Thursday, 8 March 2012

Books from Birthdays

It's my birthday soon, so I thought I'd have a flick through the back catalogue of books I have been given as birthday presents over the years by various people. Funnily enough though, despite being a lover of books since, well, forever, people just don't seem to buy me books, and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe they think I'll have them already, or perhaps they're worried I won't like them... I don't know! So, given that fact, I've stepped outside the box, as it were, and gone for a bit of a megamix of books I received as gifts - Christmases, Birthdays, just-because books, and picked out my favourite ones - or at least, the ones that stuck with me.

1. Maus, by Art Spiegelman
This was given to me by a friend for my 20th birthday, I think it was. I'd recently discovered graphic novels in the form of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and was quite intrigued by this world of 'adult comics'. I'd discussed Watchmen with said friend - a fellow literary fan, though of a more intense nature than myself - who bought me this. It came as a bit of a surprise - I found it difficult to act pleased when I saw a huge swastika under the wrapping paper - but I'm so glad they bought it for me. As you might have guessed from the German title and Nazi imagery, it's about World War Two; and what's more, it's the real story of a man who's father was a Polish Jew, and somehow - always a horrifyingly amazing feat - survived the Holocaust. This is his story, of how he went from being a fairly well-to-do young man, to being on the run from Nazis, to Auschwitz, and how he survived it all. It's harrowing, as all literature, imagery and films to do with World War Two and the Holocaust are, and made all the more awful - as with A Child Called It - by the fact that this is not a story in the usual sense of the word; it is true, every last ghastly detail. The story is told in a way that, I suspect, is meant to somehow 'lighten' the content - the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Americans as dogs. Owing to the natural relationships of cats, mice and dogs, it's an interesting plot device - and also helps depict certain aspects of the war in an easier-to-understand light; for example, the Polish are depicted as pigs, so when the Jewish mice try to disguise themselves to avoid being carted off by the Nazi cats, the mice wear pig-nose masks on their faces. It's childish and chilling at the same time - the first time I saw it, I wanted to laugh, then remembered what I was reading. Then, of course, the Nazi cats can be shown to have sharp teeth and spiteful claws, whilst the American dogs - playing man's best friend here, as in life - are shown as friendly, smiley creatures. It's this plain, black-and-white imagery - enhanced by the fact the entire book is drawn in black-and-white - that makes the horror all the clearer. Spigelman - quite rightly - does not scrimp on details; he has not written this to sugar-coat it, and so there are some nasty images, and some even worse descriptions. However, if I would ever recommend a book on the Holocaust, this would be it; it's heart-breaking, horrifying and will keep you awake at night, but there's also some light-hearted moments and it certainly increased my understanding of what the Holocaust was, and what it meant to survive it.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling
Going to throw in a completely different direction here, because I fear I've depressed you all with Number One. This was given to me as a Christmas present and is the only Harry Potter book I ever received as a present - being a fan, I always pre-ordered my copy of the rest of the series, and promptly read them all the same day. I love all the Harry Potter books but this remains one of my favourite of the series, for many reasons, but mostly because this is (in my opinion) the one where everything changes. The previous books - The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets - are more childish, as expected, given that the protagonists hadn't yet entered their moody teens, and whilst most people choose Goblet of Fire as the turning-point - given it's deeply darker content, and mid-way point of the series - I tend to think Prisoner of Azkaban is the real set up for some deeply dark goings-on. For starters, this is the only one without a noticeable Voldemort presence in some form - which I found disturbing as I'd generally prefer to know where old Voldy was, and he is distinctly quiet in this one. Secondly, this is the one where the servant rejoins the master, which is deeply ominous, given that if said servant had been killed, like certain characters wanted to, the rest of the books would not have panned out like they had - Voldemort would not have risen to power as quickly without him (or her - I'm deliberately trying not to give too much away, after a misplaced Facebook comment about a bet ruined the end of the seventh book for a friend). Thirdly, this is the first book to feature death - kind of - in relation to a character who is not evil (Ginny is never believed to be dead, just close to it, in Chamber of Secrets, so she doesn't count) - it's setting you up for a full-on execution in the next book, and the next, and the next... All in all, whilst this isn't the obvious turning point of the series, it is the one that prepares you for a darker view of the wizarding world, as Harry begins to grow up and discover just what being 'The Boy Who Lived' really means.

