Category Archives: Literature

You Are Not Sandra Dee (Thank Goodness)

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Good morning and welcome to a brand new week!  How the devil are you?

First and foremost, I would like to apologise for the gaps inbetween my blog posts recently.  My work schedule has prevented me from writing every day, for which I can only apologise and offer you a compensatory biscuit.  That being said, I have decided that from now on I will only be posting on weekdays, mainly so that you can go about your weekend unpestered by my ramblings.  Sound good?  Marvellous.

Today’s blog post is about the sneaking suspicion most girls have about themselves, which is (brace yourselves, ladies) that we don’t actually want to be the heroine of a story.  Oh, sure, we want the romance and the struggle and the ultimate happy ending, but we want to be allowed to get there on our terms.  We want to know that we can succeed without the necessary caveat of being beautiful, or the genetic good luck to have incredibly long, climbable hair.  The women we most admire and aspire to are the funny best friends and the sarcastic sidekicks – the characters who get the best lines and the best results.

Female characters who have an amusing foible or a deplorable flaw are, in film, literature and television, much more empathetic to modern women than their swooning, seductive counterparts.  The heroines of stories are willed by the reader or viewer to get the prescribed happy ending, because that’s what we are programmed to expect: give us a pretty girl in a pickle and we are desperate for her to find her bliss.  But show us a character who is less impeachably perfect and more honestly human, and that’s who we want to be.  We want to be the girl on the sideline who manages to win just by being herself.

Wouldn’t you rather be a Rizzo than a Sandy?  Nessa wins over Stacey, outright.  And deep down, don’t you think it would be fun to be more of a Karen than a Grace?  Why do you think movie writers keep inventing ‘kooky friend’ characters, anyway?  Because they know that those are the women we actually relate to.

These female characters are not perfect, but they are perfectly believable, which is definitely more important.  They might be bitchy, crazy or even prone to singing at high school for no reason, but there are worse things they could do.  (Geddit?)  These women are actually doing us all a favour by reminding us that you don’t have to be blonde, adorable or star-crossed in order to get what you want – you can (and should) just be yourself.

And why wouldn’t you be yourself, while we’re at it?  You’re brilliant!

Have a miraculous Monday.

Unsporting Spectators

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Good morning, dear reader!  Happy Wednesday!

Today I would like to talk to you about the idea of standing by while stuff happens.  How often do we get involved with what’s going on around us?

I recently finished reading Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, which is a bizarre combination of fact and fiction.  It faithfully describes the words and actions of Idi Amin during his tyrannous rule of Uganda, but the narrator is a fictional character who never really existed (although his experiences in the novel are loosely based on those of real people).  The character is a doctor, so it makes absolute sense that he describes the events in the novel with clinical precision and accuracy.  It is difficult, however, to get inside his head and feel that you know him.  Perhaps that’s for the best – his destructive and terrifying friendship with a dictator is not something that we necessarily want to sympathise with – but it was a bit jarring all the same.

There is also a moral dilemma afoot (that’s right: afoot).  Should Nicholas Garrigan (for ‘t’was the narrator’s name) have stepped in at some point?  He was afraid, and he was inexplicably drawn in to Amin’s web, but couldn’t he have done something?  He never says anything and he doesn’t try to create change in Uganda.  The British government repeatedly ask him to kill Amin, or at least to spy on him for them, and he refuses.  What a wuss.

I had a similarly irritated reaction to Robert Graves’ autobiographical account of the First World War, Goodbye to All That.  Graves was, I’m sure, a very brave man who fought well for his country.  Having said that, he comes across in his autobiography as a complete and total prat.  He has an assumed self-importance that some people get when they’ve befriended famous people, or happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Graves is like that about Siegfried Sassoon’s letter to The Times in 1917 – he essentially says “Oh, yeah, I was totally there for that.  Yeah.  Told him not to send it, actually.  Yeah.  Me and Siggy – we’re like that.”

Forgetting for a moment that Sassoon’s letter was a major turning point in public awareness of the horrors of trench warfare and the campaign as a whole, Graves’ approach repels the reader by making them feel that inactivity would have been better than what Sassoon did.  Garrigan and Graves – both too far from fiction to be ignored – are discomfiting people because they show us that not all humans are heroes.  We would all love to think that we would take action when faced with their situations, but the truth is that we have no way of knowing for sure.

Wouldn’t it be weird if Prince Charles finally got the throne, and it turned out that all those years of waiting had turned him into a crazed tyrant?  (Probably not going to happen, but something to bear in mind.)  How do you think you’d behave?  Do you think that you’d speak out against him?  Would you wage a campaign?  Would you help to save those who’d been mauled by corgis in the street for incorrect etiquette (or whatever his problem turns out to be)?

