Hay Festival 2014: Heather Widdows – Perfect Me! & Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism: The Project That Inspired a Worldwide Movement

So! It’s been a while, but it’s time to begin the Hay Festival posts! What a cool weekend it was. Literally and figuratively – it tipped it down, which wasn’t ideal as it meant the grassy sunbathing spots were out of bounds, but the talks were as interesting as ever and I bought a hell of a lot of books. Despite this being a literary blog I’m going to write about some of the talks I went to which weren’t actually about books, but rather talking points or discussions with public figures. Apologies for deviating from the norm, here – but who doesn’t like to shake it up every now and then?

With this first post I grouped two talks together as the themes are fairly similar. The next talk I’ll write about also has quite an overlap but that was actually about a book, so I’m giving that one its own post. Without further ado, let’s begin.

 

Heather Widdows – Perfect Me!

Heather Widdows, a Professor of Global Ethics, kicked off my weekend with a talk about the modern concepts of beauty and perfection, and how these affect our lives. Widdows is writing a book about the moral and ethical ideal of beauty and how members of society (mainly women) feel they must conform to it – a topic that seems strangely absent from other ethical studies, in her opinion. As part of what’s being considered a new wave of feminism, this is aptly timed, and Widdows’ talk was packed out. She looked at beauty in a rather unique way in that she was very much looking at it as a concept, instead of applying any personal tie to it. Below I’ll (attempt to) sum up some of the ideas she discussed.

Widdows said that we (mainly women) look at beauty on three levels: as something we aspire to, as something we feel would make our lives better, and as a social obligation. As an aspiration, women tend to feel that whatever they have is not enough, and that body image is linked to self worth and happiness. Widdows brought up the rather sad point that often we feel our own personal beauty dictates how we can and should be loved – for example, if a woman is cheated on, she might feel she has brought it on herself by not being as beautiful as she could be, or comparing her own looks to whoever her partner was with. The age of social media increases the judgement and also the pressure that we heap on ourselves, as someone could see by counting the ‘likes’ on a selfie that they put online.

Certain opportunities are deprived to those who don’t conform to the beauty ideal, which is something we see in our daily lives but is particularly applicable to women in the public eye. Looking after your appearance in order to be presentable is important, but when the standards differ for men and women, it becomes a little more problematic. Widdows indicated that we are always looking at the end result, how our lives will have improved when we have reached that beauty ideal, how much happier or more successful we will be. Adverts and products that rely on beauty heavily endorse this – ‘the best version of you’ or thereabouts is a common advertising slogan for beauty products.

As a social obligation, it’s actually a little disturbing to think about. Widdows talked about something like hair removal, and how only a decade or so ago armpit hair was more of a fashion choice than something to be stripped off completely. Today, I can’t imagine seeing a woman wearing a short skirt who hasn’t shaved her legs, or a strappy top with unshaven armpits. The idea is strangely unthinkable, yet not long ago no one would have batted an eyelid either way. It’s unfortunate that as time passes, the beauty ideal seems to be becoming more and more damaging to ourselves (dangerous skin bleaching, harmful tanning, surgery, and so on) or at least more painful (waxing! Ouch!) – not to mention homogenised.

Overall, the talk was particularly interesting as I’d never thought about the beauty ideal in so much detail before, especially from a kind of outside perspective. Instead of looking at myself in relation to it and linking it to my own happiness, it was refreshing to look at it as a concept, nothing more. The ideas that Widdows drew on about beauty being a social obligation shocked me the most, particularly when she highlighted how much worse things have got in a very small number of years. What will the idea beauty standard be five or ten years from now?

 

Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism: The Project That Inspired a Worldwide Movement

The next day I went to a similar talk, seeing Laura Bates discuss her infamous Twitter feed @EverydaySexism. Everyday Sexism was born out of the fact Bates was having a bad week, sick of being cat-called and patronised because she was female, so she set up an account to see if other women felt similarly exasperated. She thought it would be small and not very popular, but it totally blew up – these days it’s hard to come across anyone who’s not familiar with the name at least (particularly if they’re on Twitter).

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Photo: http://www.hayfestival.com

Women (and sometimes men) write in and share their experiences of sexism, whether it’s a wolf whistle, a condescending remark, an advert, a rude comment, or something much more sinister (like sexual harrassment). Bates wanted to highlight how common and, well, ‘everyday’ the problems are, and the input from women across the world certainly proved that. It’s easy to sympathise with as a young woman. I’ve faced a lot of cat-calls in my life, not many of them particularly pleasant, but never before have I thought of it as something to complain about. It’s just something that happens. Bates managed to make it into not only a problem, but as something that shouldn’t be tolerated, and it’s fascinating. It’s like Page Three – you plod along, knowing it exists but never really shining any light on to it, until someone else does and you have a moment of epiphany. Hang on! That’s not really OK, is it? Everyday Sexism has also brought these problems to light for men, most of whom are very lovely people and would never consider talking down to women. They have no idea any of this casual sexism is happening and affecting women on a daily basis.

Anita Anand (who was probably the only dampener on the entire talk, so strangely irritating is she) posed the question to Bates that perhaps publicising these campaigns and also indicating how much abuse people like Bates have faced since they started to speak out puts young girls off from making a stand. It wasn’t something Anand was implying as her opinion, but it was an interesting point, and Bates was quick to dismiss it. In her eyes, the young girls and women see the kind of abuse, misogyny and general maliciousness online anyway, but campaigns like this one are inspirational, reminding people that it’s OK to stand up against sexism and feel a sense of solidarity with other women.

Bates has gone to a lot of educational institutions as part of her ongoing battle against sexism and has seen a lot of things that have angered her, such as particular animosity towards women from university communities that promote a ‘lad’ culture (websites such as Uni Lad haven’t helped) or women being branded with nicknames or numbers instead of names. For the younger women and girls, things are arguably worse. Bates is meeting girls in schools who have seen so much porn, often shown to them by their male peers, that now what they presume to be ‘sex’ involves choking and violence, and is something they genuinely fear. With nothing else to go on they just assume that’s the norm, which is horrifying. Like much of the feminist movement these days, Bates argues how important it is for sex education in school to tackle issues such as porn and consent, in light of the changing times. Sex education is already lacking but now that it’s so easy to become ‘educated’ online, it’s even more important to address what’s real and what isn’t, particularly as porn these days is often violent and exploitative. I read that talking about porn to your kids is the new ‘birds and the bees’ talk, but it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re up against unless you yourself are immersed in that playground culture. When you’ve got young girls genuinely saying things like ‘I didn’t realise that sex had to make the woman hurt and cry’ (as Bates witnessed), something needs to be changed.

The Everyday Sexism Twitter feed proves that the stories that go to the site are generally the same, no matter what country, although there are obviously greater issues in countries that aren’t as developed as the UK. Still, it seems like no one is out  of the woods yet. When Bates spoke at Hay she had just got back from doing a talk for the UN in Washington DC, so it seems that the world’s higher powers are starting to listen to and address the issues, which is good news. Bates indicated that we need to stand up for each other when we witness these kind of events (safety allowing) and slowly we’ll create a backlash. She got a standing ovation at the end of her talk, and overall it’s pretty remarkable what one small project can lead to, particularly with the powers of social media.

So! Some food for thought, and not strictly related to literature (although both presenters had written books about their respective topics), but it sets up nicely for the next book I’ll be discussing: the first non-fiction book I’ve reviewed. Was it any good? Watch this space.

