Trivia : James Thurber

James Thurber, the American writer and cartoonist was born on this day in 1894. Despite being the author of 40 books, Thurber is best known for a short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that he wrote in 1939. This story is just six pages long and it features a henpecked husband whose heroic daydreams include being a magnificent surgeon, a Commander in the Navy, a deadly assassin and so on. The story is considered an American classic and the term “Mitty-esque” is used to describe an ineffectual person with big, empty dreams.

When he was a boy, one of his brothers shot him in the eye with a bow and arrow during a game of William Tell. Thurber lost the eye and during the course of his lifetime, his remaining eye gradually weakened, eventually leaving him completely blind. He was at The Ohio State University for a while, but his grades suffered because of his eyesight and he left without a degree.

For the next several years, he was a code clerk for the Department of State and then he worked for a while as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, writing a column called Credos and Curios. He then moved to Paris to write as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

He met the writer, E.B. White at a party in New York City and White thought he was funny, so he introduced him to Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker. Ross gave him a job on the spot, though it wasn’t as a writer; it was as managing editor. White shared an office with Thurber, though, and they became close friends, even co-writing a book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a spoof on sexual manuals, which were very popular at the time.

Thurber did the illustrations for the book, and White pressed Ross to use some of his drawings in The New Yorker, which is how Thurber ended up being a cartoonist. His cartoons were sparely drawn, and often odd, and Ross mostly didn’t understand them at all, but they proved very popular. Thurber stayed at The New Yorker for more than 30 years.

He wrote most of his books after he’d become almost completely blind. He had an astounding memory and would often spend up to three hours in the morning writing his books in his head, turning the words over and over until he felt they were polished. Then he would call his secretary and dictate his stories to her.

He used a special type of magnifying glass called a Zeiss loupe to do his cartoons. About his drawings, Thurber once said, “I’m not an artist. I’m a painstaking writer who doodles for relaxation.” By 1950, he’d stopped drawing because at that point all he he could see was light and shadow.

He hated being described as a humorist. He said once, that, “The notion that writers of humor are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. … To call such persons ‘humorists,’ a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.”

James Thurber’s books include The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and The Years With Ross (1959).

Sources:

The Writer’s Almanac

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On Reading : Cornelia Funke

“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?” Mo had said…”As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.”

Cornelia Funke
Inkspell

On December 6th, 1768…

…the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published. It is the oldest general-knowledge encyclopedia written in the English language, and it grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment. The first edition was published and printed in Edinburgh. It was co-founded by Colin Macfarquhar, a printer and bookseller, and an engraver called Andrew Bell. Its first editor was a printer named James Smellie.

Smellie wrote new content, but he also compiled many previously printed articles on his subjects, and used to joke that he “had made a dictionary of arts and sciences with a pair of scissors.” It was sold by Macfarquhar at his printing office on Nicolson Street. The work was issued in parts from December 1768 to 1771 with double-columned pages. The parts were bound in three stout quarto volumes of some 2,500 pages, with 160 copperplate engravings created by Andrew Bell. 

Britannica

The title page begins as follows: “Encyclopedia Britannica; Or, A Dictionary Of Arts and Sciences, Compiled Upon A New Plan.” The work could not compete in bulk with the 68 volumes of Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal Lexicon or with the French Encyclopédie, whose 17 volumes of text had recently been completed. But it did challenge comparison with all previous dictionaries of arts and sciences, large or small, because of its new plan.

The new plan of the Encyclopedia Britannica consisted of including treatises on the arts and sciences in the same alphabetical series as short articles on technical terms and other subjects, with plentiful cross references from the one type of entry to the other. It was thus intended to satisfy two kinds of readers simultaneously: those wishing to study a subject seriously, who would work their way through the treatises; and those in search of quick reference material, who could instantly turn to what they wanted in its alphabetical order.

It was a “how-to” book as much as a reference; the seven-page entry on ‘Smoke’, for example, included instructions for building a chimney so that smoke would not back up into the room.

A new section of the Encyclopedia was published each week with the final section coming out in print in 1771.  In 2012, the president of the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that they would no longer produce a print edition. The 15th edition published in 2010, marks the last printing, but the Encyclopedia lives on, on the Internet.

Sources:

The Writer’s Almanac

Encyclopedia Britannica

On Reading : Anthony Doerr

“Here’s what I mean by the miracle of language. When you’re falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a passageway between a reader’s heart and a writer’s, a connection that transcends the barriers of continents and generations and even death … And here’s the magic. You’re different. You can never go back to being exactly the same person you were before you disappeared into that book.”
― Anthony Doerr

Trivia : Henry James

Today is the birthday of Henry James who was born in New York City in 1843. He was raised in comfort, spending considerable amounts of his childhood abroad, being taught by tutors and governesses in London, Paris, Geneva, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer. He was not a particularly keen student, and he was shy, but he loved reading and he decided early on, that writing would be his vocation.

