Literary Pop: Is it Just Me?

Author: Miranda Hart
Nationality: British
Year: 2012

The next book in my month of entertainment autobiographies was Is it Just Me? by Miranda Hart.  Miranda is an actress and comedienne I’ve got plenty of time for – I’ve never really seen her self-titled sitcom, but her increasingly-fleeting appearances in BBC’s “Call the Midwife” are always appreciated in our household. I picked this up in a charity shop a couple of years ago (Oxfam in Banbury I believe – if only I could remember other things as well as I do book purchases) and I’d been looking forward to reading it ever since.  Oh, how sweet anticipation is often crushed by miserable reality.

Is it Just Me
Is it Just Me who couldn’t stand this book?

So as it turns out, Is it Just Me? Is not an autobiography.  I repeat, not an autobiography.  The book is in fact a series of discussions of various aspects of life, such as love, family and growing up, in Miranda’s quirky style – as in, “Is it just me who thinks x about y?”  The book mainly takes the format of conversations with the reader in addition to numerous interruptions from Miranda’s “younger self”.  Through witty anecdotes, Miranda presents her thoughts on how the world might be a better place.

What a disappointment!  Maybe it’s a decent book but it was really not what I wanted and was therefore a big let-down.  The interludes from “young Miranda” were incredibly annoying and the anecdotes seemed, frankly, like something out of a sitcom – I would be surprised if a single one were true.  Heck, maybe Hart has led an unbelievably embarrassing life, but I doubt it.  The worst thing of all was that I learned practically nothing about Miranda’s life.  Instead of finishing a book and feeling smarter/culturally enriched/well-informed, I pretty much felt duped.  It won’t really change my opinion of Miranda as a person or an actress/comedienne – it was fully in keeping with her persona, and as I say might be a happy read if you know what you’re expecting.  But still.  Not for me.

 

My rating: 4/10

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Literary Pop: My Shit Life So Far

Author: Frankie Boyle
Nationality: British (Scottish!)
Year: 2009

So having concluded January’s theme of “published in 2015” with the ordeal that was A Brief History of Seven Killings, I was faced with the decision of what to do for February.  Being interested as I am in many areas of popular culture, I settled on “entertainment biographies” to give me a little more insight into some of the figures who rule our screens.  I happily already had a store of these to delve right into, with the intention of alternating male and female personalities (soon to become difficult).

shit lifeThe first book of the month turned out to be Frankie Boyle’s My Shit Life so Far.  My mother bought this for me for a present many years ago, convinced as she is that I’m a big fan of stand-up comedy.  I started reading it at the time, but for whatever reason I stopped about half-way through and promptly forgot everything I’d read so I thought it best to start again from the beginning this time.  After fighting to the end of Seven Killings I was after a much easier read to rest my poor brain, and this was an ultimately successful mission.  Frankie Boyle, for those of you who don’t know him, is an oft-controversial comedian best known for his appearances on topical panel show “Mock the Week” and his expletive-laden rants against political correctness, the nanny state, etc. etc. (hence My Shit Life So Far).  He announced his departure from the show which made him a household name the day after the publication of this book in 2009 and has since faded into relative obscurity; such is life.

As it turns out I’m finishing this review a long time after I read the book.  I guess I’ve been busy.  Anyway, it’s pretty much a chronicle of Boyle’s life up until joining “Mock the Week”, from his moderately-poor Glasgow upbringing through the early stages of his stand-up comedy career at dingy bars and on strange tours.  It also discusses his use, abuse and subsequent disavowal of alcohol and other illicit substances along the way.  I might be forgetting some of the content but I suspect there wasn’t an awful lot more to it.

frankie-boyle-glasgow2
Frankie Boyle – Where is he now?

It’s worth a read if you know who Frankie Boyle is, if you’re a person who reads autobiographies, and if you’ve got a couple of days to spare.  I put it in my work’s book-swap box when I finished it at the beginning of February and it’s still there.  But hey, I’ve read worse.  Go figure.

 

My rating: 6/10

Literary Pop: World Book Day

Happy World Book Day!

When I was in Year 6 at school (aged 10 or 11) we had a “dress up as your favourite literary character” day.  I have no recollection of this being for World Book Day, but in retrospect it probably was.

legolas_logo
Me, basically.

