Friday, 31 May 2013

Just for Fun Friday: Weird and Wonderful

I have a deep and abiding affection for facts. Any facts really - I am not particularly discriminating. Hence why QI is one of my all time favourite telly programmes, and why I can churn out fascinating (and I use this term loosely) facts on demand. Did you know, for instance, that British cows moo in regional accents? It's true. And don't you feel the better for knowing this piece of information?

It was inevitable that, somewhere down the line, I would find a way to incorporate my love of trivia into a Just for Fun Friday post. Well friends, today is the day.*

  1. Before writing The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown was a musician and a pop star. The title of his second album? Angels and Demons. What else?
  2. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, one sentence is a whopping 823 words long.
  3. John Wayne once won a Shakespeare contest, reciting a speech of Cardinal Woolsey's from Henry VIII.
  4. Shakespeare is attributed with the creation of a 1,700 words now common to the English language. Among them are: boredom, disgraceful, hostile, worth, obscene, puke, and perplex.
  5. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a practicing ophthalmologist (eye doctor). He took up writing to compensate for the fact the lack of money brought in by his career choice.
  6. Charles Dickens was only able to write when facing north.
  7. He also had his own amusement park in Kent.
  8. Leo Tolstoy's wife had to copy out War and Peace seven times by hand.
  9. J.K. Rowling doesn't actually have a middle name. She made up the 'K' for Kathleen, in honour of her grandmother, when she decided to publish Harry Potter using her initials.
  10. Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Beatrix Potter were all self-published writers.
And two non-literary facts here purely for enlightenment purposes:
  1. John Cleese's father's last name was cheese. Cleese grew up just outside of Cheddar, with a best friend named Barney Butter.
  2. Bobby Leach, the second man to venture over Niagara Falls in a barrel, survived the fall, but died later after slipping on some orange peel.
Have a wonderful weekend!

* These facts are taken from a variety of different sources: The BookEnd Cafe; Wattpad; Sparklife.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

As mentioned in my most recent What I'm Reading Wednesday post, my decision to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower was something of a break from tradition. Having failed to spend the requisite few months on my To Read list, Perks was also described to me as a 'coming of age' story - something of which I normally steer well clear. My main memory of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is, in fact, complete frustration with the massive levels of teenage angst. Perhaps a result of the fact that I was born middle-aged (but let's not explore that theme now). So my decision to delve into Stephen Chbosky's first (and extremely popular) novel was a strange deviation for me - a deviation that owes itself entirely to a recommendation from my brother. While my bro has never been much of a one for literature (unless we are allowed to count the monthly editions of Rugby World), he has long held The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be his favourite book of all time. When he asked me to give it a read and write up a review, I obviously could not say no (it's the puppy eyes), but was understandably concerned that an unfavourable review would result in destruction of our sibling-understanding. Fortunately, I absolutely adored this book (no bribery involved, I promise).*

"I guess what I'm saying is that this all feels very familiar. But it's not mine to be familiar about. I just know that another kid has felt this. This one time when it's peaceful outside, and you're seeing things move, and you don't want to, and everyone is asleep. And all the books you've read have been read by other people. And all the songs you've loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that's pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing 'unity'."

The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the story of Charlie, a Freshman and the ultimate outsider. Made up of a series of letters, all addressed to an unidentified 'Friend', Perks opens with Charlie responding to the suicide of Michael, his only school friend. Charlie writes these letters in order to understand his life and the reasons why he cannot seem to find his place:

"I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist. I think you of all people would understand that because I think you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means. At least I hope you do because other people look to you for strength and friendship and it's that simple. At least that's what I've heard. So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be."

It becomes apparent within the first few pages that Charlie is different. Highly intelligent and extremely introspective, the world within which he moves is a dichotomy of confusion and logical consequence. His keen observation of those around him allows Charlie to demonstrate a poignant understanding of their emotional state and motivations, but his social interactions are always troubling and constantly awkward. On the instructions of his favourite teacher, Bill, Charlie sets out to "participate" in life, leading him to form a friendship with the step-siblings, Sam and Patrick. Through them, Charlie begins to truly experience his existence, embarking on first dates, a dip into drug-taking, and the world of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While Charlie continues to battle with confusion and social-awkwardness, as well as the trials and tribulations that inevitably come with family life, his new friendships give him an opportunity to step outside of himself. Following him over the course of his Freshman year, Perks is a moving and agonising journey into the rawness of living.

The brilliance of this book is owed entirely to its exquisite first-person voice. I maintain that this is the most troubling narrative style for an author to get right, yet Chbosky succeeds in a manner that renders this book entirely unique. Not only does he manage to relate the experiences and observations of a teenager without falling into parody or distortion, he also successfully writes Charlie's character (and obvious psychological difficulties) without alienating the reader. While reading Perks, I couldn't help but be reminded of the fantastically affecting depiction of autism that readers receive through Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. While it is at no point established that Charlie is on the autistic spectrum, his characteristics and introspections clearly allude to a difference in the manner that Charlie perceives the world around him. Chbosky's narrative is entirely sensitive to this difference and, avoiding the pitfalls of many similar novels, never descends into caricature. 

