F is for F Scott Fitzgerald

Standard

I have a confession to make. For this week’s book, “Tales of the Jazz Age” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I didn’t manage to read it all. Boo. It is entirely my own fault, and nothing to do with Mr F. Scott’s writing or anything like that. My social life got the better of me and I ended up trying to read the majority on Sunday evening, under pressure. I’m not very good under pressure, so I found that I read about twenty pages and then fell asleep. Whoops.
However, I only have about forty pages to go, so I have decreed that it’s enough to review and I’ll try to finish the rest in the next couple of weeks.

“Tales of the Jazz Age” has been published under a variety of titles. More recently, it’s been published as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. Go figure. For those of you who have seen the multi award winning film, it might surprise you to know that the story is a mere twenty nine pages long. Evidently, the writers extrapolated a lot. I don’t want to compare it too closely with the film, but suffice it to say that there are a few crucial differences, along with many additions. The main one for me is that Benjamin is born as an old man – physically and mentally. In the film, he looks old but is mentally young. This is an important distinction which colours your view of either the book or the film. As far as the film goes, it gets them out of sticky ‘paedophilia’ situations and allows for a romance to grow that does not happen in the book.
The fact that Benjamin is born as an old man means that he dies as a baby. His world gets smaller and smaller, reducing from his career in the army to college at an Ivy League to being looked after by his son to being looked after by his grandson’s nurse and so on. His memories deteriorate gradually and peacefully, so he does not miss what he can’t remember. Apparently, the story stems from a quote which pondered why all the good stuff in life is at the beginning, when we don’t have the maturity to appreciate it.

F Scott Fitzgerald has a distinctive tone in his writing which always makes me think of languid summer days filled with Long Island Iced Teas and hi-balls full of gin. Maybe that’s why I fell asleep while reading…
His characters are never particularly likeable but are always human.

Out of the other stories I read, the one that sticks out the most is one about a cut glass bowl. This bowl is described as three and a half foot wide and was given to the protagonist of the story by an unsuccessful suitor. He curses the bowl, which sits in the story like a silent, malevolent villain who watches while the bad luck unfolds. It’s so oppressive that the mother’s feeling of being trapped within the confines of the crystal are not kept to the pages, but envelop the reader too.

The beauty of the short story is that it contains a novel in twenty pages. Characters are painted with wide brushstrokes, leaving the reader to fill in their own gaps. A well written short story isn’t a truncated novel, but a condensed one where nothing is lost. That probably explains why there are so many films that started off as short stories, including Stephen King’s collection “Different Seasons”, where a staggering three out of four stories have been made into films.

Are there any other collections you go back to? I like Roald Dahl’s numerous contributions – adult and absorbing with that air of macabre present in all of his books.

