47. How I learnt that Mr Hardy wants to be very Far From the Madding Crowd.

Like any art form, a book reveals plenty about its creator.

For example, Thomas Hardy was rather obsessed with farming being, like, the way of life.

Or, at least, that’s what reading Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) led me to assume. I could be wrong.

Something else I learnt was that, while it seemed that Mr Hardy was overcompensating whenever he launched into avid details of every square centimetre in a room, in actuality, he considered himself to be a bonafide, beret-wearing poet.

Think neon signs throughout the book, proclaiming, ‘I’m still a real writer, dammit, even if I’ve sold out to magazine serials.’

No clue how good he was at poetry, but he certainly had talent for describing characters, if not the setting. It boggled me why no one had told Mr Hardy that readers were fully capable of filling in any gaps left open by a book. Having to visualise the exact décor, layout, and atmosphere of a room before getting to the action or, rather, exposition, was considerably trying. And slow.

Thomas Hardy

Mr Hardy wrote this neat little tale about Bathsheba Everdene – a terrible, terrible name – who fended off three suitors whilst inheriting the running of a farm. Being a product of my time, much like Mr Hardy was of his, I spent the majority of the book rolling my eyes at the typical, repressed fare that Victorians liked to serve up regularly (minus the cherries on top) about appropriate behaviour.

But then I thought – it was all a little too typical, wasn’t it?

You see, Mr Hardy, the sly old goat, smirked his way through the writing process. By creating a conventional story with characters behaving in proper ways, he managed to subversively cause his readers to question the logic behind social rules (particularly in regards to marriage). Though he explored such issues with more gutso in his later novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Far From the Madding Crowd was certainly forward thinking.

Shame about the narrator’s Mr Hardy’s sexist comments on every second page.

True, they could be excused as standard for his day, but what made me laugh was that, it wasn’t women that our author had a problem with. Oh no, Mr Hardy seemed to have a personal issue with attractive women.

I guess it goes part and parcel with liking farming or whatever, but Mr Hardy strongly asserted that being pretty leads to all sorts of horrible things. Like vanity, and people living in cities, and dozens of men falling in love with one beautiful women, whilst all those poor, ugly, women that the love-struck men would have married were stuck with no prospects.

In fact, the narrator Mr Hardy made it very clear that Bathsheba should feel guilty for being so good-looking.

Methinks Mr Hardy was a tad bitter, yes?

(If you’re curious, Mr Hardy’s first marriage broke up because his wife lost her looks, leading him to seek out other companionship).

Original illustration of Sergeant Troy & Bathsheba

Like I said, it’s fascinating what one can deduce about the writer of a book, though it could feel like I’m prying a little too much. But sometimes I simply felt embarrassed on behalf of the author – *cough* Stephanie Myer *cough*.

Anyway, I had a less than stellar opinion of Far From the Madding Crowd – I picked it up because I was in the mood for an era piece, but didn’t want to subject myself to Jane Austen’s riveting gossip. It ended up being a soap opera love triangle quadrilateral that Austen would have been proud of. Except it was set on a farm.

Nevertheless, I found Mr Hardy to be far more compelling than his own characters, and I’m sort of looking forward to reading Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, if only to learn more about Mr Hardy’s motivations. And hopefully be in for further Zoolander references.


46. Anne of Green Gables, and Ilona of The Friande

Some of you may remember my haiku giveaway a while back – it was actually a blatant excuse for getting reading recommendations from randoms.

I even made a pie chart of the most recommended books, one of which was Anne of Green Gables. You spoke, and I answered: Anne of Green Gables has finally been both read and reviewed by yours truly. Interested in my thoughts? You’d better be.

However, you won’t find my commentary here. No, my young padawans, you must go on a quest (or simply click your mouse, whichever terminology you prefer) to read my Guest Review over at The Blue Bookcase. It’s a bit of a different format to what I’m used to, so let me know your thoughts.

The most recommended books (by three or more people).

If you are here from The Blue Bookcase – hi! My name’s Ilona, I can’t stand long walks on the beach, and there’s no way I’m going to tell you my star sign because you could be some creepy stalker. I started this reading 100 Books thing a few months ago. It was actually after I got tired of people telling me I couldn’t insult Jane Austen until I had read her work. Pfft, details, details; I found my oh-so-witty insults were definitely warranted.