3. Any Human Heart, by William Boyd
This was a book that I was very unfair to, in the beginning. I was given it as a Christmas present, but basically ignored it for about seven months, which is quite unlike me; I tend to at least try to give a book a go. There was nothing about it that particularly bothered me, or put me off; I just simply found other things to read. Also, I think I'd heard that there had been a TV mini-series, with the affable Jim Broadbent, and whilst that wasn't off-putting either, I can't say it inspired interest. To put it bluntly, I didn't care. Oh, how wrong I was! Though, I must admit, it's only with finishing the novel that I found how much I appreciated it. To summarise, it is the story of a man, Logan Mountstuart (I love that name) throughout life, from teenager to elderly pensioner, told through journals that he kept throughout his life, with some intervals between ages, where Logan seems to stop writing his journals for a while. The fact that it is a life told from near-beginning to end, in as realistic terms as possible, is an incredible feat, and the way in which Boyd is able to convey the changing character of Logan as he ages - starting off as a typically boisterous schoolboy, all the way through to a lonely, elderly man - is even more impressive. I've occasionally dabbled in writing myself (not a groundbreaking revelation, I'm sure) and one thing I've always struggled with is characterisation; yet here is one man, from 18 to 80 (more or less), and you can see him aging before your very eyes. Half way through I actually stopped and flicked back to the earlier pages, and marvelled at how much Logan had changed, and how far he had come, and how seamless it all was. I couldn't understand how it was done, and did find myself half-wondering if Logan Montstuart was a real person, and that William Boyd had published his journals for him. That, in essence, sums up the book; the transition through life, as Logan struggles through the lows and soars through the highs of his life, is seamless. I can't really describe it any other way. I was a good two-thirds of the way through and still expecting some kind of climax - a revelation, perhaps, or the return of a long-lost friend - when the penny finally dropped; this is meant to be like life. And alright, so there are not going to be that many people who had spats with Virginia Woolf, or a friendship with Ernest Hemingway, but nevertheless, Logan's is just a life, like everyone else's; he suffers heartbreaking disappointments, breath-taking moments of sheer luck and stomach-dropping betrayals, and yet throughout all these moments, it never quite occurs to you that THESE are the climaxes, these are the moments that will affect the rest of the novel - simply because it doesn't feel like a novel, it feels like you are reading the journals of a man who lived a full, rich life, across several continents and careers, with many interesting people and some perfectly dull ones.

 4. The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer
I'm mentioning this, not because I love the stories, or even because it's a marvellous new interpretation, or translation, or anything clever like that. I'm mentioning it - in a bit of a gushy way, so I'll try to keep it to a minimum - because it was a present last year, from the boyfriend, and it is a bloody wonderful edition. Probably published entirely for suckers like me, who can't resist an attractive book, it's bound in blue leather with gold script on the covers, as well as embossed Greek-like images, and has gold-edged pages. It is beautiful, and I love it. I love it so much, in fact, that I don't really read it, because I'm a bit scared I'm going to rip the pages. What I love most about it, however, is the fact that it was bought for me because said boyfriend knew it was something that I would want, instantly, because it is a beautiful edition of two of my favourite stories, held together in glorious binding and splendour, suited to the royal heroes of the pages within. It's also probably the first copy I'll have of either story that won't be decimated by myself - The Iliad paperback has been in the bath, and I'm on my second copy already of the paperback Odyssey, having left the first out in the Egyptian sun on holiday one year, the result of which was melted glue and Book One in the swimming pool. And finally, I know a few fellow Classicists have been known to read my little blog, so guys, if you're there, and you want a decent copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey in one book, in prose, to keep for years and years and years - behold! Look no further. It's got everything - the wonderful epics, maps, and a cover that not only matches the brilliance of the poems it is translated from, but pays homage to them. It may not be worth anything in years to come, but I already treasure it as if it were a family heirloom - and I kind of hope, one day, it will be.

5. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot
Now, I could tell a bit of a fib here, and say 'this is one of the first books I was given, and has been a favourite of mine since childhood', given that it's fairly obviously a book for children. The truth is, however, that this is present from my mum and dad, the annual Christmas book. Every year, I get one - sometimes two - and whilst, for the most part, they are pleasant, they're also generally of somewhat more nostalgic than sentimental value, and so I don't tend to go mad for them. This, however, was one of those rare books that I was genuinely surprised, and delighted, to receive. I've been a fan of T. S. Eliot's poetry since studying them for A Level English Literature, but had no idea he had written this collection, and was even less aware of the fact that my parents knew I liked his work; it's not the kind of information I was expecting them to know about me, to be honest. This collection, as you can probably tell, is all about cats - so, given that I am an owner of two cats, combined with an appreciation of Eliot's poetry, this was a pretty sound choice of gift. There are fifteen poems in all, and they all feature excellently-named felines - my favourites being Growltiger, Mungojerrie and Mr Mistoffelees. They are a mixture of what I am tentatively titling 'Cat Appreciation', in that they are mini odes to cats, focusing on their habits - my favourite poem being 'The Ad-dressing of Cats', which dictates the proper manner in which to greet a cat (for example, if you find an unfamilar cat, it's best to err on the side of caution and address him thus: 'I bow, and taking off my hat, ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!') Given that cats are somewhat snobbish creatures, it's this kind of ludicrous formality that exists throughout the poems to make them a hugely enjoyable read. Coupled with some beautiful illustrations by Alex Scheffler, the illustrator who also gave life to The Gruffalo, you've got a collection of poems that are beautiful to read, wonderful to hear and gorgeous to look at.

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