The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

wasp-factory 1

Cripes – it’s been a while! Things have been nuts over the last couple of months, and only now am I getting a chance to catch up with this blog – which is bad, because I’ve done a LOT of reading since my last post. You’ll notice that in my schedule I had Catch-22 and The Road down to blog about before this one, but I’ve shifted those back a bit. They both have famous films I’m dying to watch and analyse in their respective blog posts, but I haven’t had a chance or the means to watch either (yet) so for now, we’ll look at The Wasp Factory.

Ah, Iain Banks. Or Iain M. Banks, as you might know him, depending on your preference of fiction. Banks went by two pen-names to differentiate between his styles of fiction – mainstream literature as Iain Banks (which includes The Wasp Factory) and science-fiction as Iain M. Banks. Handy for when you spot his name on a dust jacket in a bookshop and are wondering what type of book it is. My dad in particular is a big fan of Iain M. Banks (not so much Iain Banks) and was disheartened to learn of his passing last year, at the relatively young age of 59. Let this review be written as something of a tribute, then, as we turn to the very start of Banks’ literary career.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel he wrote, published in 1984 (Banks was 30 at the time). One of the things that drew me to the book was the mention of an anti-hero – a particular love of mine, which I’ll go into later – but also the bizarre mix of reviews that featured in the paperback copy I found on my dad’s shelf. Alongside the usual glowing praise, there were reviews from critics that told readers to stay away from the book at all costs. Clever move from the marketing team: sell controversy and the novel is likely to fly off the shelves. If you bear in mind that my favourite book is A Clockwork Orange, you can see why this might have appealed to me. Spoilers ahead.

The story follows Frank, a dysfunctional teenager living on a tiny Scottish island. He’s a 16-year-old with an obsessive personality, someone who murdered for recreation in the past and has a habit of mutilating animals for what he believes are supernatural reasons. It’s a short novel and there isn’t a lot of plot, per se, but much of the story revolves around the return of Eric, Frank’s older brother who is completely mad and has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Every now and then Eric will phone Frank, who lives with his father, to taunt him with this whereabouts and imply he is getting closer to home while Frank desperately tries to keep his father from suspecting anything. Frank kills time by killing animals, getting drunk with his friend Jamie, or catching wasps for his ‘Wasp Factory’, a strange death-trap he has set up for the insects that he believes will predict the future, depending on the wasps’ manner of death. As the book progresses, Eric draws closer, culminating in his (rather anti-climactic) arrival.

Eric is perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel. The highlights of the book are when he phones Frank, and Banks gets to demonstrate his witty dialogue and convey the overall disastrous experience of trying to talk to someone who is teasing you, is completely mad, and who you are afraid of aggravating, all at the same time. Eric’s backstory and descent into madness is explained and you get a sense that this character is quite tragic, particularly with the breakdown of the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a shame that his arrival isn’t quite the tense showdown you expect, mainly because a lot of Eric’s character revolves around his wordplay, and instead all we see of him at the end is a failed attempt to burn the house down with almost no dialogue whatsoever. There’s also another event that happens that detracts from the Eric storyline entirely – but I’ll explain that in a bit.

Why do I love an anti-hero? Part of what drew me to this book was the mention of a character who murders for fun, and I worry that makes me come across as pretty disturbed. I like to think this attraction is because I’m so far removed from that kind of character that I find them fascinating in fiction, and you get to see all sides of their personalities. Murderers and criminals are presented as classic villains in the media, men and women you expect were simply born out of the devil himself who are incapable of love, remorse, and affection for anything; in contrast, it’s interesting to see them in literature with outside interests and a level of emotion we simply don’t find elsewhere. Alex in A Clockwork Orange has his love of Beethoven. Pinkie in Brighton Rock has a confusing time with his love life. Frank here at least has some friends and some interests. It builds a slightly bigger picture of people who we expect to be completely one-dimensional, and I like that. But continuing with The Wasp Factory… it gets weird from here.

