. In the window I smelled all the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the uns were hot, and the baskets were good enough to eat too; were the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too. Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf – nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco. Add fog, hunger-making raw fog, and the throb of neons in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties, white doves in a Chinese grocery window…

I adored the theme and the sentiments that Kerouac presented, and I can see why Bob Dylan is quoted on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition as saying that ‘It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s’, as the book provides a glimpse into a life that- whilst still being concerned with the mundanity and troubles of everyday existence- is primarily focussed upon travel and the search for happiness through the nomadic lifestyle of the great American Roadtripper. If you overlook the lack of money and the problems that Sal and Dean face, then the ability to set out into the wide expanses of raw country and endless desert is an intoxicating idea and a treasure chest of beauty and possibilities. However, for most of us such a dream would always stay just that- a dream- and the pressures and stresses of the 21st century make the idea of such a lifestyle in the present all the more remote and improbable.

I also enjoyed the literary allusions in the text, which I feel add much to the theme and the intent of the book, even if many of the interpretations may have not been intended. On the Road is a wonderful example- as are most of Kerouac’s novels- of a roman à clef, being a fictionalised account of the travels that Kerouac made with his friend Neal Cassady across America, with the names of Kerouac, Cassady and their other friends being changed for legal reasons prior to publication. For example, the author becomes Sal Paradise, and Cassady becomes Dean Moriarty, with the writer William S. Burroughs appearing as Old Bull Lee. Therefore, the relationship between Sal and Dean is rooted in reality, but I cannot avoid the similarity between their relationship and that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both Dean and Jay are characters whom seem to be quite shallow and empty individuals with little purpose in life and yet have a profound impact on the narrator of their respective stories, with Nick and Sal both idolising their friends and seeing them as almost incorruptible men who stand for all that is good in the world, despite their evident failings. To be honest, I find Dean an easy character to dislike, and was very unimpressed with the image of him that is created for the reader, as he seems to be a complete and utter arse. That is purely my opinion, though, based on the way that Dean is shown to breeze through life leaving woman after woman behind to look after his ever-expanding count of children, and how very little about him seems to be honest or convincing- he seems insincere through his hyperbolic sincerity. However, he does work well to represent the pointlessness and futility of many people’s lives in the US in the 1950s, and can be seem perhaps as a metaphor for the emptiness and directionless nature of the post-war years. 

I am interested to read more Kerouac to learn more of his style and about him, and feel that my experience of On the Road is somewhat incomplete if I don’t read the Original Scroll edition. I’m not going to hunt this out yet, but will certainly make an effort to get hold of a copy when i next feel like reading this book. Also, this is definitely a book that I do hope to read again, as there is so much in the text that I feel I must have missed things. Highly recommended, but it may change your outlook on your own life!

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Thoughts on Penelope Lively’s ‘Heat Wave’

heat wave - penelope lively

I will admit that when I started this book, I really didn’t enjoy it, and disliked the first three or four chapters. To begin with, I was slightly dubious of the use of the present tense, and found the whole writing style that Lively employs incredibly pretentious, over-wrought and somewhat anal in its faux importance with itself. However, several chapters in, the text suddenly hit me, and from then until the end of the book, I was in love with every word.

I think that one of the main problems had been the fact that I’d read Hemingway’s ‘The Torrent’s of Spring’ a week or so prior, and was greatly aware of the repeated use of empty questions such as “Why did she feel like that?” or “When would her feelings for him end?” (I’ve made those question up- they aren’t quite the same in ‘Heat Wave’, but you get the idea). However, after a while they managed here to drag me into the story rather than alienate me from it, and as with the Hemingway work, they just became a part of the book’s charm.

The way in which the narrative flits between the present and the past does get slightly confusing and irritating in parts, but on the whole this is done well, and to be fair, I can’t fault Lively on the way in which she evokes memory and the nuances of emotion and feeling that cross an individual’s thoughts when they think about the past- or indeed confront the present. The plot was not the best and most developed that I have ever read, but the tangents taken into the past of Pauline, the lead protagonist, and Harry her ex-husband flesh out the plot by several orders of magnitude. Also, the descriptions used by Lively make the fairly simple plot both page-turning and magnificently well executed, with the present tense coming into its own in the flash-back scenes in order to show how the actions of the past can morph and merge into the present, and make time fragile and unstable in the human mind.

