Tuesday 30 April 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: The History Boys, by Alan Bennett (4*)

I bought the movie version of The History Boys years ago - I think I was at uni, so it was probably when it first came out on DVD - but I barely remember a thing about it.  I think I attempted to watch it with my ex, who wasn't exactly keen on 'smart movies', plus I'd never actually read the play and struggled to keep up with the quick-fire banter and the many literary references!  In case you haven't come across it before, it's basically a play about eight boys trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge, under the watchful eyes of old romantic Hector and young tutor Irwin.  Anyway, I DO remember chuckling away at the boys' cheek, and Richard Griffiths being wonderful, so when I heard that he'd passed away recently it seemed like revisiting it would be a fitting tribute.  This time I hit the library and got hold of a copy of the book first, hoping that I'd maybe catch some of the wordplay and nuances better that way, and then I dug my DVD out again at last!

The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
(Faber and Faber, 2004)

"How do I define history?  It's just one fucking thing after another..."

The first thing I have to say about this book is that I really enjoyed Alan Bennett's introduction.  Obviously the point of a play is to be watched, and reading the script isn't for everyone, but a good introduction is always a valuable addition to the experience, as far as I'm concerned.  Bennett's is wryly amusing and very interesting, particularly for someone younger, like me, who tripped into higher education in the noughties when the whole process and meaning was rather different.  It explains the play's firm roots in Bennett's own journey through the education system, and points out little elements of various characters that come from the playwright's life and the people he knew.  It was nice having that context in mind when I started reading!

Now, onto the play itself.  I thought it was wonderful!  As with so much of Bennett's work, it managed to combine provocative thought and deep themes with giggle-aloud humour and irresistable literary eloquence.  Although several of the boys took a while to straighten out in my mind, the majority of the characters (both students and teachers) are larger than life and so utterly real that I felt like I was sitting in that classroom listening to the banter and the ribbing, rather than reading a script.  And it's so FUNNY!  I'm sure we all remember certain people - boys, in particular - who lit up a classroom with their sense of humour, were often a bit racy or pushed their luck on occasion, but who charmed everyone including the teachers.  These boys are like that, and it made reading the script such a delight!

In between the hilarity, there are also some really interesting points and discussions about education and history.  Irwin's introduction of original thought by asking the boys to turn questions and concepts upside down and attack them head-on taught me more about critical thinking than I ever learned at school; if I'd read this before university my essays might have been much better!  The tension between Hector and Irwin, between educational styles and purposes, between jumping through hoops and being deliberately provocative, all mixed together into one big discussion of what elements of education are more important - and indeed, whether the mad push to get to university is worth it at all.  What I particularly liked was the way the very moving ending suggested how meaningless much of the boys' education really was, yet the memories of Hector and Irwin and the underlying lessons they taught still stood firm.  I've found that to be quite true in my own life, and it felt like a fitting conclusion!

Favourite moment:  Probably Hector's lesson, entirely in French, where he takes Dakin's sly 'brothel and client' scenario suggestion and runs with it.  The boys all join in with some delight, until the headteacher arrives and they hastily switch to a very theatrical war hospital theme.  It reminded me of some of the most funny and memorable lessons I had with certain classes and teachers at school!  Fortunately I remembered enough high-school French to get all the jokes... :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "The wrong end of the stick is the right one.  A question has a front door and a back door.  Go in the back, or better still, the side.  Flee the crowd..."
  • "The heart has its reasons that reason knoweth not..." - Blaise Pascal
  • "I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education.  Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education, too."
  • "The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
  • "Our perspective on the past alters.  Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground.  We don't see it and because we don't see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past and one of the historian's jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be..."
  • "History's not such a frolic for women as it is for men.  Why should it be?  They never get round the conference table...  History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.  What is history?  History is women following behind with the bucket."
  • "Clichés can be quite fun.  That's how they got to be clichés."
  • "I hadn't realised how easy it is to make things happen.  You know?"

The History Boys (directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2006)
Starring Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore

A brilliant adaptation of a brilliant play.  It's a very faithful shift from page to stage to screen, only really diverging from the original in order to set up the construct properly (as you'd expect) and to take the action out of the classroom every once in a while.  Rather than a video montage, we actually get to see the boys exploring the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, for example. 

