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: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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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.

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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…

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1

I’ve got to be honest here – I’m not sure I like American fiction. I don’t really know what it is about it, but it doesn’t hit me the same way fiction from other countries does. That really isn’t a reflection on all American literature, and I’m probably generalising vastly, so take that with a pinch of salt. It might be that I can’t relate to the language and slang the same way I can to British fiction, or it might be that I’m reading the wrong kind – either way, I was less impressed than I thought I would be with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that could be a reason why.

I’ve been long familiar with the storyline of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, partly because of the multi-Oscar-winning film produced by a young Michael Douglas, and partly because it’s just one of those stories that’s talked about for its ending and its entire plot, not just the premise. If you don’t know the outcome and would like to avoid spoilers, I recommend you avoid this blog post as I’m not quite sure how to discuss the book without discussing the ending. In fact, it didn’t feel like much happened in it UNTIL the ending, and even that felt a bit rushed. So if you know the ending or don’t mind finding it out, let’s take a look at the book itself.

The story is told through the eyes of a seemingly mute and deaf half-’Indian’ (Native American) Chief who is a patient in a mental institution held under the oppressive regime of a matriarchal nurse. He’s not actually deaf, or he wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, but everyone believes he is and so he spends his days being ignored and never saying a word. One day, a swaggering, fun-loving man is admitted, feigning madness to gain entry and cause trouble, aiming to rouse the patients into a rebellion. Throughout the relatively short novel, McMurphy (the rebel patient) witnesses what life is like under the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched and aspires to overthrow her. McMurphy is our protagonist, but we all know how it ends – McMurphy’s spirit is crushed and he eventually receives a lobotomy, a neurosurgical procedure that seems to virtually wipe the personality from the person receiving it.

I know what I expected here: steady mental decline, the nurse coming down with an iron fist, McMurphy getting gradually more powerless as the psychology of dictatorship comes into play. If that’s what was in the novel, I feel like I missed it. Throughout the vast majority of the story, McMurphy only endures very minor setbacks, and at times when you think his personality is beginning to change, he comes through stronger than ever. In fact, only in the last fifty pages or so does it feel like there is any story at all, and McMurphy’s punishment comes around so quickly and seems so out of character that it’s difficult to follow – not exactly the unstable rebellion I was expecting. Nurse Ratched did not have the threatening presence I thought she would have, although her damaging effect on the other patients was clear.

The novel is a classic, so I can’t help but doubt my own perception as a reader by disliking it or not feeling the emotions that I expected to feel. On Goodreads (and we know how much I love Goodreads!) it has an average star rating of 4.16, which is exceptionally good compared to many other average ratings. If I cast my eye over the reviews, everyone seems to have taken from it what I so desperately wanted to – the anguish upon reading about an individual’s struggle against the system. McMurphy is hailed as one of the best characters in literature (he certainly is a character and a half, so I’ll accept that). But finishing it feels a bit like when you read a novel at school and would scratch your head and say ‘huh?’ while your teacher waxed lyrical about how it was one of the most important novels of its era. You know the feeling. As an English Literature grad and a lover of books I refuse to accept that it’s just me being dumb, and missing the subtleties at work.

I was also pretty irked by the constant grammatical errors, which apparently made it through the editing process (and, I presume, were considered so integral to the original novel that they were never corrected in later editions). Kesey commonly uses ‘could of’ / ‘should of’ / ‘would of’ etc. in his narration (a lot of people defend grammar errors in fiction when they are being said by characters, which is understandable, but I don’t think ‘could of’ is a worthy exception, given that ‘could of’ and ‘could’ve’ sound virtually the same – which is why the error exists in the first place, I expect). I’ve never seen grammatical errors in a book before, and it made me very uncomfortable to find so many in a Penguin edition of a classic piece of literature.

This all sounds very negative, but I do consider it a good book, just not a great one. I liked the writing style very much, with Chief Bromden’s reflections on his past with his Native American father beautifully written, but I suppose I needed to see it on screen to truly appreciate it. With that in mind, let’s look now at the aforementioned Oscar-winning movie.