The present tense also places the reader in the midst of the spiraling and rapidly escalating action of the final scenes, which I won’t reveal, but which do work to genuinely shock the reader. I did find the turn faintly predictable, but this didn’t lessen its impact as I read, and managed to keep me captivated.

I do have more to say on this work, but will leave it here for now. It’s taken me a good few months to get this post up, and as I’ve said in several posts, I’m magnificently behind on my book reviews. However, despite the delay, I can’t recommend this book more highly, and can honestly say that it will appear on my list of favourite books when I get round to posting it.

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Thoughts on George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

1984 eyes

This post has been a long time in mental gestation, as I’ve been mulling over for some time how quite to sum up what has to be one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t even say why I particularly like the novel. However, I did build the book up quite a lot in my expectations prior to reading it, as I put it off and put it off in order to wait until I felt ready to engage fully with the text; I didn’t want to approach it half-heartedly. Despite this build-up, I think that the book managed to work on me on its own merit, rather than on my assumptions of what it would be, in part because the book is actually so much more than I had ever expected.  For one, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a love story, albeit one with no happy, fairytale ending. Also, on a political level, it is not so much of a commentary upon what could happen if a political party gained too much power or a nation became an extreme police state, but it is more an exercise in how far the human mind can be stretched before it can too be controlled. In a recent song, Lady Gaga sings that “You won’t use my mind but / Do what you want with my body”, but here, in Orwell’s future, they will use your mind and make you believe whatever they want you to, whether this be that two allies are suddenly at war and have forever been in such a state, or that 2 + 2 = 5.  I think that it is this message about the mind that we are presented with here that sticks with me, personally, and which makes the book so much more than mere dystopian fiction or political warning. We know that political regimes can control the information that its subjects receive and the way in which it is presented- Hitler and Stalin did it in the past, and in the present we have Russian government suppressing the voice of those who disagree, the Chinese blocking the internet to stop certain materials reaching into the country, North Korea banning almost everything that speaks of the outside world, and countless other nations that control and censor in order to remain in power. However, it is beyond the reach of any leader to actually control the way in which its people think on a truly base level. Sure, propaganda can brainwash to an extent, but not in the way that we see Winston’s mind turned at the end of this novel, and it is this that is truly frightening- the idea that people may be able to be reprogrammed in such a way as they carry out ‘double-think’ on a daily and continuous basis, and indeed believe that 2 + 2 = 5, despite also being able to see that it logically and mathematically can never be the case. (I’m sure that there are many ways in which it could be argued that people can be made to think exactly what someone else wants them to, and examples that can be given such as Nazis carrying out the atrocities of WWII, but no example can be given where the way that someone thinks is overridden to such an extent as it is here. There were several times during Winston’s torture and interrogation by O’Brien that I gasped aloud due to the latter’s ignorance and frightening acceptance of party lies, such as those detailing Big Brother’s role in science and the works of nature. However, such scenes also work well to show the party and the entire concept of double-think and thought control to be preposterous and something of a hyperbolised distortion of what really goes on.)

Another aspect of the novel that I found frightening was the concept behind ‘Newspeak’- if the langauge is reduced to its barest form and the words for ‘thought-crimes’ are removed, then people will not carry out ‘thought-crimes’, as the words to express the thought will no longer exist. The concept and idea makes sense- for example, I am limited in the amount of French that I can speak, and so if I do not know the word or words for something in French, then I cannot discuss it in that language. However, for a lover of literature and language, such a destruction and reduction of an entire lexicon is a terrifying thought, with the translation of existing works such as Shakespeare and Dickens into ‘Newspeak’ tantamount to sacrilege. Here we can see the way in which the Party attempts to control thought, by changing the very vocabulary that people use to think and therefore the way in which thoughts present themselves and can be ordered in the mind.

