April 11th, 2012

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 3

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
Page count
830

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit has been on my radar for a few years, but I'm not sure what about it first caught my attention. In this her first book, Jeanette Winterson tells the semi-biographical story of growing up in a Pentecostal Christian community and discovering that her reciprocated feelings for other young ladies are aggressively not tolerated.

The account of her childhood and adolescence, charting her transformation from favoured child and future minister to demon-possessed sinner and pariah, framed in the context of relationships with her mother, the community, and God, feels painfully honest, but somehow Winterson manages to tell it with humour and charm and, despite the anger and confusion, seemingly without losing faith.

The day I finished reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, I found out that Jeanette Winterson runs a food shop which I walked past at least twice on work days. I decided to pay a visit, out of curiosity, after work that day, but I got there after closing time. (And I didn't feel the need to stop by when I wasn't carrying the book with me. Silly, yes, I know.) Of course, this has absolutely no relevance to the book, but I thought it was cool that this hugely successful writer chooses to be a grocer.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was adapted into a popular and well-regarded miniseries. I have yet to watch it but am downloading it. I'm hoping that, since Winterson wrote the screenplay, it will be a faithful adaptation. In the meantime, I look forward to reading other books of hers.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 4

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
Page count
873

Bruce Robinson wrote the screenplay for and directed the cult-classic Withnail and I and the recent adaptation of The Rum Diaries, which since I've seen neither had absolutely no bearing on my desire to read this piece. (I'm not sure whether to call Paranoia in the Launderette a novella, a novelette, or a long short story.) I first read about it in a Guardian article and it seemed interesting, but I was surprised by how short it was.

I assume the events of this story are fictional but inspired by Robinson's life. The plot is simple: The narrator has become paranoid while working on a project about serial killers, receives a call from his literary agent telling him he must meet some mysterious publishing bigwig in an hour, has no clean clothes, and is forced to visit a launderette. He has been avoiding launderettes because of some phobia intensified by his one prior visit and is freaked out by everything.

All hilarity ensues, only the hilarity is merely amusing. I did smile a few times, but when I reached the end, I wondered, "Is that it?" It felt as though something (or a lot of somethings) were missing.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 5

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
Page count
1025

Descriptions I had read of Heroes and Villains made it sound like some sort of post-apocalyptic young adult novel, but it is anything but YA. The story does take place in a post-apocalyptic world where people are divided into three groups: the Professors, repository of all knowledge of civilisation who live in protected enclaves or communes; the Barbarians, savage, nomadic people; and the Out People, barely recognisable as human, who live in the ruins of cities and have lost all trace of civilisation.

Marianne is a Professor's daughter who watches her brother get killed during a Barbarian raid and when her father dies years later has become so dissatisfied with the Professor way of life and curious about what exists beyond that she rescues a Barbarian during a subsequent raid and flees with him. The story thus becomes about turning stereotypes on their heads. Who are the Heroes and who are the Villains? Certainly the Professors, the assumed heroes, don't seem very heroic. The chief Barbarian, Jewel, is set up as a hero of sorts, but then he (very graphically) rapes Marianne. Then, to further complicate things, Carter would have us believe that the rape was perhaps a necessary evil, perhaps the very thing that was required to save Marianne (and no doubt infuriating many readers). Nothing is ever what it seems, each character something other than what appearances initially suggest, and by the end the entire social structure is subverted.

Heroes and Villains is a complex work, rife with symbolism and Shakespearean allusions, alive with vivid imagery and rippling with eroticism. However, while there are passages of startling beauty and much that gives pause for thought, the narrative often seems overwhelmed by all its cleverness (the in-your-face symbolism, the frequent literary allusions) so that, feeling a bit like an academic exercise, it is sometimes difficult to care about the story or the characters. That said, the four quotations that precede the novel would suggest that this is precisely the point, that by distorting everything to grotesque, Gothic extremes the narrative can transcend itself to comment on more universal truths.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 6

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
  6. Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars (209 pages)
Page count
1234

The last couple of times I'd been to the cinema I'd seen previews for some Disney movie called John Carter. I remember thinking this was such a stupid name for what looked like some sort of sword-and-sworcery adventure, as if the name John Carter is evocative of anything. I remained thus clueless until I was browsing my shelves for my next book and glanced at the back-cover blurb for A Princess of Mars. Oh. Oh! Suddenly the Disney movie didn't seem so stupid. Suddenly I wanted to see it as soon as it came out, and so A Princess of Mars moved to the top of my reading list.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Princess of Mars. Mars may be nothing like the world Burroughs describes, but scientific accuracy and rigour is not the point of planetary romance. Neither is character study, so I'm not the least bothered that the characters were cliched stereotypes. Rather, my imagination was swept away by a vivid new world, ancient cities, exotic creatures, fascinating technologies, and a rip-roaring adventure tale with good guys and bad guys and romance and faithful companions and the paradise lost/regained thing going on. The appeal is that of the original Star Wars movie but in book form.

One of the things I found noteworthy is the descriptions of technology. Yes, all the science is horribly wrong, as one would expect. However, I think it's wrong in a brilliant manner. A lot of the technology described is stuff that exists today, but of course one wouldn't expect anyone in 1912 to have the same sorts of scientific insights that someone writing today might have. However, Burroughs does a brilliant job of describing the technologies from the perspective of a 19th century soldier. If one doesn't short-sightedly hold ignorance of modern scientific terminology against Burroughs, the science holds up remarkably well.

While I don't think the movie is as bad as its performance in cinemas seems to indicate, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Perhaps where the movie went awry is in the addition of a different race of beings (which I can only assume are from other books in the series) who influence events on Mars. The plot of the movie became diffuse and events seemed to make less sense. But it was still a fairly enjoyable movie. If you want bad, you should see the 2009 direct-to-DVD adaptation which shared little in common with the book but the name.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 7

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
  6. Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars (209 pages)
  7. Hill, Susan — The Woman in Black (152 pages)
Page count
1386

Much of my reading selection is influenced by the movie industry. This year alone I've plucked War Horse, A Princess of Mars, and The Woman in Black off my bookshelves only because a movie adaptation was showing in cinemas, and I already know I'll be doing that at least twice more this year.

Actually, The Woman in Black wasn't so much my choice as it was the Mad Fisher's. I already had two other Susan Hill novels on my shelves which I considered higher priority, but the Mad Fisher said she'd like to see The Woman in Black, so I bought the book online and actually paid full price. (Haven't done that in a while, as I get most of my books used for dirt-cheap prices from charity shops or Amazon Marketplace.) She was a bit surprised that not only had I not read it but indeed I was blissfully unaware the movie was a book adaptation. Apparently most British kids read this in school alongside some Dickens story. It was time for me to catch up with British schoolkids!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Woman in Black. Hill does a superlative job of creating a tense, eerie atmosphere and pacing the story just right. I did not want to set the book down for fear something might happen to its protagonist if I didn't stay up with him. And the inclusion of Spider, though I think the name somewhat unfortunate, was a brilliant stroke.

We have yet to see the recent movie adaptation — ah, the joys of a long-distance relationship with someone who lives miles from a cinema! But I have watched the 1989 film adaptation for ITV, which is said to be more faithful to Hill's novel. I suspect the two are equally (un)faithful in that most major elements are present but particulars, particularly at either end of the film, are changed to suit the whim of the director. My main objection wasn't the altered ending but the exclusion of what I considered to be the climax of Kripps' stay at Eel Marsh House, the scene that first asserts the woman in black might be more than a spooky but harmless apparition.