Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Confession on Classics

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Teju Cole (super-author and Tweeter-Extraordinaire) was asked, 'What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?' His answer: "I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider “essential,” nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter. But this does not embarrass me... Life's too short for score-keeping." Upon reading this, my heart soared, because until now I have had what I thought was a terrible secret weighing heavily on me....  I don't care much for what people term 'Classics'.

I know Cole doesn't explicitly mention the term 'classics', but let's face it, the question the NYT put to him was a loaded one: it implied that there are books that, if you wish to be known as a serious writer or reader, you should have read by now - and if you haven't, you should be apologising for that fact. If anything, these would surely be considered the Classics. I've long been a 'Classics' apologist, in that, if I'm asked if I've read certain books, I'll often answer with 'I haven't yet, but...' I even, nearly two years ago, threatened on this very blog to read my way through a list of 100 Classic Books. I never did it (why I am reminding you of my failures?!), partly because it was very hard to find what could be classed as a definitive list (more of that in a minute), but mostly because I didn't want to. My love of reading stems from the freedom it gives me: we now live in a wonderful world where we can read books by people from other cultures and countries; by people who have turned away from traditional publishing; by anyone, in short, who manages to sit down and actually write an entire book or story. We can visit Ancient Athens or a dystopian future; we can go to the Old West, or turn-of-the-century Japan; we can go anywhere, visit anyone, see anything now. Why would I want to limit myself to a list someone else compiled?

And there's the other thing: who decides what goes on a 'Classics' list? When I first mentioned my ill-fated foray into giving myself a reading list, I had settled on using this one as my guide, because it was voted for by 'regular' people, and I liked the democratic element. It doesn't explicitly mention the term 'Classics' either, but there's enough on there that are generally held to earn the title to make it as good a list as any. Obviously it helped that I'd already read a few (25 to be exact, which is an accidental improvement on when I previously checked), but I confess I was daunted by the task: I'd already attempted, and failed, to read several of the books mentioned, there were more than I'd care to mention that I hadn't heard of, and a fair few that I had no interest whatsoever in even attempting. And there was still the question: why were these books considered 'Classics' anyway? I've been thinking about that term a bit recently, and my conclusion was that a Classic book was one that endured through the ages, and asked questions of ourselves and others that we might previously not have wondered. Undoubtedly many of the books on that list fill this criteria, but it doesn't make me want to read them more than any other book, and that is the worry I have long struggled with: that I can't consider myself a proper lover of books if I haven't read the most important ones.

But since Morrissey, King of the Knobs, managed to get his autobiography published as a Penguin Modern Classic (!), I've been questioning just how big a deal it is that I maybe haven't read as many classic books as perhaps people think I should have done, and now I've decided - I don't care. I read for the pleasure of it, and if I'm not enjoying it, what's the point? It's not like 'enjoyment' is a term exclusively used for vapid, silly, shallow summer holiday reads: you can read books that upset you and disturb you, and still on some level enjoy them. Shouldn't the term 'Classic' be more personal, and refer to those books that you, personally, return to again and again, because they speak to you, because they make you think, but most importantly, because you enjoy them? I've decided I'm done with reading books because the world thinks I should: from now on, I'm going to stick to my instincts, and read what appeals to me. To paraphrase Teju Cole, life's too short to spend reading stuff you don't want to.

So in light of this, I'm now going to make a few literary confessions that have weighed heavily on my soul and conscience.
  • I have tried, and failed, to finish the following 'Classics', all of which are currently sat on my bookshelf: Inferno by Dante Alighieri; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Paradise Lost by John Milton; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • I've only read one book apiece by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and consecutively they're Pride and Prejudice and A Christmas Carol. I tried reading Emma but couldn't hack it, Sense and Sensibility was too boring to continue with and I've never found any of Dickens' works appealing.
  • I really like young adult fantasy books, like Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I know they're not technically for my age group, but I like that they're easy and fun to read, and they're perfect for my commutes because they often make me forget I'm even on a train.
  • I'm currently reading Stoner by John Williams, which was originally published in 1965 but has since enjoyed a renewed popularity, and I'm not really enjoying it. It's gotten better since Edith arrived, but mostly I'm struggling to understand why this book has been so lauded.
What's your opinion on 'The Classics'? Are there any you've been embarrassed to say you haven't read? Any that you can't understand why they're called 'Classics'? Any guilty secrets about your reading habits to spill? C'mon now, share - don't make me the only one...

