Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 25: The Warriors (Sol Yurick, 1965)

Books left: 1. Weeks left: 3. (Hurrah! Only a little delirious.)

‘Well, now we move on like a war party, even though we wanted peace. Anyone could tell you we wanted peace. Well, now it’s too late for that.’ 

the warriorsThe bottle was finished. Bimbo flung it into the air toward where the trailer and the bitch skulked. It arched and shone high, but splintered short of the mark; the bitch and the Blazer bounced high over the fragments slivering along the sidewalk.
Now they moved out, swiftly, leader and brothers, all knowing exactly what to do, bonded into One. Muscle tightened, compressing body a little so that biceps bunched, and triceps tensed, fists balled, shoulder hunched, legs flexed, trunk tilting, every part taut to sense. 

It’s hot and the firecrackers are starting. It’s the Fourth of July and the gangs of New York are meeting for a convention led by Ismael, the city’s best-known gang leader.

A unprecedented truce has been called, so that all of the city’s hundreds of gangs can cross enemy turf. But when things go wrong, the Family – the Coney Island Dominators – are far from home and behind enemy lines.

The Warriors covers each hour of the whole, dangerous night it takes them to get back home.

The tension begins with the opening line and builds as the Family’s warriors complete the first leg of a long train journey, then having no choice but to put their faith in Ismael’s boys to lead them deep into unknown territory. There is a flash, a single moment, of hope for them and all the thousands of gang members assembled, a glimpse of a future of power and of unity – though it is but a glimpse, and devolves with lightning speed into chaos after a sickening moment of violence, an early climax that unlike other climaxes offers no subsequent relief, but more suspense as the warriors realise how far they are from safety.

The subject invites comparisons with other gang stories – the character-driven but hopeless charm of West Side Story; S. E. Hinton’s tragic but redemptive The Outsiders and Rumble Fish; Warren Miller’s 1959 gang novel The Cool World (again, yes, the one the movie was based on). Miller himself compares The Warriors to Lord of the Flies – in fact he says it is better.

Finally, of course, I was from the get-go comparing the book to its famous 1979 movie adaptation also titled The Warriors, though to be honest despite the movie’s cult reputation it never evoked any huge response from me – I barely remember it.

One thing I don’t remember was it being about evil. But this was evil. More evil than The Outsiders, whose soft hearts under their toughness make you love them. By the middle of this book the utter cold, shocking nastiness of the events unfolding was clenching my stomach. I began to see why Miller compared it to Lord of the Flies.

I read a lot of violent books, and I watch a lot of violent movies and TV shows, and I must say I do enjoy a good bloodletting. It’s usually tied to a genre, and follows a pattern. You know why it’s happening and usually it’s between a bad person and a good person. Eventually, usually, the goody wins.

This is different. It sure ain’t good clean fun like Jack Reacher or John McClane beating up a baddy. It’s not genre fiction. It gets under the skin of things and what’s under the skin is senseless, or at least, the sense it makes is unpalatable, depressing to contemplate. There is no nice clean line between good and evil. Yurik forces you into this uncomfortable, but inescapable space, so you find yourself disgusted at the warriors and at yourself for caring about them, but you can’t help it, because you have seen their minds and discovered that they are people.

Yurick uses the third-person omniscient to this effect, allowing you to know each boy he battles the hostilities of the night and also his other Family members. You see their interminable, wearying power struggles but also the comfort they find in being One, instead of no one. There is a pride in the Family they cannot otherwise access.

Those pins, they were the Family sign and they stood or fell with their signs, and it was the mark that a man belonged – they were one. To take them off was to be like any heartless slob coolie who wouldn’t take chances; without important affiliations. And so they must go along with the whole bit. It made them men.

Some of the boys remain impenetrable, but you see two particularly: Hector, who assumes the fatherhood of the gang when they are separated from Papa Arnold, and Hinton, the newest member, who stands always a little apart. It is his lonely, anguished soliloquy, stripped of masculinity, we eavesdrop on when he is separated from the others and forced to walk into the seemingly endless blackness of a railway tunnel, a memorable piece of writing.

Quick point of interest for fans: the story is inspired by the Greek classic work Anabasis, by Xenophon. Interestingly, Yurick says frankly in his introduction to this edition that The Warriors is not his best book. I get that. It was a fine book and well worth the reading, but I won’t keep it. It was certainly a better book than it was a movie, although doubtless the movie is more enjoyable. The movie is extremely watered-down in terms of violence – which is essentially what the whole book was about – and backs away from several other of the book’s central tenets, including turning an all-black gang into an improbably racially mixed one. Yurick, who after years of thought, experience and planning finally spat out this novel in an “intense” three-week writing binge that surely accounts for the headlong suspense of the reading experience, calls the movie “trashy, though beautifully filmed” and the dialogue painful and inauthentic, and said it deeply disappointed him.

After reading his book, I can see why. And yet, you cannot deny (and neither does he) The Warriors movie has endured in a way the simply has not. People want beauty. Perhaps they want a white gang leader. They don’t want horror and rape and violence. They want something a little nicer. Hell, while I was reading it, I wanted something a little nicer. You can’t blame people for that. But if you’re a fan of the film, do yourself a favour and check out the rawness, the reality of the original.

Keep or kill? I’ll pass this on for some Warriors film fan to come across in the op shop and get all excited, same way I did when I bought this. Feeling evilly smug at the shock they are going to get.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 19: On Beauty (Zadie Smith, 2005); a.k.a Books on a Plane.

Books left: 7. Weeks left: 11 (every little thing is gonna be all right). 

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

Airport fiction at its finest.