Charlie is one of the most endearing and vivacious characters I have ever come across - while it is repeatedly asserted by others in the novel that he fails to truly live life, his enormously perceptive observations ensure that Charlie is entirely engaged with what it means to be alive. Describing the moment when his family is gathered at Thanksgiving to watch his brother play with the Penn State football team, Charlie relates:

"There were only two people who weren't smiling. My grandfather and I. My grandfather was crying. The kind of crying that is quiet and a secret. The kind of crying that only I noticed. I thought about him going into my mom's room when she was little and hitting my mom and holding up her report card and saying that her bad grades would never happen again. And I think now that maybe he meant my older brother. Or my sister. Or me. That he would make sure that he was the last one to work in a mill. I don't know if that's good or bad. I don't know if it's better to have you kid be happy and not go to college. I don't know if it's better to be close with your daughter or make sure that she has a better life than you do. I just don't know. I was just quiet, and I watched him."

This book broke my heart. Repeatedly. Not only through that wonderful feeling of complete investment in Charlie's journey, but because it forced me to confront some of those questions that are so easily avoided. Perks looks at life from the outside and I am sure that we have all, to varying extents, known what it is to be an outsider. While Charlie's experiences are extreme, his thoughts and observations are so utterly human that I believe every reader will feel a sense of familiarity in what he describes. It may be that you have known what it is to be without friends, what it feels to be divorced from those closest to you, or simply what it is to be completely out-of-your-depth on your first date. That is why I am reluctant to describe this as a 'coming of age' story. Because much of what this book describes entirely transcends age. It is not about some indefinable 'teenageness' or puberty-induced angst. This is a novel about the pain and beauty that we all experience on a daily basis, those feelings that are simply a consequence of being alive. What Perks offers is a narrative seeped in the little experiences that make up life - the misunderstandings, the euphoria, and the fear. 

One of the most regularly cited quotes given to us by the wonderful C.S. Lewis is "We read to know we are not alone." I would be hard-pressed to find a book that better demonstrates the truth of this sentiment than The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

* Still absolutely no intention of enduring the Emma Watson-ised film adaptation though. No level of bribery could induce me.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Weekly Reader

It could be the fact that this unreasonably long revision period is getting to me, but I have spent a substantial number of my tea breaks investigating all things book-related for this instalment of The Weekly Reader. Difficult to narrow down into a concise list, I am taking a somewhat light-hearted approach this week - reflecting, perhaps, my current need for any form of escapism. And with that, my friends, here are this week's top choices.

Top Articles

Not only does BuzzFeed provide the best of revision distractions, they are clearly catering to my tastes. Aside from the fact that every single one of these signs inspires a 'massive YES' from me, this article provides one of the best insights into my life that you will get (aside, of course, from this blog). My only problem with this list? Point One is inaccurate - books are still my best friends.

This is a fantastic little video, in which Neil Gaiman discusses the books that inspired him to write - The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Please note the shout-out to parenthetical asides (I blame C.S. Lewis entirely for my excessive use of parentheses).

This is a really interesting piece by Guardian contributor, Stephen Poole. The debate regarding the impact of the internet (and social media, more specifically) on the use of the English language, is one that is hardly new. Yet it is certainly something about which I now have a heightened awareness. Starting The Book Habit is a decision that I am delighted to have made, but I believe that all writing should be done with a feeling of responsibility. For me, part of that responsibility is in using language as accurately and effectively as possible (although I am well aware that I do not always succeed). 

This article raises some interesting arguments for consideration, particularly regarding the ways in which the Internet has potentially enhanced, rather than impoverished, expression. While I am not sure that I agree on that point, this is certainly a piece that will interest both writers and readers.

Top Events

If you harp back to my review of Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux, you will recall that I have a deep fondness for the Theroux dynasty. Paul, father of Marcel and Louis, is undoubtedly one of the greatest travel writers to grace the world of literature. This event will explore the art of travel writing, with Paul discussing the epic journeys described in his most famous books (see The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express for his best work).

Continuing on the travel theme, Kings Place will soon place host to a fantastic Travel Festival, kicking off with my hero, Michael Palin. While most of you will be familiar with Michael through his stint as one of the Monty Python gang, he has since become one of the most prolific travellers. Truly the most observant and eloquent travel writer that I have had the good fortune to read (and lean upon the shoulder of), this evening with Michael promises to be a brilliant event!

Top in Book Fetish

As soon as my exams are finished, I will be making a trip to The British Library for the newest of their exhibitions: 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion'. Accompanying this exploration into the world of political rhetoric, The British Library's shop has introduced some fantastic items for purchase. This bag is by far my favourite thing - in my mind, the purchase has already been made.

Because what more could the world possibly need?

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Summer Reading Recommendations: Challenge Accepted

Hi pals!

