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.



 

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac: Aftermath

And now for the proof of my personal growth through this project.

When I first embarked upon this project, it was in recognition that I had always been a bibliophile, but quite without meaning to, I had slipped into madness and become a full-blown bibliomaniac.

 

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Space? Space is for filling with more books.

Space? Space is for filling with more books.

I began with hundreds of books across three different bookcases. They were also on top of the bookcases.

And stacked horizontally in the spaces between the top of the rows and the bottom of the shelf above.

And tesselated artfully into the little gaps that were left over.

This was rather less healthy than plain old bibliophilia, and I knew it had to end.

 

And it has.

 

I have gradually weeded out piles as I’ve gone through each letter of the alphabet with this project, on the justification that if I didn’t choose them for the project, they obviously didn’t excite me that much overall and probably wouldn’t next time I went searching for something to read.

photoNow I have ditched hundreds of books. Crateload after crateload. Many I had already read. Some I had not.

And you know what? I felt lighter and freer with each one. I realised that for some time I had no longer owned these books. They had owned me. All that they represented was my own guilt at not having the time to read them all, even though many had lost their relevance long ago.

They never matched anyhow!

They never matched anyhow!

In fact, it felt so good that like a woman possessed, I got rid of the shelves as well.

Now we have discarded three full size bookshelves that were overpowering tiny Shell Cottage.

We have space to hang pictures, to dance around, to place a cushy armchair for more comfortable reading spaces!

 

There is one more bookshelf to be emptied and sold. Soon I will curate my collection to fit into the one little bookshelf left, that will match The Ministry’s.

Then we will each just have one (apart from the bookshelf containing The Ministry’s complete Dragonlance book collection, which will outlive us all and probably the nuclear holocaust).

 

I will stay a bibliophile. I will hold, love, sniff and touch my own books (and others’…) in ways bordering on the creepy.

I will still buy books and support bookstores – probably more so than I have been able to justify doing in years. But I will avoid commitment and letting them move in with me forever. I will buy, enjoy and pass on. If one captures my heart and is allowed to stay, then another will have to gracefully vacate the premises.

This project has become something much more than it began as my friend Juji suggested when I was thinking of a way to revive my neglected blog. It has become an exercise in a personal journey inspired in part by minimalism, in part by the idea of vagabonding and most of all by a desire to embrace more than the past.

So as much as may have cursed you over the past, very challenging blogging year – thank you Juji! You’ve given me a precious gift – the space for new dreams.

How to Cure a Bibliomaniac: Best Of

OMG WHAT DID SHE CHOOSE, THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING YOU

OMG WHAT DID SHE CHOOSE, THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING YOU

Gosh, it’s an interesting experience to look back through what you’ve read in a year!

And remember the pleasures of the great books and, admittedly, the tedium of the less-amazing books.

To be sure, not one of the titles I read was a bad book, but the blazing light of the best as listed here really testify as to why I embarked upon this project in the first place – to teach myself that any book you’re not enjoying is not worth forcing yourself to finish. When you read a book you’re loving, you’re really enjoying, you know it.

And you know what? These books were overall quite serious books. One I finished sobbing like a bereft child. But they didn’t drag, and they didn’t depress. They just glowed. They make you realise life’s too short to read anything second-best. So from now on, I’m only finishing stuff I love. Hell, I’m only starting stuff I love. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to read smart books or hard books. But they have to be great.

So without further ado, the best books I read this past 52 weeks:

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I’m not going to rank them, it’s too close a call. Trust me, and read them all.

(If you won’t trust me, at least trust Dr Seuss)

 
031Honorable mention:

On Beauty – Zadie Smith (radiant, absorbing)

To be honest, this was just as good as the others, but I didn’t have a copy of it any more because I decided to pass that one on so it could brighten other people’s lives. So it didn’t get in the group photo.

Stay tuned! Before this project officially closes, one more post to come… The Aftermath

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 26: Rumpole of the Bailey (John Mortimer, 1978)

Books left: ZEEEEEEEERRRRRRROOOOO. Weeks left: 1.5 (KILLED that deadline).

rumpole“A few mornings later I picked up the collection of demands, final demands and positively final demands which constitutes our post and among the hostile brown envelopes I found a gilded and embossed invitation card. I took the whole lot into the kitchen to file away in the tidy bin when She Who Must Be Obeyed entered and caught me at it. 
‘Horace,’ She said severely. ‘Whatever are you doing with the post?’ 
‘Just throwing it away. Always throw bills away the first time they come in. Otherwise you only encourage them.'”

