Upon which I discover Les Miserables is actually very good

I have recently been addicted to a dramatised version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that has been playing on BBC Radio 4. Turns out this classic story, which frequently appears in ‘the best novels ever’ lists, is actually pretty bloody good. Marvellous, in fact. A portrayal of humanity and love most other works would struggle to equal. Who knew?

I have downloaded the behemoth (1200-odd pages!!) French tale onto my e-reader and only need a holiday curled up on a sofa with a bottle of brandy and no disturbances (ha!) to make my way through it. It will happen. I just don’t want to say when.

It also turns out that thirty-odd years of witnessing theatrical posters and TV commercials for cast recordings of the musical production were not enough on which to base my knowledge of the great book. I always presumed it took place during the French revolution, what with all the poor, grubby people and flag waving. Lucky I never pretended I had read it. Though the story begins only a decade or so after this time, it would still have been odd if I had started talking about guillotines and letting people eat cake. Now that would have been embarrassing…

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part one)

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Fifty-eight years ago, William Golding decided to write a book that would depict boys as boys truly were. (I know this not because I am a Golding scholar, but because I read the novel’s introduction). A response, no doubt, to the child-detective, boys’-own, let’s-save-the-day-and-then-have-lemonade style books in fashion at the time. He called it Lord of the Flies, crashed his boys’ plane and stuck them on a deserted island sometime during ‘the war’. He then spun a tale of survival, discovery, alliances, tribal power, danger and murder that has resonated with readers ever since it was published.

This would usually be when I give a brief precis of the story, but I’m not going to on this occasion as after many a survey it seems everyone in the entire world—apart from those who were in the exact same classes as me—studied this book at high school. And if by some strange chance they missed it that time, they—again, apart from me—studied the book at university. This is all well and good and, hey, at least they weren’t analysing episodes of Gossip Girl to attain their leaving certificates, but it does mean that I have found no-one to discuss this novel with who read it either recently nor as an adult. It is one of the two things that led a truly significant reading experience to be less fulfilling than it should have been. This had nothing to do with Golding’s story or writing and rather a lot more to do with me (perhaps a too-common theme of this blog) and how the novel made me feel. Now. As an adult.

You see, because although I’m sure there are crossover points between what an adolescent ‘gets out’ of Lord of the Flies, and what an older person does, I also think there may be differences, especially when the older person is not straightjacketed by curriculum and a 20-year-old Cliff Notes copy. I think those who have a bit of a gap between their ‘younger years’ and their current age might consider the messages of childhood and human nature differently than if they were 15 years old; I think it might make them feel differently.

I’m wondering if other adults have read this novel and despaired as I did. At the horrible situation; at those poor lost, ignorant children; at the characters’ complete inability to truly understand their motivations for their decisions and to rarely be able to express them; at the portrayal of the sickening way children (and adults) can treat each other; at the terribly insulting and officious way the grown-up world casts children; at the ways some of us gain power and others are shunned. I despaired and I think I got angry—I must stress again not at the novel itself but at the ideas it was discussing. Perhaps Mr Golding’s entire point. And the fact that he could do all this and tell an adventure story that still both appeals and affects people of all ages points to his triumph.

It took a while for these ideas, thoughts and feelings to stop spinning around in the back of my brain and become vaguely coherent. Instead I was a little like the boy-characters, knowing something was going on but not being able to express what it was.

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EXAMPLE ONE

Boyfriend (opening front door in the evening): Hi, honey.

Me (grimacing with novel in hand): I hate Jack.

Boyfriend (who, like everyone else, read novel at school): Yeah, Jack’s not very nice.

Me: I hate him. I hate his guts.

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EXAMPLE TWO

Boyfriend (different evening): Hi, honey.

Me: They freaking killed him. It was horrible. I cried on the train.

Boyfriend: I thought you knew that would happen.

Me: Well, sure, but it’s still horrible. Those awful, murderous, ignorant, hateful boys. You know how I said I wanted to have children? Well, I’ve changed my mind.

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And that was the second thing. Not only did I crave an adult-reader to talk to about Lord of the Flies but just as I had finally come to peace with the notion that it might be very nice to start a family in a year or two, I made the mistake of reading a book that shows us how capable of menace and cruelty and all those things we like to put on adults, children can be. As someone who has never been too definite on the idea of motherhood, this was another mark in the ‘con’ column. Perhaps it’s a biological thing. It only occurred to me while watching (the very good) The Hunger Games film that really, what that story had to deal with so carefully was the fact that its main plot points revolved around children killing children.