Monday, 17 February 2014

Fight Club: Film Vs Book

Movie Poster
Fight Club is one of my most favourite films. It's fiendishly clever, with wicked, black humour and some excellent acting. Helena Bonham-Carter is almost unrecognisable as the emotionally-ruined Marla, whilst Edward Norton  is wonderfully deadpan as the nameless Narrator who becomes disenchanted and cynical about his life. Brad Pitt completes the trio as Tyler, the revolutionary single-serving friend who appears in the Narrator's life and sets about spreading anarchy wherever he goes. The film is peppered with so many in-jokes, hints and Easter Eggs that every time you watch it, you spot something new to laugh wryly at, or a bit of foreshadowing that you missed the first dozen times you saw it. It's rude, violent, dark and hilarious, and I love it. Until this week, I had never read the book.

I knew there was a book; years and years ago a friend told me about it whilst we'd been talking about the film. I was surprised to hear this - it hadn't occurred to me that this insane piece of cinema had started out on a page - but initially I was eager to read it. Yet when I had opportunities to get it - in bookshops, when I got my Kindle, when people asked me what I wanted for Christmases and birthdays - I never actually took the leap. I always thought about it, but couldn't bring myself to do it. The simple fact is, after all those times I said books were better than films (with the brief exception of my Screen Beats The Page entry), I couldn't bear to read the book that inspired one of my favourite films. Silly, isn't it? I spend all this time worrying that screen versions won't match up to original books, but still watching them anyway, and then the very idea of one book not matching up to the film prevents me from reading the book. But to me, Fight Club the Film was so perfect, so wonderful that I was worried - for the first time ever - that the book would change my opinion of it, would twist it and alter it.

Book Cover
But last week, my curiosity - as it so often does - got the better of me, and I finally took the plunge and bought Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (if anyone can tell me how to pronounce that surname, please do). My first thoughts were how very like the film the book was - or rather, how faithful an adaptation the film was. Some parts of the text were instantly recognisable as dialogue from the film - even the pacing of the speech and thought patterns had been mimicked. This lead me to my first problem: Edward Norton was narrating my book for me. I don't know if you've ever thought about this, or experienced it, but I always find that when I read, it's like there is a voice inside my head that is reading to me, and does the voices and inflections as necessary. Normally, for me, this is a gender-neutral voice, just an extension of my mind helping me put images and opinions about what I'm reading together. For the first time though, this voice had taken on a personality: Edward Norton as the Narrator was reading the book to me in my head as clearly as if I'd been watching the film at the same time. I was also seeing the film, in my mind's eye, as I read each scene; the bar where the Narrator and Tyler have their first fight was, of course, the same as in the film, and the Narrator's condominium that blows up - setting the ensuing events in motion - was exactly the same as the film.

All this made it incredibly difficult for me to enjoy the book, because I wasn't able to focus on it entirely; instead of letting words and images and characters wash over me, I was half concentrating on the book, half rushing ahead, thinking about what happens next in the film. It's one thing to know what happens in a book, but it's another to spend your time thinking about how a scene you haven't got to yet looks in the film. One of the aspects of reading that has always bought me most joy is letting my imagination conjure up the scenes that a writer has created; a particularly gifted writer will be able to describe something so well, you can instantly see it. I can tell Palahniuk is a gifted writer, because the film is so like the book in many ways that you can tell he did a good job; for me, however, I can't experience this, because the images have already been created for me, and try as I might, I can't dislodge them.

This brings me back, I suppose, to my original belief that it is better to read a book first before seeing its cinematic counterpart; it gives you an opportunity to discover a world for yourself, and to see it how you would like to see it, rather than how someone else imagines it. An example of this that springs to mind is Peter Jackson's interpretation of Susie's heaven in his adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which is one of my favourite books. His version, involving inverted skies, swirling colours and oversized creatures did not tally up with mine at all, which was a kind of beige, dry landscape, peppered with unremarkable buildings, dogs and other people. But because I saw Fight Club first, and because the film is such a good adaptation, now I'm reading it, all I can see is scenes from the film. This is disappointing, because on some level I know I would've enjoyed the book, regardless of whether I'd seen the film or not. Having said that, I don't know how long it would've been until I found the book if I hadn't seen the film, so in some ways that's a good thing - at least this remarkable story has been in my life in some form. And after all, Chuck Palahniuk himself thought the film did a fantastic job - he actually commented that "the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective, and made connections that I had never thought to make". When the author thinks the film has performed some tasks better than his own work, you know it's got to be a good one.