I went as Legolas from the Lord of the Rings, which at the time was probably my favourite book series and definitely my favourite film series (this would have been 2002-3ish).  With my parents’ help (mostly my mother I seem to recall, although she would have had zero interest in LotR) I pulled together an amazing costume featuring lots of Elven components (I don’t remember completely, but there was definitely a verdant velvety cape held on with a leafy brooch, some leather trousers, and I believe a green corduroy waistcoat).  I was pretty much perfect except for a wig, which would need to be bought new and would cost more than the rest of the charity-shop-sourced costume put together.  I even had a bow and arrow set I’d conveniently picked up some weeks earlier at Leeds Castle in Kent (nowhere near Leeds) – naturally a result of the same Legolas admiration.

When I got to school after weeks of preparation it was clear I was completely overdressed and nobody was really that bothered.  Philistines.  I didn’t care, I looked fabulous.  Needless to say I didn’t win the coveted “best costume” award – it went to some teacher’s favourite who didn’t put in a tenth of the effort I had, while the so-called judge didn’t come within fifty feet of me all day.  In fact, I spent most of the afternoon sitting on my own in the corner of the classroom as punishment for firing my wooden (sucker-tipped) arrows across the crowded room (which looking back was clearly overcompensation for bad supervision – what did the teacher think I was going to do if she left them in my possession?).

All in all, a pretty big disappointment on the day.  But digging the memories up today, I remember it fondly.  I’m still proud of that costume, god dammit.  I did a good job (and so did my mother, who was at a tough point in her own life).   My LotR nerdiness continues to this day – I should really read those books again some time.

So the moral of the story?  Don’t let them grind you down, kids.  If they don’t like/notice/appreciate your effort, it’s probably because they don’t understand.  And that’s their problem, not yours.

Literary Pop: A Brief History of Seven Killings

“If it no go so, it go near so. —Jamaican proverb”

Author: Marlon James
Nationality: Jamaican
Year: 2014

briefhistWhat eventually turned out to be the last book I read in January was A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize.  I had been becoming a little concerned that I would run out of 2015 books, having finished three already by the 16th, but honestly I needn’t have worried.  More about that later.  This was naturally a priority for January even though it soon transpired that it was actually published in 2014 (I’m willing to overlook the discrepancy if you are).   It’s the third novel by Jamaican author Marlon James, following 2005’s debut John Crow’s Devil and the well-received The Book of Night Women from 2009.

Take Trainspotting, transport it to Jamaica, double the number of characters, double the number of pages, add in an assassination attempt on a world-famous singer, and you’ve got A Brief History of Seven Killings.  The novel, told from the perspective of at least ten different characters in about five time periods, revolves around (and around and around) a fictional account of the planning, failure and aftermath of the real-life 1976 attempt on the singer’s life.  In a Kingston ruled by warring gangs and their devious leaders, nobody who plays a part in the plot is safe from the recriminations of one who wishes to keep his name out of the mud for good.

It was a decent book, but the combination of the facts that a) it was very hard to get into, and b) it was very long, made me seriously consider whether it was really worth it.  It’s against my moral fibre to abandon a book once I’ve committed to reading it but I can imagine many people putting Seven Killings down long before the end.  Unlike Trainspotting, which continues in the same vernacular and allows you to become accustomed, different characters in James’ novel speak with varying degrees of Jamaican patois which never allows you to feel comfortable (although maybe that’s deliberate). It’s probably telling that since finishing the novel at the end of January it’s taken me the best part of a month to gather up the strength to review it.  It’s not that it’s a bad book, just that it was a lot of work.  Indeed, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn lots I didn’t know about Jamaican language, history, and culture as well as the life and death of Marley.

I’m not one to recommend anyone against reading a book.  It wasn’t really for me at this time, and will probably remain not really for me because I don’t envision myself reading it again.  Nevertheless I think, all things considered, that it’s just about worth a read.  It did win the Booker Prize, after all.  But make your own mind up.  One thing I will say: be prepared.

 

My rating: 6/10

Literary Pop: A Spool of Blue Thread

Author: Anne Tyler
Nationality: American
Year: 2015

 

Spool of Blue ThreadNext on the list for 2016 was A Spool of Blue Thread, the 20th novel by the long-standing American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler.  I’d never read anything by her before and this Booker Prize shortlisted effort (in only the second year of eligibility for American authors) seemed as good a place to start as any.  She’s one of those authors I’ve seen around a lot (I work in a charity bookshop) without any standout classics to her name, yet I know she carries a good reputation among the reading public as well as the reviewing experts.  Reading this also continues my happy trend so far of reading books by women this year, although the streak will end here (for now).