Over the past couple of weeks, I have received a number of emails asking for summer reading recommendations. Optimistic for those of us in the UK perhaps (and particularly inappropriate given that it has rained all day), but these emails did get me thinking. As you may have noticed from my reviews, I have more 'favourite' books than anyone on this Earth - when people ask me what my favourite novel is, my standard reply is 'whichever one I have just finished reading'. Having a Book Blog inevitably means requests for recommendations - a task that I always take to heart, but find unbelievably difficult, because:

  1. Reading is an intensely personal experience.
  2. A book has the potential to inspire drastically different opinions in its readers.
  3. It may come as a surprise but I am, in fact, no expert.
Still, I like a challenge. I am therefore about to offer you four summer reading recommendations - chosen for a variety of reasons and purposefully eclectic in the hope that there is something for everyone. I would ask, however, that you keep my above three points in mind. Because all opinions are the product of perspective - and life is just too short to read books that you do not enjoy.

Please feel free to add any of your own recommendations by commenting on this post. I would love to hear your views!


The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Out of all of the novels I have worked through since creating The Book Habit, this is by far my favourite. For the full review, you can see my post. This is a beautifully constructed novel and an utter page-turner. If you are looking for a book that offers you mystery at a perfectly executed thriller-like pace, a fabulous European setting, and characters of tangible vivacity and personality, this is absolutely the book for you.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I have always loved good travel writing. This has nothing, I am sure, to do with my meeting Michael Palin at a signing of Himalaya and getting to lean on his shoulder for a photo (I am also quite certain that I was the only person at the signing who was there because of the book, rather than for a Monty Python love-in). I first read Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island after I moved to the US. In an effort to cure myself of some intense homesickness (and reflecting my tendency for inadvisable attempts at reverse-psychology), I decided to surround myself with all things British. With a Dad who gets genuinely mistaken for the voice of America's Geico Gecko, the task was not difficult. And this book represented something akin to UK overload. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Bill Bryson, he is an American writer who moved to the UK. He wrote Notes from a Small Island to detail his 'farewell tour' of Britain, having decided to return to the US with his English wife and children. For the non-Brits among you, it is important that you understand one fundamental aspect of British character before reading this book - we have a penchant for self-deprecation and find our odd ways genuinely hilarious. For reference purposes, see the following video - my favourite bit of comedy ever, from the fabulous Michael McIntyre. 

For an outsider to pick out those characteristics that make us Brits beyond unique, and to do so with the level of observation and understanding that Bryson achieves, is a special thing. And, I think, demonstrable of the skills needed for the best kind of travel writing. If you are looking for a book about the UK that offers a comprehensive and utterly personal review of Britain's highlights (as well as an opportunity to laugh out loud repeatedly), look no further.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

If you read my review of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, you will remember that I have a great love for literature set during the First and Second World Wars. A product of my family's extensive and fantastically well-documented experience of both events, I welcome any book that offers new perspective on an aspect of these turbulent moments in history. 

Birdsong is quite simply the most compelling fictional account of World War I that I have read to date. It is not an easy read and, indeed, the subject alone ensures that you will leave this book feeling emotionally and physically drained. But it is truly wonderful, and a testament to the power of literature in serving the purposes of memory and truth.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

It is entirely likely that this is a book I will come to review at some point. Reversing my almost absolute adherence to the 'book before film/TV adaptation' rule, I was actually introduced to this novel through the BBC dramatisation featuring Gemma Arterton. Like many other lovers of the classics, I hold a place in my heart for the Austenian take on Victorian life (Jane Austen did, after all, provide us with the wonder that is Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy). But Austen's works are undoubtedly a reflection of the life experienced by a minority of the British population. 

Tess of the d'Urbervilles tells another story entirely - one of rural existence and the consequences of poverty. Thomas Hardy is one of the most masterful of the classic authors, painting settings and characters that enter the imagination with utter ease. Hardy's skill at personalisation, ensuring that the reader becomes completely invested in the misfortunes and struggles that Tess is forced to endure, is what makes this novel simultaneously magnificent and tremendously painful. This is an absolute must-read for any lover of classic literature.


So those are my four picks. Although if you are in the UK and awaiting summer in order to read them, you could be waiting a while. If summer does not grace us with its presence, be assured that I will follow-up with a 'Rainy Day Recommendations' post (for which Harry Potter will certainly feature as number one choice).


Monday, 27 May 2013

Monday Musing

Happy Bank Holiday Monday to those of you in recognising countries! Just stopping by with another Monday Musing to wish you all the most wonderful of days and a fantastic week ahead.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

This review has been a while in the making. When details regarding Dan Brown's newest book Inferno began to leak out a few months ago, I found myself growing increasingly excited at the prospect of returning to Robert Langdon's world of symbology. Having anxiously awaited its release on 14 May, my main concern was the amount of time that would be taken away from my exam revision as I inevitably found myself unable to put Inferno down. In light of such a context, and as you are about to read, this is not the review I expected to write. Fortunate for my studies I suppose, but a little unfortunate given my months of anticipation.

"Knowlton listened to the muffled voice, attempting to decipher the elaborate language. About halfway through the speech, the shadow on the wall suddenly loomed larger and the sound of the voice intensified. 'Dante's hell is not is prophecy! Wretched misery. Torturous woe. This is the landscape of tomorrow. Mankind, if unchecked, functions like a plague, a cancer...our numbers intensifying with each successive generation until the earthly comforts that once nourished our virtue and brotherhood have dwindled to nothing...unveiling the monster within us...fighting to the death to feed our young. This is Dante's nine-ringed hell. This is what awaits.'"