I intended for this review to be spoiler-free but there is such a big, bizarre twist at the end that I have to discuss it. Throughout the novel we learn that early in Frank’s life, he was mutilated by a dog who, er, bit off his genitals. I thought this seemed like a very odd character trait to be given, and indeed Frank seemed to live a remarkably normal life despite this rather severe setback, although he does lament how much he dislikes having to sit down to use the toilet, ‘like a woman’. Frank despises women and female traits, which makes his discovery at the end of the book all the more shocking. Right at the end, he inadvertently stumbles across male hormones, a pack of tampons, and his own minuscule genitals in his dad’s study – which end up to be made of plasticine. Frank was attacked by a dog when he was young, or rather FRANCES was – for Frank is in fact a girl, who has been tricked and secretly fed male hormones for his entire life as an ‘experiment’. Frank reflects that this might be why he murdered family members in the past and the cause of his fixation on destruction, but this isn’t delved into too much. Instead you, the reader, are left with a blank page and the overwhelming desire to shout ‘what the FU – ??’

I’m not sure how I feel about this novel on the whole. On the one hand, it feels slightly underdeveloped, almost what I think of as a Creative Writing project, which is when we (at university, myself and the fellow Creative Writing undergrads) would stumble around writing the kind of fiction that could evolve into some very good stuff, but we hadn’t yet learned how to structure a plot and create a satisfying experience for the reader. True, this was often because we’d written our class projects horribly hungover ten minutes before the seminar began (er, just me?) but you do get that kind of impression with The Wasp Factory, which seems quite self-aware, as if Banks was more focused on writing powerful description and proving himself as a talented writer than actually thinking about the emotional reactions of his readers. I think of that as an amateur quality.

On the other hand, the novel is rich with symbolism and a very good depiction of an obsessive, murderous personality. I could easily envision writing an essay about this book, going through and examining Frank’s character and how he has been nurtured to become the rather violent man (or woman?) he has become. It could even be a very good study for a feminist essay. Banks is undoubtedly a phenomenal writer and indeed, became very famous after (although not necessarily as a result of) this debut. The dialogue is sharp and the writing is witty, and some of the imagery is the most powerful I’ve ever read. On my search for a good book cover to include in this post, I stumbled across this one, and I can’t help thinking this is an inspired bit of symbolism:

wasp factory 2

There’s no adaptation as far as I’m aware, and I cannot imagine one ever being made. The descriptions are so gruesome in places that it would not be very enjoyable on screen, and I don’t know how the camera would be able to capture Frank’s internal conflict from an external viewpoint. But then, that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. Perhaps one day someone will take it on and do a very good job of it, but I won’t put any bets on it happening.

Goodreads, then: I gave this novel three stars. I think if it was slightly longer and we had a chance really explore the mentality of each character, it might get bumped up a notch, but as a short novel it’s a solid three. Still, as a debut, it’s not bad at all – and it certainly didn’t dent the career of a great writer.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

Tagged , ,

Hay Festival 2014: Steven Moffat – The Showrunner

SM1

My final talk at Hay was a discussion with Steven Moffat. If you haven’t heard of him, Moffat is best known for being at the head of two BIG BBC shows: Doctor Who, of which he is the head writer and the showrunner, and Sherlock, the brilliant, modern adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detectives stories which he co-writes and co-created with Mark Gatiss, and which kicked a previously unknown Benedict Cumberbatch into stratospheric fame. As a huge Doctor Who and Sherlock fan, I was pretty excited to hear the brain behind them both talk about his process. That said, I wasn’t sure how likeable Moffat was going to be. I’ve never seen an interview with him before but I know from his shows that he’s a tad on the misogynistic side and he’s also affectionately disliked among the fandoms for being a ‘troll’ – that is, he will happily spread lies or deny certain facts in order to keep everyone in the dark about upcoming plots for his shows. OK, that is a good thing as it ensures that the plots are as surprising as they should be, but it means you have to take EVERYTHING he says in interviews with a pinch of salt. Plus, being the head of arguably the two biggest shows on BBC right now (both of them beloved around the world, too) made me think he might have a bit of an ego. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Moffat was charming. Man, how I hate to admit it. He was remarkably cool, didn’t take himself seriously, and cracked joke after joke to keep the audience in stitches. Both Doctor Who and Sherlock have a very cheeky sense of humour so I don’t know why I found this surprising, but it’s difficult to tell with individuals in the industry and, as I said, he’s got very good reason to think of himself as a big shot. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by how down to earth he was. He talked about his career and the early shows and sitcoms he wrote as he climbed the ladder (always regretting the fact Doctor Who was off the air and he’d never have a chance to write for it – just you wait, young Moffat!). I’m also a fan of his other modern literary adaptation, Jekyll, which is low-budget and doesn’t have the same glossy feel as Sherlock but is tightly written and superbly acted by James Nesbitt, so it was nice to hear Moffat talk about his humble origins. That said, the focuses of the talk were his two big current projects. Let’s get stuck into those (and if you’re not a fan of either, you might find this blog post particularly boring, so feel free to look away now).