The plot revolves around the Whitshank family, with an emphasis on matriarch Abby and her husband Red.  The Whitshanks, also comprising sons Denny and Stem, daughters Amanda and Jeannie, and their respective spouses and children, are a “typical” American family living in present-day Baltimore (though much of the narrative takes place in various recent pasts).  The novel takes place in three parts. In part one (the bulk of the book) Abby and Red are aging and the time has come for the younger generation to figure out what to do with their increasingly and reluctantly dependent parents.  Part two steps back in time to take a look at the earliest stages of Abby & Red’s courtship; part three chronicles the mysterious history of Red’s parents Junior and Linnie.  Time weaves back and forth around these main subject lines, as the “spool of blue thread” gradually winds and unwinds itself through the lives of the Whitshank family.

I liked it a lot.  I felt a little bit like an outsider at times, as the themes in the book are very reminiscent of Americana-like nostalgia in a way that didn’t entirely resonate with me, but in a way that actually heightened my curiosity in the strange-yet-normal setting and characters.  I particularly enjoyed how the second and third parts gradually explained some of the intriguing goings-on in the first (often contradicting the accepted family version of events) and it makes me almost want to read it again with my new-found expert knowledge.

It’s a great relief sometimes to read a nice, normal novel without having to deal with highbrow writing styles, deep dramatic themes and the like.  Tyler seems to be an honest and unpretentious author who doesn’t have to try too hard to write something eminently readable.  And so I will definitely look out for her books in future (as if I needed to add another back catalogue to my to-read list).   Overall I would highly recommend A Spool of Blue Thread – it’s not a ground-breaker, but it’s a page-turner, and sometimes that’s all you need from a book.

 

My rating: 8/10

 

Literary Pop: Go Set a Watchman

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious”

Author: Harper Lee
Year: 2015
Nationality: American

watchmanAs I looked to pick my second book for 2016 I began to realise that, as appropriate as it seems, January might not have been the best choice of month for “published in 2015”.  I have been asking my girlfriend to choose which books I read so far this year, and from a pool already reduced to three she selected Go Set a Watchman, the surprise sequel(ish) to 1960’s classic (in the truest sense of the word) To Kill a Mockingbird.  (Readers may note that Watchman was originally finished in 1957 but fortunately my category is “published” and not “written” in 2015!) This was obviously a book near the top of many 2015 lists and in fact probably the most talked-about book of the year.  I approached it with mixed feelings – surely it would never live up to the hype?

In 1950-something, Jean Louise Finch returns by train from New York (where she lives without making clear what she does) to her (fictional) hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.  She is met at the station by “childhood sweetheart” Hank Clinton in lieu of her father, her usual chauffeur, who is growing arthritic in his old age and often unfit to drive.  It soon becomes clear that Maycomb and Jean Louise are not totally suited to each other; things take a turn for the worse when Jean Louise finds out something about her father that shatters her opinion of the man who had been her moral and intellectual beacon since her earliest years. Between flashbacks from her childhood, Jean Louise picks up the pieces and tries to come to terms with developments she could never have imagined.

Now I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird once, and that was in 2011.  So while I do remember thoroughly enjoying it I don’t really recall the finer points of the plot or even too much of the style and as such I can’t make any great comparisons here.  In truth it’s probably not fair to compare anything to one of the best books I’ve ever read – I should consider Go Set a Watchman on its own merits.  But that’s incredibly difficult when the latter is essentially an early draft of the former and such juxtaposition is thus inevitable.  To be perfectly honest, I’m willing to forgive the shortcomings of a book that was shelved and forgotten about in favour of what the author herself considered to be a better story, and would probably never have been rushed to print without the hype around what had previously been Harper Lee’s single published novel.

So anyway, Go Set a Watchman was decent without being fantastic.  It’s pretty slow to get going – it’s not until about a hundred pages into a 278-page novel that anything really happens.  And a particular passage later on between Jean Louise and her uncle Jack is so unnecessarily confusing and convoluted that I abandoned it having read it three times without really deciphering what it was on about.  The plot is interesting enough but the writing seems a bit bland.  It’s a delicate line to tread – if you want to see how your favourite characters from Mockingbird develop as they age (although, again, this was written first) then read on.  But if you want to preserve your memory of a perfect book and its pristine characters, it might be best to avoid.  Your call.

 

My Rating: 6.5/10

 

Literary Pop: The Tea Planter’s Wife

“Nothing had prepared her for the shock of Ceylon’s scorching heat, nor its clashing colours, nor the contrast between the bright white light and the depth of the shade.”

