Book No 4 (2015) : The Secret History

Secret History Whenever I read lists of the best books ever, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History‘ often makes an appearance. It was published in 1992 and became a bestseller. I’ve avoided tackling it before now as I’ve gathered from reviews and comments that it is rather an intellectual book. Having eventually finished the novel, my conclusion is that my reservations were largely well founded.

Richard Papen narrates the story; he is an outsider, but is gradually drawn into an elite group of Classical Greek scholars, whose classes are taught solely by the charismatic Julian Morrow. Inspired by the ancient Greek influences of Dionysus, the God of wine and ecstasy, the students try to create their own Bacchanal, a drunken revel whose participants indulge in sexual experimentation and drug-taking. They succeed, but in doing so, a man is murdered. In order to cover up the murder, the students then have to eliminate one of their own small class. This is not a spoiler, as the reader knows from the very outset that Bunny has been killed. The novel explores the events leading up to and following  his death.

In saying what I really think about this book, I am anxious not to be written off as a dullard. It is true that I have not studied Classics since Dotty Daniels’ lessons in Year 8 (the 2nd year in my day!) and my knowledge has not expanded greatly since then. This did mean that some of the classical references and analogies in ‘The Secret History’ were all Greek to me; but not all of them and I don’t think it was this which prevented my enjoyment of the novel. I totally failed to engage with any of the dysfunctional characters, whose internal life remains largely unexplored. They are self-obsessed, have dubious morals, spend 90% of the time drunk, stoned, asleep or eating and the other 10% being generally languid – à la Sebastian Flyte, only with less charm. The first half of the book was far better than the second but by the time I had waded to the 628th page, I was so bored I think my eyeballs were actually bleeding.

My only concern now is that I also have Tartt’s third novel, ‘The Goldfinch‘ perched on a shelf next to me, rustling its feathers and fixing me with its beady,black eye. It has 844 pages but honestly, it will be a while before I can tackle any more Tartt-ness.

Film No 2 (2015) : Lucy

lucyWhen Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is forced by a casual boyfriend to deliver a locked case to a mysterious Mr Jang, she has no idea of the nightmare which is about to unfold. Together with three other captives, she is forced to undergo surgery to implant a package of concentrated CPH4 into her abdomen. CPH4 is a natural molecule produced by pregnant women which stimulates the growth of their unborn baby’s brain. When the package inside Lucy is ruptured following an assault by a guard, the leaking of the chemical into her body stimulates her brain to rapidly increase its functional capacity from 10% to 100%. Knowing that her rapid development will lead to ‘overload’, Lucy contacts renowned neuroscientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman)  to help her as she hurtles towards her inevitable demise.

Apparently the science doesn’t stack up in this movie. Although growth molecules clearly exist in nature, CPH4 is not real, and a similar substance would not produce the changes explored in the film. But as an imaginary journey into the unexplored realms of the human mind, this film was fascinating. Lucy develops unimagined abilities, but these are not of the superhero brute-strength type; her skills are more refined. One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Lucy can ‘see’ all the phone signals emanating from mobiles. She is able to scroll through them as if she is playing the strings of the harp, in order to isolate the conversation she is searching for. That kind of realisation of an imaginary concept by the director, Luc Besson, is for me what made this film so intriguing. Scarlett Johansson is a gutsy, uncompromising heroine and the inconsistencies in the film were not enough for me to be prevented from enjoying it.

In the final scenes of  the film, as Lucy’s brain is approaching 100% capacity, she knows everything. As she searches for energy, she frantically downloads everything she knows, all the secrets of the Universe, onto a computer which will be accessible long after she has gone. As time speeds up, moving objects eventually become invisible, time stands still. So although the facts behind this film may render it science-fictional nonsense, art did mirror reality for the 89 minutes I spent watching ‘Lucy’; I was so engrossed, that time did seem to stand still.

Book No 3 (2015) : More Lives than One

more lives than oneIt is some years since I first read ‘More Lives than One‘ (it was published in 1998). Although I wouldn’t have said at the time that it was ‘brilliant’, many of the scenes created in the novel have been replayed often in my mind. Echoes of Libby Purves‘ sensitive exploration of a highly emotive issue, reverberate loudly when the matter arises on TV and in the papers, as it often does. This seemingly cosy little novel packs quite a powerful punch.

Kit Milcourt is a Bear Grylls type; a banker but also scuba-diver and climber. Whilst teaching a group of divers in Egypt, he meets and later marries Anna. Kit changes career and the couple secure jobs at the same secondary school. Kit teaches English to Year 7’s and there is more than a little of the John Keating (Dead Poets Society) about his attitudes and philosophy. He loves children, describes each as an individual puzzle which he tries to unlock, by opening their hearts and minds to culture and art. Molly, his departmental colleague, despairs of his complete disregard for the set curriculum and of his unorthodox teaching methods. When Molly volunteers at the last minute to accompany Kit and fifteen students on a trip to Venice, it is obvious that things are unlikely to run entirely smoothly. But a pupil’s crush on the charismatic Mr Milcourt unleashes a train of events which has consequences for everyone involved, including Anna.

