A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

Every once in a while, I turn back to a book that I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy at all) in my  early teenage years, only to find that my experience of the book has completely changed.

So it was with A Room With a View. While I didn’t read the book until I was about 16, I believe I must have first watched the film when I was about 10 (and this is one of those instances where the film is astonishingly loyal to the book).

A Room With a View

This was the first film I saw Helena Bonham-Carter in, which has made her subsequent films quite startling.

When I first watched and read A Room with a View, it was in the same sort of way that I generally read classic romances (a dreadful habit I need to get out of): as a character study with a love story in it. I think that A Room with a View  can still definitely be read in this way – after all, there are so  many interesting characters in this novel.

However, this is the first time I have read the book, and felt something deeper in it – understood a sort of moral standing within it, I mean, which can definitely be applied to one’s own life. In this instance, the novel suggests a way of living that is true to yourself, and true to decency, while disregarding the niceties of society.

The View

The story follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who is travelling in Europe with her poor older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two of them are shocked to meet two men in their Pensione in Florence who not only come from the working class, but also disregard tact – when they mention dissatisfaction with the room they’ve been given, the men (Mr Emerson and his son George), immediately offer them their own room in exchange. Note: this is considered inappropriate because it leaves the two women beholden to strange men.

While they are in Florence, Lucy finds herself in a number of situations which challenge her ideas of how to behave; she is separated from her chaperone while exploring the city, witnesses a murder, and finally finds herself being kissed by George, in a field above Florence. Charlotte convinces her that George views this as an exploit, and they leave.

In the second part of the book, Lucy returns home with her new fiance Cecil (in the film, played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Cecil

This was also the first film I saw Daniel Day Lewis in – which made all his other film roles even more of a shock than those of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Cecil is a bit of a snob – he looks down on her friends and family as being too middle-class, closed-off, and not interested enough in the higher things of life (such as art and music). He is actually a fascinating character: he doesn’t become a villain at any point, when it would be very easy to make him one. Nor is he particularly ridiculous. His one fault is that he is a restraining influence on Lucy, wanting her to fit into a particular mould, mix with particular people and live in a particular way.

I will leave the ending to you to discover, but I will say that this is a wonderful book, both as a character study of Edwardian society, and as a way of understanding a radical lifestyle lived in an unobtrusive manner. It is well worth reading, and also very short. Also, the film is lovely.

A Brief Note on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I went to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies last night, as my Valentines Day treat. I expected it to be ridiculous, silly, action-y fun.

It wasn’t.

It was actually really good.

The film maintains the mannerisms of Jane Austen’s characters the whole way through, adding new touches that come about with the zombie apocalypse (for example, it is now fashionable to travel to the far east in order to study martial arts; the most fashionable people go to Japan, while the less fashionable go to China – so there is some snobbery about Eliza being unable to speak Japanese).

It makes friendly digs at the original text, as well as at the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Mr Darcy dives into the lake!). However, it does not go too far in parodying the source material, and strays from making the very obvious jokes.

The costume design is also fantastic. The filmmakers have put real thought into how Regency ladies might fight zombies (there’s a sentence you don’t see every day!) without simply updating their clothing  – and there was surprisingly little sexing-up of the main characters.

The plot can be a little confusing at times, but it all makes sense in the end. Even if it wasn’t, though, anything can be forgiven when you introduce Lena Headey as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a famous zombie slayer.

Lady Catherine du Bourgh

We first see her standing on a mound of corpses.

If you are a fan of Pride and Prejudice, go and see it. It is brilliant, and deserves a lot of recognition.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf – a review

Mrs Dalloway is an odd book for me; it’s a sort of novel that I think one ought to read (and I think this rarely about books), rather than a novel one might enjoy. On the other hand, I really like it, but I can’t exactly say why.