The genius of the film, in my opinion, comes from the decision to keep the theatre cast intact.  Because it's a fantastic ensemble piece, and these characters are perfect.  Richard Griffiths is a jovial Hector, Stephen Campbell Moore is the perfect mix of bold and nervous in his portrayal of Irwin, and Frances de la Tour's Miss Lintott is an absolute delight.  And then there are the boys, many of whom are now household names and familiar faces from television and film.  Dominic Cooper, who plays the cocky young stud Dakin, is a Hollywood actor.  James Corden is everywhere.  Russell Tovey is a popular television star.  Sam Barnett was a superbly naïve Millais in Desperate Romantics.  I could go on.  Thrown together as the History Boys of the title, they breathe such life and personality into a mismatched group of bright and quick-witted students.

Bottom line?  I laughed, I cried twice - at Hector's classroom breakdown AND at the deeply moving ending, which reflected the stage directions much more thoroughly than I'd expected - and I was SO GLAD to have gone back and revisited this film properly years after I first saw it.  I'll end by linking to James Corden's tear-jerking tribute to Richard Griffiths, which is one of the things that prompted to me to read and then re-watch this superb play in the first place.  It's a beautiful tribute, do read it...

The Verdict

So, should you read or watch this one?  I'd say to do both, if you don't mind reading scripts on the page.  When I was reading the book, I appreciated the wit more, enjoyed the copious literary references and had chance to 'get' the genius of Hector's French lesson, which was hilarious.  The film then brought it all to life (as a play deserves!), separated out the characters more fully in my mind, and was more moving than ever...  Both options come highly recommended, whichever you choose!

Saturday 20 April 2013

REVIEW: Carrie, by Stephen King (4.5*)

(Hodder, 2007)

*** There will be SPOILERS in this post, and more ranting than reviewing, because it's too anger-provoking not to talk about these things.  I HAVE SO MANY FEELINGS! ***

"They've forgotten her, you know.  They've made her into some kind of a symbol and forgotten that she was a human being, as real as you reading this...  Nothing can change her back now from something made out of newsprint into a person.  But she was, and she hurt.  More than any of us probably know, she hurt.  And I'm so sorry and I hope it was good for her, that prom.  Until the terror began, I hope it was good and fine and wonderful and magic..."

Before I read Carrie, I expected it to be exactly as popular myth seemed to dictate: a book about a monstrous girl in a dripping prom dress, destroying a town with her telekinetic powers.  But as is so often the case with these culture-pervading novels, it is so much more than that!  Just as Pet Sematary isn't really about a mystical graveyard, and Frankenstein isn't merely about a lumbering humanoid, Carrie isn't really a book about supernatural horror.  No.  It is about a young girl tormented by years of bullying and abuse and humiliation, who finally snaps and has a mental breakdown.  The telekinetic powers are just the apocalyptic icing on the cake of ritual high-school cruelty...

I think this is probably one of those books that people respond to largely based on their own experiences at high school.  Although it's set in the 70s, there's a sense of the futility of high school posturing; despite the decades that have passed, high schools are still dominated by the same people, the same patterns, the same problems...  For those who sailed through their teenage years, it's very much the cult novel about a girl developing powerful telekinetic abilities when she (finally) hits puberty and getting revenge on the people in her town who have always laughed at her.  For those who were more like Carrie than her tormentors at school (which I'm guessing might be a fair few of us bookish types), it's the heartbreaking story of a victim at the end of her tether. 

So many moments from my teens were driven back into my head while I was reading, and considering how nervous King claims he was about trying to enter the mysterious world of the high school female, I thought it was painfully truthful.  I remember sitting at home and devouring junk food to make myself feel better.  I remember wishing I had better skin and swishier hair and a thinner stomach so that people would like me more.  I remember moments where the panic was so intense that time slowed down and faces blurred.  I remember moments when chanting and singing echoed in my ears until I wanted to run away.  I remember the day I finally turned around and faced my principal tormentor, and the surprising switch of allegiance amongst some of the watching spectators as they realised that maybe I had some small dignity after all.  I also remember watching another, deeply unpleasant but vulnerably small, girl being bullied at school, and feeling a strange sense of shameful satisfaction.  Just like Sue.  Because it wasn't in my nature to be cruel, but I stood back anyway.  All of these things were echoed in the novel, and it was profound and honest and miserable and sickening and angering, all at the same time.

Of course, not only is Carrie constantly humiliated by her peers, but let's not forget the religious and domestic abuse she is regularly exposed to at home by her violently 'Christian' mother.  If I thought Oranges are Not the Only Fruit was bad, Carrie takes the religious indoctrination and abuse of children and drags it to a whole new level.  Of course, this isn't autobiographical like Oranges, but as you read you can't help but think that there are people this religiously crazed out there, and those people do have children.  Children who are being raised in the same madness, and punished if they dare to show signs of thinking for themselves.  I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of any child being indoctrinated into religion before they're old enough to have any kind of say in the matter, but when it comes to extremism it's outright dangerous. 

