Wednesday, 30 September 2009

update September 2009

# of books read in September: 3

Cumulative total: 44 (target within reach!)

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)
24. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
25. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
26. The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge)
27. them (Joyce Carol Oates)
28. Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes)
29. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Sue Townsend)
30. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
31. Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Michael and Elizabeth Norman)
32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
33. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
34. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
35. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
36. The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)
37. The Past is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg)
38. The Road Ahead (Christabel Bielenberg)
39. The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)
40. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
41. The Rules of Engagement (Anita Brookner)
42. Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood)
43. Three Men In A Boat (Jerome K Jerome)
44. La grammaire est une chanson douce (Erik Orsenna)

Average number of books per month: 4.8

% by male authors: 54%
% by female authors: 46%

Progress has been retarded by several factors, including my return to work, the fact that I wasted time on a French book that was boring and that I never finished, and the fact that I also 'wasted time' on rereads, which I'm not counting (they were worth it, though).

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Giving Up The Ghost

As a ten-year-old I was possibly the world's biggest fan of the Babysitter's Club series, by Ann M. Martin. Had all the books, could recite all their titles to long-suffering relatives who made the mistake of asking which ones I had, had seen the movie countless times, had memorised the life histories of all the characters, and even had a computer game relating to the series that my dad had picked up in the US. Then, for some reason, I made the leap the following year from this to reading Gone With The that was the end of that. I don't think I ever looked back. So my extreme fandom of this series was, if you like, a defining moment. Ann M. Martin's series was the bridge between my childhood and my adult reading.

Except it wasn't by Ann M. Martin. Not entirely. A year or two ago I found out, thanks to our good friend Wikipedia, that many of the titles in the series had been ghostwritten (by a variety of authors, including Suzanne Weyn, Peter Lerangis, Nola Thacker, Ellen Miles, Jan Carr, Jahnna Beecham, and Malcolm Hillgartner). I'd moved on from the BSC series a bit too long ago to be cut up by this in any serious way, but I'll admit feeling mild annoyance, and I can see why people would feel betrayed or hurt by such a discovery. For the uninitiated, allow me to explain: possibly the most insidious aspect of the publishing industry, ghostwriting is a well-known tactic used by people who would not normally be able to get their work published in order to help them actually do so when they arguably shouldn't be able to at all. But what do most people find so offensive about it?

Firstly, let me explain my own annoyance. I'm an aspiring writer myself, and I work hard to improve my writing skills. Then there are people who work even harder on it, by attending writing courses and so on, in the hope that their work will one day attract the attention of publishers. It is therefore perhaps understandable to feel annoyed to see people jumping the queue, as it were, when they've had a leg up from someone else. Ergo there is a sense of injustice involved.

In many cases, there is also a complete lack of honesty about it. Ann M Martin would thank her ghostwriters in the acknowledgements of the BSC books, expressing her gratitude for their help "in the preparation of this manuscript" or for "giving the BSC a voice". These thanks could mean anything at all. And, furthermore, in retrospect it is evident to me that the books were not very well-written at all - so if that's all that Ann M Martin was able to produce WITH the help of a ghostwriter, what on earth must her writing have been like without one? But at least Ann M Martin is a real person - I was even more surprised to discover recently that Carolyn Keene, the 'author' of the Nancy Drew series, was merely a conglomerate of ghostwriters who were hired to bring a publishing house's idea to fruition over a period of years, which again undermines the notion of aspiring writers being given the opportunity to speak their own minds and use their own ideas to succeed.

However, ghostwriters themselves are hardly to blame for the fact that they're able to find employment; it is publishers who perpetuate ghostwriters' livelihoods, for several reasons. One of the most major and obvious outlets for ghostwriting is in the field of the celebrity autobiography. If a celebrity is of below-average intelligence and/or writing skills, it seems that publishers (and, indeed, the celebrities themselves) will stop at nothing to make money from the celebrity's name.

It becomes easier and easier to see, then, why people treat ghostwriters with derision. It's also difficult to not feel this way when ghostwriters' motives are so obscure: writing under a pen-name is one thing, but being made to sign a non-disclosure contract that forbids the writer from revealing that they ever had a role in the work at all? Even if the work is lucrative, I doubt that many people (including myself) can understand the appeal of allowing others to take the credit for your work. In fact, as a teacher of students aged 12 and up, I spend a lot of my time trying to persuade them that plagiarism and over-liberal use of the cut/paste function are NOT credible ways of creating work, and that taking the credit for others' work is morally dubious. How are they going to be convinced by this when their favourite celebrities are taking credit for others' work all the time in their 'auto'biographies?