Doctor Who

DW

Doctor Who was the focus of most of this talk at Hay. Moffat spoke about his early days writing for the show under the then-showrunner Russell T Davies, his boyhood dream reawakened (a shock, considering he was never 100% sure it would come back on air), and then being asked to fill Davies’ shoes after he stepped down. Apparently he was initially reluctant, but was spurred into accepting the job by his father, who sent him a picture of Moffat as a boy playing with Doctor Who memorabilia. At that point, he knew he’d forever regret it if he didn’t step in.

Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005 and the first series, with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Billie Piper playing his companion, was, in Moffat’s eyes, very ‘BBC’ – a straight talking Doctor wearing a relatively normal outfit having adventures completely based on Earth (seriously, the whole of Series 1 is set on Earth – albeit at different points in time). Moffat said the joy of Doctor Who is that it’s a show about very scary, very surreal things happening in ordinary settings, with monsters that all incorporate an element of childhood fear – a great recipe for adventure if there ever was one. I was relieved to hear that he finds daleks as ridiculous as I do (I mean, come on, they’re moving dustbins!); he is particularly amused by the fact they have sink plungers for hands, as if they’ll find time for various plumbing jobs around their plots for total domination. Probably a feature that should have been left in the sixties, but I respect they wouldn’t be as iconic without them.

The modern version of Doctor Who (which has now been on air for nine years! Crikey) has raced through seven series and three Doctors – and we’re about to meet the fourth. The first, as I mentioned, was Christopher Eccleston, who only stuck around for one series. After he left, Moffat said they chose David Tennant (my personal favourite) based on his performance in other BBC series Casanova; ‘he was playing the Doctor in that role,’ said Moffat. Tennant became a bit of a sex symbol during his time as the doctor, which is amusing as he was initially criticised by the press for not being particularly attractive. Tennant stuck around for three series (with three different companions) before exiting stage left.

After Tennant left, Moff said he felt annoyed that the team were only auditioning young actors. The Doctor was never traditionally played by a young man (he is hundreds of years old, after all) and in Moffat’s mind, even David Tennant (who was 34 when he took the role) was far too young. Then, of course, Matt Smith turned up (pictured above, with recent companion Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman). Smith’s audition was astounding, but Moffat was horrified to learn that he was only 26 – still, he landed the part, and I remember very clearly the reaction of the press when it was revealed that a man in his twenties was to play the Doc (hint: it wasn’t great). But Smith stole the hearts of Whovians in his first five minutes, at the very end of David Tennant’s last episode when he regenerates as the TARDIS is crashing (feeling his slightly longer hair, he exclaims: ‘I’m a girl!’). Smith starred in three official series over five years, and has only just taken  his leave in the Christmas episode of 2013.

Matt Smith had announced his leave for a while and there was a great deal of anticipation over who would be next. For seemingly the first time, there was a great public demand for it to be a woman – after all, the Doctor could be either sex and we’re in 2014 now; we don’t need to see a smart, strong man run around with a simpering female companion (or ‘assistant’) and more. I’ve got to say I was in that bandwagon – not necessarily because of the reason above but more because I thought would freshen and transform the show, which was in need of a new formula. But Moffat sucks at writing for women, it has to be said, so there was no chance of it happening this year. When asked about it Hay (the audience member who brought it up received a round of applause), Moffat was firm to point out that there was no reason it couldn’t happen and that he himself had actually written the loophole into the script that indicates the Doctor could become a woman – but that it wouldn’t happen until the right actress came along. With all the Doctors, there had to be something about them that just made them a shoe-in for the role; Moffat said he refuses to cast someone for political reasons and will wait until someone has that appeal, in his eyes.

SM2

So instead Peter Capaldi was cast. He is apparently an actor they had always wanted (and one of an appropriate age, at last), although his decision to take the role was marred slightly by Doctor Who canon: he pops up in other small parts in Doctor Who and also had a recurring part in Torchwood (the Doctor Who spin off set in the same universe). Moffat was asked about this plothole by an audience member and he responded cryptically, saying he’d been working with Russell T Davies to write a credible explanation for that. Sounds intriguing – but this is Moffat, people, remember! Who knows if anything actually will be explained or not. Capaldi is due to make his Who debut this month – so we’ll have to wait and see what he’s like.

Sherlock

Sh.

