Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I have finally read the much-talked-about Go Set a Watchman, which has been creating a good deal of controversy on my twitter feed. The novel is definitely a strange one. It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but set afterwards, following a grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout) as she visits her home town of Maycomb, Alabama.

The novel is an odd one to read. Since it was written in the 1950’s but not published until this year, it reads like a classic novel without the benefit of being old. It is also written in the third person, while To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the first person. This has the odd result of an impartial narrator saying things in a distinctly old-fashioned way, which becomes harder to dismiss when you consider the book as a new one. For example, on the first page we find:

She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

It’s a little disquieting to find outdated racial terms in a modern book, and I am not sure how to react to them.

Also strange about reading this book is that you constantly have to remind yourself that it’s not intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; rather, the ideas from Watchman influenced Mockingbird. This leads to some weird discrepancies. For example (spoiler?) the court case in Mockingbird ends with Tom Robinson being found guilty, while the passing mention to the case in Watchman states that he was acquitted. Atticus also comes across as… strange. While his position and views do not completely change from book to book (rather, Jean Louise becomes aware of his different views), he still seems less completely sensible and gentleman-like than he was in Mockingbird. I feel that his character definitely matured and improved between the two books.

There’s also this totally weird bit where Jean Louise decides to leave town because she’s had enough of all the racism, and her uncle punches her in the face to calm her down.

All that aside, I have to say I started the book absolutely loving it. Lee’s style and abilities are obvious even from this early draft, and Part I of the book in particular feels like returning to a place from your childhood.

I suppose this book would be worth reading if you are interested in the novel-writing and editing processes. It is interesting to see how the ideas from Watchman developed into Mockingbird, and which little excerpts Lee kept hold of. There are a number of paragraphs that she literally copied over, for example, such as the difference between the Cunninghams and the Coninghams, who are all related in any case and can’t necessarily spell. As a book in itself – and especially if you have never read To Kill a Mockingbird – I would say give this one a miss, unless you are especially fond of racist rants (of which there are several).

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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.

Fifty Shades of Grey and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (again!)

I hate Fifty Shades of Grey. This, I think, is not an unusual sentiment. Many writers and other sorts of bloggers have published their opinions on it, showing how silly it is, how it’s just a success of internet marketing, and most importantly how it provides women with yet another abusive relationship as though it were romantic.

The reason I hate Fifty Shades of Grey is all of those things, and it is also a reason peculiarly my own.

It’s made me appreciate Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Frequent readers may recall my disgust at Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s novel on the importance of (heterosexual) sex to both men and women on a primal level. I don’t consider myself a prude but I also think that the sex offered is not all it’s cracked up to be. To say this briefly – sex with Mellors, the groundskeeper, is quick and animalistic, and he says annoying things like “we came off at the same time… it’s good when it’s like that.”

So, in my typical anti-Lawrentian stance I decided that it would be funny to publish a post comparing the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley with those in Fifty Shades. The main problem was that I had never actually read past chapter three of the latter novel.

Well now I have. And without further ado, I present for your viewing pleasure: the reasons why Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an enduring classic, and Fifty Shades of Grey should hopefully slide into obscurity as soon as the film trilogy is concluded.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was doing something new

While I don’t think literary history is any reason, by itself, to read a book, it has to be said in this instance that at least Lawrence was writing to an audience who were unused to reading about sex. This is why the book was banned, and it made a historic change in terms of the censorship in the UK. This means that Lady Chatterley wins! It has undoubtedly changed the way people view and write books, and allowed people to write about real experiences even if they might be lewd or upsetting.

Some of the hype over Fifty Shades seems to suggest that the trilogy’s achievements are something quite new as well, but that’s blatantly not true. There’s been a section of Mills and Boon (or Harlequin, for American readers) especially devoted to erotica for years! There are also tonnes of BDSM erotica novels readily available on Amazon, not just as a result of Fifty Shades hype. While Fifty Shades has managed to be more successful than its competitors, reasonable success in the world of BDSM fiction is nothing new – Secretary, a film about a BDSM relationship between a secretary and her boss, comes to mind, as does Story of O, which is far more shocking in its content, and was published as long ago as 1954.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has an interesting female character.

As I mentioned in my previous review, Connie (Lady Chatterley) is quite interesting, at least in the beginning of the book before she gets it on with Mellors and starts to see everything as tacky and money-chasing. She’s had experiences, and is interested in having more. We never really find out, on the other hand, what Anastasia wants. She likes Classic British Literature but only ever references Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (and, in my opinion, she totally misreads Jane Eyre as a character). She wants a job in publishing, and not to have to interact with other people at all because it’s embarrassing. Lady Chatterley is held back from experiences because of her disabled husband and the role that she is expected to take as a woman of that era. Anastasia is not held back at all (except maybe by Christian’s tie); anything she wants is hers in an instant. Connie, therefore, is interesting and has development, however annoying. Anastasia… who can say?

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also notable since its primary focus is on a woman who is interested in sex, even if it’s not lived up to her standards so far, and we are told that Lady Chatterley had already had sex many times before her marriage (as well as an affair with someone other than Mellors!). Interestingly, Anastasia, the protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey, is a twenty-one year old virgin who is completely set against the lifestyle she is introduced to by Grey. While there is nothing at all wrong with being a twenty-one year old virgin, you would think that our books about sex should have progressed rather than regressed in this regard.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has a philosophy.