Advertisements

E is for Elizabeth Goudge: The Little White Horse

Standard

Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse” is one of my favourite books. I picked it up when I was about ten in a Waterstones, chiefly because it had a unicorn on the front cover and I was obsessed with them.
It was first published in 1946, but is set in the late 1800s. Newly orphaned Maria Merryweather, her governess Miss Heliotrope and spoilt spaniel Wiggins travel to Moonacre Manor in the first chapter. It’s a long journey from London to deepest Cornwall, in a rickety carriage far removed from Maria’s comfortable life in London. The first chapter is a fantastic introduction to Maria herself, who gets through the long, uncomfortable and boring journey by taking solace in her new boots. A girl after my own heart, then.
When they finally arrive in Moonacre Manor they are introduced to Maria’s second cousin, Sir Benjamin. The picture that Goudge paints of all of the characters is so vivid you can almost touch the scene. The gardens of Moonacre Manor, bathed in moonlight and full of menacing yew trees in the shape of cockerels and knights, roll out in front like a film. Everything is so well described that there are characters everywhere – the house itself, the valley of Silverydew and the menagerie of animals that make up a large part of the cast.
This is a large part of what makes the book so charming. The Merryweather family, as we find out with Maria, have a long history of being bold, passionate and stubborn. They have driven out friends, family and made enemies of their closest neighbours, the so-called Men of the Woods. Maria concludes that in fact, the only people to have any sense are the animals in the family – the little white horse in the title, the dog Wrolf, the pony Periwinkle, Zachariah the cat and Maria’s addition – Serena the hare. Goudge artfully gives the animals personality and communicates their feelings without resorting to cheesy manufacturings like telepathy, or Maria imagining what they feel like. Zachariah in particular is a very clever, very large cat who gives messages to the rest of the house by drawing hieroglyphics in the hearth ash – simple drawings which don’t require a huge leap of faith to believe that Zachariah drew them. Add that to the fact that the cook, Marmaduke Scarlet, laments Zachariah for eating all of his birds, and he’s simply a cat who can draw.
Even the house itself is a character, and is definitely the best house ever. It’s described basically as a castle, complete with towers. Maria’s room is in one of the towers, and is just big enough for a thirteen year old girl – she has sugar cookies in a box given by a mysterious benefactor, and clothes laid out for her every day.
Although it’s set in the 19th century, it’s still relevant today as Maria struggles with her family temper and other vices such as greed, pride and selfishness.
I wasn’t going to mention the film, but I think I should. The plot for imdb says that Maria has to save Moonacre before it falls into the sea, on the five hundredth full moon. This is not what happens in the book. Apart from anything else, Ioan Gruffudd as Sir Benjamin is all wrong, along with Natasha McElhone as Loveday Minette. The problem that Goudge wrote for herself is that her characters are so detailed (right down to their buttons) that the film makers either had to follow it to the letter, or make their own way. After reading the cast list and the plot summary, I think they chose the latter.
“The Little White Horse” is a lovely book – well-written, well-rounded and one I can read time and time again.

D is for Diablo

Standard

I love Juno. This is relevant because Diablo Cody wrote the sublime view of the teenager I wanted to be in a situation I could never imagine being in. It’s sweet without being saccharine, funny without being stupid and the soundtrack is just the right side of cool, without being pretentious. Well, overly pretentious, anyway.

“Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper” is a memoir (operative word here, people) about her time as a stripper. My own pre-conceptions tripped me up here, as I expected her stripping to be a necessity for survival, rather than a life choice. It was a bit of a shock for her to give up her stable job (where she does reasonably well) to strip, especially as she’s a new step mum to her new boyfriend’s little girl. I think I got defensive at this bit because she consciously rejected what is, essentially, my life.

Still, that’s me being all judge-y and I try not to do that. I guess I just didn’t understand why she wanted to strip. She has huge insecurities over her body but still manages to run around naked from practically the first night without any qualms. While stripping, she didn’t really enjoy it that much but she not only continued, she ‘graduated’ to a sex shop where she masturbated in a glass box for customers.
Basically, the main problem I had was that I expected the Juno writer to be like a friend I never had. Cool, quirky but generous and fun to hang around with. This character was way too cool for me, didn’t explain her life choices and liked bragging about her ‘day job’.

Nevertheless, the intricacies of stripping are fascinating. Some titbits I knew already, such as the fact that pole dancing gives you thighs of steel. Others were more surprising, like the way the strip clubs do not sell alcohol. Then you get into the murky underworld of her customers: foot fetishes, nun costumes, panty dances, curtained rooms and the person who licked the plastic booth clean of you know what.

Another thing I got defensive over was Diablo’s assertion that girls look down on strippers. Personally, if anyone has the focus to do so much stuff to themselves, top to toe, they should be applauded. The job itself – not something I’d want to do right at this moment, but I don’t look down on/get jealous of/hate girls or boys who do. It’s a bit like that time where I watched a TV programme about Jordan, who I’d been ambivalent about up until the point where she said “Girls don’t like me because they’re jealous”. If I recall correctly, she was wearing something in a shocking shade of pink which revealed her veins and lipo scars. She also had approximately three tonnes of make up, all in unflattering shades. I don’t dislike her because I’m jealous, I dislike her because she’s so arrogant she thinks everyone wants to look like her.

