Top Ten Books That Were Out of My Comfort Zone

“A gift, a love gift/Utterly unasked for/By a sky//Palely and flamily igniting its carbon monoxides.”

Sylvia Plath

  1. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. I had to read this in my first year at university, as part of a week on Postmodernism. It looked scarily like Catch-22, which I despised. In actual fact, it was awesome: clever, funny, surreal, paranoid, and one of my favourites.
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Another university read, which I thought would just be awful, not least because it is a good 700 pages long. But, being Gothic, it’s a hypnotic, fascinating and involving novel which sucks you in and never lets you go.
  3. Ariel – Sylvia Plath. Modernist, obscure poetry like Plath’s was never high on my list of favourites, but I studied it intensely at A-level, and her poetry may not be the nicest thing on the planet but it is powerful, primal and deeply emotional: “O my God, what am I/That these late mouths should cry open/Like a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.”
  4. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot. As with Ariel, I thought I would hate this: deliberately obscure, famously unfathomable, a patchwork of unconnected references. But it does have its own apocalyptic beauty: “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”
  5. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. I literally only bought this anthology of short stories because it had a cat story in it. (“The Cats of Ulthar”, may it please ya.) And I don’t often read horror: though I find it potentially fascinating, I also don’t have a high tolerance when it comes to waking in the small hours of the night sweating. (Slender Man, I’m looking at you.) But Lovecraft’s tales have a fascinating imaginative potential to them – though they are also very sexist, racist and numerous other ists.
  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. The Resident Grammarian brought this home for me from the library at some point. I don’t often read contemporaries, but then Special Topics isn’t exactly a contemporary: it’s a sort of metafictional murder mystery, and it led me on to Pessl’s sublime second novel, Night Film.
  7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. My Arrow edition looks like some dire romance from the 40s, so it was a leap of faith buying it from a second-hand bookshop in Kent, but one that paid off: Rebecca is another deeply hypnotic, beautifully excessive book, winding you in the trap of a summer at Manderley.
  8. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I was sort of dreading this one just a little bit; I like my SF to have characters in it, not just people talking at each other, and the Circumlocutor had told me there was lots of science in it. But it is fantastic and feminist and I even managed to ignore the physics.
  9. The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy – Ruth Richardson. As you may have guessed from the above, I am not a scientist, and this was a slightly odd book to receive as a prize for Biology in my last year at school, but it was surprisingly interesting, full of details on book-making and engraving and grave robbing. Also, Henry Gray was horrible to his illustrator.
  10. Courtesans and Fishcakes – James Davidson. On a similar theme, this was also a slightly odd school prize to get for Latin, since it’s about Ancient Greece. But it turns out that Ancient Greek food is quite interesting. Apparently they were obsessed with fish.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Charles Dickens: A Life

“He saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation, and sometimes sobs.”

Claire Tomalin

Merry Christmas, one and all!

In the spirit of Dubious Tie-Ins, I present a Christmas mini-review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of the king of modern Christmas, Charles Dickens: A Life, which, as is fitting for this seasonal feast of superficiality and commercialism, I bought at least partly for its cover.

Nothing about the book itself, however, is at all superficial.

I think we have a tendency to lionise great authors: Shakespeare as Not For An Age, But For All Time; Milton the Blind and Oppressed Prophet; Dickens the People’s Writer. The work of the good biographer is to explode such stereotypes, to lay forth a life in all its complex shades of grey, and Tomalin does so skilfully and with depth.

Dickens was capable of great generosity, in the abstract: he saved a young woman accused of murdering her baby from the death penalty; he set up and ran for many years a Home for prostitutes. But, like many writers, he was also capable of great selfishness. Tomalin especially comes out on the side of the women in his life: Catherine, his wife for twenty-two years, constantly pregnant with unwanted children (because Dickens, obviously, refused to stop having sex with her, and, as Tomalin points out with some bemusement, never seems to have considered any form of contraception), thrown away when he grew tired of her; Ellen Ternan, the young actress he may or may not have seduced, and may or may not have got pregnant, holding his reputation as more important than her well-being.

This is not, actually, very surprising: Dickens never wrote a convincing female character. What is interesting is how deep, as it were, the rabbit-hole goes: how uncompromisingly unreasonable Dickens could be at home, and how loved he was in public.

Tomalin writes convincingly and in detail, but the book never drags. It’s an immersive and interesting story about one of Britain’s favourite authors, and would make a lovely late Christmas present.

The Secret Life of Books: Great Expectations

“I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house. ”

Charles Dickens

The Secret Life of Books appears to be a new BBC4 series focusing on the stories behind some of our most famous literary classics. This week, former Eastenders writer Tony Jordan goes off to find out why Charles Dickens changed his ending to Great Expectations. A documentary about Dickens? Yes please!