I've just finished Fight Club today, and towards the end there were some scenes that I was able to imagine in my own way - a few differences with the film that allowed me to sink more comfortably into the story. However, I was reminded of the film right until the end, with constant echoes of dialogue and scenes ringing through my head. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience, and I can confidently say I would read the book again, and I will watch the film again. I can't pretend my imaginings of scenes from books have ever gone unscathed by depictions I've seen on the big screen - a notable one is my imagining of the Great Hall from Harry Potter, which was completely different to how I saw it. In hindsight, my version was a bit stupid and my re-readings of the series has improved for adopting the Great Hall from the film. I think with Fight Club, I was just so thrown by how closely the film had clearly stuck to its original source material, that maybe my marvelling at the similarities got in the way. Then again, I challenge anyone to not notice them. It has taught me a lesson though: from now on - if I can help it - when it comes to adaptations, I'm reading the book first.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Great Potter Debate: My Two Cents

Recently, there was something of a breakdown in the Harry Potter fandom, because J. K. Rowling was rude enough to have an opinion on her own characters. The 'heretical' comments, made in an interview with Emma Watson for Wonderland magazine were that she "wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment... In some ways Hermione and Harry are a better fit." The full interview (which can also be found here), when eventually published, actually revealed that Rowling was more of the opinion that Hermione and Ron would have needed a bit of counselling to make it through their marriage (which is hardly unusual) but would've been fine; but by then it was too late - the Harry/Hermione supporters were victoriously crowing 'We told you so!' at the Ron/Hermione faction, who were up in arms that Rowling would dare to 'rewrite' their beloved books.

I've been thinking about this on and off for a while now - firstly, because I've always been a huge Potter fan, but also because coincidentally I started re-reading the series just before the bombshell was dropped, so I'm right in there, analysing who has the better relationship with Hermione and chalking up pros and cons for both Harry and Ron. Of course, as some would argue, Hermione is probably best off not being paired with one of the two, but for the sake of the actual question Rowling raised - Which Wizard? for Hermione - I'm going to go over my reasons for why Ron Weasley is the best match for Hermione Granger. This should go without saying, but there will be a few spoilers.

1. Ron needs to be number one with someone. The poor bloke is the youngest boy in a family of nine, and his older brothers include dragon-tamers, curse-breakers, joke shop owners and head boys. His little sister is the only girl so naturally she gets special treatment. What does Ron get? Second-hand everything and a fair bit of overlooking - on one of the first occasions when we meet Ron in Philosopher's Stone, he grumbles that his mother always forgets he dislikes corned beef. The next thing he does is befriend the most famous wizard at school, at the very time when he could start carving out an identity for himself. Instead, he is setting himself up for seven years of playing second fiddle to The Boy Who Lived. His heartbreaking vision in the Mirror of Erised sums up his feelings of inadequacy perfectly, and these feelings of being second-best continues to be a theme throughout the series, finally coming to a head with the awful vision in the locket horcrux of Hermione choosing Harry. Harry doesn't need to be looked after and validated, but Ron does, and Hermione can give that to him simply by choosing him over his (theoretically) better, cleverer friend.

2. Harry doesn't need a love interest in the books. Sure, Ginny is an interesting enough character, but her relationship with Harry is a sub-plot in the sixth book that could be lifted out - the film adaptation shows this clearly, with only the corniest of allusions made to the relationship (the Room of Requirement scene? The only thing that requires is to disappear entirely. Zing!) The fact remains that Harry's story is about the lead-up to his life-or-death meeting with Voldemort; to start having him and Hermione moon over each other would've detracted from the plot completely. Of course, as it follows Harry through his teenage years, it would be foolish for anyone to pretend Harry is so preoccupied by Voldemort that he fails to notice girls, but to give him a full-blown love story would've been distracting. Ron and Hermione's budding relationship - even with all its setbacks, arguments and jealousies - gives the series a love story, without tangling up Harry's actual purpose.