This book made me want to read a book about Diablo as a real person, rather than a stripper tourist who swings from loving it to hating it extremely quickly.
In summary, if you want to read an explicit book about the sex trade, read “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl” – she loves it, and when she stops loving it, she stops. Now, Belle would be a cool lady to hang out with.
Also, as I wikipediaed Diablo before writing this review, I found out that Diablo is not a birth name (pretty obvious, when I think about it) but neither is it her given name – it’s a pen name! However, she has published as Diablo so that’s what I’m using.

My E book is Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse”, soon to be known as “The Secret of Moonacre”, the film starring such national treasures as Ioan Gruffudd, Tim Curry and Dakota Blue Richards in the title role. Fancy reading with me?

C is for Charles

Standard

I have a confession to make. I’ve never read a Dickens novel. My stockings were always filled with abridged versions of classics, partly because I loved reading, even then, but mostly because it kept me occupied when I woke up at stupid o’clock on Christmas morning. There were a couple of Dickens in there and I definitely remember getting Great Expectations one year and maybe Oliver Twist too. I read all of them but as the abridged version, all of the tough stuff was taken out.
I tried reading “A Tale of Two Cities” a couple of years ago, but ended up carrying it round in my bag for a couple of months and reading magazines instead. So, as part of the book challenge I decided to read “A Christmas Carol”. I love Christmas like a little kid loves Christmas, and I get more excited every year. That means that I get more disappointed every year when it only lasts one day. Reading this meant that I got to prolong Christmas for a bit longer and, as some sort of omen, I got a Christmas present that week as well!

Everyone knows the story. Reading it, for me, was like coming home and settling into your favourite saggy armchair with a cup of tea. Actually, it was probably more like settling into your favourite armchair only to find that a spring has broken free and poked you on the bottom. Either I didn’t understand it as a child and skimmed over it, or the more gruesome parts were left out of the abridged version. The encounters Scrooge has with the spirits were more vivid, scarier and altogether more tense than I remember. There was a bit with the first spirit where Scrooge jams the candle extinguisher onto his head, putting out the light completely. Another with Marley where he unravels his bandages and his jaw falls off. For me, by far the most stark section was the one where the rag and bone people were discussing how much they’d get for Scrooge’s belongings, and the woman confesses to not only stealing his curtains, but his nightshirt and even the ferryman pennies. I don’t remember reading that as a six year old.

The story is so well known and so entrenched in our Christmas culture that some of the phrases have entered into common parlance. As Bill Bryson says (thank you, book B) Shakespeare donated a staggering amount of words and phrases, which perhaps is indicative of how influential an author is. “God bless us everyone” is obviously Tiny Tim’s mantra, along with Scrooge’s catchphrase of “Bah, humbug”, instantly recognisable. Scrooge himself has transformed from a man to a personality trait, especially around Christmas.
This can be a blessing and a burden. What people expect is not necessarily what the story actually is. When I was reading the Dickens version, I couldn’t get the picture of Michael Caine, Kermit and Gonzo out of my head, which was a bit distracting!

Aside from the well-known story, Dickens’ prose is rich and powerful. It conjures up a Victorian Christmas with ease – the people, the food, the presents and the goodwill to all men (I think we have Dickens to thank for that too, but don’t quote me on that) are all as clear as when you watch The Muppets’ version, but with fewer strings. I loved his approach to conversation too – he avoids massive sections of quotation marks by describing what’s being said sometimes. On other writers, this might not work but with Dickens his characters are painted so brightly that you can still hear their voices in your head, word for word or not.

Everyone should read a proper Dickens – he’s still around a couple of centuries later, because he’s brilliant. I think I’ll read Oliver Twist next – there won’t be that many differences from the abridged, children’s version, will it?