Henry James wrote steadily for more than 50 years, producing 20 novels, numerous short stories, 12 plays, and several volumes of travel writing and literary criticism. He was a true cosmopolite and he moved freely in and out of drawing rooms in Europe, England, and America.

He was perhaps more at home in Europe than he was in America. He spent three decades of his life there but he retained his American citizenship until 1915 when he became an English citizen to protest America’s failure to enter the war against Germany.

With few exceptions, most of his works deal with some type of confrontation between an American and a European. His fundamental theme was the innocence and exuberance of the New World in clash with the corruption and wisdom of the Old, as illustrated in such works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903).

In spite of his decision to live abroad, James remained essentially American in his sympathies. His central characters are almost always Americans. So are some of his most unpleasant characters. What is telling, though, is that the characters who change, mature, and achieve an element of greatness are almost always American.

Henry James has been called the first of the great psychological realists in our time. But his realism is of a special sort. He was not concerned with all aspects of life. There is nothing of the ugly, the vulgar or the common in his work. He was not concerned with poverty or with the middle class who had to struggle for a living.

Instead, he was interested in depicting a class of people who could afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life. There are no really poor people in his novels. He wrote about people who had enough money to allow them to develop and cultivate their higher natures.

Writing about realism in later years, James maintained that he was more interested in a faithful rendition of a character in any given situation than in depicting all aspects of life. Accordingly, when he has once drawn a character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how that person will act in any other given situation.

Honoured as one of the greatest artists of the novel, Henry James is also regarded as one of America’s most influential critics and literary theorists.

He had his critics, though, like Virginia Woolf, who wrote to a friend: “Please tell me what you find in Henry James. We have his works here, and I read, and I can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?”

Oscar Wilde was so bored by James’s writing, he quipped that James “wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty.” And T.S. Eliot famously deadpanned, “James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

Henry James was a prolific letter writer, penning more than 10,000 letters during his lifetime. He had a particularly long correspondence with the writer Edith Wharton, whose work was often compared to James’s. Wharton called him “Cher Maître” and he called her “Princesse Rapprochée” and “Dear and Unsurpassedly Distinguished Old Friend.”

In a fit of depression in 1909, James burned many of his letters. After his death, when his friend, sculptor Hendrick Christian Anderson, asked the James family for permission to publish the letters he had exchanged with Henry James, it was discovered that James had been gay, a fact that his family had tried to hide for many years.

Writing about the life of a novelist, Henry James once said: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Sources:

The Writer’s Almanac

Cliff’s Notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

On books

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them — with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”                                                                                                                                                                -Eudora Welty

                                                                                                                  

What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

It’s been months since I’ve felt like writing a review or had anything in particular to say on this blog. But I have just read something so good and so beautiful, something that moved me so much that I have to talk about it and tell everyone I know to please read this book…

gratitude-book-cover

The book that I am talking about is Gratitude by Dr Oliver Sacks. It is a very short book, just sixty pages. It is a collection of four essays that were written and published at different times in the last two years of his life. (Dr Sacks passed away on 30th August, 2015 at the age of 82.) These essays are meditations on old age, mortality and reflections on a life well lived.

That in itself is not remarkable. What makes this book special is the way Dr Sacks has approached these topics. There is sincerity here, a sense of wonder and an infectious joy that will lift your spirits, make you smile and make you think that maybe life is not so bad after all.

The writing is delightful…lyrical, intelligent, lucid prose that is a joy to read. Despite the fact that Dr Sacks lived in the US for the entirety of his adult life, there is a quintessentially British quality to his writing…a gentle humour and a certain self-deprecation that I find very appealing.

oliver-sacks

Here he is in his own words:

“One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The above quote is from the first essay called ‘Mercury’. It was written shortly before Dr Sacks’ 80th birthday. The significance of the title is that Mercury is the 80th element in the periodic table. Dr Sacks was apparently fascinated by the physical sciences and the periodic table in particular, ever since he was a child and he always thought of his birthdays in terms of the elements.

Now that is charming. The next essay is called ‘My own Life’ and it was written several months later when Dr Sacks was told that he had multiple metastases in his liver. There are very few treatment options for this particular type of cancer, so he was basically facing the fact that he only had a few months to live.

This essay isn’t an account of what it’s like to have to deal with cancer or the surreal experience of knowing with reasonable certainty that you’re going to die soon. Instead, it is a meditation on a life that’s been long and rich. Dr Sacks doesn’t dwell on his frailties and his approaching mortality, but he looks back on his life and he is clearly happy, because it was a good life, rich in people, relationships, incident and experience…

Here he is again:

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I can’t read these words and not be overcome. Being alive is a privilege, one that we don’t appreciate enough. This book is full of gems like this and if I keep going, I will have to quote it all. So I’ll stop here. There are two more essays in this collection that continue to explore these thoughts and ideas and they are well worth reading. This is a book that I’m going to treasure. I’ve always said that the most valuable books in my life are the ones that I know I’m going to read and read again. This is one of them.