Right, that's my righteous anger done.  Back to the writing itself!  One thing I really loved about this book - in the same way that I loved the similar structure in Palahniuk's Rant - was the way it was composed of all kinds of different 'source material' alongside the regular progression of the plot, pitting post-Carrie academic speculation against the human story.  Even though I knew roughly where the novel was going, getting clues and insight into the sheer scale of Carrie's destruction and the involvement of other characters via the 'book extracts', interviews, reports, dictionaries and other excerpts scattered liberally throughout the normal prose helped to ratchet up the suspension to an unbearable pitch by the time that bucket upturned over the stage.

Skipping between characters - Carrie, her mother, Sue, Chris and Billy - gave a rounded version of events, allowing the reader to see the 'big picture' as events unfolded, and tightening that tension even further.  I also liked the way King uses parentheses to insert little snippets of impulsive thought, flashes of pure gut feeling.  It's not a technique I've ever seen before, but I thought it was a really deft way of showing how instinctive thoughts pop into someone's mind even as they're reflecting on something else.  As if that wasn't enough, King introduces so many opportunities for things to turn out differently.  Every time a character pondered intervening, every time someone had an inkling something might happen, every time someone thought about showing kindness but didn't, every time a bad decision was made, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I wanted to scream.  And Carrie's blossoming happiness and perfect Prom night broke my heart because I knew what was coming.  It's that kind of novel.

I actually found that this wasn't as much of a horror story as I'd expected, which was quite refreshing.  It had its moments, of course, as Carrie weaved her way across town wreaking havoc, projecting her fractured mind into everyone else's, imagery hot with the colours of fire and blood, but really it was more horrific.  Subtle difference.  Maybe this surprise was due to my preconception of Carrie as 'the bad guy', the monster of the piece.  In fact my heart went out to her, and just as I enjoy the downfall of the villain in any story, I felt quite pleased when Chris, Billy and even Margaret White got what they deserved.  Then I felt bad because it was going against pretty much the entire ethos of the novel...

Okay, I think I've rambled quite enough... but suffice to say that if you haven't already read this one, I'd definitely recommend it.  It's not the best novel I've ever read, and there were some fairly horrendous typos all the way through, but it made me think and feel so very much, and I found myself constantly mulling over the events and issues and moral dilemmas in the novel even when I wasn't reading.  What was right?  What was wrong?  How many girls are there out there who have been stamped on like Carrie?  How many times do those girls wish they had some small dose of power that would turn the tables at last?  How many Prom Nights would there be if these poor souls had the opportunity to get their revenge?  How did King manage not only to get so perfectly inside the minds of a series of high school girls, but to nail the way the horrible little popular cliques work and drag this reader kicking and screaming back into the past as he went?  Brilliant.  Wrenching, but brilliant.

One small thing...
I just have to share this with you, which I found scribbled in my review notebook as I was writing this post: "This is a Cinderella story - only instead of running and crying when her ugly sisters humiliate her, she reveals herself to be a ninja and kills them.  Cinderella Goes Wild."  :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "Real religious nuts are nothing to fool with."
  • "They were almost certain to be voted King and Queen of the high school Spring Ball, and the senior class had already voted them class couple for the yearbook.  They had become a fixed star in the shifting firmament of the high school's relationships, the acknowledged Romeo and Juliet.  And she knew with sudden hatefulness that there was one couple like them in every white suburban high school in America."
  • "High school isn't a very important place.  When you're going you think it's a big deal, but when it's over nobody really thinks it was great..."
  • "It seemed like... oh, a big laugh.  Girls can be cat-mean about that sort of thing, and boys don't really understand.  The boys would tease Carrie for a little while and then forget, but the girls... it went on and on and on and I can't even remember where it started any more."
  • "And then this other thought crept in, and it was as if it wasn't my own at all.  I was thinking about Carrie.  And about God.  It was all twisted up together, and it was awful.  Stella looked over at me and said: 'Carrie's back.'"
  • "She sat quite still, letting the noise wash over her like surf.  They were still all beautiful and there was still enchantment and wonder, but she had crossed a line and now the fairy tale was green with corruption and evil.  In this one she would bite a poison apple, be attacked by trolls, be eaten by tigers.  They were laughing at her again."
  • "I feel that I would kill myself before ever teaching again.  Late at night I keep thinking: If I had only reached out to that girl, if only, if only..."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK several years ago.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Top Ten Characters I Would Crush On If I Was Also A Fictional Character