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

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When I unwrapped this book on Christmas Day (another one! It was a good year), I was initially a bit hesitant. It was another present from my dad, and I know he was always keen for me to read Ian McEwan (I have The Innocent tucked away on my bookshelf for a reading session at some point in the near future) so I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, but really, the book’s marketing team needs to be sacked. The cover is horrible, resembling some awful, trashy, Mills & Boon-style fiction, and I’ve now learnt it’s fairly unrepresentative of the plot. For one, Serena (the novel’s protagonist) is beautiful but not, to the best of my knowledge, blonde, glamorous, or prone to wearing red dresses. The woman on the cover is casting her eye down at a man walking below her, but she doesn’t have that kind of relationship with any character. The entire image is bloody awful and it deserves to be on a different kind of book entirely, and coupled with the sickly name Sweet Tooth, I was actually a little embarrassed reading it on the tube, hoping people would look at the author’s name instead of the cover (apparently, being a book snob myself, I assume I am surrounded by literary fanatics at all times).

The blurb is just as bad. Here’s the lower excerpt, the description of the general direction that the plot is going to go in:

Serena is sent on a secret mission – Operation Sweet Tooth – which brings her into the world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.’

Putting aside the rhetorical questions (yuck), this description is horrifyingly close to a book I read when I was about 16, in which a character (a literary editor) meets a ‘promising young writer’ and falls in love with him. That particular book was so bad I wanted to gouge my own eyes out after reading it, and the memory of it made me feel wary when turning to Sweet Tooth. Woman meets tortured and arrogant writer, happens to be both a creative genius and male model in looks: it’s a pretty awful cliché and it pops up time to time in the lowest calibre of erotic novels. But still, my mind kept whispering ‘Ian McEwan’ and I felt confident that in the hands of a good writer, this might have a little more substance to it.

Did my opinion change once I read it? To some extent, yes. It definitely wasn’t the predictable, embarrassing tripe the blurb suggests it will be, thankfully free of agonising sexual tension coupled with an unrealistic life of espionage. McEwan is a great writer and the book moved along swiftly; it was an easy read and one I was happy to turn to during my commute (despite the awful cover). I’ll summarise it here – and be aware that this review does contain spoilers.

The book is narrated by Serena Frome (rhymes with plume, as we are told again and again), a Cambridge graduate struggling to make her way up the ranks of MI5 in the midst of the Cold War. That’s right, more Cold War espionage! Thankfully this was a little easier to understand than Tinker Tailor, but Serena is a bit lower down the ranks than George Smiley, so that’s probably why. We learn a little about her childhood and her university days – including a fling with a university professor who cruelly dumped her at the end of a summer tryst – before the book goes into more detail about her life in London. At one point she is summoned by the higher ranks of MI5 to join Operation Sweet Tooth – I have no idea why it was called that, but there you go – which is a plan to recruit up and coming writers who can promote the values of the agency. It’s supposedly a method that has worked before (Orwell is name-dropped). Serena is assigned to recruit a man called Thomas Haley under the pretence of being part of an arts foundation offering him a grant.

So recruit him she does, and pretty quickly they become a couple. The rest of the book details his rise to literary accomplishment while she struggles with the fact she is hiding the true source of his money, and the truth messily comes out once he was won a prestigious literary prize. Whilst she accepts that he will want to end their relationship, he actually writes her a letter (the end of the book) which suggests he knew the truth for a long time and was building up information, and is now going to write it all down in a book called Sweet Tooth – he goes on to directly quote parts of the McEwan book as suggestions to what he will write – and he plans to use this letter as the ending chapter. So we, as readers, learn that the book was not narrated by Serena after all, instead Tom Haley’s first-person depiction of Serena.

From what I know, McEwan loves this kind of twist ending. I haven’t read Atonement but I’ve seen the film (spoilers here! Look away now) and I remember at the end it’s revealed that the latter part of the film never actually happened, and in fact was fabricated by the protagonist who felt guilty about the way real life played out and wanted to make an act of, well, atonement by fictionalising a kind of happy ending. The ending of Sweet Tooth divided critics, although many considered it a stroke of genius. Personally, I found it pretty frustrating. We’d spent a whole novel learning and empathising with a certain character, only to find it wasn’t her narrating at all, but a character in the novel instead writing his depiction of her. How much did it bear ‘true’? Was that really what happened in the fictional confines of the story? These are questions that made me want to chuck the book away (although I expect others might reread it with joy), kind of like, as Brian from Family Guy describes this kind of twist ending, a ‘giant middle finger to the audience’.

McEwan writes a great female protagonist, it must be said. Serena is not necessarily the most wonderful or sympathetic character, but she is realistic – and it’s sad how often you don’t see that in a book by a male author. She is not prone to the girlish whims or predictable clichés you often find in female characters – and that, I believe, is the key to writing a good protagonist. Write her as a person, not a woman (or at least, not what you expect a woman to be). It sounds so obvious but it is something that must be stressed over and over again; men and women are not actually that different. (I feel particularly aware of this after finishing various drafts of my own book, which is narrated in first person by a young man. My dad, having read it, said he was surprised I would write from a male perspective – but all I thought was, why wouldn’t I? My male protagonist is a person, and I am a person, so I think I do an OK job of seeing the world through his eyes. I also think my dad forgot that he himself wrote a book following the thoughts and emotions of a 12-year-old girl, the cheek.) The only obvious male-written trope was that Serena was beautiful – a cliché that McEwan himself picks up when he has Serena read one of Tom Haley’s stories with a character in it who, as a woman, is beautiful – ‘of course’.

I’m not sure how much I liked the book. Whilst it kept me entertained, it’s one of those books that you put down without that comforting sense of satisfaction at the end, like the end of a hot meal. I expected there to be more drama, more tension, more storytelling in general, but instead the plot went along simply and ended rather simply, too. In fact, the blurb was more accurate than it initially seemed, summarising the entire book, and apart from the stupid dramatic reveal at the end, there was nothing in it that surprised me as a reader. I also have a real dislike for writers who write about writers (which I might have expressed before), simply because it’s so easy to do. McEwan’s depiction of Tom Haley seemed particularly smug and self-indulgent given that he was semi-autobiographical – the character had the same academic background as McEwan, and also wrote stories that McEwan himself wrote. In the book he was lauded as a genius wherever he went. A pet peeve in any form of literature for me (despite the ‘write what you know’ rule); this will always put me off a book.

I suppose it might make a nice TV drama, maybe an ITV two-parter, but so far it hasn’t been put on screen and I really don’t expect there’s enough substance for it to work as a film. I could be wrong, but we will see. It was only published in 2012, I believe, so there’s still room for it to make the jump – but judging by the poor marketing and the relatively bland storyline, I’d be surprised if a very good adaptation appeared any time soon.

Sorry Ian, you get three stars from me this time. But I have high hopes for your other works, and rest assured I’ll be visiting them soon.