Anyway, have a look around, say hello, and feel free to curl up on my (metaphorical) couch with a good book.

Item the second: Todd Pack was kind enough to pass on another of those Versatile Blogger awards to me here. I’ve previously received the award before, so click here if you’re interested in my natterings about myself.

Item the third: The Book Blog Hop – I decided to participate this weekend, and the question was: When you write your reviews do you write them as you’re reading or after you finished the book? Um, I write them when I’m done with the book, but I also have a notebook to write notes in because I have a terrible long-term memory. Actually, as soon as I write something down, it gets etched into my long-term memory, thereby making the notebook kind of pointless. Except that it isn’t. But you know what I mean.

Le Morte Darthur can die a rather epic death.

Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Mallory was my latest project.

The book was subtitled ‘The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knythes of the Rounde Table’. Yes, I read it in Old English, or, apparently, an early form of modern English.

It was a terrible, terrible decision.

In my defence, I thought it would be neat to hold a little piece of history in my hands, i.e. one of the earliest written and most comprehensive collections of Arthurian legends. I’m uncertain if the book was representative of how people talked back in the days, or simply how books were written, but you may rest assured that I’m really glad I wasn’t living in 1469.

You see, actually reading Le Morte Darthur wasn’t difficult – it was the content that was absolutely excruciating.

Let me give you an example of a paragraph in part one, ‘Fro the Maryage of Kynge Uther unto Kyng Arthure that Regned Aftir Hym and Ded Many Batayles’. The following excerpt is exactly as it appears in the book, but with modernised spelling (courtesy of yours truly, I’m rather wonderful like that).

And so they went home and unarmed themselves, and so went to supper. And after supper the three kings went into a garden and gave praises to Sir Kay and to Sir Lucas the Butler and to Sir Gryfflet. And then they went into council, and with them Genbaus, brother to Kings Ban and Bors, a wise clerk; and also went Ulphuns, Brascias and Merlion [Merlin]. And after they had been in their council they went to bed. And in the morning they had Masse, and to dinner [breakfast] and so to their council, and argued about what was best to do.

You probably hate me now, right? I mean, it was like reading a story written by an eight-year-old – “and then this happened, and then this, and oh! What do you mean the details of how often meals are served aren’t vital to the tale?”

BBC's Merlin

I don’t know about Malory, but when I read a book, it’s mandatory for there to be some character development or, at the very least, characterisation. Also a few setting descriptions wouldn’t go amiss, and, while we’re at it, I prefer my plot to be more than a bullet pointed war chronology that happens to be written out in prose form.

I admit I only read about one third of part one and gave up – The Death of Arthur indeed. From now on, I’m going to stick to Wikipedia for my Arthurian legends, and to BBC’s Merlin for my regular hit of shenanigans committed by a prince and his secretly-a-sorcerer manservant.

Fun Fact: Sir Thomas Malory, or, at least, the man that academics seem to agree on as being the most likely to have written Le Morte Darthur, was actually a criminal. He went to jail a bunch of times, for stealing, raping, extortion etc. What I want to know is: how is it possible for a man steal 335 sheep in one day?!

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How I choose the books I read next: a rant.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you a behind the scenes look at what it takes to produce this blog.

I have confession to make: I hate blurbs. Or synopsises (but I prefer the word ‘blurb’ – it makes an interesting phonetic sound, try it). 9.9 times out of 10, the reading of one makes me put down the book instead of carrying it to the counter of my over-priced bookstore.

You may be staring in abject horror at the screen. Or you may be preparing to begin a slow clap. Don’t do either. Or, at least, not until you reach the end of this post.

