Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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I didn’t intend to read Bring Up the Bodies directly after finishing Wolf Hall, but I felt such a sense of withdrawal once Wolf Hall was over that I couldn’t help but turn to its fellow Booker-winning sequel. I forced myself to focus on finishing the latest draft of my own book first, with the reward of BUTB once it was done, but I got about halfway in before losing my head and trawling through various Waterstones around London to find Cromwell Part 2. Hey, it’s hard to write when you’re not reading anything. As I said on Twitter, trying to write a book when you’re not reading is like trying to run a marathon without drinking any water. Again, this review is spoiler-y but it’s a story that everyone knows, anyway, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

First of all – what a cool name for a book. It’s a shame the upcoming Cromwell Part 3 has the really naff title ‘The Mirror and the Light’, because there is something supremely awesome about an epic historical novel called ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. The term itself is used near the end of the book as an instruction to bring Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers from custody to be put on trial, yet the word ‘bodies’ instead of ‘men’, ‘accused’ or anything else is harsh and dehumanising. Something about the phrase seems support the bloodlust of the period; you don’t get the sense that these ‘bodies’ will have a fair trial when the gallows are waiting, nor do you feel they’ve had a particularly good run of things so far. Is Cromwell to blame? Very much so. Throughout the novel he is the man bringing up the bodies, finding those who are guilty or can at least be coerced into false confessions to support the king’s interests.

1536 was a big year for Cromwell, politically. After working and striving to rid King Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and bringing Anne Boleyn to the throne (seen throughout Wolf Hall), he now has to bin her, as well, while the king falls in love with Jane Seymour and Anne continually fails to produce a male heir. Catherine of Aragon dies fairly early on, but if her death was to result in the clear path Anne Boleyn was expecting, she is sorely disappointed. After she has a miscarriage, Cromwell, in service to the king, has to do all he can to justify an annulment.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still as endearing as ever but the darker edge to his personality that is popularised so often in other historical fiction begins to bleed into his calm demeanour throughout Bring Up the Bodies. His support and affection for Anne has slid away and now, as always, it’s the king he serves completely. He abandons his own gut instincts about Anne’s treatment and the actual crimes committed (if any) and knits together a reason to give Henry the legal right to divorce and execute Anne, as well as some of her spurned lovers. Although he is motivated by loyalty, there is an element of personal revenge to his actions. Still stung by Wolsey’s execution years ago, Cromwell incriminates four men who stood by and later made a mockery of the Cardinal’s demise – and that mockery is very much at the forefront of his mind as he persuades them to confess to sleeping with the queen and plotting the king’s death.

Of course, ‘persuasion’ is a light term – with one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, it’s clear he was tortured at Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. The description is vague but it’s implied that he suffered at the hands of the Christmas decorations that Cromwell used to enjoy with his family (when they were still alive) – as torture is not permitted, Cromwell later reflects that he’ll have to burn the peacock feathers that were originally used for his daughter Grace’s angel outfit. Given that Austin Friars has always been a happy and vibrant home, it’s quite a shock to see this dark edge to it, the same way it’s shocking to see the edge to Cromwell’s personality that is so often hinted at but seldom explicitly revealed. The use of the Christmas decorations is particularly poignant – Cromwell is using elements of his personal life, ones associated with his own kindness and humanity, to inflict pain on to others. Indeed, he ponders at one point whether the memory of his daughters is slipping away from him, and that without it he’s become a completely different man.

Arguably every one of Mantel’s readers would know the fate of Anne Boleyn, but this doesn’t detract from the masterful sense of fright and tension in the run up to her execution. Even with history behind us, you still read it expecting there to be a catch, an escape, a moment when everything will halt and the queen will be let off the hook. It’s a tragic end for Anne and it unwillingly foreshadows the eventual end of Cromwell, revealing in a stark light what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Henry VIII. Yet another reason to be morbidly excited for The Mirror and the Light.

Was Bring Up the Bodies better or worse than Wolf Hall? I hate to make comparisons, but in a trilogy there can sometimes be a great difference of quality between one or two instalments. Considering Wolf Hall was such a success I’m sure critics were watching to see if Mantel could replicate it, but Bring Up the Bodies certainly stands on its own feet, giving Mantel her second Booker prize in three years. It doesn’t have the same sprawling story as Wolf Hall, which covered many years; in comparison, BUTB only covered a matter of months, with the single, encompassing plotline being one that revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s agency in it. It was an easier read – probably for that very reason. Mantel still had her trademark style but the writing was a little tighter, with some specification of the pronoun ‘he’ – you’ll remember in my review of Wolf Hall that I mentioned how carefully you had to concentrate to remember that ‘he’ generally always referred to Cromwell. It seems Mantel’s editors might have flagged that up with her – now you’ll spy the occasional ‘he said: he, Cromwell’. The style is still flawless, however. Critics have deemed Mantel one of our best working writers today, and even when I haven’t read much of her work (I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me, including her brand new volume of short stories), it’s hard to disagree.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, BBC 2 continues to air its adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while I expect the RSC are still strutting around Broadway with their famous plays. Those lucky New Yorkers.