Inferno is the newest in Dan Brown's series of books following the Harvard Art History professor and symbologist, Robert Langdon. Set in Florence, this novel opens as Robert wakes up in hospital, having suffered a gunshot wound to the head and lost his memory of the previous three days. Trying to piece together the facts around what brought him to Florence, he is subject to a further assassination attempt while in the hospital, escaping with the help of Dr. Sienna Brooks. The abnormally intelligent Sienna guides Robert back to her apartment, where he uncovers the key to his mysterious pursuit - a small biohazard tube that he is carrying in his jacket pocket. Contained within the tube is a small projector which, when used, displays a copy of Botticelli's La Mappa dell'Inferno - an artistic imagining of the nine circles of hell as described in Dante's epic poem Inferno. After spotting some minute alterations to this projection of the painting, Robert is forced to unravel the uncertain circumstances that have brought him into its possession, sending him on a chase around the ancient and most celebrated of Florence's cultural sights. It soon becomes clear that Robert is involved in a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions, in which the very survival of humanity is at stake. The Dante fanatic and expert geneticist Bertrand Zobrist has created a plague to counter humankind's race towards its own extinction. Prescribing to the Malthusian idea of a population multiplying out of control, Zobrist is convinced that only with dramatic action, and the deaths of one-third of the global population, can humanity avoid complete destruction. As such, he has set a date upon which his plan will come to fruition, and a specially designed virus unleashed upon the world. With only the projection of Dante's Inferno to assist him, Robert must discover the location in which the plague will be exposed, and prevent the realisation of Zobrist's maniacal plot.

This book undoubtedly contains each of the elements that have made Dan Brown's previous books such a success - a fantastic setting, constant jeopardy, a seamless blending of fact and fiction, and the Indiana Jones of the World of Symbology, Robert Langdon (proving that tweed is always appropriate attire). Yet something about this book really did not work for me. Providing a plot of extraordinary similarity to The Da Vinci Code, I came away from Inferno feeling that this was certainly the ugly, socially-inept younger sibling of the family. It provided the thrills, but with so little substance as to make it a truly effortful read. 

I do not believe, however, that the fault lies in the plot's Da Vinci Code-mimicry. For me, the real issue was the poorly-constructed attempt to make a broader political and social point:

"'You talk about controlling epidemics as if it's a good thing...There you have it,' the lanky man declared, sounding like an attorney resting his case. 'Here I stand with the head of the World Health Organization - the best the WHO has to offer. A terrifying thought if you consider it. I have shown you this image of impending misery...I have reminded you of the awesome power of unchecked population growth...I have enlightened you about the fact that we are on the brink of a spiritual collapse...And your response? Free condoms in Africa...This is like swinging a flyswatter at an incoming asteroid. The time bomb is no longer ticking. It has already gone off...'"

This is a book that places the issue of population growth at its heart. Dan Brown makes it Inferno's focal point and reiterates the centrality of the problem on numerous occasions. While Zobrist's plot to decimate one-third of the global population with a plague is obviously condemned, this is a book written with the intention of impressing upon the reader the urgency of the population crisis. Books should absolutely be a forum for the education of readers and authors should feel free to deal with issues of importance to them, but Inferno is tremendously clumsy, bordering on dangerous, in its presentation. While I am certainly no expert on the problem of overpopulation, I know enough of existing debates to recognise that there is a debate. Inferno presents the issue as one of accepted trajectory - that the population is headed towards destruction because the planet simply cannot support its growth. Whether or not you prescribe to this view, I was left feeling that Dan Brown's attempts to grapple with the topic were irresponsible at best. Not wanting to give the ending away, I will say that I was left reeling at the conclusion's suggestion that Zobrist's insane plan held some sort of legitimacy. For an author with a global audience as large as that of Dan Brown, I was hugely disappointed to find myself faced with a social manifesto that massively oversimplified such an issue, dealing with it in an extremely insensitive and sensationalist way. 

The appeal of Dan Brown's previous works, most notably The Da Vinci Code, was always in the seamless blend of fact and fiction. While Inferno achieves this to a degree, it felt skewed as an attempt to tackle modern issues within a framework of archaic culture and location. The Da Vinci Code worked because the intersection of setting, characters, and plot line made sense. Inferno attempts to move in an altogether different direction, and the efforts to match up Robert Langdon's world of Symbology with that of the World Health Organisation and population overgrowth felt altogether inappropriate. Leaving the reader with a feeling of disconnect and an impression of disjointed narrative, a major consequence of Brown's approach is the unfortunate suppression of Robert Langdon's character. This is a character that I have loved since I first came across him in The Da Vinci Code and have continued to enjoy as the epitome of scholarly intellect and human understanding. But he failed me in Inferno. This was not a man in control. Rather his almost Sherlockean capabilities and appealing personality were sidelined in favour of the broader social narrative and vapid secondary characters. The Robert Langdon of Inferno is a shadow of his previous characterisations.

