Thursday, August 29, 2013

So very Dickensian

Oliver Twist is by far my favourite Dickens novel. Its not considered his best book and the musical Oliver! is more popular than the book. Seeing the movie version of the musical on TV is how I came to read the book myself when I was maybe twelve. The musical is very romantic, the tunes are catchy and the boy who played Oliver was very pretty. I had to read the book.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
I wasn’t terribly surprised that the book was quite different from the musical. Bad things happen to Oliver and no one bursts to a song to make everything better. It didn’t matter, because the book ended as it ought to. Good people got their happy ending and bad people came to their just deserts.

Despite the harsher tone, I didn’t find it a particularly difficult book. Compared with The Black Brothers I had read earlier, a story of little chimney sweeps that is much grimmer at times, Oliver Twist was an easy story to digest. I was much older before I understood the wider picture of Victorian London and its poor, and the book got another dimension.

I had another reason to like the book too. Around the same time that I read it, our local theatre produced the musical. There was an open cast call for the child actors and quite a few from my class attended, me and my best friend among them. Alas, we weren’t cast – we were too young – but that didn’t diminish our enthusiasm. A girl we knew, a couple of years older, got the role of Oliver and she was brilliant. We saw the play many times and enjoyed it every time.

Most importantly, however, Oliver Twist remains my favourite Dickens because it’s pretty much the only one of his books that I have managed to complete reading, and not just once but twice. I find I much prefer his books in visual form. Luckily, there have been brilliant TV productions of many of his books for me to enjoy. Who knows, maybe one of them inspires me to take up the book too.

Here's a scene from a stage version of Oliver! that is both grim and overly romantic, Nancy's song As Long as He Needs Me.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

There is more than one way to burn a book

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Ray Bradbury

Today is Ray Bradbury’s birthday; he would have been 93 years old this year. I’ve only ever read one of his books, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and so can’t present myself as any kind of expert or fan of his work. Especially since the book was compulsory reading at school and, like all school work, was met with resistance.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Reluctantly though the book was read, my teacher made sure that the themes were discussed thoroughly so that even those who hadn’t finished the assignment understood them. If I recall correctly, we even watched the movie.

Most people are familiar with Fahrenheit 451, or at least know what it’s about. One of the great themes of the book is controlling people and suppressing individualism. Government submits people to mass media in order to keep them in check, and books with their dangerous ideas are burned. Book pyres become a powerful symbol, a reference to book burnings by Nazis.

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopia of government oppression, although in a late interview Bradbury noted that “the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state—it is the people.” It has been seen as a visionary book, too, that predicted inventions like flat-screen TV and ideas such as people becoming alienated by media.

Bradbury wasn’t able to predict one major development. Books have gone through a physical change in the past couple of years, an event that Bradbury was still alive to witness. Books, like all information, have become digitalised. Ideas spread anywhere and everywhere at once. Containing information, let alone suppressing it, has become all but impossible.

Yet book pyres haven’t disappeared. Only this week we were told how British government ordered the Guardian newspaper to destroy computer hard drives, even though they knew perfectly well that the information they contained was stored elsewhere too. It’s the symbol of the act that matters. When government orders books to be burned, they don’t simply burn physical objects or destroy ideas. They demonstrate that they have the power to control ideas.

In Fahrenheit 451, the book burnings themselves become entertainment for the masses. We surround ourselves with a ceaseless entertainment and constant influx of information, just like Bradbury predicted. We are still able to see that the pyres are burning around us, but for how long. If we are the culprits responsible for our own fate, how long will it take before we watch the pyres and not see what they stand for. Will they become only entertainment for us too?

Friday, August 16, 2013

On writing about bad books

Should I write about books that I haven’t liked? The question came up today when I read a post by Cory Doctorow. He says that he wont. According to him, there are too many bad books to bother with and that a list of bad books is less useful than the opposite. He quotes Michael Swanwick who states that it’s useless to publically humiliate bad books, because they’re either overlooked already or well-loved despite being lousy.

So far, I’ve only mentioned books that I’ve liked on this blog – and yes, I did like Anna Karenina too, even though I was disappointed with how it ended. Would the blog be more truthful if I brought up books I’ve disliked too? After all, it is titled ‘All the books that I’ve ever read’. 

What, then, would I consider a bad book? I’ve read books that I’ve found too boring to finish. They haven’t all been mass market copies of genre bestsellers either. I’ve tried and failed to read classics that I’ve picked up solely because I thought I ought to read them. I’ve already confessed on my other blog never having read The Lord of the Rings so that’s safe to mention. It doesn’t mean theyre bad books; theyre simply books that don’t appeal to me.

I’ve read some poorly written books. Since I write urban fantasy and paranormal romances, I naturally read them a lot too. It seems inevitable that such a popular genre produces quite a few weak books. A copy of a copy of a genre favourite is seldom worth mentioning. They fail to engage me in any level and so I write them off as a waste of my time and forget all about them. I doubt I’d be able to write a coherent sentence about any of them if I had to.

I’ve read books that I haven’t liked, because they haven’t behaved as I would have wanted them to. Usually, this has to do with the brilliance of the author, however, so they’re the opposite of bad books. Once I’ve recovered from the upset they have caused, I tend to remember them fondly. Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott is a good example of such a book. Why couldn’t Jo marry Laurie but the boring professor instead? It took a few re-reads before I came to understand the choices the characters made.