An early Alice in Wonderland pop-up book I saw at a library exhibition (click to enlarge)

Recently confined to my bed, I decided to categorise the different types of blurbs:

  • The good ones. These are extremely rare.
  • The badly written, cliché ones. They often mirror the badly written, cliché books, but not always. Unfortunately, I never know, as I rarely open the book after being subjected to one of these babies. I do, however, enjoy dramatically reading romance book blurbs out loud. It’s an excellent pick-me-up.
  • The overly detailed ones. These give away the entire story, and not just because the plot is unoriginal. Personally, I like to blame the designers for leaving far too much space on the back (or side-cover) of a book, but I’m not 100% sure why this still happens in the Twitter era.
  • The minimalistic ones. These are comprised of one or two short sentences. Hint: unless the book is part of the Harry Potter series, there is no way I would know enough about it to be swayed by your mysterious copywriting.
  • The praise-instead-of-a-blurb ones. These piss me off the most. Look, I don’t care if the book is by Cormac McCarthy, I just want to know what it’s about. Is that too much to ask?!

This last category makes me want to call up the publisher and tell them they’re pretentious douchebags. Particularly when, upon opening the book in the hopes that there’s more information inside, one encounters another three pages of praise. It’s annoying, is what it is, and no one believes it do they? Do they?

I mean, there’s no telling if you have the same taste as a gushing reviewer. What’s more, who says the gushing reviewer actually gushed in their review? They could have listed all the ways in which the book was the equivalent of reading a seven-year-old kid’s grammar homework, but you can be sure the publisher would have picked out some innocuous phrases for their self-aggrandising glory party.

No book exhibition would be complete without some Penguins

What about the motivations of the reviewers? Maybe they aspire to their review being published, or maybe they just don’t have the balls to say a book is crap? All this nonsense about “Oh, but they put soooo much effort into writing it.” Look, there’s no participation trophies in writing; plenty of people try hard at things and continue being bad at them. 

Which leads us to the crux: I don’t give a rat’s ass how many people like the book. I just want to know if I’ll like it. Is that too much to ask?

So, as usual, Wikipedia is my saviour.  No more wading through gimmicky blurbs and untrustworthy praise – when I’m deciding which book to read next on my list, I use Wikipedia. In one nifty sentence, I learn what the book’s about and can, using complex scientific reasoning, figure out if I’ll read it now, or continue procrastinating well into the future (I’m looking at you, Sense and Sensibility).

Are there any types of blurbs I’m missing here, or any suggestions for avoiding the tentacled blurb-monster? Sympathy? Cough medicine?

Edit: This article has now been published over at Aidy’s Poetry.

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25. Life lessons from a hitchhiker: firstly, you may be excused from saving the galaxy if you have a headache.

So I’ve just finished books two and three of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (titled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe, and Everything), and thought I’d share a few of life’s lessons that Douglas Adams taught me.

Before I impart my hard-earned knowledge onto you ducklings, I want to make sure that you had all read my commentary on the first book in the series? Yes? Excellent.

Firstly, the universe has no end. Don’t be confused by the Restaurant at the End of the Universe – it actually uses time-travel hydraulics to continuously serve expensive dinner at the very moment when the universe implodes. I hear it’s a spectacular show.

Following on from this, it is only natural that you start feeling a little existential angst when you think of the vastness of the universe in comparison to your own meagre existence. Don’t fret. This is perfectly normal. Take a deep breath, and consider the Oglaroonians, of planet Oglaroon, who all live in one nut tree, despite an entire planet full of hospitable forests at their disposal. It is decreed that any other trees are hallucinations and, should an Oglaroonian persist in such talk, s/he is presumably put to death by being kicked off the tree.

Now that you are feeling more or less normal, think of your chosen career. It’s all well and good if you are an academic or a scientist or a tradesperson because, (congratulations!) you are a useful member of society. Lawyers, hairdressers, marketing managers and the like are not. Should the imminent doom of your planet be announced, along with a plan for sequestering the population into three spaceships to colonise Somewhere Else, then do not get on your spaceship if it’s the first one set for departure. Run and hide instead. There is no imminent doom; you, along with the rest of the pointless third of the population, are simply being tricked off the planet.

On to more practical matters. I’m sure you had noticed by now, at least abstractedly, that all humans suffer from a blind spot, or, if you will, selective vision. If you are a scientist, you can turn this propensity into state-of-the-art invisibility technology. Although true invisibility is nigh on impossible, one can hide pretty much anything in a Someone Else’s Problem field.

To be truly successful at life, you need to change your negative thinking patterns. You may believe that it is impossible for humans to fly unaided. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy disagrees: “There is a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” I give you a moment to contemplate how this bit of information has changed your outlook on life forever.