 TTT is hosted by the lovely ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.
Today's a rewind!  I'd half-written this post two weeks ago and never got chance to finish it, so it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up...  I actually really like this prompt - it's a slightly different slant on the 'hot fictional character' thing, when you think about it.  Some characters are sexy for the reader, but might not be if you were living the novel alongside them.  For example, Heathcliff has a certain "passionate bad boy who could be tamed by the right woman" thing going on - but you wouldn't want to be Isabella.  Noah Calhoun is perfect - but he's already hopelessly in love with another woman.  Mr Darcy is one fine specimen of gentlemanhood - but you might not think so if he was poncing around your local dance hall sneering at your friends...  See my point?  With these things firmly in mind, here are my ten, in no particular order:
Dorian Gray
From:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I'd fancy him if:  I was alive
Dorian always seems to be top of my hot-lists!  He's young, beautiful, and devilishly sexy - and if you were a not-so-prim young lady (or man!) or a bawdy bargirl, you wouldn't KNOW that he'd made a pact with the devil and was actually getting older and more vile all the time, would you?  He's irresistable and uninhibited, which makes him eminently crushable for me...  ;)

Eric Northman
From:  The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris
I'd fancy him if:  I was alive OR dead
Well, come on, look at him!  He may be a fast, mean drinkin' machine, but he's also a six-foot-something hunk of Viking muscle with 2000 years of lusty experience and no intention of toning it down anytime soon.  Works for me...  (Note: leggings optional)

Grigg Harris
From:  The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
I'd fancy him if:  He recommended one of his favourite authors
I have the softest of soft spots for Grigg - the fact that he's played so adorably by Hugh Dancy in the movie definitely helps...  Grigg is a sci-fi-loving IT nerd with a thirst for books, a hearty respect for women, and a heart of gold.  How could I not love him, really?

Nan King
 From: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
I'd fancy her if: She threw a rose at me
I love Nan.  Her journey from oyster girl to happy member of the London queer community was such a riveting read, and her strength, earthy wit and resourcefulness shone out of every page.  If I was in the audience at her shows with Kitty and she tossed that coveted rose my way, or if she threw a saucy glance in my direction as I walked past on the street, I'd definitely look twice!

From: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I'd fancy him if: He played gypsy guitar for me
There's something about the dark, slightly wild stranger blowing in on the breeze...  For me, Roux is kinda what Heathcliff could have been if he hadn't gone crazy over Cathy, only with a boat and a guitar and a lilting Irish accent.  He also likes chocolate, and in my head, will forever be a very sexy Johnny Depp.  Politics be damned, if he arrived on a riverbank near me I'd be head over heels!
From:  The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
 I'd fancy him if:  I possessed ovaries (human or elf variety)
Dishevelled ranger turned wise king, proficient with a big sword and a nice guy to boot?  Well, duh.

Miyuki Woodward
From:  Gold by Dan Rhodes
I'd fancy her if:  She made me spaghetti hoops on toast in her clifftop hut
This book's come up a few times in recent TTT posts!  I'll be rereading it soon as well, so a full review is on the way...  Anyway, Miyuki is probably my perfect woman - artistic, laid-back, low-maintenance, but with a healthy appreciation of the magic in the world.  We'd spend lots of time wandering in the sea air, reading and eating odd mixtures of student food in a deliciously carefree fashion.  :)

From:  The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I'd fancy him if:  He made me a mix tape with Asleep on it... twice
Oh come on, Charlie's a sweetheart.  He's smart, he's cute, he thinks about life in a unique way, he loves to read and discover new things, he becomes more and more of a whole person as the book goes on, and he's tremendously loyal and generous to the people he loves most.  With Patrick hot but unavailable, Charlie would definitely be top of my list on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Dickon Sowerby
From:  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I'd fancy him if:  He brought his animals and taught me how to grow things
When I was a little girl I was a bit in love with Dickon.  A grown-up version would definitely still work for me...  He was servant Martha's little brother, the one who wandered the moor with his tame animals and helped Mary bring the rose garden back to life and became her best-friend-with-a-side-helping-of-youthful-chemistry.  Gentle, intuitive, earthy and a good laugh - what's not to like?!

Percy Jackson
From:  Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series
I'd fancy him if:  He did something cool with water
Yeah, so, Percy Jackson is also technically rather on the young side... but come on, ladies.  SON OF POSEIDON.  He can control water and loves being anywhere near it and is also really smart and brave and good looking.  And did I mention... SON OF POSEIDON!  DEMI-GOD.  Oh yes.  I'd share an oceanside house with him any day.

 Alrighty!  I think that's quite enough swooning for one week - tell me, if you were between the pages of a book, which characters would you be eyeing up?  And if you're a fellow TTT-er, feel free to leave a link to your own post in the comments so I can return the visit!