Libby Purves is a journalist and broadcaster and I know from having read an interview with her where she discusses ‘More Lives Than One‘, that she did research the hidden aspects of Kit’s character very thoroughly. Her measured tone gives a thoughtful counter-balance to the sensationalist headlines which usually accompany the real-life versions of stories like Kit and Anna’s. Having been drawn into their world, it was almost impossible not to feel sympathy for them both.

I recommend this book if you have not already come across it. It is revealing and thought-provoking in many more ways than one.

Book No 2 (2015) : Elizabeth is Missing

It is difficult to elizabeth is missingbelieve that ‘Elizabeth is Missing‘ is Emma Healey‘s first book. I can quite imagine finishing it in one sitting and it is by far the best thing I have read this year (!).

Maud writes herself a lot of notes. Sometimes there are so many of them that they fall out of her pockets and often she can’t make sense of them later. She has to set down the words in order to remember things; even the names of familiar objects escape her sometimes, as do the names of her family and carers. Maud has to keep reminding herself to find Elizabeth, because she knows her friend is missing. She’s been round to her house and it’s empty, so she knows Elizabeth isn’t there.

From Maud’s increasingly confused standpoint, the stories of her past and present lives are unfurled. Whilst she cannot remember what a bath is called, or how to boil an egg, she is able to recall the circumstances of when someone else went missing; her sister, Sukey, in 1946. Maud’s short-term memory is failing her, but her ability to recall events from all those years ago remains largely undiminished. Her memories are triggered not only by things she can see, but also by touch, smell, sound and taste.  This novel explores the nature of memory, what we hold on to and what slips away. It is crafted with skill and painstaking precision, as Maud’s recollections of the past and her life in the present are revealed and begin to converge.

For a young woman, this author is remarkably perceptive about how dementia affects the mind and how elderly people such as Maud are treated by others. Whilst most of the characters in the novel are tolerant of Maud’s repeated questions, bizarre ramblings and odd behaviour, others are dismissive and impatient. With momentary flashes of insight. Maud realises that people are sighing, or rolling their eyes and she knows she has caused these reactions, but is at a complete loss to understand why. Whilst her own family are kindly, even her daughter (Helen) finds herself exasperated and frustrated with her mother’s behaviour.

This book seems totally original: I know that some smartarse will probably be along later to tell me about a similar novella (now out of print) written in Spanish and translated into Mandarin by an obscure Oxford Don in 1937, but I read a lot and I have not come across a narrator with a voice as original as Maud’s for a long time. Elizabeth may well be missing, but I assure you, discovering what has happened to her is a revelation in many ways.

Book No 1 (2015) : The Senator’s Wife

Senators wife

There are lots of really good things about my Book Club Christmas meal. Firstly, the food at the Red Lion is always tasty, secondly, my fellow Tuesday bookworms are great company and thirdly, we have a ‘Secret Santa’. Everyone brings a gift-wrapped book that they have enjoyed, or thinks that someone else might enjoy. We tip them into a big sack and each guest pulls out a book at random. Our January meeting is always spent discussing our surprise read.’The Senator’s Wife’, by Sue Miller was my Secret Santa pick.

Meri and Nathan are young newlyweds who buy a house adjoined to that of Tom Naughton, a former US senator, and his wife, Delia. Meri and Delia form a friendship of sorts, which leads to Meri discovering that actually Tom and Delia have not lived together for many years, although they have never divorced. When her husband suffers a stroke, Delia is wiling to care for Tom and brings him back into their home with gratitude. Tom is home. She calls upon Meri to sit with her invalid husband, in return for which she offers to babysit for the young couple’s baby son. But this arrangement shatters the older woman’s new-found happiness, when Meri abuses Delia’s trust.

In ‘The Senator’s Wife’, the author explores what happens when you are compelled to love, despite your rational judgement. Delia loves Tom unconditionally, because she can’t help it, because a life where she shares him with his other lovers is better than a life without him at all. I guess we would all agree that we would never stay with a serial philanderer, because that seems like the logical thing to say, when it’s just a hypothesis. But you can never judge a woman until you have walked a mile in her shoes: we may all put up with more than we might imagine, just to be in our lovers’ arms even some of the time.

One thing I will add is that I found the ending of this book bizarre and unsatisfying. Meri is not a likeable character; she does something which I personally found quite repulsive, and then seeks to justify her actions with a totally unconvincing explanation.

The Senator’s Wife’ is a good example of how I don’t necessarily have to enjoy a book to find it memorable! It is a poignant, insightful work with beautifully drawn characters. Miller tackles painful truths about the nature of love and marriage. I’m looking forward to a lively debate – assuming that the person who donated it, has read it!

