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…

Weekend Coffee Share 14th August: Other Ways to Book

If we were having coffee and you asked me what I was reading at the moment (people always ask book editors —and sometime-book-bloggers—what they’re reading at the moment), I would tell you I’m reading a (slightly disappointing) thriller and also doing a lot of faux reading.

Yes. Fake. Reading. When you are short on spare time (I have mentioned toddler twins, yes?), us readers must find other ways to book. And while I can in theory sneak in 15 minutes on my commute, and another 5 while I meander (carefully) the streets of central London on my way to the office, and perhaps another 10 in bed before I pass out for the night, it’s not really enough. Plus in the multitasking fury that is my brain sometimes those train rides are for other things like the grocery order, the birthday message that is 3 days late, a really (un)important Facebook update or some mindless staring while said brain fails to latch on to any one thing for more than 10 seconds. I’m tired. And my brain is tired and sometimes even reading, to my utter disappointment, seems tiring.

And so I have found myself listening and watching ‘books’ instead. I know stories are stories but of late my radio listening and television watching is geared to the literary adaptation, and somewhere in my chaotic mind this ‘counts’ as book time. Not that I should have to justify it. Well, except that I’m a supposed book blogger who is too tired to read… In any case I have recently enjoyed some wonderful renditions of novels that have then inspired me to seek out the original material so that one day I can experience them again (properly—well, as intended) in their text-based form.

Radio 4 is one of the great joys of living in the UK and apart from hosting the only soap opera I care about, they broadcast the most wonderful radio dramas. It is from here that I have recently enjoyed the sheer fun and exquisiteness of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (thanks to a tip-off from a friend), and the rich, intense, ambitious novels of AS Byatt’s ‘Frederica Quartet’. On television we this week finished the third season of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, a wonderful series based on Kerry Greenwood’s delicious novels set in the 1920s and featuring Phryne Fisher, the most fabulous lady-detective ever invented. Earlier in the summer a delightful adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (one of those books I fear everyone else in the entire world has read except for myself), kept us both entertained and endeared.

So here we are now on our second coffee (it’s been a long week, right?) and I can tell you that even though I may be too tired and my brain too busy to devote the time to reading that I would like, I am at least finding other ways to ‘book’, to immerse myself in intriguing, clever and enjoyable literature—the type of stories that both cheer and inspire.

And very soon, in a mere few moments, I will be off to bed with the thriller I’m reading to squeeze in 10 more minutes of reading joy before I pass out. Goodnight, coffee drinkers and readers. Book well.

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.

U is for Unfinished

Always finishing the book they started is a badge many hard-core readers (like hard-core bikies but without so much leather) love to wear with honour. Similar to those who are anti e-book because they like the way p-books smell, the ‘always finish’ crew can get a little Salem-villagey if you dare admit you closed a book part-way through with no intention of re-opening it. They say things such as ‘I never let a book defeat me’ or ‘Once I start it I have to finish it’, as if there’s some biblio-scorecard being kept somewhere.

U is for Unfinished. Yes, you tome-tallying library lovers, I ‘gave up’ on a novel.

One of my favourite university tutors (I have two), a great man, writer and reader who had the odd job of teaching us about ‘the internet and digital media’ back in 1998 when many of the class were yet to open an email account, once mentioned that the only book he couldn’t make it through was Kangaroo by DH Lawrence. As I liked and respected this tutor so much I have always had Kangaroo on a mental ‘never-to-be-read’ list, though occasionally I am struck with a sadistic urge to attempt it. I’m not sure what it will prove if I finish it. That my boredom threshold is stronger than my tutor’s was? Seems an odd thing to give a damn about. (As an aside, Kangaroo is one of the books I sometimes imply I have read when in a high-brow conversation about ‘tough’ books, so much do I trust my tutor’s views.)

A common theme across the blog this year has been that ‘life is too short’—to focus on regrets (or, as I’ve started calling them, ‘recognisable errors in  judgement’), to beat yourself up about not managing to squeeze four thousand tasks into each day, to read a bad book, to read a book you don’t want to. And so, this year, there was one book I didn’t finish. It was Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Haymann and there were two main reasons I closed it, never to be reopened: it was too long and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to forgive its length. And when I say too long I don’t just mean it needed a few paragraphs cut. I mean it was overwritten, overblown and overfull with unnecessary plot, exposition and description. It was the kind of book where I think I could have randomly skipped 10 pages and still follow the plot. But why would you want to do that? As an editor I wondered if the author even considered any of the editorial suggestions, and then I shudder at the thought that she did, and this was still the result. It was a shame as there were some lovely little details, expressions, thoughts from the narrator, but you had to find these rare gems in the jungle of words around them, and in the end, well about half-way through, I just didn’t feel it was worth it anymore and just looking at it on the bedside table gave me a heavy heart.

As I didn’t finish the novel I’m not going to sit here and bag it for three paragraphs. Take what you will from the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing, and the fact that this was a book group selection and I have never attended a book group session where passions ran so high when discussing whether the book was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel. (Seriously, people brought visual aids with them to support their argument.)