Done? Good.

Finally, stop blaming the ruler of the universe for your shortcomings. He has as little clue as you do about why shit happens, and any conversations will result in a strong urge to punch him. If you are unconvinced, think of an extremely annoying and indecisive philosophical essay, with an excess of qualifiers and footnotes. Yep, like that.

… I have faith you guys can figure out the rest.

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62. An ode to Lolita, the fire of my loins.

My favourite characters have always been hedonists.

Dorian Gray. Claudine. Robert Forbisher. Blair and Serena (book versions). Holly Golightly. The narrator of Invisible Monsters.

They may not have been the nicest of people, but compared to the staunchly miserable Jane Eyre and the dime-a-dozen noble gentlemen featured in Dracula, they were alive.

It doesn’t matter whether it is for learning, or entertainment, or both, we read because we are none other than voyeurs, living vicariously through the characters on our pages. So I find it far more engrossing spending time in the head of a person who isn’t constrained by the same rules I am.

Enter Lolita.

We all know who she is. She began life sucking popsicles – amongst other things – in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, but she also strode confidently into popular culture, and resided there ever since as that sexually precocious girl. Which is probably why, since 1955, no unfortunate babies had been named Lolita. Because that would be awkward.

Lee's infamous Lolita-themed ad campaign shot by Terry Richardson

The novel’s (anti?) hero is Humbert, an erudite European living in America, who is sexually attracted to nymphets. Nymphets, as defined by our charmingly disdainful Humbert, are girls aged between nine and fourteen, who are, at least partly, aware of their burgeoning sexuality (and how to use it). These creatures also share similar physical characteristics; Humbert likens Lolita to Botticelli’s Venus. It makes sense, then, that dear old Humbert, a man in his forties, falls in love with twelve-year-old Lolita and farcically kidnaps her for an impromptu road trip over America. Yes, they have sex. No, he wasn’t her first.

Throughout my reading of Lolita, I noticed that friends seemed fond of giving me sympathetic looks: “Oh poor you, having to get through such a disgusting book.” Look, I’m not exactly into macking on pubescent girls or anything, but the book? Was good.

If you are looking for porn, sorry. There were very few sex scenes, and zero four-letter words; Lolita, both the book and its namesake, wasn’t obscene.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladmir Nabokov was the son of a prominent politician in Russia, and grew up in a tri-lingual household. French. English. Russian. A bit off-topic, but you’ll see where I am going with this. His family fled Russia after the Bolsheviks rocked up and seized power (fun fact: I, too, was born in Russia), and he lived in many countries since then, one of which was America. His inspiration for the setting of Lolita was tangible in all its tacky, suburban glory, complete with plastic flamingos in the front yard, and an obsession with sodas. He wrote Lolita in English, not his native Russian.

It is one of, if not the, best-written books I’ve ever read. The wordplay was titillating, the metaphors were rampant, the euphemisms were gratifyingly unique, the characters were delightfully believable, and the entire novel accomplished a successful tiptoe between comedy and tragedy.

The biggest testament to Vladimir’s skill I can give you is this: not once, in the 300 or so pages, until, perhaps, the very end, was I outraged or repulsed. It was only after I had finished, and dragged my eyes away from Humbert’s eloquent gaze did I realise that I had just read a book where a child was abused. And enjoyed it.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaption of Lolita

The character Lolita reminds me a less refined version of Colette’s Claudine (my review here), who, of course, would be one of Humbert’s nymphets. Humbert, on the other hand, is a slightly more eerie, but no less humorous, Robert Forbisher from Cloud Atlas. Needless to say, both Lolita and Humbert have joined the much exalted ranks of yours truly’s favourite characters.

If you read the book (and you’d better or I will hunt you down and force you to purchase kitschy garden ornaments) keep your eye out for The Funniest Death Scene Ever; Lolita’s report card, which focused less on her knowledge of Shakespeare, and more on rating her attractiveness to possible husbands; and a detailed diagram – complete with trajectory lines – drawn by the man who ran over Lolita’s mother, who created it to prove without a doubt that the entire accident was the woman’s fault. Laugh out louds, guaranteed.