It’s very difficult to find a book that I would have actively disliked yet finished. When I first read Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter when I was a little girl, I hated the main character. I found her really annoying. However, a re-read a couple of years later proved to be a different experience and I liked her and the book very much.

When I have disliked a book that I’ve actually finished, it’s because I’ve been disappointed by it. It hasn’t lived up to its promise or the ending has been a let-down; books that carry me through the ups and downs and then drop me. I once read a long fantasy series that failed right at the end so badly that I swore never to read anything by the same author again – and I haven’t. Another example is a cleverly written debut novel that got lost in its ingeniousness, leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I came very close to writing a one star review of that one, simply for disappointing me. When the second novel by the same author came out, I didn’t read it.

A good critical review of a bad book has its merits. The author can learn about it, if nothing else. Personally, I’m a lazy reviewer and have only ever reviewed books that I liked. Writing a good review of a bad book is difficult. And if the only purpose of the review is to malign the book, it’s pretty much useless. So I believe I’ll concentrate on books that I’ve liked, even if I’m critical of them. Luckily, there is plenty to choose from. I’ve read many books and liked most of them. I can keep this blog going on for a while.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn

I saw the Gone with the Wind movie before I read the book by Margaret Mitchell. It’s one of the rare films that do justice to the book it’s based on and is worth watching on its own right. The casting is superb and every detail down to the smallest is carefully carried out; the underskirts had genuine lace in them, even though no one could see them. The music alone is memorable.

I therefore knew what to expect, plot-wise, when I picked up the book when I was maybe thirteen. Nonetheless, the experience was very different from watching the movie. There are details in the book that didn’t make into the movie – perhaps rightly so – but which conveyed the history of the period better. The characters came across differently too, though I tried to imagine Clark Gable as Rhett Butler throughout; the man in the book simply didn’t fit my notion of a suave rogue of Gable’s portrayal of the character. The drama is more dramatic too. Melanie’s deathbed and the events that led up to the final break-up of Scarlett and Rhett were more intense – perhaps also because I anticipated them.

Even though I knew it would happen, I was upset with the ending, just like countless readers before me. However, the book being more detailed, Rhett’s choice was perhaps more understandable. Besides, I had a vivid imagination and was perfectly able to imagine a happy ending for it.

I liked the book immensely. I remember giving a book presentation of it at school when we were asked to introduce our favourite books. Not exactly the best choice; the story is so complex that my narration was very rambling and much too long. I still remember the strained look on my teachers face when I went on and on with it.

Gone with the Wind is one of those books I should re-read as an adult. It has themes that I barely understood – slavery the most notable of them, but also the dynamics of Rhett’s and Scarlett’s very violent relationship, both watered down in the movie. Most likely the ending would make a better sense to me too.

There was a follow-up to the book, Scarlett, that was written by Alexandra Ripley and published in 1991. Scarlett and Rhett find their happily ever after, but the characters are pale imitations of the originals and utterly forgettable. To this day, I don’t remember how the two ended up together. I haven’t read the other sequels either.

Unhappy ending may be upsetting to readers, but it has ensured the book is one of the most memorable love stories of our time. Who knows, the next time I read the book, I may find the ending just as it ought to be. And if I don’t – well, I can always imagine it differently.

Here is a trailer for the movie for you. I think it captures the essence of the love story wonderfully.


Friday, August 02, 2013

Some books you never recover from

On last weeks post, I rediscovered a book that I had read as a teenager and mentioned that I should read other books again, too, to have a more mature view on them. But there are books I’ll never read again. One of them is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. 

Anna Karenina is a good book; great even, if you understand its complexity. I got immersed in the story and couldn’t put it down. I had no idea what to expect so I didn’t expect anything – except a happy ending like everything I had read so far had had. In hindsight, I was maybe too young to read it, but it was on my parents’ shelf and there were no limitations to what I was allowed to read.

There are many layers to Anna Karenina, cultural, political and historical, that a fourteen-year-old simply couldn’t grasp properly. I was fascinated by everything I read, and I’m sure I learned a lot, especially about the restrictions governing a woman’s life. Mostly, however, I read it as a romance.

And we all know how that romance ends.

I believe Anna Karenina was my first encounter with a book that didn’t end the way I wanted it to. It certainly was the one to make a lasting impression. I had lived through the incredible love story of Anna and Vronsky, only to be bitterly disappointed. I couldn’t quite comprehend what happened on that railway station; I definitely couldn’t predict Anna’s choice. I was flabbergasted and left wanting a different ending.

I remember being very angry with the book. I felt cheated out of my happy ending. Moreover, the feeling lasted beyond that book. I wouldn’t pick up a book until I was reasonably sure it would end well. Coping with the emotional stress of a tragedy was beyond my mental capacity. I read books that had no romance in them whatsoever; all Agatha Christie books that I could find, for example, their predictable logic and guaranteed ending exactly what I wanted from a book. It took a couple of years before I ventured to read another Russian classic. This time, however, I knew what to expect and the impact wasn’t as profound.

I’ve seen a couple of movie adaptations of Anna Karenina, but knowing how the story will end has guaranteed that I go in feeling apprehensive. The ending isn’t such a shock, but the experience is never enjoyable. I haven’t seen the latest version – nor shall I. I haven’t quite recovered from the book yet.