I was also surprised and impressed by the way in which the Ministry of Love was made out to be a place where political dissidents were killed, when in actuality it was a place where people were re-educated and taught how to think afresh, with those who were believed to have disappeared simply being reintroduced into society as a different person. This for me managed to place the Party on a different level to actual regimes that are fuelled by oppression, and showed a fate that is almost worse than death. However, the torture scenes were surprisingly effective, and shocking in just quite how graphic they were, considering that the novel was published in 1949. It was also in these torture scenes that I was reminded of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (see here for my ‘Thoughts on…’ regarding this novella), and only at this point that I realised quite how much Burgess was influenced in the writing of his book by Orwell and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Burgess’s debt to Orwell can be seen clearly in the former’s book ‘1985’, which uses his ideas and style to produce a more modern echo of the novel, and which begins with an extended interview with Burgess talking about ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. However, this book and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ don’t just share torture scenes in common, but both stories are ultimately concerned with the nature of human agency and free will, and the ability of the individual to be in control of their own thoughts. It is this shared theme that I think makes these both such fantastic and thought-provoking works, but for me ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ triumphs over ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for several reasons. Whereas the latter concerns itself with the re-education of a teenager who is seen to need altering and correcting before he becomes an adult, Orwell’s story is more frightening, as it does not take an individual susceptible to influence (i.e. the teenager), but a middle-aged adult who is already educated, and so should be already able to think for himself. It also takes the idea of individual control, and extends this to an entire world (or at least an entire country. It is my personal theory that ‘Airstrip One’ is actually the only such controlled nation in the world, and that the rest of the world is actually as we know it to be. All ideas of ‘Eurasia’ and ‘Oceania’ and the endless wars are actually fabrications of the Party, and the world continues as usual beyond the country’s shores). There were many occasions whilst reading the novel that I was genuinely frightened by what I read, and was fearful for the world that was envisaged and the similarities that can be seen between the novel and our world, as well as the potentials that the story offers. To see the book as simply one commentating upon the surveillance and spying of governments is to not get under the skin of the text, and it holds messages and ideas that run deeper than this. I haven’t really touched here upon the love story between Winston and Julia, which forms the axis around which the novel revolves and around which Winston is finally destroyed, but this too should be seen as a further key to understanding the novel. It is love that helps to hold Winston together, as well as the weapon with which he is ultimately defeated.

These ‘Thoughts on…’ have been difficult for me to write, as I have been unsure quite how to explain this novel, its themes and the reasons why I like it so much, but I hope that I have gone someway to explaining my ideas and thoughts. I would not hesitate to recommend this book, and think- as with ‘Animal Farm’- that it should be required reading for everyone; I will certainly be re-reading it, but don’t think that I could cope with it too soon due to the sense of deflation and mental exhaustion that I felt upon completing it.

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Four more books

P1000957

I managed to pick up four books today whilst shopping:

  • Harper Lee –  To Kill a Mockingbird     75p
  • Jean Rhys –  Wide Sargasso Sea     50p
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle –  A Study in Scarlet     50p
  • Edward W. Said –  Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient     50p

The last book is the first anthropological work that I have bought for quite a long time, and which should make for interesting reading. At the moment, I am reading Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, which I was very excited about starting, and which is proving very joyful so far- but thoughts to come in due course.

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Thoughts on Ian Fleming’s ‘Diamonds are Forever’

diamonds are forever

This is another post that I’m rather late getting up on here, as I read this a good few weeks ago. Better late than never though, I suppose.

I approached ‘Diamonds are Forever’ very much as just a title to knock of my reading list, imagining it to be light reading and not really a very serious book. This impression came about with the reputation of the films as pieces of entertainment, but not very much more. However, I was genuinely impressed and quite surprised with the book, and indeed was taken in from the first page simply by how well-written it seemed to be. The scorpion motif at the opening seemed an interesting metaphor, and I liked the way in which it resurfaced at the novel’s close as a way of showing the circle to be complete, and the tale over.

In terms of the story itself, it seemed a rather generic spy novel (not that I’ve read many of these), but what stood out for me was the descriptions and the settings- I really did feel as though I was there with Bond as he travelled to Las Vegas or visited the racetrack, and found the level of detail regarding the card games and the horse racing very refreshing. Also, missing was the Bond of the cinema-screens, with his vagrant disregard for any female as nothing more than a sex object, and his questionable record that can been seen to border on the indecent. Here, Fleming instead presented a deep, thoughtful Bond who actually cared about the feelings of the person he was attracted to, who wanted to know her as a person, and who only embarked upon a relationship when he believed it would be long-term. Tiffany Case, the object of Bond’s affection here, was also presented as a deeply thoughtful and intricate person, who was a far cry to the air-headed pin-up that Wikipedia says the film version of this book made her into, and whom any Bond I have seen seems to think that a woman should be. Instead of tempting Bond from the off, Tiffany is presented as intelligent yet vulnerable, who would be better suited as the rescuer rather than the rescued, and I found this refreshing and enjoyable to read. Rather than being a simple adventure novel, the developing relationship between Bond and Tiffany added a further element to the book, and led to it being a much more thoughtful and developed book, allowing us to see into Bond’s mind and his thoughts, and to see him as a more rounded, realistic and likable character.

