Friday, 21 September 2012

A Tale of Two Cities and, surprisingly, Batman

I feel like I should start this post with a disclaimer about how much I love Dickens. I love Dickens more than a person such as myself, a person who has really not read much of him at all, should love him. I love his descriptions and his lengthy sentences. I love his delicious but transparent character names. I love his London and his Londoners. However, I have not always been so amorous towards Charles. My first encounter with him was when I was 11 years old and I was forced to read Great Expectations for school. I don’t know whose idea that was, but it was a terrible one. I couldn’t get through it and ultimately I skipped so many large chunks of the novel that when it came to in-class analysis I barely had a grasp of who Estelle was. I didn’t touch Dickens again until the first year of my Undergraduate degree and all I had was the memory of that initial painful encounter. On my second try though, I was immediately in love.

I experienced a repeat of these events when reading A Tale of Two Cities, because my goodness does that book start slow. In the beginning you’re not really sure who anyone is, and it’s difficult to grasp why the jumping around in time is necessary or why we are supposed to care about the shoe-maker and his frequently-fainting daughter. Then, suddenly, you’re on the last chapter and unashamedly balling your eyes out because every character in this thing is Just. So. Perfect. One of the best moments is when the formidable Madame Therese Defarge comes face to face with Miss Pross, and though neither speaks the others language, they have an interaction which is one of the most nail-biting episodes I’ve ever read.

So, imagine my delight, when I recently went to see The Dark Knight Rises and found that the film has pretty much the same story as part of the book focused on the descent of France into the revolution of 1789. The film and the book are tales of societies descending into chaos. Both are trigged by reactions against the systems of power in place, in France the poverty stricken peasants reacted against the rich monarchy, everyone knows the “let them eat cake” line. In the film, the lower classes of society, who are largely portrayed as criminals, react against the falsely idolized figure of Harvey Dent at the instigation of Bane. My favourite thing about discovering this link is that when you originally believe that Bane is the son of Ra's al Ghul that makes him the same character as Therese Defarge, the terrifying and constantly knitting woman who incites violence everywhere she goes. There is something about the image of Bane knitting that tickles me no end.

The main result of the connection between these two storylines was that I spent the end of the film sobbing, as Commissioner Gordon reads a quotation directly from the end of the book. I cried, and was left trying to explain to my boyfriend and his mate why I was making such a spectacle of myself in the local Vue cinema. One should not cry at action films. One should cry, however, at the gorgeous finale to A Tale of Two Cities in which the character you least expect captures your heart and then breaks it. Plus, if it’s good enough for Nolan, it’s good enough for me. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Best of the Best

My current plan for this year is to move with my boyfriend to what my Dad resolutely refers to as That There London. Part of the moving process, along with convincing my darling man that picking up his towels post-shower is the good and right thing to do, is reducing the amount of stuff I own. This process has been difficult because it’s the first time I’ve looked at objects that I have had for years and had to consider them through the eyes of somebody else. I have never had to look at my various ornaments, books, CDs and DVDs and had to ask myself “will he like these?”

The most difficult example of this is my Grandmother’s lamp. My Grandma died in 2009 and my Grandfather followed her four months later and as such all of the things in their house needed to be sorted and kept, donated, or thrown away. The lamp in question had been on my Grandma’s bedside table for as long as I can remember and it reminds me of her, which is why I claimed it and placed it on my own bedside table. I miss her very much, and so my judgment is clouded. Through all these layers of affection and nostalgia I have a niggling suspicion that this lamp, my beloved lamp, might actually be hideously ugly. Part of the problem is the size; the thing is bloody huge, and as such, un-ignorable. The other problem is the design itself. It consists of a large cream lampshade supported by a gold metal base on which sits a six inch tall golden dog looking wistfully into the distance. And I still adore it.

I couldn’t get rid of it, and so my boyfriend may have to learn to love it as much as I do, although whenever I look at it I can’t help but think of the wagon-wheel coffee table of When Harry Met Sally fame and see, years in the future, my boyfriend shouting “I will never want that gold greyhound bedside lamp”.