Of course, Golding wasn’t trying to say that children were cruel (nor that they were power-hungry maniacal murderers). He was telling a story about children stranded on an island, a story everyone had read before, but this time the characters and their actions were portrayed realistically, and the realistic possibility was that it would not all end with lemonade.

I’m so very glad I read Lord of the Flies. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad it lived up to its ‘classic’ status. It’s still sitting with me now; somewhere in the back of my brain. Ralph, Jack, Piggy and Simon. The beast. The conch. The rock pool. The shelters. The fire. All the ideas William Golding wanted us to ponder. Or perhaps we just end up pondering. If you’re like me and didn’t have to read this novel at school, I urge you to give it a try. And if you’re one of the millions who did … read it again, even just so you can talk to me about it and how it made you feel.

Classics diversion

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and London is awash with celebrations, exhibitions, publications and tenuously linked products connected to the great writer.

Regular readers know that I am partial to a classic novel (both modern and your more classic classics) and Dickens is one of my favourites, so the Charles-o-rama is okay with me, for the time being anyway. It’s not often a writer has such public focus for an entire year, so although I assume one will get a little tired of hearing of his brilliance and listening to lectures proposing what Dickens would think of Twitter and the crisis in the Eurozone were he alive now, overall I see it as a positive and inspiring thing. (A colleague of mine has been so inspired he is planning on having a year of Dickens to kick through some of the novels he never got around to reading. Fabulous idea, if you ask me.) It’s also had me thinking about classics in general and when my writing muscles are back in shape I have a couple of recently read titles to post on — including a Dickens’ novel. Until then, here is the always firm-thinking and eloquent Richard Flanagan on our relationship with classic literature.

http://www.randomhouse.com.au/blog/richard-flanagan-on-classics-1435.aspx

Book 29: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Every time I picked up this book I had ‘Hard Times’ by The Cruel Sea on high rotation in my head. Great song, but a little distracting from the industrial, smog-filled English countryside of one of Dickens’ less-famous novels. Listening to The Cruel Sea makes me feel like sitting on the grass in a friend’s backyard on a summer’s eve, with my mates close by, the barbie sizzling and a pale ale in hand. Reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens made me feel slightly morose, uninspired and asthmatic.

My Great Aunt’s Hat, Pile o’ Books, did you just criticise the great English storyteller, one of your favourite authors?! Well, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with Hard Times, but there’s also nothing particularly stupendous about it apart from a few of the usual Dickens’ gems with names and humour (calling a teacher Mr M’Choakumchild for example – love it). And the reason for the morose, uninspired, lung-capacity difficulties this novel brought upon me was because it is a story about an uninspiring, saddening place, full of mostly undesirable or hopeless (and I mean, without hope) characters, and it all happens in a mill-town when manufacturing was king and the unsightly burkha of thick black smoke loitering over the valley was a sign of progress.

You know how sometimes if the writing is so good or the story being told so captivating, you can get past the slightly mundane or unsympathetic characters and storyline? Well, with this book, I was happy enough to keep reading it and just as happy when I turned the last page to never think too much about it again. It’s a small book in a way, a treatise from Dickens on the industrialisation of England and how it affected People. One of his favourite topics but here there was no hard-done-by orphan to latch on to, no kind-hearted servant, no caricatures to laugh or squirm in horror at. Wait. There were. But I didn’t latch.

For all those who put up with me trying to foist Dickens upon them, don’t start with this one. Read David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist (note Oliver! is the musical – ahhhh Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes…) or A Tale of Two Cities. Read Hard Times once you have been captivated by one of the greatest storytellers ever and you are happy to simply read his words and follow him on his journey as a trustingly novelistic companion. And listen to The Cruel Sea too. They really are rockingly awesome.

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Hard Times was started in Lake Louise, wound through Jasper and Vancouver but wasn’t finished until I was back in Sydney.