Author: Dinah Jefferies
Year: 2015
Nationality: British

 

Tea-Planters-WifeWhen I came to pick my first book to read in 2016 (confession: I started it at the end of December) my selection pool was relatively limited, January’s reading theme being books published in 2015.  I had already decided on this theme late last year and informed my girlfriend so that she could pick out some books for me for Christmas.  The results were pleasing – more to come later this month.

High on my list was The Tea Planter’s Wife.  This novel was always going to attract me from the moment I discovered its existence because (white imperial bastard alert) I’m descended from Tea Planters.  My great-great grandfather moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in the late 19th Century while it was a British colony and his descendents lived there until roughly 1970 when increasing political turmoil following 1948’s independence proclamation made it difficult to remain.  I visited with my dad (who was born there) ten years ago and it’s always been a place I have a lot of affection for.

It is 1925. Nineteen-year-old Gwen moves from her family home in England halfway across the world to live with her new husband, tea planter Laurence.  In the beginning, all is not well – although Gwen and Laurence are deeply in love, he is withholding something; and not just the tragic death of his first wife twelve years earlier.  Nevertheless, Gwen soon falls pregnant and everything seems to be heading in the right direction.  But mysteries remain.  What does Laurence have against Gwen’s friendship with native artist Savi Ravasinghe?  Why won’t his sister leave them alone?  And will Gwen and Laurence admit their darkest secrets to each other?  All will be revealed over the next nine years or so against the changing social and political backdrop of an island tiring of colonial rule.

ceylon-tea-country-tea-trails-srilanka

The book took me a short while to really get into, but when I got going I was impressed.  I think that when I first approached the narrative I was a little sceptical as to whether it was actually going to be any good, and this probably clouded the first few chapters a little.  The book is very much about the wife rather than tea planter and I enjoyed the strong, complex female protagonist.  Jefferies has also done considerable research into the history of the country and even the tea-making process and it shows.  It’s essentially a tragic novel, and I was particularly impressed by the ending and its refusal to take the easy, mushy way out.   On an individual level I found it pleasing to read about places I’ve heard about from my dad and visited myself and although the story is by no means the typical life of a planter’s wife, I did feel a connection to my female ancestors while reading.

Without the personal connection, I might not have read The Tea Planter’s Wife in the first place.  But I’m very glad I did.  It was an excellent read and I would recommend it to white imperial bastards and innocent bystanders alike.

 

My rating: 8.5/10

Literary Pop: Plan for the Year

library-books

So, looks like I’ve managed not to update my blog since October 2014.  Whoops.  Oh well, no point dwelling on that.  I’m sure I’m not the only one picking up again at the start of the year as a resolution kind of thing – let’s see if it lasts longer than the traditional month or so.

Anyway, here’s my plan:

  • Updates on Sundays.  I used to blog at work, but I don’t think I can get away with that at my current job.  Anyway, I want to be more productive at work this year (resolutions and all that).
  • For the most part, books only.  For now, at least, I really can’t be dealing with different media.  I hardly watch films at the moment and frankly I listen to too much music to really pick anything out to review.

In an effort to broaden my reading I have (since the last time I blogged) begun observing “themed” reading months.  Last year my months were as follows (with an example of a book I read that month in parentheses):

  • January: Irish (Roddy Doyle, The Commitments)
  • February: Biographies of women (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
  • March: 21st Century (Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies)
  • April: Self-help (Dr Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox)
  • May: Crime (Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl)
  • June: Kentucky (Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible)
  • July: C0mmonwealth (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin)
  • August: Black/African (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun)
  • September: Sci-fi/Fantasy (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)
  • October: Spanish/Latin American (Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia)
  • November: Free choice non-fiction (Jeremy Paxman, The English)
  • December: Free choice fiction (Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex)

This year I’ll let you know what each month is as they happen, since they have a tendency to shift a little as the year goes on.  See the end of this post for January’s theme.

I’ve also set myself a couple of extra rules – first, I’m only allowed to buy one book a week (averaged across the year).  I work one day a week at a book shop, so this will be tough.  I bought six books today.  No more for a while!  Second, at least 50% of books I buy must be authored by a woman.  Less difficult, but totally necessary to begin to even up a male-heavy library built up over years of blind patriarchy-reinforcement.

I’m looking at taking part in a reading challenge or two.  I’m probably being ambitious but I hope I can fit them into my themes without much of a stretch.  Top of my list at the moment is #BustleReads.

Well, that’s all for today.  Thanks for reading.

January’s theme: Published in 2015
Justification: In the past I’ve often found myself out of touch with the current literary scene.  This seems a perfect opportunity to allow myself to keep on top of what’s going on.
Currently reading: Dinah Jefferies, The Tea Planter’s Wife.  Review to follow next week. Perhaps.