 

Book Review : A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

owen meany

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.

This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.

The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years at this point. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.

The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.

It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.

And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.

Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.

Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then back again to when they are eleven years old and John’s mother dies in an accident.

Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…

Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…

Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.

This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Writer’s on Writing : Neil Gaiman

NEIL-GAIMAN

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.”

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Film Review : Spotlight

I don’t usually review films on this blog, but sometimes, I come across a movie that I can’t help talking about. Spotlight is one such. This is a movie that comes highly recommended and it lives up to all the praise. It is a thoroughly well-made film. It is a true story and the subject matter is something that we have all seen before, unfortunately. But what makes this movie special is the way the story has been told. It engages you from the very first frame and it keeps you hooked until it is over. And then…it makes you think.

spotlight

The movie is set in Boston and at the Boston Globe in particular. ‘Spotlight’ is the name of the team of investigative journalists working at the Globe. And the story under the lens here is that of a few catholic priests in the city of Boston who have been accused of molesting children. The film begins with the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, who is an outsider in many ways. He’s not from Boston and he’s a Jew. Not that a big deal is made of his Jewishness, but it is alluded to a couple of times.

Boston is a Catholic town and though incidents of molestation have been reported several times, the police have never filed cases against the offending priests and the victims have been too afraid to speak out. Even the newspapers have given the stories as well as the victims, very little attention. The new editor wants to change that. He believes that this is a story that needs to be told.

Considering how many of these incidents have been reported, he wants the Globe to do a proper story on it, complete with follow ups and details. Because it is clear that neither the accused priests not the Catholic Church will be tried in a court of law and stories like this will continue to be buried and children will continue to be at risk.

The Spotlight team is given this assignment and they find themselves wondering why they haven’t really pursued these stories so far. They just all got buried somehow.  As they start digging and finding out things, they are revolted, angered and looking for some semblance of justice. Soon they are all deeply invested and though they find themselves blocked again and again, they push on and in the end, they get the story with all of the sickening evidence. And they put it out there for the city to read.

This movie tackles a painful and uncomfortable subject, but it does it with grace and restraint. A story like this is always going to feel like a kick in the gut, but since the focus is on the journalistic aspect of it, it is a bit easier to handle. It makes you feel for the victims, but it does so with enviable gentleness and without ever getting preachy.  I’m not going to call it entertainment, but it is a story about people fighting for truth and justice and it is told in a riveting manner. It is a picture of what responsible journalism can be like and it is a must see for that reason alone.

Book Review : The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes...

This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say.  This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.

They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.

But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.

At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?

The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.

They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.

Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.

But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.

As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.

This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.

This is a very good book, a must read.

Book Review : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

history boys the

I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…

 

I have been reading…Alan Bennett

I have been reading very much as usual, but I haven’t been writing about it. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those things that happens every now and then. I stop writing for a while. Anyway, I’m reading rather a special book at the moment, Untold Stories by Alan Bennett. I started this year by re-reading The Uncommon Reader (also by Alan Bennett) and I enjoyed it every bit as much I did the first time I had read it.

So I went looking for the rest of his books. I had put The History Boys on my TBR list, but I hadn’t bought it yet. So I did. I bought the physical book and it is still on its way. In the mean time I watched the movie with my husband and we both loved it. It is such a wonderful story and told so well. I wish I could have seen the play, but at least I got to see the movie.

The History Boys_movie_poster

This is one of those instances when I’m glad I saw the movie before I read the book because it is a play, not a novel and considering the number of characters and their somewhat complex motivations, it is good to have faces and personalities in my head already. It’ll make the reading go easier. I already love the characters and I know them, so I don’t have to build them up in my head from the text.

Now I usually prefer coming to a book knowing nothing more than its premise and I like to build the characters up in my head without having actors over-shadow them. And I’d rather not have a director’s point of view imposed on the book, but this is an exceptional instance, because the characters are all cast so well and they bring an interpretation to their roles and to the situations which enriches the movie. And it helps that the entire cast of the film is the cast of the original play.

According to Alan Bennett, the director, Nicholas Hytner was involved in the play when it was still being edited, so it owes its final form to both of them. And it shows in the movie. The director owns it just as much as the writer. But now I want to read the book because this play is about words, language, literature and history as much as it is about the story and the characters in it. And wonderful as the movie is, the acting as well as the visuals tend to overshadow the words. And now I want the words on the page as written.

The History Boys is one of those rare things, a book of ideas interwoven into what is rather a beautiful story. It is funny and poignant and thoughtful and so much more than I can possibly express here. I realise that I haven’t said anything much about the story, but that is only because I want to write a proper review once I’ve read the play. In the meantime, I will go back to Untold Stories which is a memoir and enjoy more of Mr Bennett’s peerless prose.