I cannot emphasise the difficulty with which I have written this review. Not only am I a fan of Dan Brown who awaited Inferno with keen anticipation, but, as I have stated in previous posts, I am also a generally kind reader. And there were undoubtedly good aspects to this book - I certainly learnt a huge amount about Dante and Florence. Unfortunately, this kind of education is not the only reason for which I pick up a Dan Brown novel. Inferno is fundamentally a consequence of over ambition - an attempt by Dan Brown to deal with an issue of great importance, and even greater complexity, in a manner that pertains to his thriller plot line and popular audience. The result is a novel that reads as fear-mongering and sensationalism. While those of us somewhat familiar with the issues can disregard Brown's manifesto in favour of more authoritative and expert sources, I am concerned for readers who have no familiarity with the issues towards which Brown points. Dan Brown is certainly entitled to his opinions (and I am not necessarily saying that he is wrong in the conclusions that he draws) but Inferno is an inappropriate forum in which to give them air. Because, in the process, he compromises the plot and makes Robert Langdon a poor imitation of his former character.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Just for Fun Friday: Wilde's Wisdom

Hello my dears!

The weekend is here, gifting many of us (by this I mean the non-students) with an extra bonus day off on Monday. Since my Just for Fun Friday: Throwing Insults Like Shakespeare post met with some great feedback (and was also a lot of fun to put together), I thought that I would follow suit this week with something similar. Enter the always witty and ever charming Captain of Wry Wisdom, Oscar Wilde.

"However, I think anything is better than high intellectual pressure. That is the most unbecoming thing there is. It makes the noses of young girls so particularly large."
- An Ideal Husband

"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast."
- An Ideal Husband

"I am afraid that we are beginning to be over-educated; at least everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching - that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to."
- The Decay of Lying

"I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance."
- The Importance of Being Earnest

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."
- Lady Windermere's Fan

"Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."
- A Woman of No Importance

"The only charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties."
- The Picture of Dorian Gray

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror."
- The Picture of Dorian Gray

"Examinations, sir, are pure humbug from beginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him."
- The Picture of Dorian Gray

Have a wonderful weekend, my friends.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

In relative terms, Charles Dickens and I are only newly acquainted. Having avoided him like the plague for a number of years, I finally gave in two summers ago - largely the result of his connections with Knebworth House and my inability to talk with any kind of authority about his life and work. A close friend of Edward Bulwer Lytton, the 19th century best-selling novelist who lived in Knebworth House, Dickens visited the estate on a number of occasions. It is rumoured that it was on Bulwer's advice that Dickens chose to give Great Expectations its controversially happy ending. We are also the proud owners of the cabinet that served as inspiration for the dog kennel described in David Copperfield. To confirm the extent of the friendship between Dickens and Bulwer, I need only tell you that Dickens named one of his children Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (their relationship clearly representing a love that transcends any need to not mentally-scar your son). It was fairly inevitable, then, that I would end up feeling the need to dip into some Dickens, if not only to tease out the reasons for his connection with Knebworth House.

With a courage that I wasn't aware I had, I selected Bleak House as my first introduction to his work. 800 pages later, I was in love. And I haven't looked back since. Unfortunately, Dickens continues to suffer the contempt of many a high-school and university student. Even those of us who claim to be the most tenacious of bibliophiles find ourselves avoiding him, on account of his reputation as a truly difficult read. There is, I think, an idea that Charles Dickens exists for only the most intellectual of readers - the tweed-wearers and pipe smokers, surrounded by dusty tomes and Brobdingnagian bookshelves. But to make this assumption is to miss out on perhaps the richest and most diverse body of literature in existence. Dickens is fundamentally a man of the world - a man who understood people and the impact rendered upon them by their circumstances. His novels are works of observation and the result of a determination to represent the harsh reality of a Victorian society predicated on inequality and industry. There is absolutely no author who captures, as Dickens does, the hardship and heartache suffered by so many as a consequence of class divisions.

Of the Dickens works that I have worked through to-date, none speak more truly to the beauty of Dickens' prose and insight than Our Mutual Friend. Although one of his lesser known works, this novel is a gem that far surpasses the infamous and celebrated works in  both its accessibility and relatablity. The plot is shared among a variety of characters, with their narratives intersecting at numerous points throughout the novel. Our Mutual Friend opens, in classic Dickens style, with a scene on the Thames - as Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie row out to dreg up a body from the river's depths. The body is that of John Harmon, a young man returning to London to claim an inheritance and marry the beautiful, but superficial, Bella Wilfer. The unravelling of the mystery of Harmon's murder is Our Mutual Friend's central plot line, around which the stories of each of the central characters eventually converge. The novel also follows the fantastically hilarious and larger-than-life Mr and Mrs Boffin, rising through society after inheriting the substantial fortune of a misanthropic miser. Attempting to put their new riches to good use, they take the young Bella Wilfer under their wing, and simultaneously recruit a Mr. Rokesmith as personal secretary to manage their affairs. The inevitable love story proceeds as Rokesmith falls for Bella, who refuses to acknowledge his declarations due to the perceived inferiority of his status. 