As it turns out, being an English student has a definite dampening effect on being able to enjoy programmes about books. For a start, I was always under the impression that Dickens essentially sold out to his audience with the Great Expectations ending. This isn’t a judgement call; he wrote for a living, after all, and he needed to keep his readers onside, just as the soap writers do. But Tony does not want to admit that Saint Charles was, in fact, a human being with mercenary as well as artistic priorities. He informs us that “Dickens was aware of his audience, but he didn’t pander to them,” without providing any evidence to support this assertion (which is, by the way, almost certainly untrue. The plot of at least one of Dickens’ novels was changed between the publication of its first part and the publication of its last due to reader feedback, and if that isn’t pandering I don’t know what is). And so, in search of other reasons for Dickens’ apparent indecision, Tony goes charging off to find out about his personal life.

And that’s where The Secret Life of Books really starts to get iffy. Again, this may be simply because I’m too familiar with literary criticism, but biographical discussion of books is always dodgy territory. Because what does the assertion that Dickens’ dissatisfaction with his married life feeds into the fact that Great Expectations has an ambiguous ending really add to the discussion of the novel? What kind of answer does that give us? It tells us nothing of what to make of the book, nothing of what it “means”, if you like; it clears up none of the little inconsistencies and loose threads of the narrative; it gives us no thematic resolution, and nowhere to go with discussion. In short, it’s a way of neatly wrapping up a troubling and troublesome piece of story so we don’t have to deal with it any more. It would have been far more interesting to approach this question through, say, the many adaptations of Great Expectations that have been made over the years. How have they interpreted the ending? And what does that do to the story?

I appreciate that that may not make for a programme with particularly wide appeal, but, let’s face it, very little of what is on BBC4 actually has wide appeal. And what does have wide appeal invariably gets scrapped. (*cough*Dirk Gently*cough*) It’s there to provide interesting, intellectually improving content for those who want it, so why doesn’t it?

This is the crux of the problem. The Secret Life of Books is uncertain what its purpose, and what its audience, is. It doesn’t know whether it’s broadcasting to readers familiar to Great Expectations – in which case there’s too much recapping of main plot points – or to new readers – in which case MASSIVE SPOILERS – or to people who aren’t readers at all – in which case what’s the point? Is it an introduction to Dickens’ life and times, or a discussion of Great Expectations? It tries to hedge its bets between the two, and thus fails on all counts. It’s unsuitable for beginners, because of the aforementioned spoilers, and it’s dull for those who’ve read it because it’s so basic.

Next week promises to cover Shakespeare’s First Folio. I may watch it, in hope, since I have a paper to do on Shakespeare next term. But it’s a shame that any kind of television that promises to be intellectually rigorous is so watered down by platitudes that it becomes dull and contradictory. Now that  is what pandering to one’s audience really looks like.

Masterchef: Ep. 20

“Today is not the day we die!”

The Mechanisms

In what appears to be yet another Masterchef semi-final, five amateur chefs go to Hever Castle in Kent to do some cooking under a Michelin-starred chef. This being reality TV, the whole thing has to have a Theme; this being Hever Castle, the Theme is Spurious History. So the lucky guinea pigs who get to eat the contestants’ creations are (for no discernible reason) moderately famous historians: Cambridge professor Mary Beard, inaccurate and annoying Lucy Worsley, and holy crap it’s Terry Deary.

That’s the Terry Deary. As in, Horrible Histories Terry Deary. I had a fangirl moment.

However. You know the thing about historians? They know nothing about food. Or, at least, they are not qualified to judge how well Michelin-style food has been cooked. And it’s kind of embarrassing watching them try. Because, of course, they try to do the whole “historical-accuracy” thing, which is doomed from the start because I’m pretty sure the Tudors did not have chocolate. Or, in fact, a course called “second dessert”. (Come to think of it, the only people likely to have invented second dessert are hobbits.) And this round is not really what you would call competitive, because there’s a nice Michelin chef (they exist, apparently) holding everyone’s hand all the way through, and no-one burns anything or gets shouted at, and everything is all fluffy pumpkins and rainbows, and goddammit it’s dull.

I suspect I’m being more sarky than I usually am about Masterchef because I had three helpings of chocolate pudding today and am therefore nowhere near as interested in the food as I would normally be. This freed up my mind considerably to laugh at the cliche-ridden extravaganza that is a Masterchef semi-final. “These cooks are going where no cook has ever gone before! They are being tested to their limits!” It’s as if they’re on a particularly extreme episode of Top Gear. There’s even a slightly worryingly mafia-esque assistant chef going “C’mon, mate, it’s your time to shine!” as if Greasy Michael (yep, I’m naming the contestants now, Apprentice-style) is about to go off and murder someone with blowfish poison or something.

Also, can anyone tell me what the point of olive oil powder is?

In the last twenty minutes, though, it got quite exciting with the Leftover Invention Test, in which the contestants each got a tray of leftovers – fish heads, stale croissants, vegetable peelings and so on – and told to think of something to make sharpish. Plenty of bacon and chicken skin was involved: proper comfort food, warm and hearty and gamey and lovely to think of eating. And, of course, it was rather amusing to see the looks of panic upon the contestants’ faces as they realised just what they had to cook with.