3. Harry and Hermione already have a relationship. And in my opinion, it's a sibling one. I can't really explain this as it's my interpretation, but I've just always felt like she was the sensible, nerdy older sister who's always looking out for her erratic little brother, like when she retrieves the Invisibility Cloak for him in Prisoner of Azkaban, or when she coaches him through the Triwizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire. She doesn't take any of his nonsense, she's always there for him and she always looks out for him. However, she's not above a bit of jealousy; when Harry starts to beat her in Potions in the Half-Blood Prince, she feels threatened and snipes regularly at Harry for his newly-discovered cheats. She's also a bit of a tell-tale, running to McGonagall in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry gets a new broom from a mysterious, and possibly malicious, benefactor. All very sibling-y qualities, I think we'd agree.

4. Hermione needs a bit of a joker. That's not to say Harry is humourless, but let's face it, he's got a lot to preoccupy him and we all know that Ron is the comic relief in this trio. Uptight Hermione would benefit from Ron's more laid back attitude.

5. On the flipside, Ron needs a good influence. Harry's got a pretty good balance; he does his homework (albeit not always properly), has a few special skills - Quidditch, Patronuses - to give him focus, and he can still have a laugh. Ron, however, is lazy, but Hermione can push him to try harder and even if he doesn't succeed, he at least gives it a shot. When we last see Ron, in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, he's just learnt to drive, something his Muggle-born wife wanted him to do. Alright, so he cheated with a bit of magic, but at least he's learnt for her; that's more than your average pureblood husband would do. You wouldn't catch Malfoy behind the wheel of a hatchback, that's all I'm sayin'.

6. The trio retain their equilibrium. Be honest, if Harry/Hermione had happened, how likely do you think they would have remained friends with Ron? Eventually I reckon they would drift apart, as Ron would always have felt like a third wheel. Three's a crowd, as the saying goes. But with Ron and Hermione together, and Harry and Ginny a couple, they're all part of the same, close-knit family - the best end for three friends who've gone through so much together.

7. Ginny is a better match for Harry. Well, after the books finish, anyway, and for many reasons. For starters, she's his best friend's little sister, which ties him closely to the wizard family he most wants to be in: the Weasleys. He starts off as something of a foster son to Mr and Mrs Weasley, and eventually he becomes their son-in-law. She also shares her older brother's disregard for rules, which makes her a bit like a female Ron, but less bitchy and jealous. Finally, and most importantly, she becomes a Quidditch player for a professional team, meaning that she comes the closest to understanding Harry's grapples with fame. Ron and Hermione would have no idea about how it felt to be stared at or approached in the street, but when Ginny finds fame she becomes Harry's equal because she can understand a part of his life that no one else can.

Of course, if you're willing to read deeply enough into the Potter series, and employ a bit of imagination, you could probably make convincing cases for Hermione with pretty much anyone, from Malfoy to Terry Boot. But if we're all honest with ourselves, if she has to be with anyone, it's gotta be Ron. He's her lobster.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Thoughts on My Second Favourite Thing...

... Which is food.

Happy New Year, one and all! I trust that your Christmasses (if you can remember that far back) were wonderful and full of your favourite things. Mine certainly was; I can confidently state that I ate far more than is strictly healthy, drank too much and have only just stopped waking up from residual cheesemares (i.e. nightmares brought on by cheese. Yes, I ate that much). In penance for my over-indulging, I somewhat foolishly suggested that Boyfriend and I gave up meat for the entirety of January. This was a pretty big deal, as people who know me personally would understand; I strut about smugly on the odd occasion I manage a meat-free day, and I've been known to panic that I have the diet of Henry VIII and so will get gout. So why I got this idea to go meat-free in January, when everyone else is doing far better, tougher things like going vegan or giving up booze is anyone's guess (though there was wine involved... ahem). But! I'm over halfway in and actually, it's not too bad, although I do miss meat, and certainly could not give it up permanently.

This self-denial of one of my favourite things has lead me to think about some of my favourite food-related passages that I've read over the years, and for your perusal and delight, I present these to you now. Starting with...

 1. The Chocolate Room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
'"There!" cried Mr Wonka, dancing up and down and pointing his gold-topped cane at the great brown river. "It's all chocolate! Every drop of that river is hot melted chocolate of the finest quality... The waterfall is most important!" Mr Wonka went on. "It mixes the chocolate! It churns it up! It pounds it and beats it! It makes it light and frothy! No other factory in the world mixes its chocolate by waterfall! But it's the only way to do it properly! The only way! And do you like my trees?" he cried, pointing with his stick. "And my lovely bushes? Don't you think they're pretty? I told you I hated ugliness!And of course they are all eatable! All made of something different and delicious! And do you like my meadows? Do you like my grass and buttercups? The grass you are standing on, my dear little ones, is made of a new kind of soft, minty sugar that I've just invented!"'