 

The shame of doing a project based on authors’ surnames is that of course, I don’t have a proper Z book to finish things off with a bang. So I decided to end the project with a heroic whimper and pick a random, easy book starting with anything. My criteria was to choose both the shortest fun book I could find and the funnest (yes) short book I could find. And to tail off the whimper appropriately I’m going to write a real cop-out of a review, hurrah!

Well, there’s honestly not that much to say about Rumpole, which is not to discount Mortimer’s comedic genius one whit.

Rumpole stories feature the cases, episode by episode, of Horace Rumpole, a lawyer in a disreputable hat who is comfortably free of ambition and takes delight in defending criminals, petty or otherwise. He occasionally breaks out into quoting poetry, usually at inappropriate moments. He has a collection of mystified colleagues and a terrifying wife called She Who Must Be Obeyed. The stories are as clever and entertaining as the lovably droll Rumpole.

I can see why they made this a TV series, which I didn’t know about, but which the Matriarch mentioned when I told her I was reading this book. Might try to sniff it out.

As intended, a cosy and altogether trauma-free option to round off the project.

So there it is. I’m drained, I’m exhausted, I have an utterly love-hate relationship with this blog. But I’ll give you a closing summary of the project in the next post, along with a Best Of. For now, I’m happy to leave this at cop-out level and go and nurse my tired brain by gargling cheese and wine, Bridget Jones-style.

Over and out.

HURRAH!

The Warriors (1979)

warriors 2Even though I kind of knew it wasn’t a great idea, ever since I finished The Warriors for The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project a week ago I just couldn’t get the urge to watch the movie out of my mind.

 

 

I knew it was different to the novel, and I knew I hadn’t found it that memorable maybe five or six years ago, and I knew Sol Yurick, the author of the book, hadn’t liked it, calling it “trashy”.

But I love watching movie adaptations, even when they’re not perfect. I also thought, maybe its grungy 70s80s-ish-ness would be just as awesome as all those other 80s movies I love, and maybe the confronting plot points of the book being dialled back a little would make for a really enjoyable movie – frankly, a more enjoyable movie than the book was, despite the book’s unquestionable quality.

In a way, I was right. It was beautifully shot and had a great synth-y soundtrack. It was colourful and creative, especially in its use of costume and its use of graphic novel-style inserts as a narrative device – although without having read the book and knowing that youngest gang member Junior’s head is half-buried in a comic book that parallels his own adventures for much of the journey, I don’t know how the movie viewer could be expected to understand the significance of the graphic novel storytelling at all.

But this movie doesn’t seem much interested in the significance of anything in the book, so I shouldn’t be surprised. As a movie, it’s fun enough, I suppose (though I think its 7.7 IMDB rating overly generous) but as a book adaptation it fails miserably. I’m all for modifying plots and so on to fit the movie format, but this is ridiculous.

If they have maintained anything about the characters at all, I fail to recognise it. They haven’t just changed the names – they’ve changed the people. Pretty much all of them. They’ve made them a mixed-race gang instead of all black, which is frankly unrealistic and beside the whole point of the gangs the story was supposed to be about. Instead of a leader called Hector there’s a leader called something or other else. Lunkface appears to be maintained, albeit called something else, but Junior has just vanished, or been melded with the character of gang artist Hinton, who was essentially the book’s main character, by virtue of being handed a spray can at the start of the film and told to tag a thing or two. Hinton appears to have vanished as well and any hint of a personal journey for any characters has been erased and given to New Main Leader Guy whose personal journey appears to consist of… well, essentially nothing but a few hokey scenes of bonding with a girl whose role has been so entirely changed it’s making me angry to talk about. I can’t tell you how it’s been changed without giving spoilers. But essentially the soul of the book has been stripped and with it the two pivotal scenes in Hinton’s journey – the part where he’s in a train tunnel and the part when he beats a cowboy game at quick-draw. Instead, there’s no Hinton, no tunnel scene – for anyone – and a sort of weird reference to the cowboy, in that a statue of a cowboy just stands unnoticed in the background of one of the scenes.

Essentially, apart from the opening scene, the entire, and I mean entire, plot was made up from scratch. And they didn’t even do a decent job of the opening scene. The leader of the city’s major gang wasn’t called Cyrus, I gotta tell you. And look, changing names is not a big deal, I know that, but they made him ridiculous. His clothes were ridiculous. His speech was ridiculous. His manner was ridiculous. If you are a fan of The Warriors do yourself a favour and go read the book and find out what that scene was really supposed to be like. It will make the back of your neck prickle. By comparison, this scene made me cringe.