There’s very little else for me to really say regarding this book- I liked it, despite hearing Shirley Bassey’s voice in my head every time I picked it up, and may read more Fleming in the future. In terms of the films, however, I think I will steer away from the theatrical adaptation of this book, as from what I gleaned off Wikipedia, it seems to veer off from the plot in rather surreal and stupendous ways. I’m inclined to watch the Daniel Craig films, but may stick with the novels for the others.

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Thoughts on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Torrents of spring’

the torrents of spring

Erm… right… hmm. To begin this post, I will say that I don’t think that this was perhaps the best book I could have read to introduce myself to Hemingway’s oeuvre. However, this isn’t to say that it is a bad work, because it isn’t. I just think that this doesn’t do justice to his reputation. 

‘The Torrents of Spring’ is a novella published in 1926 that- according to the introduction to the edition shown above- was written as a parody of Sherwood Anderson’s 1925 novel ‘Dark Laughter’ and can be seen as a rejection of the authors that made up Hemingway’s social circuit, and acted as his teachers and his literary advisors. I don’t know the aforementioned novel, but was still able to see where the author was at least parodying something. For example, the redundancy of rhetorical questions is laughable even for a parody, but they do manage to show the particular pointlessness of the characters’ lives and reduce serious thoughts and situations to scenes of comedic patheticness:

They were a hardy race, those Scots, deep in their mountain fastnesses. Harry Lauder and his pipe. The Highlanders in the Great War. Why had not he, Scripps, been in the war? That was where that chap Yogi Johnson had it on him. The war would have meant much to him, Scripps. Why hadn’t he been in it? Why hadn’t he heard of it in time. Perhaps he was too old.

This is perhaps best summed up by quoting the last few lines of the book:

Mandy talking on. Telling literary reminiscences. Authentic incidents. They had the ring of truth. But were they enough? Scripps wondered. She was his woman. But for how long? Scripps wondered. Mandy talking on in the beanery. Scripps listening. But his mind straying away. Straying away. Straying away. Where was it straying? Out into the night. Out into the night.

Similarly, the repetition of the line ‘She would never hold him’ in relation to Diana and Scripp’s relationship adds a note of futility and shows the pathetic nature again of their lives and her defeatist attitude towards both herself and her husband. If it was indeed Hemingway’s intention to create characters that the reader does not believe in or care about, then he succeeded brilliantly.

The plot of the novella is a simple and yet vaguely absurd one, with the protagonist Scripps O’Neil embarking on a journey by foot to Chicago following the end of his marriage, and then finding work in the town of Petoskey at a pump factory. On the way here, he picks up an injured bird and decides to keep it under his coat, and later marries a waitress named Diana who works in the town’s beanery. She attempts to learn about literature in order to please her new husband, but he gradually looses interest in her in favour of another waitress named Mandy. In the penultimate chapter, the character of Yogi Johnson gets over his impotence when he sees a naked squaw, and decides to follow her into the night- gradually disrobing as he does so, and leading the reader to the conclusion that he is going to rape her. Despite the seriousness of this scene and the commentary that it makes upon the treatment of Native, First-Nation Peoples in the US, it cannot come across initially as anything but farcical. Indeed, the plot is somewhat generic, and is highlighted to a great degree by the several ‘Author’s note to the reader’ sections that reinforce the fact that this is only a story, and not to be seen as anything more.

One point that I did find interesting about this book was that despite parodying the literature of over 80 years ago, its style is remarkably prescient now, and does remarkably pastiche the ‘chick-lit’ novels of recent years that seem to reproduce like bacteria on the shelves of supermarkets, airport bookshops and W.H.Smith. For this reason, I think that the novella still works now, even if the aim of its sarcasm is different and imposed by the reader and not the author.

It may seem from the start of this post that I don’t like this book, but this is not strictly true. It is something that I would read again (in part due to its brevity), and which gave me a certain sense of delight once I got into it a bit, but I don’t think that it is something that should be read without having familiarised yourself with some of Hemingway’s more famous works first, as it doesn’t display his style or provide anything that says his other works would be worth reading. I will try some of his other works, but with some interest and trepidation.