As it turned out, though, no-one actually got kicked out of this round, which made the whole thing seem a bit pointless really. Yes, I’m sure the contestants had lots of fun and grew as people and the historians got a free dinner, but that does not make it good telly. Especially not on top of three helpings of chocolate cake.

On the Origin of Species

“A mountain is an island on the land.”

Charles Darwin

Well, here it is, Constant Reader. Finally. My review of On the Origin of Species, by Mr Charles Darwin, arguably the most influential science book ever, explaining the idea of evolution by natural selection.

The first thing that struck me was how very tedious it was. Darwin, I thought, was going on and on about various obscure animals and plants, going back to points made before, taking baby steps, pointing out the obvious, for 500 pages.

But then I realised that this length, this endless explication, was necessary in Darwin’s time, because the ideas were so revolutionary and so heretical: up until then, the prevailing idea was that God created each species separately. Darwin explains (politely, of course) why this view was illogical and, well, a bit stupid in the light of all the evidence. And then he shows, logically, painstakingly, what the truth must be. He talks about embryology, climatology, geology, any number of ologies, all with the aim of showing incontrovertibly that natural selection is the only possible explanation for the vast and ever-changing range of organisms on our planet.

Now, a bit of nit-picking, because that is what the English Student does best. In the introduction to the edition that I read (a facsimile of the first edition, in attractive green binding; I love university libraries), Ernst Mayr, whoever he is, claims that Darwin did not cite his sources. I’m sorry, but of the several charges that could be levelled against Darwin, this is not one of them. What is this but an acknowledgement of a source?

In a letter to me, in 1839, Mr. Herbert told me…


And I did something of a double-take when I read this:

Mr. Prestwich, in his admirable Memoirs on the eocene deposits of England and France…

Either the meaning of the word “memoir” has changed considerably since the Victorian age, or Mr. Prestwich is very old indeed.

Sorry. That was an attempt at a joke. I won’t try again.

On the Origin of Species is not exactly what you might call “light reading”. (Unless you’re Hermione Granger, that is.) But it’s interesting to see where it all began, and it certainly is convincing. And if you don’t want to commit to the whole 500-page slog, there’s a potted version in Chapter 14.

Timeshift: The British Army of the Rhine

“History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

Terry Pratchett

Yes, Constant Reader, another documentary. Mainly because I’m sure you’re tired of reading interminable posts about comedy, and there’s no proper telly on the books till TARDIS Thursday (which may or may not happen). So: The British Army of the Rhine it is.

A brief summary of the background is required if you want to understand this review. I’ll try and make it interesting.

Basically, ever since WWII, there’s been a British army presence in Germany: at first to prevent fascism (or, as one of the commentators in a radio clip from about 1950 called it, a “disease of the mind” – I jest not) from ever arising again, and to get Germany to “put their house in order” (incidentally, it occurred to me that Germany is surprisingly well-organised given that the entire country was completely smashed only seventy years ago – in fact, it’s proverbial for organisation and efficiency). Although I don’t think British tanks blowing up villages for target practice helped much with this. Then, of course, the Cold War came along (announced by a clip of JFK appearing, apparently a propos of nothing) and we are told the shocking fact that “the British army would only be able to withstand an attack [of the Russians] for 48 hours before capitulating”. 48 hours? Really? And was this common knowledge in Britain? That one fact has totally realigned my perspective on the Cold War.

Well, as we all know, the Cold War ended happily (i.e. no one killed each other) and then…why did the British presence in Germany persist again? I don’t think this was really explained very well, apart from a reference to an agreement with the German government that they could stay. It’s only now that the big bases over there are starting to shut down, on the basis, I suspect, that they are massively expensive to run and apparently serve no real purpose.

Thus endeth the history lesson for today. As to the actual programme: it was filled with fascinating tit-bits of information about army life – did you know they used to have special army money to spend on the bases? Like Monopoly money? Well, neither did I. And there’s the testimony from actual army people who were there: my favourite part was when one of these said, “The three German phrases we learnt were: “One beer”; “another beer”; and “he pays”.” That does tell you something about army people’s priorities.

A slightly quirky note was the soundtrack – all golden oldies like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Downtown” (which is not by the Beatles, by the way) but sung in German. That was slightly surreal.

The ubiquitous black-and-white film clips in which everyone speaks RP: “Yerss, well, one joins the army because…” Sentimental moments like the bit describing the immensely popular radio programme “Two Way Family Favourites” in which people at home could request songs for family members serving abroad and vice versa. Of course, immediately following this lovely idea is a reminder of how prescriptive 1950s Britain could be in these matters: a soldier couldn’t request a song for his girlfriend or fiance, only for his family.

It’s all narrated by Denis Lawson (you know, the new Irish copper on New Tricks), who’s very unobtrusive and neutral – it’s a straight documentary in that respect, no melodramatic tales of distressed Germans or anything. The facts and the clips and the people who were there are allowed to speak for themselves instead of being forced into a narrative. That’s always good.

Oh, and I’ll leave you with this observation: when the British Forces Broadcasting Service launched their new TV station, drink-driving offences among Rhine soldiers dropped to almost zero. Who said television was bad for you?