So then on to Sherlock, Moffat’s vanity project with long-term friend and Doctor Who collaborator Mark Gatiss. Sherlock has a funny origin story which I’ve heard a couple of times – Moffat and Gatiss often caught the train to Cardiff together for Doctor Who, but had to refrain from speaking too much about the show for you could guarantee there were fans listening in, desperate to hear about what was in store for the Doctor. With that topic out of bounds, they instead took to discussing their other great obsession – the stories about the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary creation, written and set in Victorian London. Moffat and Gatiss (or Mofftiss, as they have now been nicknamed) lamented that one day, someone was going to do a really good modern adaptation of the Holmes stories and they would be annoyed it wasn’t them. Apparently the obvious solution to that never occurred – not until one day, Moffat repeated this woe to his producer wife Sue, who said: ‘er, so why don’t you do it?’ It was a revelation, and a project they both leapt on.

And so in 2010 Sherlock appeared on BBC and took the world by storm. Moffat credits the show’s popularity to Cumberbatch, who I mentioned earlier takes the lead role, and Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson (both pictured above), as well as the brilliant supporting cast. Being huge fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss have worked very closely to the original structure of the stories while making sure they are relevant and interesting to a modern audience. I haven’t actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories but I completely fell in love with Sherlock – I think it has an appeal to both old and new fans of the ACD adventures and is a cut above the numerous adaptations that have appeared over the years – despite unfortunately appearing at the same time as another modern update on the other side of the Atlantic (Elementary) and a series of films about the Victorian Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. As I mentioned earlier, Cumberbatch has become hugely famous and an international sex symbol after appearing in Sherlock, yet Moffat remembered that, like Tennant, critics initially claimed he wasn’t sexy enough. Sometimes the part maketh the man, and if Doctor Who and Sherlock (and, hell, Jekyll) are anything to go by, Moffat’s found the formula.

Each season of the show consists of three 90-minute episodes (short films, as Mofftiss think of them) and so far there have been two-year gaps between them. I’ve never found this particularly problematic. Most British TV shows only have six episodes per season so three doesn’t seem so bad, especially when they’re an hour and a half long, and sure, the breaks mean that we have longer to wait and less to savour (Season 3 was over in ONE AND A HALF WEEKS) but it keeps the quality high and also makes it more likely that the show will keep running for years – until Cumberbatch and Freeman become too famous and too expensive to hire, at least. But there’s an ill feeling amongst the Sherlock fandom about it, a fandom that consists of many teenage girls – and Americans, who are used to 24-episode seasons that are churned out year after year. One American audience member asked Moffat if there ever would be more episodes and he seemed irked by the suggestion, claiming that it would simply be impossible to schedule owing to the packed calendars of everyone involved (Cumberbatch and Freeman are fully fledged Hollywood stars, now – with the hugely epic The Hobbit taking up most of their time over the last couple of years – and Moffat and Gatiss are both working hard on Doctor Who). He jokily remarked that they had made nine Sherlock Holmes films in the same time it’s taken Guy Ritchie to make two, so really we had no grounds to complain.

SM3

So then our hour was up – and so was my time at Hay. What a cool weekend! I didn’t blog about everything I went to see but I hope these posts have given you a nice flavour of the festival (if you’re still reading). I really recommend you go if you ever have the chance. Back then on to reviews, now – see my What’s Next page to see what’s a-coming. Promise it’s good.

[Photos: hayfestival.com and bbc.co.uk]

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Hay Festival 2014: Fictions – Gothics

Part of the joy of going to Hay is getting to see writers talk about their latest novels. In ‘Fictions’ talks, authors are generally presented in pairs and the talks are given a particular theme that ties the two books together, with a host engaging in a discussion about the starting points, characters, and other elements of the books with the authors. I haven’t yet worked out if it’s more practical to read the books before or after – sometimes the discussions can be a bit spoiler-y, particularly when the authors read excerpts aloud (why do they always pick the last chapter?) – but seeing as the talk itself is part of the promo circuit for the author (and they sell signed copies directly afterwards), I’ve always thought it wiser to wait until you can hear what they’ve got to say about the book before plunging in.