Yes, I’ll admit it. However much I dislike Mellor’s take on the world, at least he had one. The sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is all about a return to nature and humankind’s animal ways, and is set against a background of the industrialisation of the North and mankind sinking into a sort of sterile, robotic existence. To illustrate this, the main characters frequently have sex outside, and weave flowers into their pubic hair. Yes, it’s weird, but at least it’s interesting and reflects someone’s take on the world.

So, what’s the message of the sex in Fifty Shades? Well, it seems to be that the only healthy sex is vanilla sex, and that people with messed up childhoods (or prostitutes!) practice BDSM. Why? Because they need control over people because they’re monsters. (Sidenote: this is not my point of view at all!) Grey gradually goes over to the ways of vanilla through Anastasia’s influence, and enjoys it, while Ana hates being spanked but he does it anyway.

I suppose the thing to take from this, annoyingly, is that the most interesting way of reading Fifty Shades of Grey is to consider that maybe Mellors was right. Grey has a massive level of control over all his sexual encounters, which all take place indoors and some of them with the use of additional, man-made toys. The type of sex he enjoys is bound up with his frustration at life and his need to control absolutely everything. In other words, Grey is the anti-Mellors.

What can I say? Clearly Christian and Ana just needed to go for a walk in the fresh air.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

England has no practical magicians. Of course, schoolboys are given basic lessons in magic, and there are a number of distinguished societies of magicians that study the history of magic, but no-one has been able to put this magic to any use for hundreds of years.

That is, until the 1800s, when the Learned Society of York Magicians encounter Mr Norrell, a retiring gentleman with an enormous library. Unlike the members of the Learned Society, Mr Norrell is a practical magician. He is convinced by members of the Society and by his servant Childermass that he should go to London and restore English magic to its former glory.

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This is an absolutely fascinating book, with glorious characters. Mr Norrell is the most petty and particular hero I have ever encountered. He’s totally obsessed with his books, to the extent that he finds it hard to allow even Jonathan Strange, his student, to read them. He is also insistent that there is only one way for English magic to become respected – and it is his way.

Jonathan Strange, despite forming the first half of the title, doesn’t turn up for absolutely ages. He is also a gentleman, although one who comes to magic in a rather different way. He meets a disreputable magician (who can’t do magic), who gives him two spells he’s taken from Childermass. Strange tries them, and finds that they work. Since he wants a profession to impress Arabella, his fiancee and later his wife, he takes up magic, hears about Norrell, and goes to London to become his student.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The universe for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a wonderful one, a place that I didn’t really want to leave at the end of the book. It is set in an England that differs from our own only in that magic used to play a bigger part. The north of England was ruled for three hundred years by John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King. He then left, and magic has been impossible ever since. This fact is not really shown upfront at all – instead the narrator and characters keep referring to Uskglass, and previous magicians, as though it should be obvious to the reader that these things have happened. The effect is as though a book from an alternate universe fell through to ours, and it is both beautiful and interesting.

There are so many things I could say about this book, but I feel I would give away too much of the plot. Just – read it. If you like classic novels you will like this (it is written as though by an author of the 19th Century). If you like fantasy, this is also a good choice. And, if you don’t like to read at all, try watching the adaptation the BBC has just finished. It’s very nice, absorbing, and best of all it comes with BBC special effects.

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.

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And walking.

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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!

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkein

Hello everyone, and welcome to my month of Tolkein!

I’ve already covered The Hobbit, so I’m kicking this thing off by talking about the first in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I think one of the main things to consider when it comes to reading The Lord of the Rings in general is this: you probably already know the story. You probably already know it in quite some depth, since the films are so popular and are also pretty faithful. So, the question when it comes to reading The Lord of the Rings isn’t whether you’re in for any surprises, or whether the adventure you’re about to read is going to be a good one. You already know.

Fellowship of the Rings

No, the question is: are you going to get anything new from the books? And I think that the answer is: absolutely. For one thing, if you are into Lore, there is a ton of it in the books that isn’t in the films, or is hinted at vaguely and not really mentioned again. It comes in through a lot of poems though, so if you’re not into poetry, be warned!

There’s also the business with the elves. Now, while I still like Peter Jackson’s films, the elves in them are just sooo boring. So boring. Except maybe Legolas, and now he’s boring in the Hobbit trilogy. But I love the elves in the books. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, there is this whole feeling of nostalgia for the age in which they are currently living. They are either glorious and terrible or they just muck about and sing all the time, but more and more of them are leaving the land and going West (I haven’t really found out why yet).

Mirror_of_Galadriel

At the same time, Galadriel, who holds one of the rings of power, is maintaining the elves’ lifestyle in Lothlorien. We are to understand that the elves’ rings take their power, in some way, from the One Ring, and that the destruction of the One Ring will mean the slow disintegration of elvish society, and so she isn’t particularly chuffed at Frodo’s quest. Also, she’s kind of mean, and gets into peoples’ heads to test them.

I would say that the very best thing Peter Jackson added to the film was this scene:
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This scene doesn’t happen at all in the books – actually the Council of Elrond is all about discussing what’s going on, and then later Elrond chooses the Fellowship partly to ensure a representative racial balance and partly just because Aragorn and Boromir are going that way in any case. Which is not nearly as epic.

Overall, I would say The Fellowship of the Ring is worth the time it takes to read it – especially if you enjoyed the film, or like fantasy in general. They are actually quite a calming read, and you don’t need to worry too much about the Lore, which is repeated a few times. Next week: The Two Towers. And Ents. So Many Ents.