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The film actually redeemed the book slightly, in my eyes. It was a pretty good film all round, and a very faithful adaptation to boot (although Kesey notoriously hated it). Jack Nicholson was perfect in the role of McMurphy and in many ways carried the film on his shoulders, but I think that all of the patients were well-cast and shone in their roles, making each character unique and convincing while trapped in the asylum. The only character I felt was badly-cast was Nurse Ratched – Louise Fletcher did bring an icy presence to the role, but it didn’t feel right for the character, somehow. Her soft voice and slight frame made the ‘Big Nurse’ seem more like an exasperated worker who was sympathetic to her patients’ needs, not the tyrannical dictator who knew how to psychologically play each man from the novel. Without the narration from Chief Bromden, it was difficult to see exactly how she was affecting them. I noticed that the film did the editing that the book needed – the dramatic events taking place at the end of the novel happened much, much sooner in the film and were spaced out well. Without the need for everything to be in Bromden’s eyes, we learnt much more about McMurphy’s state of mind and, crucially, the psychological torture he underwent (such as the electro-shock therapy).

So, to finish with: my Goodreads review. Sorry, Ken, but I gave this one three stars – a respectable rating, but nothing incredible. I think my expectations were just too high on this one.

[Coming next: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton]

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White Teeth – Zadie Smith

White Teeth 1

[Note: spoilers ahead! I do mention the ending in this blog post, but I provide warning before discussing it specifically.]

White Teeth was on my to-read list for a long time. The book was published back in 2000, and I always had a vague awareness of Zadie Smith being this amazing young British novelist who was on everyone’s radars, but I didn’t actually pick up her debut novel until quite recently. I actually read her latest, NW, before I read this - NW is one of those books that constantly challenges conventional style and narrative structure, so reading it by the pool as a casual holiday read was pretty interesting, to say the least. White Teeth, however, is a much simpler (but no less rewarding) read that follows two families across two generations (and occasionally three or four, if we’re counting flashbacks).

I always remember my Aunty Janet talking about White Teeth and saying: ‘it’s amazing that she [Smith] was so young when she wrote it, yet so wise.’ I’ve always both admired and envied that idea, considering I’m writing a book now in my early twenties – which will probably turn out to be the least wise thing you could ever read. After reading White Teeth, I’m full of more admiration and envy than ever before. Smith supposedly finished the novel during her last year at university (Cambridge, which partly explains the wisdom, I suppose) and would have been 24 or 25 when it was published in its complete form, but the book definitely has a much more mature feel to it. That seems to be a bit of a theme for me at the moment – I’m currently reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker prize last year and made her the youngest Booker winner ever at 28 – again, it’s astonishing to read it and think that a 28-year-old wrote such a profound plot with such historical accuracy. But more on that another time! Back to White Teeth.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one protagonist – at the start, the novel follows Archibald ‘Archie’ Jones and his friend Samad Miah Iqbal in the early seventies, old friends who marry their wives in North West London, Clara and Alsana respectively. As the novel progresses, we learn about their early lives in the war together and their future lives with their children: Archie and Clara with a daughter, Irie, who becomes the novel’s later protagonist, and Samad and Alsana with identical twin sons, Magid and Millat. If you look at Smith’s early life, you can see that Irie was perhaps a semi-autobiographical character: both were born in 1975 in North London to a Jamaican mother and English father; both struggled with weight and the pressures of appearance. I don’t know how much of Irie’s academic struggles and love life are true to Smith’s, but she certainly manages to capture the insecurities of a mixed-race teenage girl in the nineties the way only someone who experienced it first-hand could.

I love books that span years and generations (one of my favourites is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I’m sure I’ll blog about at some point) so this was right up my street. There’s something quite leisurely about these kind of books, like you can take your time reading them and they don’t wear thin. I definitely took my time reading White Teeth, and it’s not a short novel by any standards (500 pages or so) so it felt that by the time I reached the end, a lot of the earlier events felt like distant memories. I also liked the way different characters took the hotseat when it came to narration; although it’s not narrated in first person, we look at different events through different perspectives and it paints a very colourful picture. The writing is smart and witty, although I’ve spotted some readers mention on the internet that it often feels like Smith dislikes her readers. I didn’t get that impression when I read the book but I can recall parts that became slightly preachy, perhaps, or tell instead of the show the readers certain incidents (a common writing no-no, and one I am always painfully aware of when writing fiction, although it can be acceptable in certain circumstances). Still, no book is perfect, and you can’t expect glowing reviews all around.