[Coming next: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter]

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carré

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I confess – I was never a fan of le Carré. I don’t doubt that he’s a superb writer, but the Cold War tales of espionage never appealed to me. I find the terms, multiple characters, and interwoven spy plots terribly confusing. I actually began to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a few years ago, maybe even before my degree, but it got so confusing that I gave up on it. A few years later I had to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold for a third year module and I remember telling my tutor that I hated it and found all the terms of espionage confusing, which he scoffed at. However, not long ago I caught the recent 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman and pretty much every other British actor alive today, and I fell in love with the story. I enjoyed it so much that I actually watched it two nights in a row (the second time round sitting my dad down and forcing him to watch it with me) and it encouraged me to give the book another go. So now, a few years down the line with an English degree and general love of books under my belt, it was time for a re-read. No spoilers here, so read on if you’re curious.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows George Smiley, an agent from the Secret Service in London, nicknamed the Circus. Le Carré visited this particular batch of fictional spies throughout many of his novels, but tends to alter the protagonist depending on what the focus of the story is. Smiley is perhaps his most famous spy, immortalised in popular culture numerous times. In Tinker Tailor we catch up with Smiley after he has been sacked, along with Control, head of the Circus, after a botched operation in Czechoslovakia resulted in the shooting of one of their best spies. Control has died at some point before the story begins, but Smiley begins to investigate what Control had long suspected and was being confirmed through various sources – that there is a Russian mole at the top of the Circus, feeding information to Moscow. Smiley himself was a suspect and as a result Control never directly shared his suspicions with him, but after Control’s death, Smiley, still raw from a recent split with his wife, dutifully takes up the investigation and focuses on debunking exactly who is the ‘rotten apple’ in their midsts.

My overall verdict of the book? Confusing. Still confusing as hell. If I hadn’t seen the film and therefore had a very vague idea of what was going on, I suspect I would have ditched it even quicker than last time (and I’m not particularly surprised I gave up on it before). Unfortunately, I think that’s just me. My sister read it a couple of years ago and had no problem deciphering what was going on, and I seemed to be the only one in my class who struggled with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (as I said, my tutor was flabbergasted). I don’t know why that is; I do consider myself a fairly intelligent person, but perhaps espionage just isn’t for me. I suspect, however, if I was to read all of le Carré’s novels in order, the terminology might become a bit clearer. I skim-read Tinker Tailor to avoid the amount of complex (and often pointless) spy detail, but despite all that, it was still a very enjoyable read. Le Carré is undoubtedly a fantastic writer, always injecting a warm sense of wit and humour in his words that adds a nice touch to the dark tale of betrayal and tension. I also think it has one of the best endings I’ve ever read, though I won’t say any more about that to avoid spoilers.

It has been put on the screen a few times – Alec Guinness played Smiley in a famous BBC adaptation in 1979 – but I’m going to focus on the recent version now, the 2011 film I saw that made me fall in love with the story, and one with lashings of critical acclaim (including Oscar noms).

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Gary Oldman takes the role of George Smiley, looking quite unlike any other role he’s been in (so far, so Oldman). I wouldn’t have thought he was old enough to pull of the bespectacled-greying-gentleman look QUITE that well, but he brings Smiley alive in a way that only he could. Alongside him you have John Hurt as Control, who appears mainly in flashbacks but still leaves a lingering impression of his downcast figure sitting against the garish wallpaper of the Circus’ discussion room. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right hand man, looking fantastically ’70s with his blonde mop and three-piece suit – I took the liberty of including a picture of him above, any excuse to look at the Batch – who is of course freakishly watchable and makes political espionage sexier than James Bond (I hadn’t seen Sherlock or any of his other roles when I first watched Tinker Tailor, so this really was an introduction to the weird fanciability of Cumberbatch). Alongside them you have Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong… the list goes on. Talk about a dream cast.

The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, gave the story much more of a noir feel than it came across in the book – a result of the missing witty and often humorous writing from le Carré, I expect – but overall, it was exactly what a decent adaptation should be. It took the skeleton of the story and fleshed it out in its own way, adding a unique flair to the characters to make it a respectable companion to the iconic novel. Die-hard le Carré fans might disagree with me, but I think it was a fantastic adaptation. If I had thought the film was confusing before, it actually seemed like light refreshment compared to the book. The editing is very interesting, with long lens shots and particular focus on spectacles and appearance, which is a nice touch for a spy film. The characters were a little more compassionate than they came across in the book; Ricki Tarr in particular, excellently played by Tom Hardy, seemed much more tapped into his emotional side than the literary Tarr, and Peter Guillam was given a twist by secretly concealing a homosexual relationship unlike the womanising Guillam from the book (although I am now wondering if Cumberbatch has some kind of contractual obligation to only play gay or asexual characters on screen).

Smiley doesn’t actually have any dialogue for quite a long way into the film, which works very well. In the book you get the sense that every word Smiley says carries a lot of weight, and Oldman has a certain charisma as the silent, discerning spy. There aren’t many women in it – this film fails the Bechdel test spectacularly – but Kathy Burke does a good job of turning Connie Sachs, a character who is wet and rather dislikeable in the book, into a charming companion for the spies. Plus, she gets the best line in the film (‘I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.’)

The film plays up the slight homoerotic edge to the book, in particular the bond between Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). A relationship between the two is hinted at in the novel but the film takes it to another level, with long, lingering gazes between the characters at key points. I suppose when your cast is primarily made up of men, you have to shoehorn some romance in there somehow.

To conlude, then. On Goodreads I gave the novel three stars. It probably deserves four or maybe even five, but as a personal review, I just found the plot too tricky to keep track of. That said, I thoroughly recommend you give it a read. Then laugh and point out how easy you found it…

[Coming next: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan]

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Oh Hay!

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I haven’t written a review in a little while (though don’t worry, a lot are coming very soon), but I thought I’d write a quick post to share some literary excitement. I’m off to Hay! For the second year, I will be visiting the beautiful town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales at the end of the month for Hay Festival, arguably the world’s best literary festival. Forget Glastonbury – this is where the really cool people hang out. (Like, er, me. And my friend Curly.)

I first visited Hay Fest last year, pre-booked tickets in hand but otherwise fairly oblivious as to what was in store. The set-up is rather neat, as you can see in the photo above. Tents are spaced out over an open site, some hosting lectures where literature’s biggest names discuss the books they are promoting, others with kitsch little second-hand bookshops or ice cream stalls (Shepherd’s Ice Cream, the former workplace of a friend of mine, is well worth a visit). The lecture theatre-style tents vary greatly in size, with the biggest one resembling what I thought of as a small arena. It was there last year that we heard Miranda Hart (of Miranda fame) and Rupert Everett discuss their latest autobiographies, while in the smaller theatres we listened to Q&As with Matt Haig, Patrick Ness, NoViolet Bulawayo (pre-Booker announcement) et al. We also went to a seriously cool performance from a Colombian jazz band and danced until our feet were sore. And when the festival’s over for the day, the local pubs and venues put on their own cultural shindigs to entertain us after hours. The whole thing was a lot of fun (particularly with the sun out).

So what’s on the menu for this year? As promised, I’ll be blogging about the festival at length – though I can’t promise I’ll be doing any live updates, given that internet connection is notoriously poor out in the Welsh countryside. But despite that, this is what I’ve got in store:

Fictions: Interesting Times
Fictions events mainly consist of one or two authors sitting down with a host to talk about their latest books. They’re given loose themes (‘interesting times’ being the one here) and, like most events at Hay, are done Q&A style, with a short audience participation session at the end. In this event, Nick Harkaway and Zia Haider Rahman will be talking to Olivia Cole about their latest novels, Tigerman and In the Light of What We Know respectively. I haven’t heard of either novel and haven’t done a great amount of research yet but the beauty of Fictions is the chance to discover new books to add to the reading list (and getting a signed copy at the end). Not that I was ever short on books to read…

Heather Widdows – Perfect Me!
This doesn’t look like a literary event itself but more of an intellectual discussion about contemporary ideas of beauty and perfection. Widdows is a Professor of Global Ethics and I’ll be excited to see how the discussion is steered and what talking points it will raise.