Book Review : Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

Beaten...

The book comes with the tagline, “On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America.” That should give you a fair idea of what the book is about. It is about one man’s experience, training to be a chef. It is a memoir and a surprisingly good one. I have read quite a few such memoirs, so I came to this book feeling a bit blasé.

I was between books and I wasn’t in the mood to pick up anything very heavy or very engrossing. So, a bit of light reading, I thought. And it was. But it was also a surprising amount of fun. This is a good book. The writing is not exceptional, but it is good. And it is written with an honesty that I found rather appealing.

Jonathan Dixon is a writer and a journalist who in his late thirties decided to make a career change. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and he trained to become a chef. He had a lot of doubts and insecurities, obviously.  It is not easy to go back to school when you’re pushing forty. It takes a fair bit of courage and faith in yourself.

Some of the book is about that…the joy and the fear involved in throwing everything up and going off to follow your dream when you’re at an age where you’re supposed to be settled into a career, married, starting a family and so on. It is a difficult choice to make and it is even harder to stick to it once you’ve made it, particularly when you are having money troubles and you’re surrounded by people half your age.

The bigger part of the book is an account of his experience learning to cook. He writes about the CIA, the teachers, his fellow students, all of the things he learns, both small and big and you get a real sense of what it is like to be in culinary school and how difficult and how rewarding the entire experience can be, for someone who loves to cook.

I like to cook and I love memoirs, so of course, I enjoyed the book. But I don’t think you have to be interested in food to enjoy this book. It is a well written memoir, full of interesting characters and it is at its core an account of someone trying to follow a dream.

Movie Review : The Martian

The Martian Launch One Sheet

I have never done a movie review here on this blog (it is meant to be a book blog, after all), but this is a movie based on a book, The Martian by Andy Weir, which is one of the best science fiction books that I have ever read. I have been raving about the book and waiting for the movie for months, so now that I have finally seen it, I can’t not talk about it. I’m not going to go into any detail about the story because I have already done that in my review of the book which you can find here.

Was the movie worth the wait? Not quite, but I’m glad I saw it. The book was excellent and very visual. The descriptions and the the settings were so vivid, that I could see it all playing out in my head as I read the book. So the movie had to be spectacular to impress. And it was, it was quite a visual spectacle and the huge Martian vistas were a joy to see as were the scenes shot inside the space-ship and the final scenes shot in space, just above Mars.

But the best feature of the book, was the science in it. The entire story is a problem solving exercise…one situation after another that the protagonist (and the other characters, to some extent) have to face and find a way through, using their knowledge of science and combining it with a fair bit of ingenuity, courage and recklessness. The recklessness comes through in the movie, but the science doesn’t.

Nearly half of the book is written in the form of a log, a diary if you will, in which Mark Watney (the protagonist) talks about each new situation that he finds himself in. Then he explains exactly what he’s going to do to get out of that situation and why. That adds a certain immediacy to the book which the movie tries to mimic, with Watney doing a video log and talking to the camera.

This works, but the dialogue in the movie, perhaps inevitably, lacks the amount of detail you get in the book. This detail is what makes the book so realistic. It shows you the sheer scale of the problems that Watney faces and the extent of ingenuity, courage and almost pigheaded determination that he displays and this is what has you cheering for him.

Everything in the movie looked a little too easy, to be honest. You don’t see or feel the struggle and the frustration that Watney has to go through to solve each problem. The book and the movie span a period of nearly 600 days. The passage of time is gradual in the book, but it is a bit rushed through in the movie. Also the movie is missing a couple of major sequences from the book, which is a feature of most movies made from books so I won’t complain about that.

The movie does not do justice to the book, but that does not make it a bad movie. The Martian is a good movie and you can enjoy it by itself, though I suspect there are things you simply won’t understand if you haven’t read the book. But not understanding a few things here and there won’t keep you from enjoying the movie. The visuals alone are entirely worth a trip to the theatre.

And then there’s the cast…the casting is spot on. Every actor suits the character that they have been chosen to play and they all do justice to their roles, particularly Matt Damon who plays the lead. I was sceptical about Matt Damon when I first heard about the casting. I couldn’t see him as Mark Watney, but he made me change my mind. He had to carry quite a bit of the movie all by himself and I think he did it very well.

So, go see the movie.  If you like a good story, you will enjoy it. But read the book as well, because it is vastly better than the movie.

Trivia : The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”

Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.

The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.

Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”

Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.

At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.

The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.

Huck, who’s grown up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Mark Twain’s death in 1910.

In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

A major criticism of  Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.

The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.

Sources:

Writer’s almanac

mentalfloss.com

twain.lib.virginia.edu.com

literature.org