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Thoughts on Tolkien’s ‘Roverandom’

roverandom_0301

‘Roverandom’ is a short children’s tale by J.R.R. Tolkien, submitted for publication in 1937, but not actually released until 1998. It has its basis in a tale told to Tolkien’s children in 1925, and was worked upon for several years, gradually incorporating separate stories that fleshed out the central narrative. The ‘Roverandom’ (or Rover) of the title begun life as a real dog who was turned into a small lead toy figure by an irritated wizard, and was created in an attempt to console J.R.R.’s young son Michael when he lost his favourite toy- a small lead dog- on a trip to the beach at Filey, Yorkshire. The tale exists in a number of draft forms, showing that Tolkien spent considerable time crafting the tale to turn it from a mere bedtime tale to a part of his wider legendarium that also appears in the more famous ‘Lord of the Rings’ books and his other connected writings. Indeed, many aspects of this story can be seen to be precursors to scenes in ‘The Hobbit’, which he begun work on soon after completing ‘Roverandom’, such as Rover’s flight with Mew to his home in the cliffs and Bilbo’s flight with the eagles; the encounters with spiders on the moon and later the encounter with spiders in Mirkwood; the White Dragon (as seen in the image above) and the description of Smaug, and the three wizards being pre-emptive of the figure of Gandalf.

The success of ‘The Hobbit’ led to ‘Roverandom’ being overlooked by Tolkien’s publishers in favour of more books about Middle Earth, but the greater recognition given to these (albeit splendid) works does not mean that this short tale is not worthy of note or of merit in its own way. Despite the fact that ‘The Hobbit’ may have not been written if it were not for this work, this tale is actually a pleasant story that moves at a fairly decent pace, and which is actually a joy to read due to the inventive words play, subtle jokes, digs about environmental matters and sheer inventiveness. I particularly liked the section when Rover is on the moon, due to the vaguely surreal nature of the scenes, and overall was slightly reminded of Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomintroll’ books and children’s stories written in the 1950’s and 1960’s (I can’t place any specific examples) that deal with dreamlike worlds or journey’s across strange lands.

I don’t think that it is a book that I will return to in a great hurry, despite enjoying it, but it is something that I would happily lend to a Tolkien fan as required reading at least once.

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Thoughts on Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’

Through a Glass, Darkly

 

To begin this post, I’ll just say that I’m not sure whether this is a children’s book, a teenage novel, or a work aimed at adults. I’m guessing that it is perhaps all of these, as the larger-than-average font and use of child protagonist suggests the former (and perhaps the second option too), but at times the subject matter hits for the older reader. Anyway- I read this a few weeks back, and have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I read Gaarder’s sublime ‘The Christmas Mystery’ every Advent for a good 4 or 5 years when I was growing up, but haven’t yet read his most famous work ‘Sophie’s World’, and so was unaware just how good a philosopher and thinker this writer is. If this book is aimed at children, then I think that he deserves even more credit, as the way he manages to get the subject of death and the afterlife across to younger readers is incredibly sensitively and well done.

The short book centres on a girl named Cecilia who is ill in bed over Christmas with what seems to be cancer of some kind (this is never explicitly said, although it is mentioned that she has lost her hair). While she is here, she is visited by Ariel, an angel who wishes to know more about what it is to be human and how it feels to have a body of flesh and blood. Thorough is questions, the reader wonders with Cecilia just quite how you can actually explain what taste, smell and touch are like to someone who has never experienced these things, and what it really is to be alive. In exchange, the girl learns from Ariel about God and his creation, and though the discourse we learn that the God of the book’s reality is a flawed character. However, the most important lessons seem to be on the nature of life itself and what it like for both an individual with a terminal illness and for their family as they wait together- and apart- for the inevitable. Through her friendship with Ariel, Cecilia is able to carry out her last wishes of playing in the snow for the last time, using her new skis and toboggan, and seeing her best friend for the last time, but is also able to face death without fear, knowing what is on the other side and being guided there by her guardian figure.