Not all of my possessions have been as lucky as the lamp. I haven’t been able t stand by them all. My books have suffered as I haven’t been able to muster the same affection for history books I was forced to read during my A-levels as I have for inherited lighting fixtures. However, my bookshelves are still full, and these are the ones I would recommend to one and all…

The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy
I did my dissertation on McCarthy and Thomas Hobbes so I’m a little biased about him as an author. If you haven’t read anything by him before I would not recommend starting with this as his style takes a little warming up to. The Road is a better read for deciding whether or not McCarthy is for you. The Crossing is also part of a trilogy (the first book is All the Pretty Horses, the third Cities of the Plain) but it’s actually fine as a stand-alone novel. It’s dense and dark and fairly violent but it’s so beautiful that you’re carried through the more difficult descriptive sections fairly quickly. If you can manage this, have a go with Blood Meridian although I warn you, there’s a lot of scalping.

The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
This is the first Science Fiction book I have ever read, and it was completely unexpected. Instead of focusing on the science aspect to an alternative future reality, Le Guin focuses on the unique social experiments conducted by the characters. It’s about science too, but it’s mostly about people, and because of that I found it unspeakably interesting to read.

One Bloody Thing After Another – Joey Comeau
Written by one of the co-creators of The best zombie story I’ve ever read, as it’s hilarious and utterly devastating…sometimes simultaneously.

What Katy Did – Susan Coolidge
Finally I return to my Grandma. I have a copy of this book that belonged to my Mother, and a copy of What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next in one book that belonged to my Grandmother. Like the lamp, they are things I can never get rid of, not just because of where they came from but because the stories are lovely, if a little old fashioned. Although, in a recent Google search I found a site called that sells pin-up style lingerie. I definitely don’t remember that being in the book.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

5 Things I Can Do

Due to the fact that I am currently unemployed (I did an English degree and no one wants to give me a job – madness) I have recently been considering my CV and the various claims that I make in it. The statements in it are all true, but also mostly a little dull. There’s a fair amount of travelling on there, but the majority of the fun activities I enjoyed have had to be tailored somewhat in order to be included. The copious amounts of drinking I did on my gap year has translated to “team building activities”; the last minute essay writing at university became “ability to work under pressure”; the hours spent watching episodes of Jersey Shore and The Bachelor during my study abroad year was in fact “successful interaction with an alternative culture”. Not to say that I don’t also possess these highly regarded skills, should any potential employers be reading. I do, and in copious amounts. I also have excellent customer service and seven years experience in the Literary Retail trade. Just in case anyone is interested. However, there are other skills which I am equally as proud of and yet am unable to put on my neatly composed curriculum vitae.

In order to celebrate them, I shall now present the best of the skills that I possess which, unfortunately, cannot be considered vital employee qualities. These are the 5 things I can do.

Public Bathroom Acrobatics. 
The dingiest pubs sell the best quality ales in my experience, and I’ve been to enough festivals to be pretty non-fussy about where I pee. It simply requires a bit of expertise. Every girl I know has been in this position, where the only free cubicle has bodily fluids on the seat, an unidentifiable liquid on the floor, a broken lock and a lack of toilet roll. So, first you take the tissues out of your bag (see “ability to plan ahead” on the CV) and wedge the strap between your neck and shoulder. Then you have the delicate procedure of hovering delicately over the seat whilst holding the door closed with one foot and keeping your balance by bracing your elbows against the walls. Thighs of steel and the grace of a ballerina combined for toilet comfort.

Balloon Animals. 
And I mean proper balloon animals. Not just dogs, or mice, or giraffes (which anyone familiar with the world of balloon sculpture will know is the same thing with elongated torsos/necks/noses as appropriate) but works of truly beautiful balloon art. I have made bumblebees, bunches of flowers, lions and once even a guitar. I’ve also had a lot of balloons pop pretty painfully in my hands, but what self respecting artist can say they haven’t suffered for their masterpieces?

Pretend to have read a book. 
Most people can say they’ve read a book and everyone who has completed an English Literature degree can say they’ve read a lot of books. However, the skill I have perfected over the years of being subjected to modules on Medieval literature and plays from the civil war and renaissance periods, is being able to sit in a room of educated people and have an in-depth discussion about something I have read half, a quarter, or none of. I really love reading, and for most modules I read everything, but when you only need five texts in the exam you can afford to miss out a book when you’re having a bad week. Also, Moll Flanders is around 500 pages long and all of those pages are depressingly awful.