So! Today’s theme was ‘Gothics’ – we’re talking supernatural, horror stuff here. Always fun. It turned out both novels had a strong vampiric theme; Lauren Owen was discussing her debut novel The Quick, and Marcus Sedgwick was there with his new novel A Love Like Blood.

the quick

Set in 1892, The Quick follows siblings Charlotte and James recovering from trauma in bleary Yorkshire, while also focusing on an elite private members’ club in London called the Aegolius Club; I got the impression from the talk that all the members of said club are vampires. Generally speaking, The Quick has received very favourable reviews. Owen is a graduate of the prestigious Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia  (which also boasts Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan as alumni) – beats the Creative Writing course at Hull, I guess – and I’ve got to admit, the novel sounded very good. She read an excerpt aloud and the writing was very smooth and elegant – I’d definitely give this one a try if it fell into my eyeline.

a love like blood

Sedgwick’s first adult novel (he’s normally a YA writer) follows a man named Charles Jackson and his life from 1944 to the 1960s. After Jackson’s girlfriend is murdered, he becomes obsessed with tracking down a man who he suspects has vampiric tendencies, partly driven by his own thirst for revenge. Sedgwick mentioned that one of his starting points was the word ‘haemophilia’, a peculiar name for a disease: it literally means ‘a love of blood’. Some reviews pointed out that the overall theme and structure of the story played it safe, but Sedgwick crafted a very interesting character and it was an impressive read. That said, I didn’t feel as keen to pick up A Love Like Blood, but that might be because Sedgwick read out an excerpt that was badly written (he overdoses on adverbs).

Both authors had plenty to discuss when it came to vampires. Their starting points were, naturally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it seemed that Owen’s book in particular looks back at this traditional incarnation of the vampire (I suspect the time period she set the novel in had an influence on that). Of course, vampires have changed a lot since Dracula, and I was keen to ask the authors (as part of the audience Q&A) what they make of vampires going from bloodsuckers to boyfriends in today’s pop culture. Sedgwick pointed out that vampires were always villains until Anne Rice made it tragic to be a vampire; after all, being immortal and undead is not a barrel of laughs, and vampires look human enough (indeed, they were once humans) – so why not ascribe human emotions to them, too? Owen said that vampires are often considered damaged and fiendish, which is part of their appeal. They’re versatile gothic characters in the sense that there is a mix of fear and desire in their nature and their being. I’ll go into this in great detail in an upcoming Throwback Thursday post, so I won’t spend too much time on it now.

Another cool reason to see authors talk about their novels is that they have a lot to say about the writing process. It seems to vary wildly from person to person, but it’s comforting to know that everyone has their struggles and their unique ways of overcoming them. Lauren Owen had a great metaphor for writer’s block – she compared it to starting a car. If you’ve got an idea, sometimes you have to keep revving and revving before it fully takes off (or the car starts, as it were), but sometimes you have to accept that no matter how much you rev or twist the key, the car is dead and you have to stop.

So at the end of it all, do I want to read the books? I’m not generally a fan of vampire novels – I love Dracula but the modern stuff doesn’t appeal to me – but Owen’s novel sounded interesting. I think I’ll add it to the list. Another great talk at Hay! I’ll be writing about one more before I go back into book reviews, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Tagged , , , ,

Hay Festival 2014: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media – Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter

20140731-143624.jpg

I don’t read non-fiction books very often, which is something I need to rectify, pronto. They’re often very informative and make for compulsive reads, but novels are more up my street. With this one, however, I had a bit of a personal tie. The Vagenda book sprang from the blogzine of the same name, which has been running for a couple of years. I’m a big fan of the blog and often engage with the team on Twitter, and last July I wrote an article for it, which is something I’d love to do again. I was invited to the book launch of The Vagenda, which was a barmy experience involving a basement bard in Shoreditch and cakes that looked like VERY realistic vaginas, so I snapped up a copy very quickly – and noticed that Cosslett and Baxter were talking at Hay, so got tickets for that, too. But first, let’s talk about the book.

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media looks at what was originally the focus of the blog: women’s magazines. These magazines are made by, marketed for and bought by women, but does that mean they have our best interests at heart? Not necessarily, say Holly and Rhiannon (the editorial team behind The Vagenda blog and co-authors of the book). Instead they tend to focus on scrutinising women’s looks so fall into their advertisers’ laps, put a harsh focus on women in the public eye, or simply make you hate your body. The feature content doesn’t focus on culture or business but again, looks at relatively trivial things or how best to please your man. Of course, this is generalising; women’s magazines can be quite diverse (depending on how much money you’re willing to spend) but the main glossies have the same opinion about you: you need to, or at least want to, change yourself.