North Americans revere Dickens. I can’t tell you how gosh-darn impressed any Canadian or American was when they spied my crumpled popular penguin in my hand or lying casually on a table. Even though none of them had heard of Hard Times in particular, and many had never read Dickens at all, they say his name in a hushed tone reserved for dali lamas, and though I am a ginormous fan I find this blind reverence intriguing. Mind you, many North Americans think I speak like the Queen and anyone who has heard me order a ‘Kafay Lahtay’ in my convict tones knows that is far from the truth… so maybe the Dickens-worship is a cultural cliche. I speak clearly and intelligently so I must be well-bred English, Dickens is one of England’s greatest ever storytellers so one must defer to him as royalty.

Book 17: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town by Christianna Brand

nurse matildaCute cover, huh? And that’s what made me pick up this book and its predecessor, Nurse Matilda. In fact it was the whole package, hardback and jacket, ribbon, a kind of extreme use of foil on the case, nice little fit-in-your-pocket size. Oh yes, don’t make the mistake of thinking I only pick up books based on merit (if you ever did).  Though I’m disappointed the person cleaning out their shelves didn’t feel inclined to leave the third (Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital) at the same time (It’s all about complete sets, people).

For those unaware, Nurse Matilda is also Nanny McPhee. Which is a film. I’m not sure why there was a change, you’ll have to ask Emma Thompson. Perhaps it was thought that the term ‘nurse’ was no longer familiar enough to the modern audience as ‘one who looks after children’. That’s fair enough. I’m sure when I was a child reading classic English tales, I struggled with the idea of all these children being cared for by some version of Florence Nightingale. And don’t get me started on the dog in Peter Pan being both a Nana and a nurse! 

The Nurse Matilda books stick to a few simple plot points:

1. A very stupid, wealthy couple have a crazy amount of terribly ill-disciplined kids (like forty or something, the narrator doesn’t know all their names)

2. The very naughty children terrorise everyone.

3. The agency sends a very ugly woman called Nurse Matilda who uses magic and a kind of early twentieth century ‘tough love’ to tame the wild young people. No spoonfuls of sugar here.

4. As the children become better behaved Nurse Matilda becomes better looking.

5. Once the children don’t need her, but want her, she must leave. Ohhh.

6. Oh and there’s some crazy, deaf old aunt who the stupid couple are hoping to inherit from.

The Nurse Matilda stories are cute. I have an affection for old-style narration. Are they brilliant? Timeless? Classics? … As an adult I can appreciate them for what they are, but I’m not swinging from any lampposts to shout about them. If I was child? Well, what a question for a start, I don’t think I was a child when I was one, if you know what I mean… but if i was, I don’t know if they’d be my guarana-packed energy drink. A little too twee, a little too old-fashioned without the substance to keep you keen?

It’s hard to know. I’m quite terrified to read books I adored as a child for fear that my memories will be destroyed by adult reason and criticism. A friend who recently re-read The Faraway Treeclaims it was boring tosh – imagine! And there is so much you can read into a story as an adult that you can’t, and don’t need to, as a child, and possibly isn’t even there to be explored. (Although, have you read Peter Pan as an adult? We should talk about the relationships in thatone day. See. Doing it.) I wonder about it too whenever a friend’s child has a special birthday (or are, you know, born) and I watch the boxed sets of Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne get trotted out for a 12-month old, who can barely hold a spoon let alone those tiny Jemima Puddleducks, often by people I’d never considered to be all that literarily-minded in the first place (yes, that was your snob radar pinging in the background).

I’m not knocking those books or the people who give them, I’m just as guilty, but I think it’s interesting how we all go THE CLASSICS when we think of a special book for children. We think we can’t go wrong with a book that’s been around for yonks and comes in a little hardback with illustrations and a fancy ribbon down the middle. Whether or not it’s something the child would like. Whether it’s appropriate. Or whether we’re simply giving the kid something because some well-intentioned adult once gave the same book to us. I used to love the Pen Pals books, but I ain’t going to be recommending those to any 12-year-olds (Tho’ check out this blog re-capping tween book series etc – mostly Sweet Valley High.)

If you asked me what books I loved as a child, I’d rattle off many, many ‘classic’ titles from Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter, to Mrs Pepperpot and Wind in the Willows. And when I see these in the shops, especially when in their super dooper collectible editions I want to have them and I think about buying them for some tiddlywink in my life. I guess I’m just starting to wonder about how we decide what children’s books are classics and maintain that worthy tag. And if everyone always gets the boxed set of blah blah blah when they come into this world, are we always going to give the boxed set of blah blah blah? Perhaps sometimes we say ‘classic’ but merely mean ‘old and familiar’.