Laura Bates talks to Anita Anand – Everyday Sexism: The Project that Inspired a Worldwide Movement
Every woman with access to Twitter – hell, every man, too – has heard of Everyday Sexism (@EverydaySexism). The premise is fairly simple and had humble beginnings; Bates wanted to collect stories of sexism that occurred, well, everyday, and publish them online in an effort to prove how deeply sexism is rooted in our culture without anyone really batting an eyelid. The response was astonishing, as thousands of women from all ages and in many different environments shared their stories. This was very interesting to a 22-year-old woman like me who’s faced countless cat calls and public sexual objectification, but, like many others, had never really considered it out of the ordinary or anything to speak up about. Bates inspired a response by simply retweeting the many stories flooding in and creating awareness of what was going on. Indeed, I had the conversation with my dad not long ago and told him about the classic ‘white van man’ experiences; he was quite frankly appalled to hear about the comments women endure on a daily basis and he’s got through over half a century without ever realising it was an issue. No one talks about it, and so it continues. Until now! I’ll be very excited to hear what Bates has to say about how the project has grown and what she hopes to achieve with it. It’s just been turned into a book, which is presumably why she’s speaking at Hay Fest, but the subject matter itself is fascinating, so that will be an interesting session.

Philippa Semper – Who Wants to Live Forever? Mortals, Immortals and the Undead
As someone who loves me some Dracula, this will be a great insight into how immortality has sprung up in myths and popular culture, and  what that says about us.

Glenn Greenwald talks to Anita Anand – No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
Oof! This is something exciting to be seeing at Hay, and something my sister Lou is incredibly jealous about. Greenwald is a journalist who worked closely with Snowden to publish stories about the NSA and surveillance in the Guardian last year, and as security and the rights of privacy come into light more than ever, Greenwald will no doubt have some very strong opinions on whistle-blowing and the freedom of the press. His boyfriend was unfairly detained at Heathrow last year on the grounds of potentially containing sensitive information, which angered Greenwald no end, and did make me wonder how he was happy to come to the UK to talk at Hay – but in fact he’s there via video chat.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter – The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media
Cosslett and Baxter are founders and editors of the hilarious feminist blogzine The Vagenda (www.vagendamagazine.com), which I’ve actually written for in the past. They’ve just released a book which I already feel like I have a personal tie to (I went to the book launch last week), one which I will review at some point after Hay – I’m reading it now. Baxter and Cosslett look at the ridiculousness surrounding some women’s magazines and how the media can change to reflect who women really are.

Fictions: Gothic
Another Fictions event, this one with a spooky feel. Lauren Owen and Marcus Sedgwick discuss their novels The Quick and A Love Like Blood respectively; again, I’ve done no research, so we will see if those get added to the to-read list.

Steven Moffat talks to Alan Yentob – The Showrunner
Moffat, co-creator of my beloved Sherlock and lead writer of my not-quite-as-beloved-but-still-fairly-beloved Doctor Who, is discussing his work in the TV business. He’s a marmite fellow, loved for his talent but hated for his press talk (the biggest ‘troll’ in the television industry, always chucking curveballs and twists into his TV shows when he firmly denied everything prior to broadcast), and it will be very fun to hear him chat about his life experience and how he made it to the helm of arguably two of Britain’s most successful shows. Plus, a pal of Cumberbatch can do no wrong in my eyes.

And that’s it – so far! I can’t bloody wait. Stay tuned!

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One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude has been on my reading list for a LONG time, but I’ve never got around to reading it before now. It’s arguably the greatest and most influential novel to come out of South America, a classic in every sense of the world. García Márquez became an international phenomenon as a result of writing it, gaining awards worldwide (and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982). I actually went to a discussion at Hay Festival last year with travel writer Michael Jacobs, who met García Márquez during his travels around Colombia not long ago. Jacobs mentioned a story (I can’t remember if he witnessed it first hand or if he was just told about it) about García Márquez reading One Hundred Years of Solitude after he’d developed dementia and saying ‘whoever wrote this book… he must be a genius.’ Despite the sadness, there’s something maddeningly sweet about that, the author of one of the greatest novels of all time reading the book HE wrote and appreciating its beauty from an unknown perspective.

García Márquez is Colombian and the book was originally written in Spanish, but it has been translated in 37 languages since it was written in 1967. I read the English version which was translated by Gregory Rabassa. I am always a tiny bit wary of novel translations, particularly when a book is described as being poetic (as this is) – how much of the sentiment and wit is lost in translation? – but I still could appreciate the beauty and craftmanship of the writing, even if it no doubt differed slightly from its original. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the novel is set. The characters have a very basic understanding of science and consider ordinary objects such as pianos and magnets some kind of magic, but as the town is isolated, it’s hard to work out if they are in sync with the rest of the world or very behind. Certainly it’s not set in modern times. This review does contain spoilers, so turn away now if you want to read it with a fresh perspective.

The book is set over a century (funnily enough!) and focuses on a town named Macondo, with our leading characters being the founding family who dwell within it (the Buendías). Followed over several generations, we witness the daily life of this family and the various tribulations that the separate characters go through throughout their lives. The novel pretty much defined the genre of magical realism, subtly blending fantasy and magic with realistic rural life in Macondo. Starting with the founders of the family, José Arcadio and his wife Úrsula, we learn about how the two of them founded the town and created a family line that was doomed by repetitive destruction and selfish whims.

On the first page of my copy of the book was a family tree, which was something I had to constantly refer back to throughout reading. Following the family line might not have been such a problem if the men didn’t all have the same names: every male character in the Buendía line was either called José Arcadio or Aureliano. This STILL might not have been a problem if only one or two were alive at a time, but naturally-speaking all of the characters were blessed with extremely long life – Úrsula in particular lived well over 120 years. I say naturally-speaking as some of the characters did die young if they were killed or murdered, but the ones who were left to stick it out did a proper job of it (which has become another feature of magic realism). Despite the confusion of a child living at the same time as his great-great-grandfater (and every man down the line having the same name), the characterisation didn’t really suffer. Whilst the characters were similar owing to the repetitive nature of the Buendía family (more on that later), each one seemed to have its own distinctive personality and desires. There’s a theme that all the José Arcadios are rather feisty and loud and all the Aurelianos are more calm and pensive, which is interesting as at one point identical twins are born, one named José Arcadio Segundo and the other Aureliano Segundo, and the theory circulates that they were perhaps switched at some point during childhood due to the way they grew up with the personalities attributed to the other namesake.

Why one hundred years of solitude? Loneliness and isolation are very prevalent themes in the novel, initially describing the town which is independent and out on the sticks, but eventually each of the characters seems to succumb to solitude as a result of their actions or state of mind. Indeed, despite the fact all of the characters have ordinary desires and more than enough opportunity for love, the only characters who maintain happy and stable relationships are the two founders and the two right at the very end of the line. Both of these couples are connected by incest (disturbingly, incest is a common recurrence for the Buendías) and whilst Úrsula fears her children will be born with curly pig tails as a result, it isn’t until the end of the line that a child is born with such a mutation.