Ir seems sad that publishers are apparently so keen to make money from an idea that they don't mind sacrificing any integrity that the industry has. I understand that it's a business (if using ghostwriters makes money, then perhaps that's a good business decision); but, on the other hand, it's not a charity, so the ongoing mystery lies in why publishers continue to vest people with talents that they haven't actually got, rather than just telling them no, and giving the time to people who do have talent instead.

La grammaire est une chanson douce (Erik Orsenna)

--The blurb--
"In Orsenna's witty rumination on words and grammar, 10-year-old Jeanne and her 14-year-old brother, Thomas, are shipwrecked on a strange island where words have become independent. Rendered mute, the siblings visit the Word Market, where one can buy the perfect word for any occasion. They also travel to a town full of independent words that strut around without the need for human beings to utter them. Such word adventures help restore the siblings' power of speech."

--The review--
Erik Orsenna is possibly one of the world's few remaining polymaths. He is not only a graduate of the London School of Economics (with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics), but also wrote a book to rival Nick Hornby's 31 Songs (in the form of History of the World in Nine Guitars, with Thierry Arnoult), and is known for writing books with titles that professional pedants die for (as well as Grammar is a Gentle, Sweet Song, he has also written the as-yet-untranslated Les chevaliers du subjonctif). Further to this, there's another reason why his books should be more widely known to adults: the editions of La grammaire... published by the French publisher, Stock, contain sublime illustrations, which are also by the author. Adults sometimes like pictures in their books, too (even if they don't want to admit it).

Happily, the Saint-Exupery-style illustrations are not the only positive aspect of La grammaire.... Orsenna is skilful in his use of child characters, putting him on a par with the more well-known Jostein Gaarder (particularly in relation to Gaarder's Hello? Is There Anybody There?) and with the work that made Antoine de Saint-Exupery so stratospherically famous, Le Petit Prince. Other similarities to these books include Orsenna's fantasy-soaked setting and imaginative style, so it is understandably pleasing to have this Saint-Exupery link confirmed towards the end of the novella, even if the author isn't necessarily someone whose work Orsenna desires to emulate directly.

Orsenna is also wonderfully expressive and didactic, particularly in one passage where he compares constructing a phrase to decorating a Christmas tree: "You start with the naked tree, and then you decorate it to your whims and desires...Pay attention to your phrase: if you burden it with too many garlands and baubles - that is to say adjectives, adverbs and the like - it can collapse too." Whether Orsenna is deliberately didactic is difficult to say, but either way, he is not irritating in this, and he is successful. Overall, the story is well-constructed, its ending is satisfying, and its two main characters, Jeanne and Thomas, are as well-drawn as the other characters that they meet along the way. This is an enchanting hook into Orsenna's work, and, with its cleverness and wit, proves enjoyable for children and for grammar buffs alike.

Other works by Erik Orsenna*
Portrait of the Gulf Stream: In Praise of Currents (2008)
Tidings from the Isle of Flight (2005)
History of the World in Nine Guitars (1999)
André Le Notre: Guardian to the Sun King (1999)
Love and Empire (1993)

*noted here are only the works that have been translated into English; a wider selection is available in French.

Three Men In A Boat (Jerome K Jerome)

--The blurb--
"It would be unfair to say that any of the three men were hypochondriacs; it was simply that they suffered from a constant malaise, consisting of every symptom but housemaid's knee. The only cure for it was a revitalising trip in an open boat. Bearing frying pans, elusive toothbrushes, pies, lemonade and whisky, for medicinal purposes only, the three men and Montmorency the dog (whose ambition in life is to get in the way) embark on their hilarious adventures on the Thames. After considerable enjoyment and irritation - getting lost in the maze, arguing with some quarrelsome swans, falling in the river - the three men decide that being out of a boat seems a more inviting alternative. Despite being over a century old, its sparkling insights into human - and canine - nature ensure that Three Men In A Boat is as fresh and invigorating today as when it was first published."