Our Mutual Friend is undoubtedly a book with which you must be fully engaged. The number of plot lines and characters operating within its pages are a recipe for confusion if you fail to read with adequate attention. But given the perception of Dickens' prose as uninviting and headache-inducing, Our Mutual Friend is not a difficult read. Much of this is owed to the wonderful and vivacious characters that Dickens presents to his readers. From the kindly and misguided Boffins, to the sinister schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, these are characters that are consistently engaging and always entertaining. None more so than the wooden-legged Silas Wegg, a ballad-singer set on cheating the Boffins out of their new-found wealth:

"Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman's rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected - if his development received no untimely check - to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months."

Dickens has a way with descriptive prose that I have yet to see matched in the works of any other author. He writes always to the advantage of his readers, with characters and settings depicted in a manner that requires no efforts of visualisation. These are characters that come to you fully-formed, detailed with utter precision and the most effective of metaphors. While tending towards a dearth of description (with some descriptive, scene-setting paragraphs running for pages), nothing that Dickens puts into his work is arbitrary. Rather, it reflects a knowledge of his settings and an impressive attention to character and plot development.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Our Mutual Friend, other than its fantastic characters, is the underlying social narrative at work. This novel, more than any of Dickens' others, is used as a stage from which the author launches a condemnation of the frivolity and excess of the upper classes. Depicted through the greed of the Lammles and the ignorance of the Podsnaps and Veneerings, Our Mutual Friend is unrivalled as a work of insightful and entertaining satire. The scenes at the Veneerings' dinner parties are, in my estimation, among the best written by Dickens in the length of his career:

"For, it is by this time noticeable that, whatever befals, the Veneerings must give a dinner upon it. Lady Tippins lives in a chronic state of invitation to dine with the Veneerings, and in a chronic state of inflammation arising from the dinners. Boots and Brewer go about in cabs, with no other intelligible business on earth than to beat up people to come and dine with the Veneerings. Veneering pervades the legislative lobbies, intent upon entrapping his fellow-legislators to dinner. Mrs Veneering dined with five-and-twenty bran-new faces over night; calls upon them all day; sends them everyone a dinner-card to-morrow, for the week after next; before the dinner is digested..."

This post may not read so much as a review, but rather as a defence of Dickens. And you would not be wrong to reach this conclusion. But the reason for this is simply that I am aware of how much I have missed by holding Dickens at arms-length for so many years. His work is unlike that of any other - a mixture of social statement and satire, entertainment and tragedy. It is Shakespearean in its scope and insight into human nature, but utterly personal in the characters that it offers to represent the broader messages that Dickens communicates. Read Dickens not in an effort to meet an assumed intellectual standard, and do not avoid him for fear that there is no enjoyment to be had from his works. Because I promise that if you pick up Our Mutual Friend, you will feel the better for it. Dickens may not be easy, and he may be the sort of man who gave his children truly atrocious names, but reading his work is an enriching experience on so many levels. And it is with that in mind that I take up this attempt at a defence of Dickens. More than just the stuff of nightmares for schoolchildren the world over, these are books that deserve to be read, remembered and celebrated by bibliophiles everywhere.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Weekly Reader

Hi pals!

In an effort to make sure that I can keep up with the blog while still headed toward the impending exams, I have shifted my post schedule around a little. Hence our break from the norm and introduction of a Wednesday edition of The Weekly Reader - your source for all things literary!

Top Stories

Saturday's The Weekly Reader highlighted a story about the 'First Editions, Second Thoughts' auction, in support of English PEN. The auction took place yesterday and, as you will see from the above story, met with massive success. 51 first editions were sold, with JK Rowling's donated item fetching a record-breaking £150,000. Other top sellers were a first edition of Roald Dahl's Matilda and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, fetching £30,000 and £18,000 respectively. The auction raised £439,000 total for the charity - you can read some more about them in my post The Right to Write.

This is a fantastic short video in which Dan Brown talks about his new novel, Inferno. It includes both a one-on-one interview, as well as extracts from his recent talk at London's Freemason Hall. This is one author that I would love hear discuss his techniques and writing process. Whatever you think of Dan Brown's books, the extent of the research and thought behind each of his novels is truly formidable. I am coming to the end of Inferno and will soon be posting my review. In the meantime, this video is a great feature.

Not strictly literary, but this is a great article discussing the differences between the two major film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. For those of you familiar with both, one, or neither, it is a great starting point for comparison. Yet to see the Baz Luhrmann version, I am still in two minds - Gatsby is one of my old favourites and I am (understandably, I think) a little concerned about what the 2013 film will do to my impression of the novel. But, as a massive, massive Leo fan (and someone who was hugely excited to hear that he had been cast as Jay Gatsby - anyone more perfect?!), I am sure I will take a fair amount of enjoyment away from my viewing experience.

Top Events

In just a few short weeks, London will play host to sellers of rare books from the world-over. I am already booked-in and ready to drool over some beautiful collectables. If you sign up online, you can register for two complimentary tickets, valid for the entire weekend. Not only does the event give visitors an opportunity to browse through the various antique books, maps, and documents on sale, it also offers a variety of live demonstrations and lectures. 

Top Book Fetish Items

Record Album Book Ends - Retrograndma

As many of you know (from me telling you and also from the various sneaky photos), I am a little bit obsessed with old school vinyl records - as evidenced by my enormous record player and the fact that I guard my Beatles LPs with my life (seriously). So it will come as no surprise that I think these book ends are totally amazing. Plus, any seller called Retrograndma is bound to be selling some pretty fantastic stuff.