First_look_at_Mark_Rylance_as_Thomas_Cromwell_in_new_pictures_for_Wolf_Hall

At the time of writing this blog post, the BBC drama hasn’t yet reached the Bring Up the Bodies plot, and is still focusing on Wolf Hall. It’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Rylance is not quite the Cromwell I expected from the book – he has a kind of timidity and warmth in his small frame and likeable face that suits the affectionate encounters with his family, but doesn’t sit right in court, somehow. But, at this point in the TV drama, he is only just edging his way in. I look forward to seeing what will happen once he begins his villainous campaign to bring down Anne, and at the end of the last episode (Episode 2; Episode 3 is on this evening), it’s made very clear that revenge is in the forefront of his mind. Can’t wait to see more.

If Parts 1 and 2 are anything to go by then Cromwell Part 3 is going to be fantastic. It looks as if it’ll chronicle the last four years of Cromwell’s life, his mistakes and his downfall, with a meaty political plot running alongside it. After two novels I’ve built up quite an attachment to Cromwell so it will be heartbreaking to see his disgraced end – although who knows how his character may change over the course of the book. Presumably it will also include details of the rise of Cromwell’s beloved son, who marries, fathers children and becomes a very respectable gent from 1537 onwards (all of which is considered to be a credit to his father). That will be a great element of sweetness to the otherwise unpleasant plot – I’ve built up an attachment to Gregory, too. Will Part 3 scoop the Booker as well? Time will tell! I feel sorry for any writers up against Mantel once again (if indeed, it makes the shortlist – although it’s hard to imagine it not doing so).

So – another five-star rating from me on Goodreads. As all good historical fiction should do, it inspired me to delve back into history – not long ago I finished Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England, which I thoroughly recommend – so there can be no higher praise than that.

[Coming next: Money by Martin Amis]

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Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-Hall

Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.

I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:

Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!

That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?

Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.

The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:

Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01

What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:

‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘

I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?

The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.

This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.

The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.

wolf hall 1

Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!

So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies

[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]

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The Road – Cormac McCarthy

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I’d heard of The Road before I started reading it, mainly because it snagged the Pulitzer prize and also had a famous adaptation a few years ago (with Viggo Mortensen in the lead role), but I have to say, when I began, something threw me off. That something was the memory of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth – if you read my review, you’ll know that in McEwan’s book there was a character who was a writer. This writer actually wrote a book (er, in the book) called From the Somerset Levels, which was about a man and his daughter journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of England and encountering all sorts of horror and cruelty on their way (it is also mentioned that we never find out their names). The Road is about a man and his son journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of America and – funnily enough – we never find out their names. Coincidence? Well, probably, but a strange coincidence at that.

Because I didn’t enjoy Sweet Tooth that much (and the writer character in that book was pretty unbearable), I couldn’t help but feel as if my first impressions were tarnished somewhat. The Road is an extremely famous post-apocalyptic novel that’s considered to be a work of genius, so I did wonder why McEwan had chose to have a character write a book so similar – but who was copying who? I read that McEwan wrote a short story near the start of his career that had a similar storyline to From the Somerset Levels, and The Road wasn’t published until 2006. Hmm. I’m inclined to say that it’s a mighty coincidence – although perhaps the incredible reception The Road received inspired McEwan to revisit his own story.

But moving aside from Sweet ToothThe Road is – as I described – a dark, occasionally horrifying tale of courage and companionship in a broken world. Spoiler-free review, here. The man and the boy move across an America that’s coated in ash, with wild murderers and cannibals stalking the road they travel on. We don’t find out exactly what happened to make the world the terrifying place it’s become (I’m guessing some kind of nuclear war, or perhaps an effect of global warming), nor how long it’s been like that for, but it’s evidently a number of years – there are flashbacks that seem to indicate that the woman (the man’s wife, I assume, who is dead when the story starts) gave birth to a child during the early days who grew up to become the boy (and I’d hazard a guess that he’s around eight to ten years old, judging by his speech and mannerisms). There is some very jarring imagery that stays with you long after you close the book, and McCarthy creates a very real, very unnerving sense of horror – some of the imagery I still think back on and recoil, and I read it months ago. I’ve got to say, it doesn’t make me overly excited to watch the film…