There are so many wonderful things about this scene; Wonka's enthusiasm for his marvellous creation, the idea that you can eat everything in the room and, of course, the infamous chocolate waterfall. As a child this room filled me with incredulous wonder, but as an adult, it just makes me long for chocolate. Who wasn't a little bit jealous of Augustus Gloop getting to take a dip in the chocolate river (until he went up the pipe, of course)? Who doesn't wistfully imagine that moment where everyone ate the grass and tasted a sweet instead? The whole thing is just glorious.

2. Pete's meal in the Convent from McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy
'After a light supper of langoustines with whiskey mayonnaise, chervil and carrot soup, well-hung fillet of rare local beef marinated in Thai spices, and rhubarb creme brulee, all washed down with a galumphing chocolately Aussie red, I sleep the luxuriantly deep, guilt-free sleep that comes only to those who've had too much to eat and drink, and just don't care.'

There's a large number of meals that Pete describes in McCarthy's Bar as he traverses his way around Ireland, but there's something about this one that always makes me hungry, regardless of the time of day. It's not even usually the type of thing I'd order - I don't like rhubarb, and I'm not actually sure what langoustines are - but even now, my stomach is rumbling. I suppose it's the air of sheer enjoyment that Pete experiences with his dinner, as summed up in his excellently-described post-meal sleep; it's like he's achieved Foodie's Nirvana. It also impresses me that 'The Covent', as it is so-called, is actually a codename for a B&B, as it's so good Pete doesn't want anyone else to find out about it: for, as Pete's Third Rule of Travel says, 'Never Bang On About How Wonderful Some Unspoiled Place Is, Because Next Time You Go There, You Won't Be Able To Get In.'

3. Harry's First Feast at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling
'Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs... When everyone had eaten as much as they could, the remains of the food cleared from the plates, leaving them sparkling clean as before. A moment later the puddings appeared. Blocks of ice-cream in every flavour you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate eclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, jelly, rice pudding...'

I never cease to be massively jealous of Harry Potter. I mean, sure, his entire adolescence is spent in the shadow of the threat of Voldemort, and he's famous for something he doesn't understand, but who cares? Because he gets to go to Hogwarts and have feasts like the one above. Even their normal meals are pretty impressive sounding, but can you imagine sitting down to dinner and having every single thing you've ever found tasty appear before your eyes? It's the like the buffet of your dreams. And of course, it's got nothing to do with the fact that I'm protein-deprived, and there's an entire list of various meat dishes for me to salivate over...

4. Jim Rennie's Dinner With Christ from Under The Dome by Stephen King
'"Well, he's eating dinner with Christ the Lord tonight," Big Jim said. "Roast beef, mashed with gravy, apple crisp for dessert."'

Big Jim Rennie is one of the most despicable character creations ever. He's so evil he's basically a pantomime villain, and is the main antagonist in this novel about a town that is suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world in by an impenetrable, invisible barrier. One of his most disgusting characteristics is that he believes that every wicked thing he does is sanctioned by God, and one of his favourite phrases is a variation of the one above - always in regard to a recently departed character. Yet despite how horrible he is, every time I read this phrase - or something similar - I found myself yearning for a big old pile of roast beef, with mashed potatoes and gravy. It's such a simple meal, yet unbelievably tasty-sounding, so that even when I was in the grips of fury at this man, I still found myself thinking, 'Mmmm, roast beef....'

5. Ratty and Mole's Picnic from The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame
'"Hold hard a minute, then!" said the Rat... and after a short interval  reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon basket. "Shove that under your feet," he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again. "What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. "There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly; 
"O stop, stop," cried the Mole in ecstasies: "This is too much!"

Again, there's so much to love about this scene that it's hard to put a finger on it: is it the wicker luncheon basket? The list of delights contained within that basket? Mole's rapturous response to such a feast? Who knows? The point is, pretty much every picnic I've ever been on has been a mere shade of the one Ratty and Moley have; never has anything sounded as indulgent, as delicious or as wonderful as this meal, and I yearn for the day when I can have a mess about on the river, before sitting down to a lunch such as this.

Well, that concludes the food-envy for today, and just in time for lunch too; if you've encountered any literary meals as sumptuous as these, let me know; I'm always on the lookout for more things to make my mouth water.