They had some nice touches, like the character of the female DJ who talks to the warriors on the radio station throughout the movie, but it just didn’t mean anything. None of it meant anything. This movie prettified everything, but it didn’t end up more fun, it just ended up bland. Despite the boys’ flick knives and their mad fighting skills I didn’t believe for one second that these were really violent people. It was all make believe and style. There was no suspense. There was no tension. The ending was completely vacuous and predictable, even down to Guy Whose Name I Can’t be Bothered to Remember giving that Girl who Wasn’t even Supposed to Be There Today another girl’s discarded prom flowers, and then how they make that ridiculous reference to “getting out of there one day”, which is the polar opposite of the book’s ending.

I feel insulted on Yurick’s behalf. No wonder when he was asked by interviewers about this movie, all he could come up with was “interesting.”

His book made me feel conflicted, and a bit disgusted, but at least it made me think and feel real things. I felt like I had witnessed something. By comparison, all this movie made me feel was bored and disappointed.

As an impartial observer, I hasten to add, the Ministry was also bored. It was me who forced us to finish it. But I shan’t bother again.

It just didn’t mean anything. None of it meant anything. And sometimes you sit down to watch a movie wanting entertainment, and sometimes you sit down wanting meaning, and sometimes you dare to demand both. But you sure as hell don’t sit down wanting neither.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 24: The Outward Urge (John Wyndham, 1959)

Books left: 2. Weeks left: 5 (oooh. Panicked rush produced gains. Maybe I’ll just have a little rest. Just five minutes.)

There are not, at any time, many people who have – what do you call it in English? – Divine discontent? Vision? Most men like to be settled among their familiar things with a notice on the door: “Do Not Disturb.” They would still have that notice hanging outside their caves if it were not for the few discontented men. 

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John Wyndham, best known for The Day of the Triffids, was an intelligent man of wide experience who dabbled in careers including farming, law, commercial art, advertising and the military as well as writing.

His scientific imagination is formidable – this is the man who brought us, among many other titles, not only the Triffids but The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (better known under the name of film adaptation The Village of the Damned) and The Kraken Wakes, one of my most beloved novels and one that gave me a lifelong passion for sea monsters.

His biography points out he even tried writing detective fiction, which gives me an immediate thump of excitement and urge to rush off and start Googling. But one book at a time Emma.

It’s fascinating to discover what such a man imagined would be the stages and methods of man’s exploration of space, writing as he did a decade before the first Moon landing. And he doesn’t stop at the Moon – chapters one to four are The Space Station, set in 1994, The Moon, in 2044, Mars, in 2094 and Venus in 2144. The fifth, published for the first time in another edition two years later and thereafter alongside the others in its Penguin editions, is The Emptiness of Space: The Asteroids 2194 and is a melancholic and slightly odd little addendum, only 18 pages long.

Wyndham ties them together with the device of the Troon family, whose successive generations each play key roles in the milestones each chapter relates, thanks to their unquenchable, seemingly genetic yen for space.

It’s fascinating to see how Wyndham visualises the technology involved, the characteristics of Mars and Venus, the particulars of humans dealing with life in space and zero-gravity and the politics of those left behind, dealing with the inevitable question: who owns space?

He is one of my favourite writers and his incisive political mind, which helped make The Kraken Wakes such a chillingly realistic read, is at its sharpest in dealing with questions such as these. In this book as in all others his writing is quiet, dry and mannered but crackling with suspense and the pull of the unknown.

In fact I could not detect at all the presence of another voice, namely Lucas Parkes, acknowledged as a co-author on the cover. I felt vindicated in this when a search revealed that Lucas Parkes was a pen-name Wyndham occasionally used and in this case, the book being closer to conventional hard science fiction style and less like Wyndham’s other novels, publishers decided to use the joint byline. At least this is according to Wikipedia.

The book slipped down easily enough but I must confess, not accompanied by the sense of excitement or compulsion I usually feel with a Wyndham. I suspect my indifference is due at least in part to my well-documented dislike of short stories – this book’s parts are better described as related short stories rather than chapters. Each has a new setting, time period and introduces a new principal character, though of course each is a Troon and they are linked by their blood and their singular obsession.

So it may be only a matter of personal taste, but I will pass this one on as a curiosity to amuse space buffs, to satisfy the appetites of this Project to burn away all extraneous matter and leave only what is holy. In fact, in a show of unprecedented bravery I am just going to keep The Kraken Wakes as my favourite and let the rest go.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.