Tag Archives: three stars

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: 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 bar 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 they 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 not. 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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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carré

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Coming next: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan]

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

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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.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 4

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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