Monday 8 April 2013

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was A Blogger

TTT is hosted by the lovely ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.

This prompt took a bit of researching, I can tell you...  Sometimes I'm amazed to realise how long ago I read a particular book - usually when I go to my review archive and find that it's not there after all.  I see this as a good opportunity to revisit some of the great books I read BEFORE the blog - though you'll be happy to know that I've deliberately left out the ones that come up week after week (The Secret History, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the book about Shakespeare and Co., all those usual suspects) to focus on boosting some different titles!  I wouldn't call this my ultimate top ten pre-blog reads, but I'd say it was ten of my top pre-blog reads.  Subtle difference.  Here goes nothing!

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Brontë
This is possibly my... second?... all-time favourite book.  Maybe even first.  It's definitely toppled Jane Eyre off the top five, if my recent stalled-halfway rereading of THAT is anything to go by.  Clearly I just like my sweeping Yorkshire gothic romances with more madness, more passion, grumpier servants and less morality-based TALKING.  :)

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
I've actually only read this book once, but whereas these days I feel a little... intimidated... by Defoe, back then I sailed through it!  Maybe it's because it's one of those books that's so tangled up in the public conscience already?  In my head it's mixed with The Coral Island and Castaway and Pirates of the Caribbean and Sebastian Faulks's television series and even *whispers* The Nightmare of Milky Joe, which all adds up to a must-keep for me!

The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico
Such a tiny, tiny book, but by the end of it... OH MY GOD SO MANY FEELS!  "Whiling away an hour" my butt - it was more like "whiling away half an hour followed by an hour of sobbing into my pillow and a nap".  It's such a beautiful, tragic, heartbreaking little novella, about love and nature and war, illustrated with scratchy line drawings, and I still sometimes think about it now. 

My Booky Wook
by Russell Brand
Surprised?  Bear with me... because this is a great book!  I think the reason a lot of people don't like Russell Brand is that his mouth tends to run away with him - but that's not a problem in a book.  This memoir of addiction and recovery, fame and friendship, is beautifully written and has all of Brand's self-deprecating humour and exquisite flights of speech, only... y'know, edited.  I loved it.

Eat Pray Love
by Elizabeth Gilbert
The story of a woman's solo journey to a more fulfilled life via indulgence in Italy, spirituality in India and finding balance in Bali, this came along at just the right moment in my agoraphobia recovery.  Elements of her journey inspired me, some of what she learned applied to my own life, and the book made me really want to be out there in the world again...  For that it will ALWAYS have a special place in my heart!

The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
How could anyone not like The Secret Garden?  The little girl in the spooky mansion?  The tormented lonely uncle?  The crippled cousin learning to live again?  The earthy boy with the tame animals?  The robin mysteriously leading the way?  The deserted garden, slowly returning to life under small, searching hands?  Can't you almost catch the scent of grass and roses just thinking about it?

Cinnamon City: Falling for the Magical City of Marrakech
by Miranda Innes
If this book doesn't make you want to pack a case and head off to Marrakech, nothing will.  It's about the painstaking - and frequently frustrating - renovation of an old riad in the middle of the city, now open to travellers as the beautiful Riad Maizie.  It is alive with the scent of spices, the bustle of the bazaars, the music of the snake charmers and the cries of the local muezzins, and it pushed Marrakech straight onto my travel list!

Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime
by Joe Moran
A brilliantly quirky book in which each chapter discusses the social history of one element of our daily life.  Topics include what we eat for breakfast, the daily commute, cigarette breaks and bedtime.  It's such a clever way to explore the way our most basic routines have evolved, and it's one of the few history-type books that I know I'll definitely reread, just because it was so much fun!

by Dan Rhodes
A gentle, funny and unique novel about a girl called Miyuki who arrives in a small coastal town at the same time every year to walk, read and find some peace.  This year she'll do all these things, reacquaint herself with some of the madcap small-town characters in the local pub, and take part in something of a miracle down by the cliffs...  I'm rereading this one soon!

No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
by Naomi Klein
This was probably THE book that first awakened a spirit of anti-consumerism and anti-materialism in me.  It was the first book to tell me about sweatshops and how they operate, the first to tell me how supermarkets drive down the price of food, the first to tell me how brands manipulate our need to buy.  It was also the first book to tell me about the people fighting back.  It was possibly the most powerful book I read in my teens!

Those are ten of MY favourite books from before I started the blog; what would be on YOUR list?  If you're a fellow Top Ten Tuesday participant, feel free to leave a link to your post!