The language we hard-core booklovers sometimes use fascinates me. Books ‘defeat us’, we ‘give up’, we take a break to ‘gather strength’ to go back to it, but ‘won’t succumb’ to letting it go. Sports fans are often ridiculed for comparing their games to military battles, but surely us book geeks should also be put to task for similar appropriations.  And if we’re going to play word games, why do we so rarely blame the book? Maybe the book let us down. Maybe our greater sense, imagination, reasoning or life experiences ‘beat’ the lesser merits of the book. Maybe, just maybe, life is too short to read something we’re not enjoying or being intellectually tickled by. Maybe some books should remain unfinished.

Not Quite a New Year

It’s the first day of twenty-eleven; a new year, a new decade, a new Pile o’ Books? Well, not yet.

Over the next week I ask you to pretend it’s still 2010, while for the sake of the record I post on books T, U and V. That’s correct mi amigos, we made it to ‘V’. So close and yet so aggravatingly far. Why was it too hard to get through twenty-six books this year? I’m not sure. I’ll ponder this when I go into my regular new year blog re-evaluation reverie sometime next week (this involves me sitting on my balcony at twilight with a glass of rosé and thinking about my blog and other writings). In the meantime, enjoy your first glimpse at 2011. It’s a stinking hot day here in the Antipodes and my book and I will be paying an evening visit to the beach. One can’t complain about that. 🙂

C is for Chandler

I like to think cartoons teach us everything worth learning. How else would we know that cats hate dogs, coyotes are stupid and a secret agent mouse lives in a pillarbox in London? And there’s a cartoon character that is partly responsible for my love of the detective novel and, surprisingly, it’s Tweety Bird. Yep. Sorry about that. But the annoying yellow fluffball had one inspired incarnation and that was as a Philip Marlowe-esque P.I.  It was possibly only one episode I saw repeatedly on weekday afternoon re-runs of Loony Tunes but it has always stuck in my head. So much so that it informed me of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of hard-boiled detectives long before I knew anything about noir crime fiction. 

And so here have the letter C. For Raymond Chandler and his classic noir detective novel, The Big Sleep.

The thing with a writer like Chandler and his intertextual popularity, is that he is one of those authors I’d always felt I had read when, in fact, I hadn’t. I once had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve read any Austen,’ and I wanted to reply, ‘Hell, if you can’t remember, you illiterate moron…’ But I was a bit like that with Chandler. I could wing my way through long conversations about him, sounding totally informed and being totally fraudulent. And Tweety Bird is to blame for some of that.

But now I have finally read some! And it’s the stuff goddamn dreams are made of, sweetheart. So what is it about his writing which is so deliciously detectively delightful?   

Chandler’s use of language is imaginative, specific and stupendous. I adore slang and informal language. I love that it’s always changing, it’s egalitarian nature and that it can be so particular to certain people, places or eras. It is colourful, expressive and can be intricately precise in its definition and use. When I started reading The Big Sleep I began to dog-ear pages with the most exquisite one-liners and descriptions on them until I feared I would find myself with a book resembling a Crufts catalogue and so desisted. But trust me, nearly every page contains some gem of literary usage of the English language, and what is great about Chandler is he was one of the first (and one of the best) to use it in this way. And just because his prose reads a bit free and easy and isn’t stiffly formal, he is an extremely considered wordsmith and every single word is working very, very hard, and to me, that’s the sign of a classy writer.

Dames, joes, broads, grifters, cops on the take, criminals on the make – there are no innocent bystanders in this novel, our protagonist Marlowe included. Marlowe is a fascinating character – the down and out gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in his filing cabinet, the man men either want to trust or kill, that women want to throw themselves at or slap silly. The P.I. who wants to do right by his clients, even if that means doing wrong. A man who plays his cards close to his chest, who doesn’t mind resorting to the rough stuff to get the information he needs. I could go on and he would still sound like a lone-wolf, hard-drinking, no-friends, down-and-out, heart-in-the-right-place, wise-cracking, trenchcoat-wearing stereotype, except that we must remember that the stereotype largely comes from Marlowe and for that we can revel in its magnificence.

The Big Sleep is a reflection of the time it was written and the time it is set, but it is also a novel with a strong sense of place. As a reader I felt I was among the action. Just little old me, standing in a corner of a room or slumped in the back seat of a car, perhaps trying to hide behind that cop with the big arse at a crime scene. When you read this novel you are on the streets of LA, you drive along the California coast, you sit in a diner with your coffee and eggs, you stand amongst the fog and squall of an incoming storm. And you do it all in the 1930s which is why the language is so engaging, why the little details of dress, furniture or driving a car are so interesting, why you let the chauvinistic behaviour wash over you (or perhaps raise a wry eyebrow and then continue reading). Often when we get that strong sense of place in novels it is when the setting is in a small community or perhaps in a country we see as exotic. I love that this sense is so strong in a story set in an American city, in the type of story where you think you should just be focusing on the plot and who did what to whom.

Lastly, I love that I have finally actually read Raymond Chandler and met his Philip Marlowe before he was Humphrey Bogart. And I can’t wait to read more.