Airport fiction at its finest.

This book and I spent eight hours stuck at Sydney airport together and we’re still friends.

With the innocence of fools and babies, the Ministry and I got on a plane bound home to Perth at the end of a nice weekend away, with no aim more ambitious than watching a better movie than Annabelle, which we had watched on the outbound flight. But the plane needed refuelling, then it needed its tyre changed or something, then the computer that looks at the tyres blew up or something, so after an hour of sitting on the plane the staff apologetically chucked us all off again and told us to await more information. For the next eight hours.

So, we went and spent $70 on lunch, because by then I was a slavering, enraged beast, and quite a bit more money on espresso martinis and beer (respectively) and then they told us we could have a $16 voucher each to spend on food, but we had to wait in line for an hour for that, and by the time we got them we were full of food and vodka and beer, and not hungry any more, but by then I was damn well going to spend every cent of those vouchers, and went to a cafe where I bought $32 worth of hedgehog slices, flavoured bagels and bottled water, which I jealously squirreled into my hand luggage.

By the time the replacement flight finally left we were bleary and greasy and our fellow passengers, who had been shouting angrily and shaking their fists at airport staff two hours before, chattered animatedly as we waited for takeoff.

A cheer actually went up when the plane finally left the ground (and again when it was announced we’d get free booze to take the edge off our suffering. Perhaps judiciously, they were very slow about delivering the free booze, with the result that the Ministry and I spent about 12-13 hours hovering on the edge of drunkenness but never quite got there).

It was out first experience of the camaraderie of the shipwrecked traveller and through our exhaustion we rather enjoyed it.

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Oh yes, the book.

Essentially I left our holiday destination, Mullumbimby, having just begun it, read it at Gold Coast airport, then throughout the flight to Sydney, then the stopover in Sydney, then the unanticipated stopover in Sydney.

When we finally got on our replacement plane it was entirely devoid of screens, so I kept reading until the bitter end. All in all I read this novel virtually uninterrupted for about 13 hours. I finished the epic binge-read three hours into the flight to Perth at about 11pm, with bleeding eyeballs, and I didn’t regret a thing.

Most particularly I was thankful for my eleventh-hour pre-holiday decision to bring this book and not Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Something tells me that the Salinger, despite being one-sixth of the size, would have lasted the whole 13 hours regardless and made me want to jump out of the plane.

I had this in my collection having once read Smith’s earlier novel White Teeth. Though I couldn’t for the life of me now tell you what White Teeth was even about I do recall it being very good, hence carrying this around for what was likely a decade.

On Beauty is a story about family, marriage and the betrayal of the bonds associated with both. Set amid the perversity and irritations of university communities, it is a fitting follow to The Wife Drought in its interrogation of what people sacrifice for the sake of their unions, and for their children, and of the horror that comes with awakening to the fact that perhaps no love is unique.

All I know is that loving you is what I did with my life. And I’m terrified by what’s happened to us. This wasn’t meant to happen to us. We’re not like other people.

The book is wise but it is also funny. Smith tells stories of people and their relationships but her sentences also stand alone, delightful in themselves. Some tasters for you:

Each couple is its own vaudeville act.


He leaned forward with the clumsy loom of the natural pet-hater and child-fearer, all the time clearly hoping for an intervention before he reached the dog.


Kiki laughed her lovely big laugh in the small store. People looked up from their specialty goods and smiled abstractedly, supporting the idea of pleasure even if they weren’t certain of the cause.


These people spend so much time demanding the status of adulthood from you – even when it isn’t in your power to bestow it – and then when the real shit hits the fan, when you need them to be adults, suddenly they’re children again.


She was a woman still controlled by the traumas of her girlhood. It made more sense to put her three-year-old self in the dock. As Dr Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.


“Anybody for a lift into town?” asked Howard.                                                                    “I’m happy to drop everybody where they need to go.”                                                    Two minutes later Howard rolled down the passenger window and beeped his horn at his three half-naked children walking down the hill.  All of them gave him the finger.


Honestly, this is just fantastic. Perfect for your mum’s book club. Perfect for yours. Do it. Hell, do it in a day. It’s possible. Just load up on martinis.

Note: the Minstry and I, having arrived home at midnight rather than at 4pm as planned, were too traumatized and jetlagged the next day to leave the house, so it’s lucky we had $32 worth of hedgehog slice, bagels and Cool Ridge.

Keep or kill? Kill, with goodwill. Another of those that you pass on because you know it’ll brighten someone else’s life. 

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama, 1995)

A simple but beautiful narrative that showcases Obama’s gift with words and soul-searching bent.

It’s not a particularly political book. It’s a traditional autobiography, dealing with childhood and coming-of-age. It does, however, cover how Obama first got into politics and public life when he became an adult. For those interested in his entry to the political arena , it offers a valuable insight into the challenges of those early days, but it’s still very much tied in with his youth and the motivations that brought about his entry into this life.

Though it’s not by any means a lofty philosophical work, remaining accessible and simple in structure throughout, the most striking aspect of the work that lifts it out of being just a chronology  is Obama’s continuing preoccupation with questions of identity, belonging and change – about reconciling your self, your family, your past and your future.

Obama betrays a sensibility of the higher issues dealt with in philosophy and academia in relation to these issues, but never alienates the reader by becoming dry or impersonal in style or language.

Instead he shows that he feels keenly the same struggles that all men and women encounter in their hearts and asks himself the same questions we all ask of ourselves: about who they are, what they should do with their lives and where in the world they might belong.

And in his case, of course, the answer turned out to be extraordinary, but I think for that you have to read his next one, The Audacity of Hope.