Wooden Book Rack - OldAndCold

Ohmygosh. This requires little to no explanation. My only concern would be just how many of these I would require in order to combat my current floor bookstack problem.

Getting ready for the summer in style. Although to those of you who are, like me, in the UK, it is more likely that these tights will just stay in the wardrobe for another year.


Anyway folks, that's it for this edition of The Weekly Reader. Have a wonderful evening!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Literary Excursion: Championing Conservation

We are wonderfully lucky here in the UK to have access to a huge number of historical artefacts and, for a bibliophile like me, there are just so many opportunities to come face-to-face with British literary history. Inevitably, however, acting as a custodian of historical relics is not an easy task. Working at Knebworth House and witnessing the ongoing conservation battle, I am acutely aware of the time, expertise, and money that it takes to maintain and preserve our history. Sadly, limited resources often means that conservation is a matter of priorities and a struggle against the decay brought about by time.

Putting a happier spin on things (and as an apology to those of you that I have thoroughly depressed), conservation projects are a source of success and celebration for many museums and Stately homes around the country. A few weeks ago, I went on a visit to Wimpole Hall, a beautiful mansion just outside of Cambridge. Owned by the National Trust (a fantastic organisation that, for the non-Brits among you, works to preserve historic houses around the UK), Wimpole has an illustrious history, coinciding notably with Rudyard Kipling's family (his daughter married into the Bambridge family and donated the House to the Trust in 1976). 

Another beautifully sunny day in the UK...or not.

But perhaps the best thing about Wimpole Hall is its amazing library. Containing Lord Harley's book collection, there are over 6000 books, 4000 of which date earlier than 1810. Fortunately, photos were allowed, so you don't have to use your imagination on this occasion (although I'm not sure that my atrocious photography skills will add a huge amount to your experience!).

Ropes clearly put in place to restrain me.

In 2010, a leak caused significant water damage to 400 of the books in Wimpole's collection - THE HORROR, THE HORROR - and of the 400 affected, 259 were left requiring extensive treatment to address staining. Fortunately, quick action on the part of the Wimpole Estate and National Trust has helped to tackle the problem head-on. A specialist team was brought in to administer 'first aid', drying out the books and removing the mould that can have an impact within just 48 hours. The Conservation Team is now working to repair the damage done and restore these wonderful books to their original condition. Enter, a photo-based lesson in conservation:*

1. Find yourself a water damaged book

2. Get yourself a sheet of glass and some blotting paper. Place under the page you are treating.

3. Get a pot of warm water and a brush. Flood the stained area with warm tap water, using your brush.

4. Press some blotting paper down hard on the treated page, soaking up both water and stain!

5. Get yourself some weights (gym weights will suffice - except not). Pop some new blotting paper under and on top of the treated page, add the weights. This gets rid of any remaining dampness - giving you a clean, dry page. 

6. You're finished. Yippee! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Disclaimer: don't try this at home. Or, you could, but it might get messy. Leave it to the experts. Amazingly, Wimpole's conservators work through 50 pages a day! Pretty good going, I think.

The purpose of this little lesson in conservation is about more than offering an abstract insight into the life of the conservator. It is also a snapshot into the sheer effort behind conservation projects and their attempts to tackle the various threats to historical artefacts. It is a battle that takes place daily - damage is more often a product of time than freak crises, such as leaks or fires. For any country looking to preserve its cultural legacy, conservation is an issue that takes centre stage. To see the commitment of those who work for such a purpose is astonishing. I am fortunate in that I see the benefits of these projects every time I go to work - I can appreciate first-hand the restored paintings and furniture, as well as the conserved books and documents. But I also see the items that are still waiting for the needed funds and expertise. 

So let's spare a thought for the hard-working conservators and all those involved in trying to preserve our history. I'm giving you a virtual high-five.

* For more information on this (and the source of most of the details given in this post), have a look at the webpage for the Wimpole Estate Book Conservation Project.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Monday Musing

With The Great Gatsby taking a bit of a hammering in the film reviews, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to affirm my love for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Enter one of my favourite passages from literature...

Have a wonderful week!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Refer back to this week's What I'm Reading Wednesday post and you will remember my simultaneous feelings of fear and excitement at the prospect of this review. I have little reluctance in stating that Strange Bodies is one of the most astonishing books of its literary generation - a fact that, when combined with its multiplicity of overlapping genres and themes, makes the task of reviewing a daunting one. I came across Strange Bodies after seeing a Twitter recommendation (I am SO 21st century...when not engaged in my ongoing battle of wills with the world of technology) from the author's brother, Louis Theroux. I have been a fan of Louis for a number of years and I'm sure that those of you familiar with his fantastic documentaries would agree. Having also come across his father, Paul Theroux, with a reputation as one of the world's greatest travel writers, the Theroux family is undoubtedly one of substantial reputation. While not familiar with any of Marcel Theroux's previous works, I have heard very good things, and decided that it was about time I give one of his novels a go. With Strange Bodies released at the beginning of this month and an Amazon giftcard from my ever-generous Aunt, means and opportunity collided to bring me face-to-book with this truly astonishing novel.