This may make the book sound somewhat morbid and depressing but strangely it is far from it. I did initially have reservations with reading the book, and indeed it took me to read and re-read the blurb on the back of the book several times in the charity shop I had it from on more than one occasion before I finally decided to go back and buy it. However, I’m glad that I did get it, as it is a charming book, told with very little sentimentality and not purposefully trying to depress or upset the reader; uplifting and positive are two words I would use to describe it. Although, I did find myself fighting back the tears when the end arrived, and it is perhaps an emotionally sapping story if it is properly engaged with.

I enjoyed this book for the messages and discussions that take place within it, as well as the way in which it makes you view life and faith slightly differently, but it would perhaps be equally appropriate for helping someone through a bereavement- whether his may be an adult or a child. Recommended, certainly, but prepare to be surprised by both the books depth and your own vulnerability to emotion.

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Thoughts on ‘Metamorphosis and other stories’

Image: zombiebackrub.deviantart.com

Image: zombiebackrub.deviantart.com

Yeah… that pretty much sums it up, to be fair. I approached this book with an immense excitement and hyped it up somewhat in previous posts, but when I was actually reading it, I found the collection a bit lacklustre, if I’m being honest. The actual story ‘Metamorphosis’ is very good, in both the way it is written and in the story itself, and despite being fairly simple in plot when it is broken down (as above), I didn’t actually expect it to go how it did. I didn’t know the story before hand, and so was approaching it completely blind (other than knowing a man becomes an insect- or more accurately, ‘vermin’. The original German doesn’t state explicitly that Georg is an insect). However, I was expecting there to be some kind of moral in the story, but couldn’t find one. I will have to read some commentaries on it, but personally I missed any sort of allegory within it or greater message behind Georg’s plight. Now, I’m not saying that there needed to be a moral or that every story needs one, but to me it seemed as though it was written with this intention, but that it hadn’t quite been pulled off.

The other stories in the collection were a rather mixed bag. I could see that some of these did indeed have messages behind them, but again feel that some of these may perhaps have been lost in translation somewhat, as some of the very short glosses (‘Meditations’ and ‘A Country Doctor’) were completely lost on me. I was somewhat surprised by the way that these tales went, as they were in many cases very abstract and modernist- I knew the term ‘Kafkaesque’, but han’t realised it was originally applied to things that were quite so odd. Odd in a strange-and-somewhat-disjointedly-random way. I can’t really explain these pieces, other than to say what I already have, and that they were… different. However I do also think that they were ridiculously compelling too, due to the short, clipped nature of their writing and presentation. They have certainly given me some ideas for my own writing, and i think writing some similar pieces would be a good way to use up various story ideas that I have and scene ideas but which I can’t fashion into complete novels or stories. I suppose they could always be expanded upon later on, too, if I felt the inspiration. Perhaps this is an experiment I should endeavour to complete sometime soon. I will update this and say how I get on.

I feel that with this ‘Thoughts on…’ I should perhaps have gone through the book a story and collection at a time, giving thoughts on each, but don’t know quite how useful or interesting this would be, as some of the pieces, such as ‘The Airplanes at Brescia’ and ‘The Stoker: A Fragment’ left me feeling fairly lukewarm. However, I will produce an extended discussion of this book in the future as and when I think about it and get around to it.

Oh- a final note. ‘In the Penal Colony’ is well worth a look. I think that it is also available as a stand-alone Penguin Mini Modern Classic, and is very interesting. I enjoyed it, if only for the imagination and twisted thoughts that went behind its writing.

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Thoughts on Ruskin’s ‘Great Ideas’

Ruskin on art and life

I finished reading this book before starting the Kafka works that I am currently enjoying, but never got around to posting on it.  This has been due to my reticence over attempting to succinctly explain the ideas within it. As I stated in a previous blog entry, this is one of the books in Penguin’s ‘Great ideas’ series, and is made up of two extracts from Ruskin’s existing books: ‘The Nature of Gothic’ from The Stones of Venice Vol. 2 (1853), and ‘The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy’ from The Two Paths (1859).