Virginia Woolf

The reason for my ambiguity about this particular novel is due to Woolf’s writing style for it, which is highly unusual. It is a sort of stream of conscious narrative mixed with free indirect discourse, so that the narrative voice, remaining in the third person, can enter into and out of memories and thoughts without a pause. I’m aware this has become a bit technical, and very likely I have got it wrong somewhere, so here’s the opening of the novel so you can see what I mean:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

The actual plot of Mrs Dalloway is one that is largely focused on Clarissa’s domestic matters: she is organising a party. At the same time, Woolf tells the story of Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. The novel rests on the inner workings of the characters we meet, their thoughts and memories, and the things that they generally are not saying to each other.

It’s odd: I feel that usually I would be depressed by a book like Mrs Dalloway, with Septimus’s plot about mental illness and Clarrisa’s thoughts being largely about the various disappointments, little and big, that life holds. There is something about the book, though, that, through showing the internal loneliness of others, makes me feel somewhat less isolated.

Mrs Dalloway is a beautifully written book, and the reason I think everyone should read it is simply because the style is so interesting, and the scenes she describes are so vibrant and realistic (from the point of view of the characters witnessing said scenes) that it provides an entirely different outlook on what literature can be, and can be used for. It is also interesting in that it addresses issues of mental health and some queer issues, although I should add as a small warning that it might be triggering for people with PTSD and similar mental health problems. It is a short book, one that might be read in a few afternoons, and I believe that it is definitely worth that time.

The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkein

Let’s be honest here – I’ve already recommended the previous two books, so I was always going to recommend this one. You might as well read to the end of the trilogy, after all.

This was, sadly, the book that I got the most bored by. Partly because I think the films correlated the most closely to the first half of the book, so there wasn’t that much that was new, and partly because a lot of the plot is Samwise and Frodo walking.

feb19_frodo_and_sam_leaving_shire

And walking.

130613-sam-frodo-1

Then they get tired. But still they walk.

I do so love their friendship, though.

I do so love their friendship, though.

Eventually (spoilers!) they make it, and throw the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom.

But this is not nearly the end! There is an interesting bit back at the Houses of Healing, where the injured, including Eowyn and Faramir still believe the end is nigh.

And then… the Shire happens. This is just so different to everything in the film, which suggests that the Shire is totally untouched by the wars, and it works as a place of refuge for the weary travellers. No, instead our Hobbit friends return to the Shire to find it being ruled over by Men, who ensure the Hobbits are downtrodden by a list of Rules that favour the Men over the Hobbits. They have a mysterious leader called ‘Sharkey’ and have completely ruined the environment of the Shire, digging up the trees and creating a mill purely for the purposes of pollution.

I think I can only say, once again, that if you enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films it is definitely worth reading the books. While some moments can drag a little, and it might end up getting you addicted to smoking (my word, Tolkein makes pipe weed sound appealing!) there is a different tone to the books, as well as additional storylines and moments of interest, that make the entire trilogy well worth your time.

Seriously, the man loved to smoke.

Seriously, the man loved to smoke.

The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien

One of the major themes of The Lord of The Rings trilogy that I think was missed out a bit in the films is the environment and its changes. This can be seen the most in the second book of the trilogy, The Two Towers. Why? Because it’s the book where we meet the Ents.

Ents!

Ents!

Ents! What can I say, I was dreading reading this book. I found the film Ents the most boring things ever, with their tediously long discussions of whether or not they should join in the battle and actually do something. (To be fair, I was 10 when I first watched it, and really into classic fairy tales. I was looking for something more action-y and less council-y.)

Reading about the Ents though, that was a different matter. I love them. For one thing, Merry and Pippin go on a walk in the woods with a young Ent instead of having to listen to the conversation, and also their minds are pretty much made up as soon as the hobbits ask for their help.

And they're adorable!

And they’re adorable!

The Ents have been thinking about taking action for quite some time now. There’s a really beautiful moment with one young Ent, Bregalad, who has been described as being pretty cheerful and good company, reflects on the loss of the rowan trees he’s been caring for. In addition, the Ents have learned that they need to be more proactive, after they managed to lose all the Entwives.