Strange Bodies details the first-person account of Dr. Nicholas Slopen, a literary academic and expert on the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Slopen dictates his story from the Dangerous Humans Unit (DHU), a mental institution in which he currently resides as a patient. Because, despite the narrator's unwavering adherence to his identity and life history, Dr. Nicholas Slopen is dead. The novel begins with Nicholas Slopen called upon by music mogul Hunter Gould to verify the authenticity of some letters, supposedly authored by Dr. Johnson. Determining the letters to be fakes, written precisely in authentic style and language but sloppy in physical appearance, Nicholas concludes that only the most elaborate of fraudulent projects could produce such items. He is subsequently introduced to Jack Telagua, a man seemingly mentally deranged, who writes and speaks entirely in the character of Dr. Johnson. Initially accepting that Jack suffers from some form of psychosis, Nicholas begins to believe that there is something more going on. As the story unfolds, Nicholas is brought into a world of metaphysical uncertainty, learning that Soviet experimentation with consciousness has produced a Procedure through which it is possible to replicate one person's consciousness in the physical body (or 'carcass' of another). As the threads come together, it is clear that the Nicholas Slopen relating the story, as dictated in Strange Bodies, has found himself subject to this process. Knowing that his time is short, he lays out to the reader the facts of how he came to undergo the Procedure, while simultaneously working to convince the doctors of the DHU that, despite appearances, he is in fact the dead man, Nicholas Slopen.

As you may very well be able to tell from the above blurb, Strange Bodies is a novel of inherent complexity. Relatively effortless when reading, I was aware that it would take some serious thought to create a concise plot summary. This was a view only reinforced by my attempts to work through reviews before purchasing the book - reviews that inevitably left me a great deal more confused about the plot. This confusion is certainly not, however, reflected in the narrative or style of the novel, which reads with real ease. Rather, I think it is largely a result of the multiple themes at operation, undoubtedly posing difficulty in offering up a concise review of the work. Strange Bodies is unbelievably ambitious in its scope. Falling somewhere between thriller, science-fiction, and philosophical masterpiece, this book is one that pushes its readers to confront accepted truths. Most fundamentally, in asking the central question of what constitutes humanness, it posits a lack of uniqueness that runs against widely accepted and celebrated individuality:

"The truth is we are virtually identical. We are interchangeable. That is the true beauty of humanity: ant beauty, not peacock beauty. We persuade ourselves that we are unique, but the typologist of human experience would have his work done in an afternoon. Every father weeps at his daughter's wedding, knowing that the tiny sugar plum he held at birth is being entrusted to another man."

Perhaps the most effective way to perceive Strange Bodies is as a contemporary literary form of the thought experiment. It introduces the reader to Nicholas Slopen, dead man, and, through his first-person narrative, is able to reveal the fundamental human reaction to the raw truth of humanness. The Nicholas who tells this story is a man detached from his old physical being, his consciousness now transferred into an unknown body. He must confront the implications of the detachment, what it means for accepted 'facts' of the essence of humanity, but also what it means as an individual, having to convince those he has known and loved (as well as the Doctors who think he is crazy) that he is, in fact, Nicholas Slopen. It is in those moments, when Nicholas in his new physical existence must confront the loved aspects his 'old' life, that Strange Bodies becomes painfully real in its attention to the human experience:

"And yet, here is a paradox. While no longer myself, I have never felt so clearly myself. As grandiose as it sounds, I feel closer than at any time in my life to perceiving the truth of the universe - the penumbra of sacred feeling which rings the real. Which constitutes the real. Without which we are so much meat and bone whizzing through space. Mono no aware, the Japanese call it. That feeling over things which suffuses their art with stoic melancholy, the only true response to the transience and beauty of our existence. Oh my poor children. Did anyone care how I knew their names? How many times have these hands bathed their pretty heads? But force of habit misleads me. Not these hands, of course. Not once."

Yes, Strange Bodies is an astonishingly ambitious work. But it succeeds absolutely. Marcel Theroux delivers a work that challenges his readers without entering into the dangerous territory of pretension or overcomplexity. It is a remarkable achievement. I was left struck by Theroux's attention to detail, the sheer intelligence with which he has thought through the premises of the novel, and the extent of the research that must have been conducted to blend the fictional with the factual. Once you have closed the final pages of Strange Bodies, you will find yourself unable to let go of its conclusions and implications. Because what makes this novel so powerful is the efficacy with which Theroux takes a fundamentally philosophical question - of what it is to be human - and gives it a personal perspective. Through Nicholas' extreme experience - the detachment and coding of his consciousness and its transfer into a new physical existence - the reader is taken beyond abstract reasoning and argument, into a world of first-hand experience and perspective. 

Strange Bodies is truly unlike any book I have read, walking new ground and breaking down barriers between genres. Utterly remarkable and resoundingly recommended.

The cover still creeps me out though.

* According to Amazon US, the release date for Strange Bodies is February 2014. A long while to wait, I know! If I get any updates of an earlier release, I will pass on the info. In the meantime, add it to your Christmas/Birthday lists and I'll see what I can do.