Like many classics, the novel breaks the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing. This rule is pretty solid – for example, if you’re reading a novel, it’s better to learn about a character’s personality by the way they speak or their body language, as opposed to reading an outward description of what the character is like. From a writer’s perspective, this a way of engaging the reader on a much more emotional level than just having them as a passive listener to a story. Whilst I agree with this rule and feel constantly aware of it in my own writing, I’m always uncertain about its place in the classics. When you’re studying writing, breaking this rule is ingrained in you as being one of the worst things you can do – but, as I said, SO many classics are written this way, some being considered the greatest novels of all time (this one is a good example, but there are plenty). I do believe it made One Hundred Years of Solitude that little bit more difficult to read, but I also think that due to the magic realism and the rural, South American setting, the narrative began to resemble a spoken fairytale, which made it into something even more poetic. It’s not an easy book to read by any stretch, but it’s incredibly rewarding. I read it very slowly (it was a great companion for the commute) but my friend Misha’s mum said she found it very difficult indeed, despite her son’s positive reaction. Indeed, my dad spoke of it very highly, so it’s interesting to hear such a variety of perspectives of it.

It doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I’m aware, which doesn’t particularly surprise me. The beauty of magic realism is the way fantasy is very subtly interwoven into a book’s plot, but I think the subtlety might be lost on a screen, although there are a lot of themes that a film adaptation would be able to explore and turn into powerful and moving on-screen entertainment. There are also some sections that painted such a vivid picture in the mind that would look visually stunning (particularly the moments of war and rebellion), but at this point, however, García Márquez hasn’t sold the rights, and it’s looking like he never will.

So, Goodreads review. One Hundred Years of Solitude was an incredibly powerful book and one I won’t forget, but the pace and difficulty of reading it bumps a star off. I also felt as if the end was dragging (it could have ended around 100 pages before it did). With that in mind, four stars. Still, I’m ready to tackle some more of García Márquez soon – I’ve got a lifetime’s work to catch up on.

[Coming next: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré]

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Throwback Thursday! Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

LB

Welcome to my second Throwback Thursday post! This book is another good’un, so apologies in advance for another long blog.

When it comes to dystopian fiction, I always think of there being the Big Three novels that every dystopia fan has to read (probably something my dad told me that has stayed in my mind): George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I haven’t yet read We but the other two I devoured a couple of years ago – Orwell’s being probably the ONLY book I read for pleasure during my degree (ain’t nobody got time for that!) and Huxley’s I read just after graduating: a battered copy that used to be my dad’s, covered in suspicious-looking splashes which he reckoned was oil from one of the many part-time jobs he had in his youth. Tez’s version didn’t have the original book cover (see above) which is a shame because it’s a really cool image – I have it on a t-shirt, in fact! Er, I am super cool like that. I’ll aim to make this review spoiler-free, so read on if you want to give the book a go.

Fellow literary geeks might recognise the title being from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, said by Miranda in Act V, Scene I. ‘O brave new world, / That has such people in’t’. It’s since become a very famous and iconic expression, like many of Shakespeare’s quips – in fact I saw it the other day in a fashion magazine talking about the new season’s trends, so it shows you how widely it stretches. However, in this case it’s not just a catchy title but is in fact tied into the plot itself, given that the main character is a lover of Shakespeare and The Tempest in particular – and sees the ‘brave new world’ with the same initial misguided affection as Miranda does in The Tempest.

The book opens by detailing, through various secondary characters, the controlled World State that the characters live in. It is one in which the size of the population is carefully controlled; embryos are farmed instead of developing naturally, and people are sorted into ‘castes’ from birth and genetically manipulated so there is no way they can escape from the rank and job that they are assigned. Among the higher castes social sex is encouraged but the idea of family is barbaric and almost pornographic. The citizens regularly take a drug named ‘soma’ which creates controlled hallucinations – the characters use them almost in place of holidays, and the effects encourage a communion between them all, as individuality is highly discouraged.

In the latter part of the novel, we look at the world of the ‘savages’, where people are kept out of this oppressive system and are left to their own devices. Our protagonist is eighteen-year-old John, living among the savages, who is actually the son of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning in the World State. His mother was exiled from the society for her behaviour and he with her (if I remember correctly it’s to do with the shame and humiliation of having him in the first place – as we have learnt, the idea of having a family or bearing children naturally is positively grotesque) and John grows up as an outsider and a loner in the land of the savages. The only comfort he has is his love of the complete works of Shakespeare, one of the few books in the house that they have. When John is discovered by citizens from the World State who are visiting, he gets the chance to go and join his ‘brave new world’ and confront his father.

And confront him he does – but of course, the idea of being someone’s father is so mortifying that the Director resigns from his position in shame. From there John is initially treated as something of a glamorous novelty, but he quickly becomes a nuisance. I won’t tell you any more than that to avoid spoiling the outcome, and I really do recommend you read it. It’s a book I really loved.

Like a lot of dystopian fiction, it seemed to prematurely predict a lot of scientific or technological advancements that hadn’t happened when it was written. The book was written all the way back in 1932, smackbang in the middle of the Big Three (We was published in 1921, Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949 – Orwell, himself influenced by Huxley, said that Brave New World must have been heavily influenced by We) and considering we’re eighty years ahead now, it’s disturbing how many of the themes or ideas are relevant to our modern society. Test-tube designer babies, genetic manipulation… I mean, I’m writing this at a time when the first embryos are being developed from three parents. It’s also interesting how the characters are amused with formulaic entertainment and can no longer observe and enjoy beauty (such as Shakespeare) – ok, so we haven’t QUITE reached that point yet, but at a time where creative risk-taking is discouraged because businesses are more interested in making money with predictable formulas rather than pushing boundaries and stimulating thought (a creative masterpiece like Brave New World would face some serious publishing difficulties these days), it has a horrible familiarity about it. But the dystopian aspect that disturbed me most of all in this novel was the mind conditioning from birth and genetic manipulation – in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston (the protagonist) lives in a horribly oppressive state but he still has the ability to perceive it and aspires to break out of it. The idea of being so controlled you aren’t capable of free thought, as it is in Brave New World? That’s a terrifying prospect.

A theme I always find fascinating which is often addressed in dystopian fiction (and is particularly a theme in A Clockwork Orange, so I might have discussed it back in my review of that) is the idea of freedom vs. security. How much personal freedom do we sacrifice in order to have security? Look at CCTV, for example – some people argue it’s an invasion of privacy, but if it leads to increased safety, is it something we should accept? The boundaries are becoming blurred, particularly as technology moves forward, and dystopian fiction looks at the extremes. Brave New World in particular takes it very far, emphasising the loss of individuality in order to have a ‘perfect’ functioning society. And that’s what’s really disturbing – by the end, you are left wondering whether that kind of society would be better after all. A character does justify the structure very well in an explanation to John, whilst you can’t say the same for something like Nineteen Eighty-Four, where characters are expected to abandon pure, hard logic in order to fit into society. They (and we) struggle to do that – but it’s all too easy to see how this book’s World State might work in real life, and that’s a terrifying thought. For that reason mainly, Brave New World is my favourite of the two (but I can’t wait to read We and see how that compares).

The book has been adapted twice for American television, which is odd considering it is a British novel set in dystopian London, but I can see how it could be easily translated to suit an American audience. There’s no big-screen blockbuster adaptation, but considering there’s a bit of a trend for dystopian literature and film at the moment (as seen a lot in Young Adult fiction), I wouldn’t be overly surprised if one appears – particularly as the book is so iconic. I haven’t seen either of the television adaptations so I’m not sure how they compare to the book, but I’ll keep a look out for future on-screen versions of the novel.

Goodreads review? Five stars. This is one of my absolute favourites – there’s no way it was going to get any less. I think you can pretty much assume all (or most) of my Throwback Thursday entries are going to be five-star books – keep an eye out for the next!