Given that I’m working on my own post-apocalyptic novel right now, I read The Road with a slightly more critical eye than I would with many other books on this blog. At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t overly impressed. The Road kicks off with despair, horror, and desperation, which characters only too aware of their own mortality and living in fear every minute they’re awake. My own PA book, in comparison, tries to juggle the sense of fear and horror of a dystopian world with the optimism and good humour associated with humans who spend a lot of time together. Now, I am in no way trying to pretend that my book is anywhere NEAR the same league as The Road (crikey! It really is not) but throughout writing I was so aware of what a challenge it was to balance the terrors of a broken world with the hedonism and general naivety of the youth. It’s a different angle, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe writing about constant fear and despair would be… well, the easy route to take? But as I moved through the book and the tension built up, it’s impossible to fault the skilful way it’s crafted.

For The Road is masterfully tense. Every now and then we are shown exactly what the man and his son are up against, and it’s very grim indeed. At any moment you expect them to be attacked, and at times when the man and the boy are briefly separated (the narrative follows the man’s point of view for the most part), you’re left chewing your nails until they’re reunited. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel attached to these characters, particularly the boy, who had the right mix of wise insight given to him by his situation and the innocence and naivety of a child. With Viggo Mortensen taking on the role as the man, I was looking forward to feeling that same sense of attachment during the 2009 film, directed by John Hillcoat.

The Road movie image

I put off watching the film for a while, mainly because I knew it would be unbearably bleak, and it takes a lot to willingly watch a film you know will depress you. But when I got round to it, overall, I was impressed. Some of the more horrifying scenes in the novel were just as horrible (if not more so) in the film, although I was glad they cut out one particular image – I won’t say what it is, as that’s for you to discover, dear reader (lucky you!). My only criticism is that the film was perhaps a little too long, particularly when you consider that it’s a very short book, but Viggo Mortensen was naturally brilliant as the man, and Kodi Smit-McPhee put in a very good performance as the boy, too, which is no easy feat for a 13-year-old, considering the harrowing material to work with. In general, it’s a good adaptation of a bleak and beautiful book.

On Goodreads, then: four stars from me. I’ve got a post-apocalyptic hangover.

[Coming next: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel]

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22-cover

I bought Joseph Heller’s famous novel from Waterstones in February, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I’ll review a bit later on). As I passed it through the till, the friendly shop worker nodded in satisfaction and said, ‘ah yes, two books everyone should have on their shelves.’ Now that I’ve read both, I think she was definitely on to something. (Spoiler-free review.)

Catch-22 is set during the Second World War. It was written in 1953 (published in 1961) so slightly retrospectively written, but I believe the intention was to create a satire that highlighted the ridiculousness surrounding some of the service requirements for those fighting in the war. It follows an air squadron based on the tiny island of Pianosa, although Heller mentions at the beginning that he took some creative licence with the setting; in real life the island is not nearly big enough to accommodate a military complex. The main character is Yossarian, a US army bombardier, but the plot zooms in and out on various characters throughout the novel, from the generals to the majors to the doctors to the prostitutes in nearby cities. Each chapter is titled with a different character’s name, indicating that they are the focus for that section of the book. There are a LOT of characters and without this clear structure it could be a lot more confusing than it was, particularly considering the plot doesn’t progress in chronological order, but Heller manages to balance the characterisation with the amount of story exposure each character got very nicely.

For me, it was one of those glorious instances when you’ve heard of a book and you know it’s famous but you know absolutely nothing about it, so you can read it from a fresh perspective. I didn’t expect anything from Catch-22, but one thing that took me surprise was just how side-splittingly funny it was. In fact I was often guffawing out loud while reading it on the morning commute, standing in a packed tube, which got me some strange looks. The whole thing revolves around paradoxes. Catch-22 is itself a paradox, referring to a rule in which the solution to a problem is rendered impossible by the very problem itself (there always being a ‘catch’). Describing something as a catch-22 has entered our vocabulary, which is a huge credit to Heller – certainly he must have been excited to hear it bandied around prior to his death in 1999. The main definition of Catch-22 in the novel revolves around a clause to escape military duty: a man does not have to fly dangerous missions if he is crazy, but acknowledging the danger means he is sane, therefore has to fly the missions. If he flies them anyway, he was probably crazy and didn’t have to, but he if complains that he cannot, he is deemed sane and therefore flies them. Essentially, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Confusing yet astoundingly simple and definitely a no-win situation for those restricted by it. As the novel progresses, we discover more and more rules that fit the Catch-22 definition.