--The review--
Younger readers (read: school age) often deride older texts, decrying them as being irrelevant, hard, and boring. However, fans of modern comedy, from the most cutting-edge to the slightly cheesier stuff, will find plenty to delight in while reading Three Men In A Boat: it contains everything from the cringeworthy comedy of the Chuckle Brothers, through to Bill Bailey-style digressions and general wordplay. While it is occasionally a bit middle-class for some people's tastes, this is easily ignored when readers are presented with Jerome's sharp observations about the real surrounding towns and villages of the Thames.

While the novel is a certainly a slice of local history, Jerome is not your usual tour guide: he pulls no punches when it comes to giving his opinions of the places through which the characters pass. Locals to the Thames area will certainly appreciate them even more. As well as containing his famous diatribe against my own home town, Maidenhead ("Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant...It is the town of showy hotels, patronized chiefly by dudes and ballet-girls. It is the witch's kitchen from which go the demons of the river [steam-launches]...the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else's husband"), I also had a little giggle at Jerome's assessment of nearby Reading, which Jerome describes as, at Walton, "[while doing] its best to spoil and sully and make hideous as much of the river as it can reach, [it] is good-natured enough to keep its ugly face a good deal out of sight." Clearly Jerome and Betjeman were in cahoots when it came to slighting this part of the country ("come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough...").

However, as well as indulging his bitchy side, Jerome is also lyrical (I refer you to the passage beginning "Sometimes, our pain is very deep and real", which begins on page 96 in the Penguin Popular Classics edition, and which will be easily findable via the free Gutenberg etext) and apt (his passage on the domination of our intellect by our digestive organs is highly accurate and British in the extreme, especially the part about tea). This is not to say that there are no weaknesses in the novel; the digressive style takes some time to get used to, and while there was the occasional lovely piece of description relating to the dog, I felt that Jerome could have made more of the animal character.

There are certainly a good many reasons why this is Jerome's best-known novel; however, it seems a shame that the exposure of his other work should be cut out at its expense. I would definitely be interested in reading more.

Other works by Jerome K Jerome
Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886)
Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1898)
Three Men on the Bummel (1900)
Paul Kelver (1902)
Tommy and Co (1904)
They and I (1909)
The Philosopher's Joke (1909)
All Roads Lead To Calvary (1919)
Anthony John (1923)

Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood)

--The blurb--
"Cat's Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman—but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat's Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life."

--The review--
In Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood defers to the traditional idea of girls being bitchy and manipulative, especially in numbers. Cat's Eye, however, is not traditional in the least. Elaine enjoys, in tandem with her brother, a non-traditional, relaxed, tomboyish childhood, which is brutally cut short by the female mind as Elaine finds out more and more what other girls expect from her.

Any female who has been victimised by other girls in the past will be cut to the quick by Atwood's realistic delineation of the relationship between the girls in this murky and controlling sorority of four, in which loyalties change daily (if not even more often). Atwood ups the ante with the shock factor, though: while many of us associate these cruel behaviours with teenage girls, the characters at the time of these occurrences are barely more than ten years of age, which I found tempered the realism slightly. However, this is more than compensated for by Atwood's lyricism and her ability to make us wince in equal measure elsewhere in the novel.

This, all in all, makes for a gripping read, and it provides a welcome departure from Atwood's frequent dystopias (even though she comes back to it later on in her writing life), although the scenarios set up in Cat's Eye are perhaps added to by the idea that they are real dystopias, not hypothetical ones. It does tail off towards the end, and admittedly I couldn't always see the importance of Cordelia specifically (her manipulation of Elaine seemed much more of a team effort with the other girls than a sole project), but I certainly liked the idea of the cat's eye acting as a central symbol throughout. The use of a physical object for this (i.e. the cat's-eye marble) is also a very human idea: how many of us have been catapulted back through time, jolted there by the sight of a single innocuous object? Its universality is appealing, and yet Atwood has chosen something unusual enough to be interesting.

Cat's Eye, while not perfect, therefore at least serves to show that Atwood is not a one-trick pony. Providing gripping, sophisticated and yet readable novels, her oeuvre is certainly worth the addition to any bookshelf.

Other novels by Margaret Atwood
The Edible Woman (1969)
Surfacing (1972)
Lady Oracle (1976)
Life Before Man (1979)
Bodily Harm (1981)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
The Robber Bride (1993)
Alias Grace (1996)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Oryx and Crake (2003)
The Penelopiad (2005)
The Year of the Flood (2009)