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The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

The Little Friend

Happy World Book Day! It seemed appropriate to write a blog post today in honour of the occasion, although unfortunately this review might not be as positive as I’d like. I got The Little Friend as yet another Christmas present – this one from my dad, again. I hadn’t heard of Donna Tartt before but she’s an American writer who seems to publish her books ten years apart, leaving readers with a real sense of anticipation. In particular, The Secret History was renowned, so I was optimistic that this award-winning book (published in 2002) would be a nice addition to my bookshelf. I’ll mention now that this review does contain spoilers, but if you DO read this entire blog post,  I don’t think you’ll come out overly keen to pick it up.

To sum up. Harriet, our protagonist, is a precocious and steely twelve-year-old girl, living in a small town in Mississippi in what I assume is the 1970s, going by the pop culture references. When she was a baby, her older brother, nine-year-old Robin, beloved by all, was found hanging from a tree in the front garden. The general consensus was that he was murdered, and the circumstances were suspicious – Harriet and her older sister Allison were in the garden, too (Allison being around four years old at the time), the family was nearby, and he only disappeared for a moment. The incident shouldn’t have happened to all intents and purposes and as a result, the entire Cleve family (consisting generally of a matriarchy of Harriet’s grandmother and her sisters) refuse to reflect on the memory. Harriet, however, grows up curious – and at age twelve, sets about finding exactly what happened on that day and who she can punish as a result.

It’s a promising concept, and the blurb suggests a dark and menacing plot. The first chapter of the book is tense and well-written, and you go in feeling that if handled well, the book will be unforgettable. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. For an extremely long book (well over 500 pages), very little happens, and whilst the writing can be mesmerising at times, at other points it drags and removes any suspense or interest from a scene by slowing the pace so significantly. None of the characters are particularly likeable, Harriet probably the least so – I can’t think of one point in the book where she is actually happy. In any situation she’s in, she seems to find flaws, which doesn’t pass for great character development in my eyes and quickly becomes tedious. She has mild whims that seem downright ridiculous – throughout the first two thirds of the novel she seems obsessed with catching a poisonous snake (and there are enough of them around) and develops a strange interest in a junkie redneck family, one of whom she thinks is responsible for Robin’s death. Her motivations are barely explained, but she is fixated nonetheless. Alongside the narrative focusing on her life, we are also given an insight into said redneck family’s lives, the Ratliffs, who spend the vast majority of their time dangerously high. Unfortunately the dreamy sequences in these particular sections of the narrative are little relief from Harriet’s life.

Then there’s the fact that – spoiler alert – we never actually find out how Robin dies. The book seems to abandon this promising concept very early on, and it’s only mentioned again once or twice. I wouldn’t particularly mind (after all, it’s not unrealistic for a murderer never to be caught) but the way Tartt emphasises how IMPOSSIBLE it would have been to have murdered the child, given that he was surrounded by family and in the comfort of his own garden, ensures that you’re waiting for some kind of explanation. Without that, the book descends into fantasy – there’s no way that actually would have happened, therefore I refuse to accept it in a novel that’s intended to be realistic. I’m not entirely sure why Tartt included it at all – it would have been much more interesting to imply that Robin was suicidal (and still have Harriet obsessed with finding a culprit regardless) but nope. No explanation. Nada.

This leads on to another of my major qualms with the novel, how death was handled. While Tartt’s description of grief was beautifully poignant and really hit home, the deaths in the novel (or lack thereof) all felt contrived. Throughout the novel, various characters (and generally the bad guys) are victim to dangerous circumstances – an old woman is bitten by a huge, poisonous cobra, one man is shot in the head and then in the neck, another man who cannot swim is left to drown in a water tank. Despite these circumstances, they all survive. Similarly, right at the end of the novel, Harriet faces a scenario where she is forcibly drowned by another character, but she seems to miraculously pull through, too – somehow developing epilepsy (?!) in the process. The only character who actually dies (not including Robin) is one of Harriet’s great-aunts, which would have been tragic had we had enough character description to actually care who she was.

And of course… the title. Who ‘the little friend’ is is anyone’s guess. I presume from the book cover that it might be referencing a snake, but given that there a large number of snakes in the novel (and none of them bear any particular relevance to the central themes or plot), I’m not sure which one it’s referring to. In fact the original book cover seems to feature what looks like a doll’s head, so that blows my theory out of the water. It’s as if Tartt submitted the manuscript without a title, and the publishers just called it the first thing that came into their heads.

Now, despite all this raging criticism, my dad didn’t pick up this book at random. Aside from the fact Donna Tartt is fairly revered, the book is showered with praise. It won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (which we now know as the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the reviews on the front, back, and first page of the book are glowing. Yet again, one of those baffling scenarios where a book is critically acclaimed but while you’re reading it, you’re just not sure why. Cue the reader identity crisis (is it me? Am I just too thick to get it?). But it’s true that not everyone has to love every book in the world, no matter how many critics fawn all over it. And I think I’ve highlighted enough of the problems prevalent in the text to feel confident about my own sense of judgement. As far as I can tell, there is no film or television adaptation, so I can’t compare it to see how well it measures up.

So, Goodreads review. Technically my Goodreads reviews says three stars, because I do feel like there was enough decent writing in it to deem it better than average, but I think I’m more inclined to give it two stars based on the disappointing plot. We’ll say two and a half, for good measure. Sorry, Donna – I’m sure I’ll read The Secret History one day, but this is not one I’ll be revisiting.

[Coming next: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]

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Stoner – John Williams

Stoner

Stoner is the kind of book that has been around for decades but no one has really noticed it until now. It was Waterstones’s Book of the Year in 2013, despite being originally published in 1965 (and Williams himself dying in 1994). It was another Christmas present that I devoured not long after reading The Luminaries – compared to the vast length and steady pace of The LuminariesStoner seemed to whizz by in a flash. It’s only around 200 pages long and is essentially a detailed biography of an unremarkable man named William Stoner.

I would aim to avoid spoilers here but there aren’t really any spoilers to give. On the first page of the book we are given a quick summary of Stoner’s life and death – where he grew up, where he went to university, his career, and his death – before the book plunges into a more detailed account. With that in mind, as a reader you never expect anything radical or remarkable to happen, and nothing ever really does. From a young age Stoner lives a life full of awkward encounters and few friends, seemingly unable to really connect with anyone on an emotional level – at least, not until later in the novel. He has a respectable career as a professor and academic, but doesn’t really make much of a mark on the university he works at, much less the world. In short, his life is fairly bland, if not downright disheartening at times. As I read this book I was constantly thinking, ‘but why? Isn’t fiction supposed to be escapism? Shouldn’t there be drama, and fun, and twists and turns?’ But I think it’s a novel you don’t really appreciate until you’ve finished it, and can reflect back on what you’ve read.

Stoner lived the life many of us will live – completely ordinary, satisfying but maybe slightly disappointing, unhappily married (unfortunately), and ending in a slow and fairly undramatic death. We often turn to fiction, whether it be on the page or on the screen, to escape from that monotony, but there’s something fairly poignant about seeing it written down so simply. It helps that the writing style is beautiful. It’s virtually perfect – concise, elegant, and fairly uplifting, despite the subject matter. A review on my edition of the book from the Sunday Express reads: ‘What rescues the novel from being unbearably sad is Williams’s gift for emotional precision’, and I fully agree. Indeed, Stoner has what looks on the surface like a rather miserable life, but it’s his own quiet contemplation and satisfaction that makes it seem ordinary, instead of depressing. The book effectively takes a normal life and turns it into something quite extraordinary by the virtue of reflection. The description of Stoner’s death is particularly fascinating, especially as the author of course couldn’t know EXACTLY what it felt like.