I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people – mainly young men, actually – consider it one of their favourite books. It seems to be the one iconic novel that everyone has read. It’s certainly a lot more accessible than a lot of the classics, with its rapid pace and witty dialogue, and it has a rich, interesting cast of characters (albeit mostly male). Upon its release, it became something of a cult novel for teenagers and college students, so perhaps it is a novel you read and fall in love with when you’re young – and, indeed, male. I had someone tell me recently that they consider One Hundred Years of Solitude a ‘boys’ book’ – I personally reckon this is complete bollocks, but I’ve started to feel aware of what kinds of book seem to be targeted towards men and what kinds towards women. In the 1960s this may have had an exclusively male readership, and it’s not hard to see why (it’s another spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test). There are very few female characters who are even given the virtue of a name; one of the principal female characters, for example, is known throughout as Nately’s Whore (Nately being one of the men in the squadron). That said, as a female reader, I didn’t feel alienated by the plot or characterisation (which just goes to show, yet again, that MEN AND WOMAN AREN’T ACTUALLY THAT DIFFERENT).

The story itself is fantastically wacky. Some sections are rooted in realism and others descend very quickly into absurdity, which I suspect was part of Heller’s satirical intentions. The horror of war is contrasted with the hilarity of the situation, which is just the kind of mash-up I’m rather fond of, as strange as that sounds. That said, towards the end the horror becomes more prevalent, although I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. There is a lot of emphasis on how the individual reacts to the war. Yossarian often ponders the point of being in the war in the first place and the effect that he is having on it. I’ve always believed that soldiers are remarkably selfless people (which explains why I blubber so much at any World War One memorial) but the message came across fairly clearly in Catch-22. Who is the real enemy? Yossarian wants to live, and if his superiors are preventing him from opting out until he dies, then in his eyes, that makes them the enemy, not the Germans. He questions the very idea of dying for your country and how much of a difference it makes overall, and despite what could be seen as quite a selfish attitude, it’s easy to sympathise with him. Again, I don’t want to go into the ending because I don’t want this to be a spoiler-laden blog post, but it has a very different outlook to the beginning.

So, on to the famous film, released in 1970 and directed by Mike Nichols.

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It took me a little while to get into the film, I must say. The sound of the planes in the background is draining, and the early scenes aren’t overly gripping. Yossarian, too, seemed badly cast and hysterical. I don’t doubt that Alan Arkin is a fantastic actor (looking a bit like Robert Downey Jr in his youth), but at 36, he just had a stoic look about him that didn’t suit the young (28), fun-loving Yossarian I had imagined from the book. That said, I warmed to him as the film progressed, and it started to feel like a fairly faithful adaptation.

It’s not a short book, so it must have been tricky to adapt, and indeed at times the film felt almost a little too short (116 minutes in total); it didn’t seem like many of the characters were given their due screentime. The film had a lot of the book’s humour, but some of the more drawn-out, surreally comedic scenes had to be cut down, which took away from that slightly. One scene in particular which had me in stitches in the book was when Yossarian is expected to pose as a dying bombardier named Harvey, who has died days before his family have travelled to visit him. As Yossarian lies in bed, the family lament how different he looks and therefore how ill he must be, and call him both Harvey and Yossarian in their conversation. The whole scene is ridiculous, but in the film, it has been stripped back so much it becomes a little tiresome and loses some of its impact. That said, visualising some of the more disturbing scenes had a much more powerful effect in the film than it had in the book.

The film, like the book, doesn’t portray women well. The nurses dressed in ridiculously provocative outfits, their cleavages bursting out of their uniforms, and the nudity seemed a little gratuitous (though it was nice to see a full 70s bush on screen, as opposed to the pre-pubescent wax look we expect to see today!). But overall, it was a good effort and a film I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Not a patch on the book, but not many movie adaptations are, of course.

[EDIT: iconic director Mike Nichols died yesterday (20/11/14), so this seems like a fitting time to honour his work. Catch-22 wasn’t his most famous work, but it’s certainly up there with the greats on his filmography.]

So, my Goodreads review: five stars. I consider it a new favourite; it was thoughtful, provocative, and downright hilarious throughout. If you haven’t read it yet, get on to it, pronto.

[Coming next: The Road by Cormac McCarthy]

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The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

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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:

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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]

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Hay Festival 2014: Steven Moffat – The Showrunner

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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]

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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.

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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