Flip drinks coasters. 
With my knuckles. And catch them. In stacks of ten. Pub skills are still skills.

Draw a decent arse. 
And how on earth, you may ask, do I know that I can do this? When I was in Sixth Form myself and a friend took a life drawing class together. In the course of this class I learnt a whole load of things that I can’t do. I can’t draw feet, hands, faces, male genitalia (of which I saw an alarming amount during that particular school year) or heads. What I can draw, are arses. I drew them so well in fact, that my Mother has blu-tacked one particular charcoaled image (almost life size I might add) to our living room door. It’s very nice that she is so proud, but it also means that the question “Whose arse is that?” has been asked of me more than once in the comfort of my own front room.

They may seem childish, some may be a little disgusting, and, I agree, they are not technically marketable skills, but that does not mean that I’m not a pro at them.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

50 Shades of - Is that even a phrase? (Spoilers)

So, to begin, I am aware that this book is already the subject of many a literary, and non-literary, blog at the moment as it has exploded in a BDSM flurry across the internet. I am also aware that this will probably not be the best run through of it you will read. Yet it will still be the subject of my first post because, unfortunately for you, 50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker, and 50 Shades Freed are the most recent three books that I have read. And yes, I did read all three, something I am attempting to blame on my recent graduation from a four year English degree and the delirium caused by sudden freedom from prescribed reading lists. 

This freedom led me to buy, on the kindle edition as I am not without shame, the three books by E.L. James. I read all three in the space of a week and a half, and flew through each astonishing installment of the relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. I use their full names in keeping with the style of the novels themselves. For Mr. Grey and Miss. Steele, this tactic often replaced dialogue itself, as who needs conversation when you have each other’s full names? Not Anastasia and Christian that’s for sure, whose verbal interactions frequently devolved into him touching his hair and her biting her lip, both actions that ended inevitably in kinky shenanigans on every surface, horizontal or otherwise.

Safe to say, there are issues with these books, the primary issue being that they began life as fan-fiction for the Twilight series, and an inspiration for good writing Stephanie Meyer is not. Both canons are filled with beautiful and unspeakably rich characters that have an alarming tendency to fall into mortal peril. Also, sex. The plot lines are essentially the same, starting with the emotional problems of the male protagonist, only overcome by the love of the female protagonist and ultimately completely put to rest by babies. Let me just get one thing out of the way; Babies do not solve relationship problems. Babies especially do not solve the problems presented in these books, for example if your boyfriend is a sparkling blood-sucking vampire who can barely contain his desire to kill you, or if your husband has a sexual desire to cause you physical pain because of deep-seated and unresolved emotional issues pertaining to child abuse. People who enjoy consensual BDSM relationships will probably have much more of an issue with the sex scenes in this book than I do, as the links between Christian's early childhood problems and his desire to sexual dominate women are uncomfortable at best, and not an accurate portrayal of a community that embraces a healthy expression of sexual desires.

To return to the books themselves, the only significant difference between 50 Shades and Twilight is genre. Instead of writing a fantasy book for teenagers, E. L. James writes what is being called “Mummy Porn”, two words I know I hoped would never be coupled together, allowing her to replace the numerous fade-to-black episodes between Bella and Edward with many, many, many sex scenes between Christian and Ana that are as explicit as they are, frankly, bewildering. Maybe it’s because I am not a connoisseur of the sexy book, or maybe it's because there are a lot of descriptions of inexplicable orgasms involving toes, but by the third book I found myself skipping the majority of the sexual interactions between the main characters and focusing instead upon the resolution of the plot. That is not to say that the plot itself was perfect. There was a heavy reliance upon coincidence in the over-arching story line, and the interactions between the characters were consistently repetitive without any sense of moving forward. Declarations of love are bandied about with such frequency that they start to lose weight by the end of the third installment, there are only so many different ways to say “I love you”, but James effectively covers them all.

However, despite all of this, I will admit that I couldn’t put the bloody things down. They are surprisingly gripping, possibly not for the right reasons, but gripping nonetheless. It is understandable that they have been such a success as they are incredibly easy to read (if you successfully silence your inner voice of reason) and as trash to read on holiday you could do worse. Having said that, you could also do an awful lot better.

Do read: As a festival of frivolous smut

Don’t read: In public