Literary Pop: Jonathan Livingston Seagull

“Do you want to fly so much that you will forgive the Flock, and learn, and go back to them one day and work to help them know?”

Author: Richard Bach
Year: 1970
Nationality: American

jlsAfter finishing the behemoth of a novel that is Wolf Hall, I decided to take it easy for the next few books I read. This led me appropriately to Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, numbering just 93 pages (including, in my edition, several pages of photographs). It’s something I’d been half meaning to read for a while, without entirely knowing what it was about. So, I sat down on the train and took up the less-than-daunting task.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull, lives his life as something of an outsider from his flock. While his fellow gulls live a short, boring, food-centric life, all Jonathan wants to do is fly. One day he discovers a new method for attaining high speeds in flight, and in his eagerness to enlighten the flock disturbs their breakfast scavenging. Unimpressed, the elders banish him from the flock forever. This is hardly a disappointment for Jonathan Livingston, who continues to use his days improving his flying until one day, having seemingly reached his peak, he is transported to a higher plane of existence populated by gulls like himself. Here, capable of flying even higher and faster, Jonathan outshines even his fly-happy contemporaries and is taught the power of apparent extratemporal flying by an elderly gull. He is given the option of ascending to an even higher plane or returning to his old, close-minded flock; Jonathan chooses the latter, keen to impart his new-found skills on any willing gull. He soon meets Fletcher Lynd Seagull, a bird like himself shunned by the flock, and convinces him to join him in his quest to enlighten the (unwilling) unenlightened. Eventually the two gather a huge following and teach the flock once and for all that “a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom”.

seagull

In the end, it only took me about half an hour to read so whatever my verdict it can hardly be described as a waste of my time. It’s not exactly my thing, and I suppose it was a bit of a let-down given that, as I say, I’d been looking forward to it for a while. Unsurprisingly I was strongly reminded of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the other famous spiritual/motivational novella that I feel achieves a very similar end with a little more literary prowess. Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘s simplicity is nevertheless integral in getting the motivational message across, and the message is a commendable one – that sometimes you have to ruffle a few feathers (sorry) to move forward, but that progress is only really progress if those at the back are helped along as well as those flying ahead.

I think.

My rating: 6.5/10

Literary Pop: Wolf Hall

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”

Author: Hilary Mantel
Year: 2009
Nationality: British

I’ve been making an effort recently to get more in touch with some modern literature – partly because I feel I shouldn’t get too stuck in the past, and partly because recent novels seem on the whole to be more easily readable than their older counterparts.  Counterintuitively therefore I picked up Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 650-page Booker Prize-winning epic about the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII (I’m led to believe the fall will follow in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy).

Wolf Hall follows Cromwell on his journey from beaten blacksmith’s son to one of the most powerful men in the realm, chronicled through a number of wolfhallhistorical events, focussing on the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage (to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon) and the installation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Queen.  The tale is wrought with the current of Henry’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church, and ends with (spoilers) the execution of Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and perennial thorn-in-the-side. (To hear this story from the other side, watch 1966’s Best Picture winner, A Man for All Seasons, in which More is the hero and Cromwell a villain (yawn)).  Through his wit, intelligence and intricate knowledge of the law, Cromwell rises through various posts to become the king’s most trusted adviser and the man to whom everyone turns to get things done.  He overcomes his association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and finds himself intimately connected with the Howards and the Boleyns (because it probably seemed like a good idea at the time).  By the end of the book he has risen to an unheralded superiority in the kingdom – but what goes up, must come down…

I won’t lie, it’s not an easy read. Particularly at the start the somewhat ambiguous nature of the dialogue and the fact that roughly 70% of the men are called Thomas makes it hard to get to grips with.  The huge, ever-changing pool of characters doesn’t help, but (fortunately?) the book is long enough to give the reader ample opportunity to get used to proceedings.
Throughout the book, I gained respect and regard for Cromwell, and when I eventually get round to reading Bring Up the Bodies and the to-be-released finale it will be disappointing to read of his downfall.  This is an curious experience for me, because I’ve never really been into historical fiction before, which has the caveat that whatever the action, the end result will be the same.  I am however gaining a little insight into the genre, and it’s interesting to think (again, thinking of A Man for All Seasons) how the author of a work can spin history to favour one character or another.  Not that I’m accusing Hilary Mantel of having any political motive, of course.  I’m sure she’s not like that at all.  It also has the additional bonus of teaching me a bit about history (taken with a large pinch of salt), and I like learning.  More for me in future, I think.

 

My Rating: 8/10