The writing style of Ruskin is typically Victorian and somewhat hard going, but soon grew on me and became easier to follow- I think it just threw me at first. The first extract is a celebration of the Gothic style of architecture, claiming that this Mediaeval combination of features is the most perfect building style due to six “…characteristic or moral elements”, which he lists as: “1. Savageness. 2. Changefulness. 3. Naturalism. 4. Grotesqueness. 5. Rigidity. 6. Redundance.” I didn’t quite follow some of his logic within the chapter, or understand some of his points (I think that I may need to re-read it in due course), but what shone through more than anything was both Ruskin’s love for the architecture he was discussing and his sheer passion for his subject matter. He went off on various tangents within the piece, but the most important point that seemed to be made was on the nature and the production of art. Within his explanation of “savageness”, Ruskin suggests that the perfection of the Gothic comes from its imperfection- an imperfection that is due to true thought, feeling and application of craftsmen, rather than the perfection created by skilled workers who give no thought to their work. He views these latter people as slaves, and believes that people should do without convenience, beauty or cheapness, as these can only be gained through the “…degradation of the workman”. We then get a list of ways in which this can be prevented:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the preserving records of great works.

Through his examples, he displays his dislike for mass production and thoughtless creation that exploits the worker rather than celebrating them, and provides us with a moral and a philosophy that is as equally relevant now in the 21st century as it was then in the 19th. Despite some reservations, I found this piece of great interest as both an insight into the way Ruskin thought, and as an alternative way of viewing art and the work of the craftsman. From an anthropological stance, this latter point is of interest as it provides arguments that can be given in any discussion of the question of art- what it is; whether some things actually are art, and just as a way of providing another case study for a society’s opinions about art (as I’ve stated on the ‘Archaeology & Anthropology‘ page above, the anthropology of art is one of my particular interests in this discipline).

The second piece in this book was the essay ‘The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy’, that originally was “A lecture delivered at Tunbridge Wells, February 16th, 1858”. I will say less on this piece, in part because I have less to say, and in part because this does not seem to have been the main focus of this ‘Great Ideas’ volume.

The essay takes as its subject iron due to it being integral to the economic and manufacturing of Tunbridge Wells at the time, and personally I think that the piece begins well. Even though a few of his facts are slightly questionable now, and some seem naive in their assumptions, he starts by explaining how both the natural and the man-made landscape are affected by iron in its oxidised form and how the majority of the colour and features we find so asthetically appealing are due to iron. I found myself learning a great deal from this, and at several moments as I was reading I found myself thinking “Oh yeah; I never thought of that!” However, I felt that Ruskin became somewhat unstuck in his discussion of iron in policy, as all this seemed to amount to was a religious and moral rant about war, which took away somewhat of the intellectual argument he begun with. I don’t mean to say by this that religious discussions cannot be intellectual- far from it; it is just that he didn’t really seem to make an argument, and seemed to… well- moan, for want of a better word.

However, despite the book ending on this rather flat note, I was pleasantly surprised by the two pieces as a whole, and am interested in delving further into Ruskin’s work in order to understand some of his other ideas and to see how these two segments fit into his wider academic philosophy. The book is also quite a recognisable product of its time, and it is also enlightening to read Ruskin as a way of further understanding his times. Slightly heavy going at times, but recommended on several levels!

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Thoughts on Shakespeare… and ‘Star Wars’…

Shakespeares Star Wars

Yep. You did see that book cover image right. There is indeed a lost manuscript by Shakespeare that has recently been unearthed titled ‘Star Wars’, which seems to have been in the private collection of a one George Lucas (before he sold the work not to the Bodleian or the Library of Congress, but to Disney) and mercilessly plagiarised in order to make several moderately successful films… Okay, I jest. ‘Star Wars’ has been more than moderately successful…

I’m joking, obviously (…), but there is indeed a book out entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Star Wars’ by Ian Doescher, which reimagines Episode IV as if it were a play by The Bard. My wonderful partner bought me this when we were in Oxford for the Graduation last week, and I devoured it soon after due to the sheer brilliance of the concept, and my mutual love of ‘Star Wars’ and Shakespeare (although my love of the former is somewhat greater than that of the latter…). Indeed, the book is actually ridiculously good (and borders on the ridiculous), as the dialogue is highly convincing as Shakespeare whilst also being so ‘Star Wars’: for example, the famous line “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi; you are my only hope” is kept, becoming this:

“Oh help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, help. / Thou art mine only hope.” Act I Scene 6, Line 73-74

I was also interested to see that several famous Shakespearean lines had been preserved in slightly modified form:

  • “- that all the world’s a star.” Act I Scene 7, Line 98
  • “I do not like thy look. Indeed, young lad, / I bite my thumb at thee.” Act III Scene 1, Line 57-58
  • “What paradox! What fickle-natur’d power! / Aye: frailty, thy name – belike – is Force.” Act III Scene 6, Line 51-52
  • “…We enter swift unto the area / Where should there be great Alderaan in view. / But pray, what madness meets the Falcon’s flight? / Is this an ast’roid field I see before me?” Act III Scene 8, Line 2-5
  • “A plague on 3PO for action slow, / A plague upon my quest that led us here, / A plague on both our circuit boards, I say!” Act IV Scene 4, Line 120-122
  • “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not, / Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life / From thee. What manner of a man wert thou? / A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?” Act IV Scene 6, Line 1-4
  • “It hath defenses ‘gainst a large assault, / But like a king who fell for want of horse / This station may be crush’d by smaller might.” Act V Scene 4, Line 29-31
  • “Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears.” Act V Scene 4, Line 65
  • “Once more unto the trench, dear friends, once more!” Act V Scene 5, Line 231
  • “So Biggs, stand with me now, and be my aide, / And Wedge, fly at my side to lead the charge- / We three, we happy three, we band of brothers, […]” Act V Scene 5, Line 248-250

There may be more, but those were the ones that I picked out. I also like the other Shakespearean devices that Doescher employs, such as the use of asides and soliloquy, the clever wordplay, and the way in which C-3PO and R2-D2 take on a role akin to that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in ‘Hamlet’. It is also clever that within this version of ‘Star Wars’, R2-D2 actually uses English in his asides to show that he is far more intelligent that many of the other characters, and allows us to actually see the droid as a character with proper emotions, thoughts and views. Also, this adds comic value to many of the exchanges between R2 and C-3PO, as the latter is unaware of much that the former thinks, making him seem somewhat stupid.

I quoted above Doescher’s interpretation of the line originally spoken by Hamlet when he is confronted with the skull of the jester Yorick, and just wanted to point out that here, we have an element to the play that is missing in the original film. In this soliloquy, we have Luke musing upon the helmet he had procured from a dead Stormtrooper as a means of disguise, imagining the person that once wore it. In the films, there is no sense of the ‘troopers as people; rather they are faceless soldiers, and so it is nice to see this extra flash of humanity added to make us think for a moment upon the true nature of those who make up the enemy side. I don’t want to dwell on this point, but it would be nice occasionally if this sort of thing was done- not just in film and literature, but in the current news and in our teaching of history (I’m thinking of the killing of insurgents in Afghanistan and the dehumanization of German soldiers in the two World Wars as two examples).

All-in-all, this is a remarkably good book, that doesn’t require prior knowledge of either ‘Star Wars’ or any of Shakespeare’s works (although knowledge of both does improve the enjoyment and the understanding greatly), and it is definitely something that I will come back to again and again.

Image: Michael Sloan/Yale Alumni Magazine

Image: Michael Sloan/Yale Alumni Magazine

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Life update #2

This isn’t like the first update- I just wanted to say a few things without making a separate post about each of them.

  • In terms of reading updates, I have finished Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, and am currently half way through ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ I will put on a review/post of thoughts about the two poetry collections in a few days, and then the two Lewis Carroll together as another post. I haven’t forgotten!
  • Tomorrow (20th September) is my GRADUATION, so we’re back down south for the day. I will post on this once it’s over to try and give you an insight into what one of these at Oxford is like.
  • In terms of my writing- I haven’t really posted on here anything about this yet, but I will say now that the book of poetry I am currently writing is only 2 poems off being completed in first draft form. Also, I have got several ideas for further poetry collections centred around several different themes, as well as a few ideas for novels/short stories that I hope to flesh out a little.
  • Again, please ‘like’ the Electric Puppet Facebook page. I haven’t set up a Twitter page yet, simply because I have absolutely no idea how Twitter works, but aim to within the next week. So far, I only have 4 likes! Please help this to increase and share profusely to get everyone you know to like it and to follow this blog too! I do appreciate every follower for deciding to follow me, and just wish I could reach more people. It’s not as though I have anything terribly important to say, but it is just nice to think that I am a part of some wider online community, and I like sharing my ideas and thoughts with you.
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More books…

photo (1)

Erm… I’ve been buying again. Only a few this time, though:

  • James Joyce-  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man     £1.49
  • Kingsley Amis- Lucky Jim     £1.49
  • Anne Carson- Glass and God     99p
  • Jonathan Swift- Gulliver’s Travels     £1

Thoughts etc. when I get around to reading them.

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