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: 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.

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile. 

 

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.

032

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.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 16: The Truth (Terry Pratchett, 2000)

Books left: 10. Weeks left: 15. It’s gonna be OK.

The Patrician walked across the floor, followed by Drumknott.
‘Er, yes,’ said William. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. Busy, of course. Such a lot of reading to catch up on. But I thought I should take a moment to come and see this “free press” Commander Vimes has told me about at considerable length.’ He tapped one of the iron pillars of the press with his cane. ‘However, it appears to be firmly bolted down.’
‘Er, no, sir. I mean “free” in the sense of what is printed, sir,’ said Wiliam.
‘But surely you charge money?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘Oh, I see. You meant you should be free to print what you like?’
There was no escape. ‘Well… broadly, yes, sir.’
‘Because that’s in the, what was the other interesting term? Ah, yes… the public interest?’ Lord Vetinari picked up a piece of type and inspected it carefully.
‘I think so, sir.’
‘These stories about man-eating goldfish and people’s husbands disappearing in big silver dishes?’
‘No, sir. That’s what the public is interested in. We do the other stuff, sir.’
‘Amusingly shaped vegetables?’
‘Well, a bit of that, sir. Sacharissa calls them human interest stories.’
‘About vegetables and animals?’
‘Yes, sir. But at least they’re real vegetables and animals.’
‘So… we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no one is interested in.’
‘Except the public, sir,’ said William, trying to keep up.
‘Which isn’t the same as people and humans?’
‘I think it’s more complicated than that, sir.’

Shabby copy of The Truth by Terry Pratchett.

The Velveteen Rabbit of books.

When once I worked in ye olde secondhand bookshop for a crust, we had this thing called the rubbish box. It’s that grubby tub of books out the front that are one step above worthless, all with a big ‘$2’ scribbled on the cover with a Sharpie.

If you are a book, you can end up in the rubbish box for one or a combination of reasons. You might be in good nick, but just a terrible book. You might be an extremely old book no one has heard of and therefore no one would pay over $2 for. You might be spine-broken (the kiss of death for secondhand books). You might be The Notebook or Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks. Or you might be a Really Good Book that has been read so many times its covers have been almost loved off, the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. These are the titles someone will still hand over cash for despite being in the kind of condition that would usually see the bookseller throw them in the bin.

The rubbish box is a bit like the dog pound. Inhabitants might be there for a month. After a while, they might have their $2 dashed out and $1 written on them instead. If they are still not adopted, they will get lobbed into the bin. The rare jewel, no matter how bedraggled and forlorn it looks when it gets in there, is still instantly recognisable as Really Good and will get snatched up within hours by someone who can’t believe their luck and doesn’t care what the poor sod looks like.

Terry Pratchett is like the Holy Grail for the independent bookseller. Finding one in the bottom of a dusty pile of Nicholas Sparks is like finding the toy prize in a box of out-of-date cereal. Even if it is in awful condition, even – EVEN, my friend, if it is spine-broken… you can scrawl as much as $4 on this baby (as illustrated) and it will be out of that rubbish-box before it has so much as warmed up its seat.

Books written by Sir Terry Pratchett – knighted six years ago for his services to literature – are Really Good Books. The majority of them are part of the Discworld series, the chronicles of a world consisting of a disc balanced upon four elephants standing atop a turtle of, as Stephen King might say, enormous girth.

The Truth is the 25th of more than 40 Discworld titles and tells the story of William de Worde, who quite by accident finds himself editor of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper. Before he has got much beyond dealing with all of the people who want him to print pictures of their amusingly shaped vegetables, he finds himself embroiled in a story full of deceit, danger and death that goes straight to the political heart of Ankh-Morpork itself.

After taking weeks to read The Famished Road, I find myself spat out the other end of this in a matter of days. It’s beyond compulsive. I read it in front of the barbecue, ruining some perfectly good Black Angus rump, in bed (I am always very strict about not reading in bed, being a reformed insomniac) and even at the park while walking the dog. A lady is at her most batty-looking when ignoring her dog at the park while reading a book, walking into bollards and giggling audibly.

As well as being madcap and marvellous, the story is bloody clever. It is not only full of wordplay but full of subtler humour and deft insight into the frequently maddening and nonsensical world of a journalist – I am unsurprised when a quick Google reveals that Pratchett began his career as a reporter.

It was as if he’d shaken a tree and all the nuts had fallen out. Several letters were complaining that there had been much colder winters than this, although no two of them could agree when it was. One said vegetables were not as funny as they used to be, especially leeks. Another asked what the Guild of Thieves was doing about unlicensed crime in the city. There was one saying that all these robberies were down to dwarfs who shouldn’t be allowed into the city to steal the work out of honest humans’ mouths.
‘Put a title like “Letters” at the top and put them all in,’ said William. ‘Except the one about the dwarfs. That sounds like Mr Windling. It sounds like my father, too, except that at least he can spell “undesirable” and wouldn’t use crayon.’
‘Why not that letter?’
‘Because it’s offensive.’
‘Some people think it’s true, though,’ said Sacharissa. ‘There’s been a lot of trouble.’
‘Yes, but we shouldn’t print it.’
William called Goodmountain over and showed him the letter. The dwarf read it.
‘Put it in,’ he said. ‘It’ll fill a few inches.’
‘But people will object,’ said William.
‘Good. Put their letters in, too.’

This is sharp humour with a soft heart. If you know a journalist, buy them this book and prepare for their howls to echo through the house.

Keep or Kill? Terry Pratchett is really one of those authors it’s a shame to hoard – they really should be in constant circulation. I’ll give this one to the local op-shop so it can warm the shelf there for an hour or two before getting snapped up.
Note: When I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys oh-so-long-ago for this Project, I compared his writing to Pratchett’s a little nervously, fearing a lighting bolt would strike me any moment for being so impertinent. Reading this book I was reminded of the fact that Gaiman and Pratchett had actually collaborated on a screamingly funny novel, Good Omens, which I not only knew about but had actually read, for goodness’ sake. So there you go. Not so impertinent a comparison at all, then.