P.S. I plugged a few of my stories into http://iwl.me. Evidently, statistical analysis of my word choice and style means I write like none other than Vladimir Nabokov.  Or, at least, a poor man’s version; I imagine Vladimir as a benevolent god, peering down from the clouds, and fondly, if not condescendingly, patting his disciples on their heads – “Sure, little ducklings, you can write just like me,” he says, “but only if you eat all your vegetables.”

P.P.S My blog posts are, apparently, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft? I’ve never read anything by the man, can anyone attest to this?

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9. His Dark Materials: my favourite bit was the two gay angels.

First of all, where on earth have I been?

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure, but I seem to recall The Worst Flight of My Life, the reappropriation of a bottle of whisky, a spontaneous rainforest trek for which I was decidedly underprepared, a Tim Burton exhibition, and a huge snake with a strange liking for boobs …

But that is neither here nor there; The Friande is all about further literarialising me (I can invent words too, just like Shakespeare and Sarah Palin), so if you are curious about my life beyond books, the answer is stalking.

Therefore, I am proud to announce that I have also finished the entire His Dark Materials trilogy.

Philip Pullman’s series consists of:

  1. Northern Lights (1995), known as The Golden Compass in America, though I’m unsure as to why American publishers always seem to think they’re special enough to warrant book name changes;
  2. The Subtle Knife (1997), possibly the worst name for both a book and a magical knife in said book; and
  3. The Amber Spyglass (2000).

Philip Pullman & lemur

Lyra is a young brat (she gets less annoying as the series progresses, I promise) who sets off on an adventure through parallel worlds, at first to find missing children, but then, just because. It’s all pretty typical young adult fantasy fare that promises to allay your escapism addiction – witches, armoured bears etc. Which is, of course, around the time when the book does an abrupt about-turn; you see, the reason children are disappearing is because the Church has stolen them for experiments. Ostentatiously a way to save kids from the terrors of committing original sin, these agonising experiments nevertheless worked: the children all died.

Surprise! Have a diatribe on the evils of religion!

From then on, there’s still gypsies and shamans, but also prophesies about the new Adam and Eve, metaphorical serpents, illogical martyrs, hypocritical priests, and, for your entertainment, a quest to destroy the tyranny of Heaven.

(If you were wondering, there’s nary a devil in sight and, yes, this is a retelling of John Milton‘s Paradise Lost).

Not sure if kids would understand the allegory (unless they went to Bible study, but then I doubt their mommies and daddies would let their little darlings read much of, well, anything), but I think that Pullman’s main message – that oppression sucks – would have gotten through quite easily.

Don't watch it.

My favourite bit was the two gay angels.

Clearly, the man has imagination, but it’s also clear that Pullman isn’t exactly the best writer on the block.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by J.K. Rowling (whose series, you might recall, addressed intolerance in its many forms), but Pullman’s descriptions fell flat, his omnipresent narrator was far too omnipresent for his own good, the bastard, and it was definitely a mistake to move away from Lyra’s perspective in the final two books.

A few bits niggled at me. Why would people of other races and beliefs (witches, Inuits, Afrikans – no, not a spelling error) suddenly join a war to kill the Christian god? Wouldn’t that invalidate their religion? Doesn’t the plot hole liken Pullman, in essence, to an evangelist who preaches Christianity as the one, true, religion?

What of the prophesy of a second Adam and Eve being a prerequisite for a new phase of life without, ironically enough, religion; or that God, out of all the multitude of worlds in the book, ended up being Christian and not, say, Buddhist?

I feel like, in trying to subvert a dominant ideology, Pullman ended up, at the very least, influenced by it. No wonder the Canterbury Archbishop called for His Dark Materials to be used in religious education – even in trying to escape the ideology, one manages to validate it.

Thinky thoughts aside (can you tell I miss academia?), I thought the series was inspired, though, unfortunately, nowhere near as fabulous as Harry Potter was.

I’m going to finish on a positive note – because I liked the books, I did – so a round of applause, please, for the creativity behind dæmons. In certain worlds, humans’ souls, or dæmons, were on the outside of their bodies, shaped like the animal that most represents the person’s nature. Which brings on the thought: what would my dæmon be? I’d be pretty angry if it were an ant. Imagine the stress of ensuring it was never accidentally squashed.