But for all its simple and accurate depiction of life in North West London, White Teeth had some strange and occasionally disturbing moments. What freaked me out the most? The ending. And it is here I say look away now if you have any intention of reading the novel (which I do recommend). So close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph! Spoilers below…

What happens when you have sex with identical twins on the same night (not together! Bleurgh) and fall pregnant? Whose baby is it? Irie faces this very conundrum and laments that no DNA test in the world would be able to tell her who the father is, given that both boys have identical genes. This idea horrified me, even though it is presented as a real emotional freedom for Irie; she gets to choose who the father is and doesn’t feel any underlying guilt about telling the wrong one, simply because she isn’t sure who the wrong one is. It did throw up some stranger complex issues that I tried to get my head around – does this mean all identical twins are somehow also the parents of their sibling’s offspring, if we see genetic inheritance as a big part of biological parenthood? Does Irie’s baby, in a sense, belong to both Magid and Millat? Plus, given that she is infatuated with one twin (who doesn’t reciprocate her love and would probably make a terrible dad) yet the other twin is smart and mature, you’re genuinely unsure who she will pick. In the end, a confusing flash-forward tells us that she doesn’t actually choose but prefers to keep her daughter’s father anonymous, although we are not given much time to dwell on this before the novel ends.

White Teeth doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I can tell, but Channel 4 did adapt it into a four-part TV drama starring Naomie Harris and an unexpected early performance from James McAvoy (this is pre-Shameless, even). It aired back in 2002 but it’s still in 4OD’s archive and available to watch online. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet but I’ve heard it’s very good, although I think they gloss up some of the characters for TV viewing purposes. I also notice from the poster, which you can see below, that the focus might be slightly different – Josh, the character James McAvoy played, was very minor compared to the twins Magid and Millat (both played by Jacob Scipio), yet it is McAvoy who’s on the poster, which makes me wonder if he has much more to do with the television plot than the one from the book. It’s interesting that 4OD considers it a comedy – while it was funny in places and maybe had some very stereotypically comedic characters, I didn’t read it as a comedy, more of a drama. I’ll be interested to find out if the adaptation did turn it more into a comedy, or if it kept its dramatic roots.

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There’s an app called Goodreads where you can log every book you’ve read and give it a star rating (and a review, if you fancy), so I thought it would be a cool idea to end all of these blog posts with the star rating I’ve given the book on Goodreads. I’m quite fussy with my five stars but White Teeth was one I planted all five on. When a book can cover an Englishman’s experience in the war with the same emotional depth and detail as a young mixed-race girl’s experience in North London in the nineties, it feels pretty deserving. I’ve heard Smith’s writing a sci-fi novel soon, which excites me beyond belief – I can’t wait to see her turn her hand and her beautiful prose style to the more fantastical and unpredictable plots that often occupy sci-fi books. No doubt I’ll be discussing it here, so watch this space!

[Coming next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey]

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Let’s begin…

Hello! Welcome to my literary blog, a place on the interwebz for me to ramble about books. I graduated from the University of Hull last year with a degree in English with Creative Writing, and since then I haven’t been able to stop reading. The thing about doing an English degree is that you kind of get used to writing about books once you’ve read them (and keeping an eye on the page number, and consuming your body weight in coffee at three in the morning while reading a critical essay about the presence of rabbits in Wuthering Heights) so this blog is a way for me to have my writing fix (without the other stuff. Hopefully.) Don’t worry – I won’t be using this space to write undergrad-style essays (because that’s REALLY tempting), but rather use it to write honest reviews and maybe inspire others to pick up the same books.

I know, I’m greedy. I’ve already got a blog, which you can check out here, but that’s more of a nonsensical, humorous blog about the frivolities of everyday life. I want to dedicate this one to the pile of books I’m slowly making my way through – which means my blog posts might be a bit irregular, depending on the length of my current read. This is putting time-management to the test. I’ll keep you updated with what I’m reading next, so we can turn this into a virtual book club – the very best kind of club!

Read About the Blog to find out more about my aims and motivation behind this. In the meantime, expect my first post to be on White Teeth by Zadie Smith – an oldie but goodie. I read it a couple of weeks ago and as it was a debut novel from a twenty-something writer, it seems pretty fitting to start on. Watch this space!

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