Apart from the Ents, so much of this book has the characters reflecting on the devastation of the natural world that has been caused by Sauron and his allies. While this is definitely shown in the film, I got the impression that Mordor and it’s surroundings had always looked like that. The book says explicitly that the land used to be beautiful and is now hideous. So, once again, I think there is good reason for reading the book even when you’ve seen the film. There may be things you have missed!

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs – a review

Steve McQueen said of the book 12 Years a Slave “For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I’d never known about it.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which I only found out about because Kindle were selling it for free in the wake of McQueen’s film is, I think, another of these books.

Incidents is the autobiographical work of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a woman who was born into slavery. She wrote the book after she had escaped to New York, and after she had gained her freedom. It is a truly extraordinary account of life in slavery, and also about the lengths which slaves at the time went to both to gain their freedom and also to retain their morality and lives.

Jacobs, who gives herself the pseudonym Linda Brent, uses the work largely to appeal to the women of the North, through a sense of sisterhood, to support abolition. She writes

“Slavery is a terrible thing for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

In pursuit of her goal to enlighten white women of the North to the particular issues of enslaved women, Jacobs is incredibly frank and honest about her experiences. When still a teenager, she was pursued by the father of her mistress (at the time a little girl), who kept trying to isolate her so that he could take advantage of her vulnerable situation. In order to prevent her master, a jealous man, from raping her, she seduced an older, unmarried, white man of her acquaintance, so that she could become pregnant and her mistress’s father would no longer want her. This was, at the time, most certainly not the done thing (to put it mildly) and leads to one of the saddest moments in the book, for me.

Jacobs’ grandmother is described throughout her book as the most wonderful of old ladies. She worked hard her entire life to procure freedom, or at least material comforts, for her children and grandchildren. When Jacobs conceived of her plan, she wrote

I knew that I was the greatest comfort of her old age, and that it was a source of pride to her that I had not degraded myself, like most of the slaves. I wanted to confess to her that I was no longer worthy of her love; but I could not utter the dreaded words.

Indeed, when Jacobs was later forced to confess, due to her pregnancy, her grandmother flew into a rage and attempted to pull her mother’s wedding ring off her finger, claiming she was not as good as her mother.

Jacobs’ account is absolutely fascinating, and well worth reading. It provides a unique perspective on slavery, one which shows not only the hardships of life but also all of the issues inherent with humans being allowed to possess other humans. It not only encompasses Jacobs’ life, but also that of her neighbours and friends – and, interestingly, Jacobs points out the ways in which slave ownership affected the wives of slaveholders negatively, too. Jacobs is a thoroughly interesting writer, and her book is short enough to read on your commute, so long as you don’t mind weeping in front of strangers.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Firstly, my apologies if anything I say in this review makes no logical sense. I have a cold, and it tends to mess with my ability to say what I am thinking.

So, to business! I reread Catch 22 recently, and realised that I had forgotten quite how excellent it is. This may sound strange, since I had always considered it to be one of the best books I have ever read. But it was better than I remembered.

The reason for this was that I had forgotten how well it is written. It is possibly one of the cleverest books I have read, simply because its style is so interesting. For those who don’t know it, Catch 22 is about a group of pilots and bombardiers stationed on an Italian island during WWII. They are all going slightly insane from the stupidity that is war, and this is reflected in the style of writing a great deal. An example of this can be seen in one instance of the catch after which the book is written, Catch-22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Catch 22 is possibly one of the bleakest books I have ever read, as well. People keep dying, and nobody really sees them die. They die at the end of chapters in one sentence, or fly into clouds and are never seen again. One character, Major Major Major Major, appears to go missing after he demands that nobody come to his office except when he is not in it. It’s a world of complete confusion, and it is amazing. I highly recommend it, although possibly not when one is feeling sad or confused with the world.