Read Scotland Challenge

Read Scotland badge copyBlogosphere is an amazing place, and whilst on my travels around t’Interweb  I came across the Read Scotland Challenge, which I have decided to accept. As if 50 books in a year is not difficult enough, I have also signed up to make at least some of those books Scottish in some way or another – any genre, any form, written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.

Scotland is my favourite place in the world (so far!). I lived there for many years, met my husband there and have spent the 20 years since we left, hankering to go back.

The Challenge has 5 levels;

Just A Keek (a little look): 1-4 books
The Highlander: 5-8 books
The Hebridean: 9-12 books
Ben Nevis: 13-24 books
Back O’ Beyond: 25+ books

and I’ve opted for The Highlander!

If you have Caledonian connections or any other reason for suggesting a book which I could read to contribute towards my 5-8 Scottish book challenge, please feel free to comment!

Film No 1 (2015) : The Theory of Everything

Theory of EverythingThe first film I have seen in 2015. I wouldn’t care if I don’t see another film until 2016. ‘The Theory of Everything‘ has given me enough to think about for 52 weeks and I doubt if anything else I see this year will match it.

Professor Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (also known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) in 1963 when he was just 21. He had already met Jane Wilde and, despite Stephen having been given only 2 years to live, the couple were married in 1965 and went on to have three children. Director James Marsh attempts to tell the Hawkings’ story from Jane’s point of view (the story line is adapted from Jane’s memoir ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’). Whilst it does loosely document Hawking’s extraordinary scientific career, including the writing of his 10-million copy selling ‘A Brief History of Time‘, the primary focus of the movie is his marriage to Jane and their family life.

Eddie Redmayne‘s transformation into Stephen Hawking is awe-inspiring: the decline in his dexterity, physical posture, speech and facial expressions as Hawking’s disease progresses, are totally agonising. Felicity Jones is captivating as Jane Hawking, displaying determination and despair with equal flair. But to my mind, Redmayne owned the screen; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Hawking has apparently said himself that the film is ‘broadly true‘ and there were times during the screening when he felt he was watching himself. He was sufficiently impressed with the movie to allow his own synthesised voice to be used in the final version.

I didn’t learn much about physics, or cosmology, or black holes from this film. Instead, I came to understand something of the life of a remarkable couple, but even more about truly great acting. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will wipe the floor with all the contenders for the major film awards and accolades in 2015. Eddie Redmayne has surely given the performance of a lifetime as Stephen Hawking; his portrayal of the scientist shows absolute mastery of the craft of acting.

Looking backwards and forwards

stocksPublic humiliation has changed. Not for me a pelting with rotten tomatoes or a thrashing in the village square. Instead, I just have to admit on my blog that I failed to achieve the goals I set for myself a year ago. Oh dear.

The challenge had been to read 50 books, see 50 films and lose 50lbs in 2014, my 50th year.

I read 46 books, saw 45 films and lost 0lbs (in fact, I gained weight).

But I am not downhearted. In a way I am quite excited, because having not quite made it last year, gives me the opportunity to give it another go!

50 books and 50 films in one year. I’d also like to try to lose weight, but I found the process of sharing that journey publicly on the Internet very painful, so have decided to fight that battle in private!

So, come along with me for the action replay as. yet again, I embark upon my own 50/50 Challenge.

Please follow my blog (use the button on the left – you will get a notification when I post, but no spam. I promise). Feel free to share my blog. comment or make suggestions as to books/films I might enjoy.

Film No 45 (2014) : Goodnight Mister Tom

Mr TomWhen I was a child, just starting to get interested in books, my authors of choice were Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, SE Hinton and later some classics. Neither Jacqueline Wilson nor Michael Murpurgo books had appeared yet, nor had Michelle Magorian‘s ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘. It was first published in 1981 and I didn’t read it until one of my children had to study it at school and I needed to keep up. (I find myself increasingly having to run to stay level with my kids these days). I found the book to have an enduring story, fragments of which often scoot across my memory several years later. I have seen two stage productions of the work and enjoyed them immensely. The film version of ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘ was released in 1998 and shown on TV over the Christmas break.

William Beech is evacuated from London during WW2, and billeted with Tom Oakley (John Thaw), a widower whose cottage overlooks the churchyard. Tom and William form an unlikely friendship, to the extent that when Tom does not hear from William once he has been returned to his mother, Tom sets off for London to find him. What he discovers is deeply shocking, but Tom will not be deterred in his efforts to give the boy a better life.

John Thaw is suitably curmudgeonly and Nick Robinson (not that Nick Robinson!) puts in a fine performance as the young William, gradually coming out of his shell and throwing off some of the anxieties he has brought with him from the city.

Filmed in Turville, Bucks (less than 10 miles from where I live, but I’ve never been there), I am sure the film affords a romanticised and somewhat sanitised interpretation of the evacuees experience. Nevertheless, as 108 minutes of entertainment, I loved it. ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ has earned its place as a modern classic; both the book and the film will be ones for sharing with my grandchildren one day.