From what I know there is no adaptation, but I do think it would make quite a nice onscreen story. True, the producers might have to apply some dramatic licence to make it appeal to the masses, as the story itself is quite straightforward, but I think with the right director and the right cast it could become its own artistic piece that would complement the book nicely, particularly as the plot delves carefully into the politics of a work environment and the emotions and compromises of many different types of relationship. I don’t know whether Williams sold the rights or not, but if so, with the book coming into public consciousness so recently, it might be something to look out for in the upcoming years. All that said, perhaps it is just one of those works that should stay on the page to be truly appreciated.

Goodreads review, then: Stoner gets four stars. Without the dramatic plot I can’t say I enjoyed it enough to give it the full five, but I still think it was a strong enough book to be deemed excellent, not just good. William Stoner had little lasting impact on his fictional world, but in real life, I suspect we won’t forget his name so easily.

[Coming next: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt]

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is probably the most recently-published book I’ve read so far (2013) and it really came into my consciousness when it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – arguably THE most important literary award in the UK, Commonwealth, and Ireland. If a book’s shortlisted for that, you know it’s going to be a good’un. Catton was hotly-tipped to win by the bookies, and her win would break two Booker records: at 832 pages, it would be the longest novel to ever scoop the prize, and at 28, Catton would be the youngest ever winner. Given the furore surrounding the novel, it was unsurprising, then, that the vast Luminaries emerged from the impressive and diverse shortlist as the winner.

With that in mind, The Luminaries was at the top of my Christmas list – and Tez (my dear dad) didn’t disappoint. I began reading the book on Christmas day and was hooked from the start, finishing it in early January. Despite my initial reservations, it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in years – and I can’t help but compare every book I’ve read since to its elegant prose and storytelling. I’ll mention now that this review doesn’t contain any spoilers (the plot is so tightly woven it would take me a while to give you any), so read on if you fancy giving it a go.

The Luminaries, set amidst the gold rush of New Zealand in the 1860s, opens with a Scottish man accidentally interrupting a private meeting of twelve different men in the lounge room of a hotel. The men have gathered to discuss three suspicious events that took place two weeks ago; a drunk hermit was found dead in his home, a prostitute tried to take her life, and a wealthy man completely vanished. As the meeting (and the novel) progresses, we learn about each of the twelve men and what story they have that connects them together in the mystery, ultimately revealing important information that explains what happened on that fateful night.

A twist to the entire premise is that Catton, a budding astrologer, charted the positions of the stars and constellations on these particular dates and wraps the story around what was happening in the sky. Certain characters represent certain star signs and others represent planets, so when a certain planet moved into a star sign, the two associating characters have some significant relationship or development with one another. At the beginning of the novel we are given a character chart and each section of the book is preluded with a map of the positions, detailing which planets were in which star signs at the time. I initially didn’t follow this too closely as I’m fairly clueless about astrology, and not knowing doesn’t affect the storyline at all, but I think if I was to go back and reread I’d love to pay closer attention to that structural decision.

Catton mimics a Victorian writing style throughout the novel, which initially felt a bit pretentious and difficult to read, but I soon fell in love with it. She has said in interviews that one thing she’s fed up of discussing is her age and her gender, but when you read the novel you can’t help but feel where the critics’ surprise is coming from – it just doesn’t seem like it was written like a 28-year-old woman. It might be the Victorian style she adopted, but something about the prose and the characters feels as if the omniscient narrator and author of the novel is an older man. I should mention that I don’t mean that in the stereotypical sense (e.g. women write about kittens and fairies while men write about serious topics – as a young, female, feminist writer, that couldn’t be further from the truth) but I did study the subtle, fine details between men and women’s writing during my degree and some books do feel more male-written or female-written than others, for reasons I can never put my thumb on.

I suppose I do have a small issue with how the women were portrayed in the novel, which might be influencing why I think it doesn’t feel like a woman wrote it. There are only two of them among a principal cast of around fifteen or so men, and both of them are fairly cliché – the victimised ‘whore’ who is beloved by almost everyone (I hesitate to use the term ‘Mary Sue’ but it gives you the idea), and the buxom, red-haired temptress who plots and brings men to their knees. I don’t know if this was a purposeful decision styled in the vein of literature from the period or if it was done subconsciously, but both women feel under-developed in contrast to the other characters, and you get the sense that without their physical beauty they would be fairly unremarkable – something you can’t say for most of the men. But that’s really a minor point, compared to the overall effect of the novel, which is amazingly readable considering its length.

The Luminaries doesn’t have a film or television adaptation yet, but Catton has supposedly sold the rights to HBO so we’re bound to expect a series within the next few years. It’s well-suited to television due to its complex cast and each character having a different story to tell – I can see entire episodes focusing on one or two characters, the next episode focusing on another two, and so on, particularly as much of the novel takes place on the same day (and the dates are very significant). If it’s done well it should be a very entertaining show, though I’m not sure how they could prolong it out over more than one season. Catton said in an interview that when she was writing it, she had a cast of actors that she would refer to pictures of for inspiration (including James McAvoy, Richard E. Grant, and Mark Williams) so presumably that would be the dream cast. Even though the characters in the novel have different origins (Scottish, English, French, and Australian, to name a few) I noticed that she was mainly indicating British actors, and to be honest I’m not sure if New Zealand has a flourishing television industry, so I’ll be interested to see what the nationality and the accents of the cast are.

So, Goodreads review: another five stars from me. I promise I am actually a bit more discerning with a lot of the books I read, but most of the ones I’ve blogged about so far have been fantastic and fully deserving of the five stars. Thank the lord for good books!

[Coming next: Stoner by John Williams]

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Throwback Thursday! A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange 1

Welcome to the first of what I hope to be a regular blog feature in which I post on a Thursday – geddit – and, in the typical vein of ‘Throwback Thursday’ on social networking sites (#TBT), look at books I read in the past. So I’m kicking this off with a particularly memorable book for me: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I apologise now if this blog post is super long, but I really love writing about this book. I won’t include any major spoilers, so feel free to read through and maybe give the book a try if you like what you see!

If someone asked me ‘what’s your favourite book?’ there’s no way I would come to a quick answer. But out of all the books I’ve read and all of the ones that have stuck in my mind, I’ve got to say - A Clockwork Orange has come the closest. In fact, I probably would describe it as my favourite book – combining a dystopian future (a particular fiction love of mine) with literature’s most repellent anti-hero, creating one of the most morally ambiguous, screwed-up storylines I’ve ever seen on the page.

I’d sum it up like this (spoiler-free! I think): Alex, an intelligent 15-year-old boy with a love of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, is the head of a gang in a dystopian world of ‘ultra-violence’. He and his ‘droogs’ (friends) stroll around beating and raping the majority of people they come across. His parents seem downright terrified of him and he is eventually betrayed by his gang and nicked by the police. In an attempt to skip the prison sentence, he volunteers to be the subject of a new form of psychotherapy that promises to correct his violent ways. After lengthy psychological torture and conditioning from the government, he comes out unable to commit an act of violence (no matter how much he wants to), but struggles to cope with the side effects and as a result becomes a victim to almost everyone around him (including his parents, the police, and his old gang). As the book continues and he loses his free will entirely, the reader is constantly left with the moral dilemma of siding with the free, violent Alex, or the conditioned, victimised, ‘safe’ Alex. Oh, and did I mention it’s written in a made-up language? Well, it’s written in a made-up language.