I like women’s magazines, though I have noticed a dip in quality over recent years and am less inclined to read them as I once was. There are still a few I don’t mind spending a few bob on, but the vast majority of the rags I devoured as a teenager I wouldn’t look twice at now. I don’t hold them up to the same light as the Vagenda team do, but instead feel frustrated by the lack of intelligent content these days, as opposed to the messages they are communicating. I’d much rather get my magazine fill from The Saturday Times instead (seriously, read the supplement. It’s amazing.) When reading The Vagenda: AZTGM, I found myself nodding in agreement fairly often. But the overall book? I’m not so sure about it.

The problem, of course, is that I’m comparing it to the blog. In 500-word, unedited articles, the Vagenda writers really shine, and the sheer amount of contributions they receive means that the blog always makes for an interesting read, with fresh perspectives daily and a variety of topics covered by those who won’t have another outlet. They look at everything from miscarrying to masturbation, or syphillis to sexism in the film industry. I click on it everyday and thoroughly enjoy almost every article on there (if enjoy is the right word when it comes to the more painfully honest or tragic pieces), and when it’s evident that Holly or Rhiannon has written the article (usually noticeable when it’s about Grazia or if the piece isn’t credited to another writer), you know it’s going to be a fantastic read. They’re quippy and witty and downright hilarious, but that might be because they’re holding the power, with no editors or publishers to pander to.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I got the impression that with the book, the editor was stopping them from really letting loose; the sentences lack the usual snarky bite that feature so prominently in the blog. Generally speaking the book has received unfavourable reviews – that wasn’t hard to predict, given that a lot of the reviews came from women’s journalists, but I think feminist critics have looked on it with an unnecessarily harsh eye. It makes plenty of valid arguments and indeed, sections of the book are laugh-out-loud hysterical – one of my favourite bits was when they highlighted the most ridiculous sex tips they could find from women’s magazines and put their own witty commentary alongside it. It would have made a neat article, actually (coincidence? Probably not). That said, it did feel a bit fast and loose with its statistics, and I would have liked interviews with those who worked in the industry or even counter arguments with women’s journos to get a sense of the bigger picture. Opinion pieces work well in small chunks, but maybe not over 300 pages or so. There’s a reason Caitin Moran turned half of her feminist bible How to Be a Woman into a memoir to keep the pages fresh. The Vagenda ran on observation alone and it felt that anyone who was given the right amount of money and time could probably write the same thing.

Cosslett wasn’t at Hay Festival but Baxter made an appearance, speaking to a packed-out audience (it looked like the talk had to be upgraded to a bigger stage). I was hoping the discussion might focus more on the book and even address some of its unfavourable reviews, but it turned out to be more about the subject matter, similar to Laura Bates’ talk. Indeed, there was a pretty big crossover. Baxter spoke about how women’s magazines had started off as fairly influential but had rapidly gone downhill – and that’s what inspired the blog. She mentioned that young girls are groomed into this fixation on beauty and appearance from a young age, with their own publications marketing make-up and handing out freebie lipstick. Ultimately, what I found most interesting about the book and the talk was the exposure of exactly how women’s magazines work. When an editor tells you the latest handbag is right at the top of their wishlist and is simply a MUST-have, do they genuinely mean it or are they being paid generous amounts from a top fashion company for such an endorsement? Who knows, but it’s more likely the latter. Can the editor in questions even afford the handbag on a journalist’s salary? Probably know. Similarly, the ever popular ‘what we wear to work’ features aren’t as accurate as they’d have us believe – it’s much more likely that they raided the fashion cupboard 5 minutes before the shoot as opposed to owning and strutting around Central London in such elaborate outfits.

Overall, the book was good, but based on my long-running affection for the blog, I’m a little disappointed; either they stripped a lot away to please the publishers or their writing style is simply better-suited to articles. That said, as a seasoned feminist who’s heard almost every argument out there, I’m not sure I’m the ideal target audience. If I had a young teenage relative or friend, I’d certainly put it in their direction, and it’s nice that these kind of books exist for the young, impressionable audiences who are making the dangerous transition from the Beano to Cosmo.

Goodreads, then: three stars from me. A great read, but I’m sticking to the blog.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

Tagged , , , , ,

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).

Screenshot 2014-07-11 13.29.40
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.

Tagged , , , ,

Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

ST

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]

Tagged , ,

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carré

TTSS 1

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).

TTSS 2

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]

Tagged , ,

Oh Hay!

HayFestival2009-generic-6

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!

Tagged

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]

Tagged , , ,

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 1924, 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!

Tagged , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.