‘Hang on!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can it be written in a made-up language?’ Well, not every word is supplemented with something made-up by Burgess, but it reads more as an extreme version of teenage slang. While it’s difficult to grasp at first, as the novella progresses you begin to pick up on what the words mean until, by the end, you are virtually fluent in it and barely notice it’s there (although I believe American audiences were given a glossary, which takes away the fun slightly). It’s often remarked that this effect is ‘brainwashing’ – particularly interesting to think about when we witness the brainwashing the main character goes through and the negative effects it has on his life.

Burgess was inspired to write the novel after a series of incidences – the most upsetting being that his wife was beaten and raped by four men during the Second World War. It is strange that he chose to relive that experience in the novel through the perspective of the attackers – and stranger still that the woman attacked by Alex and his friends was the wife of an author who was writing a book called A Clockwork Orange. However, a big theme in the book is the effect of youth culture in society – which was definitely influenced by the emergence of youth culture in the fifties and sixties (such as the teddy boys, and later on the Mods and Rockers). Alex and his friends are constantly trying out bizarre new fashions and challenging rival gangs in the streets. The direct contrast between Alex’s intellectual interests and his complete lack of moral decency was inspired by Burgess’s observation of Russian teens, whose violence contrasted with their polite and gentlemanly manners, and it makes for very interesting characters (not to mention that the language it’s written in, ‘nadsat’, was based on Russian).

I gave this to my sister to read and when she finished she said that she’d never been so disturbed reading a book. I don’t know if it’s because I was near the end of my English degree at the time I read it, but I didn’t have that feeling (if there’s one thing you get used to during a Lit. degree, it’s death, violence, and generally disturbing topics). Given that I’ve told you it’s probably my favourite book… well, I’m not sure what that says about me, but there you go.

I won’t tell you what happens in the last chapter, but the book was split into twenty-one chapters as it’s largely about Alex maturing into adulthood, and Burgess believed that twenty-one was the age that a young person hit maturity. The twentieth chapter has its own sort of ending (again, won’t tell you the details) which finishes on quite a different note to the twenty-first, but in the American edition, the twenty-first chapter was removed for that very reason. It was believed that the final chapter had an ending that was too unbelievable in comparison to the twentieth, but the change made Burgess deeply unhappy, especially as it ruined the structural pattern he created for the novel and the significance of twenty-one – and the film did nothing to improve things (more on that later). I much prefer the twenty-first chapter, which ends on a morally high note – I won’t say too much but you leave the twenty-first chapter feeling hopeful (even if it is slightly implausible). Both endings, however, end ‘happily’, albeit in very different ways.

Why a ‘clockwork orange’? The title of the book has been debated, but there are all sorts of theories about it: mainly the idea of taking something natural (an orange) and wiring it up so it becomes something mechanical and unnatural (reflecting the treatment and conditioning that Alex received). Burgess spent time in Malaya in the fifties and became fluent in Malay; incidentally, the Malay word for man is ‘orang’ (incorporated into the word orangutan, meaning man of the forest). Could be a coincidence, but unlikely. The classic book cover supports this, depicting who we assume is Alex with a clockwork eye – though the film adaptation took this image and chose instead to turn it into part of his surreal youth fashion, with Alex sporting spiky make-up around his eye. Speaking of…

If we’re talking about A Clockwork Orange, there’s something we HAVE to discuss. And that’s the film.

A Clockwork Orange 2

Almost a decade after the book was released, Stanley Kubrick would buy the rights to Burgess’s novel and turn it into one of the most well-known and iconic films of all time. The image of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in his bowler hat and heavily-mascaraed right eye, not to mention the white braces and glass of milk, would forever be recognisable (and makes for a pretty good Halloween costume – trust me on that.) This is a film you HAVE to see before you die – it’s common knowledge. That said, and with all my love for the novel expressed… I haven’t seen it yet.

I have a difficult enough time with book-to-film adaptations, but the ones that the authors have bad relationships with are particularly hard to watch. Burgess’s attitude towards Kubrick’s interpretation of what he perceived to be one of his less-interesting novels was very bad indeed, even though he initially praised the adaptation. The short answer is that he probably sold it for peanuts, and resented the success and iconic status it quickly developed – I don’t think he expected a novel he wasn’t the most proud of to become his most well-known work. Indeed, nowadays not a lot of people even know it was based on a book, which says a lot about Kubrick’s stamp on it. But even with this added publicity for Burgess at the time, the idea of labouring for years over a storyline and characters and to see it, in your eyes, butchered on screen must be particularly horrible. One of the most famous scenes is when Alex, during the rape of the author’s wife, starts to sing Singin’ in the Rain; this was lauded as a genius move by many critics but pissed off Burgess and, supposedly, Gene Kelly (the star of Singin’ in the Rain) - who was completely disgusted and snubbed McDowell at a party. Some critics responded to the film as being one that glorified violence, which led Burgess to feel his work was being misunderstood, particularly as the film was based on the abridged American edition with the missing chapter at the end. In an effort to redeem the story, Burgess actually put on a stage adaptation that was more along the lines of the book which included obvious digs at Kubrick (I remember reading that at one point a character who looked a lot like Kubrick came on stage playing Singin’ in the Rain on a flute, before promptly being kicked off), but it didn’t have quite the same lasting impression as the film.

Despite the fact I imagine it to be a very disturbing watch, this is a film that I NEED to see. For one, I have a secret love for the young Malcolm McDowell – although that might disappear once super-violent Alex walks on to my screen. McDowell starred in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. – a very odd film about British public schoolboys starting up a revolution. (The sixties were a weird time for film.) I watched it two or three years ago but there’s one scene that sticks in my mind, in which the boys take it in turns to head into the school gym and be caned by their teachers. McDowell’s character (Mick) is last – if I remember correctly – and in an act of defiance, he throws open the doors to the gym with the most maniacal smile on his face. Supposedly when McDowell was cast in A Clockwork Orange he turned to If…. director Lindsay Anderson for advice, who pointed at that particular scene, at that particular moment, and said ‘that there… that’s Alex.’ Considering how well I remember that scene, and how mesmerising McDowell was at that moment, it’s pretty shameful, actually, that I haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange yet.

I think I will see it eventually but (as pathetic as it sounds) I need to prepare myself mentally, make it an event. I’ve actually seen clips of it during its constant re-runs on ITV2 and from the few scenes I did see, it seemed they toned the violence down a bit – though I didn’t see the Singin’ in the Rain scene so I’m not sure if I just caught a few good bits. I suppose one of the reasons for my resistance is that I think the language of the novel is so clever at creating violent images in the readers’ minds that they partially have to construct themselves (particularly at the beginning when the language is completely unfamiliar, so when the violence is being described, all you’ve got is your best guess), and I can’t help but wonder if this effect loses its spark when it’s played out on screen. But it made its mark and will forever be remembered, so it needs to be seen to be discussed properly. One day I’ll report back when I’ve seen it. But until then… I’ve got the book!

To finish with, my Goodreads review: A Clockwork Orange gets the full whack from me. Five stars. I know many people will disagree with this, and Burgess himself would DEFINITELY disagree, but I consider it a literary masterpiece. Oh, and just in case you were curious about that Halloween costume…

A Clockwork Orange 3

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