We have no way of knowing how we would behave in situations like that, but I think that we can find smaller ways to find out.  We don’t need a tyrant or a global war to show us who we are.  We can step up to the smaller, everyday moments of injustice, and refuse to accept them, like we do when we donate to charity or run a marathon for cancer research.  That is all excellent stuff to do.

Well, I’m off to the Post Office, because my life is thrilling like that.  You have an absolutely cracking Wednesday.

Bookworm Woes

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Good morning, and welcome to what I hope will be the most marvellous Thursday of your life so far!

Today I would like to talk about a subject very close to my heart: reading.  Specifically, reading in public.  Here are some of the most irritating and troublesome aspects of being a public bookworm:

  • Who are you looking at?  Sometimes when you’ve been reading for a while, you look up from the page to go over a moment in your head or work something out about the storyline.  If you are sitting in public and you look up to make accidental eye contact with a stranger, they tend to look a bit confused.  Unfortunately, it’s not socially acceptable to say “I’m not looking at you, I’m reading.  Go back to your life.”
  • Unnecessary baggage: If you’re about to leave the house and you’ve only got a few pages left in a book, you have to take a spare one with you, don’t you?  It doesn’t really matter where we’re going:  we must always, always have a good chunk of book available to read.  If this means that we sometimes end up taking large handbags to nightclubs, so be it.
  • Anti-social issues: When meeting friends, we tend to arrive a bit early so that we can get some extra reading in.  Woe betide the friend who turns up in the middle of a chapter, and God help the poor soul who arrives expecting conversation from us when we’ve only got two pages of a thriller novel left.
  • What the heck is going on?  This one is especially true if you’re on public transport: reading can be an all-consuming activity, and if you’re not careful you can miss your bus stop without even noticing.  If you’re sitting on a park bench it can start to get dark or rain without you realising, and in some cases it takes physical prodding from a loved one to bring you back to reality.
  • I’m not crazy; I’m a bookworm.  Sometimes you are reading a book that is so surprising and engaging that you genuinely have to react verbally (potentially by swearing), or so funny that you laugh out loud.  Apparently in public situations this kind of behaviour is a little disconcerting for strangers.  Well, strangers, you’ll just have to deal with it.  I’m reading an awesome story over here.

Well, I’m off to finish The Subtle Knife.  Have a glorious day.

 

What is it About Adaptations?

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Hello, reader!  Got any exciting plans for your weekend?

Last night I went to see Headlong’s production of 1984 at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.  The performances were excellent, the design was incredibly inventive and the concept was inspired.  I won’t say anymore in case you’re planning to see it for yourself, and I really think that you should go if you get the chance.

It’s difficult to make an excellent adaptation of a novel like 1984 for two reasons: firstly, the concept of the novel itself is pretty complex, and pinning down the issues of mind control, sanity, truth and fiction are hard to do off the page.  Secondly, the novel is a well-loved and respected work that many people feel strongly about.  If Headlong had got it wrong, they would have been unpersoned by the critics.

An adaptation of any beloved work of fiction runs the same risk.  The Harry Potter films came under massive fire (just from my social circle) for being completely unfaithful to the books, and reducing cleverly constructed plot lines to unsteady, baffling narrative turns.  There were also many debates about the casting: Emma Watson was too posh (and WAY too fond of acting with her eyebrows), Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t likeable enough, and Dobby was an atrocity.

People are already up in arms about the potential casting of Harry Styles in a movie adaptation of Wicked, but I wonder how many of them know that the musical stage production is already an adaptation of a novel.  The novel is completely different in tone to the musical, and when I read it for the first time I wondered who on earth would read this dark, disturbing story and think “Well, that’s got singing and dancing written all over it.”  Don’t get me wrong: I saw the musical a few years ago and loved it, but in my head it isn’t an adaptation of the novel in the traditional sense.  It’s just too different.

And this is the interesting thing: what is it about adaptations that provokes such strong reactions in us?  When we read a book we get a unique picture in our minds of the characters, the settings and the story, which have been guided by the author but not prescribed.  When we see an adaptation of a novel on screen or stage,the directors have had to try and compile every reader’s mental picture into a universal picture that cannot possibly match up to everyone’s expectations.

Is it better to take a well-known story and try to match it exactly to its original medium, like William Goldman managed with his adaptation of the The Princess Bride?  (Although he had a significant advantage, given that he was adapting his own novel.)  Or is it best to recognise that one medium cannot possibly imitate another – which is why they all exist, in fact – and that an adaptation has to be a kind of translation of a piece in order to make it work?  Wicked in its original essence would not make a good musical; it’s too depressing (but brilliant, by the way).  It needed to be translated into the kind of story that works in the West End with big sets and even bigger smiles, and it is a good show.  It’s just not a faithful adaptation.

I think that part of the issue is the cashmere-wearing, cigar-smoking, bling-adorned elephant in the room: we can all see that making successful novels and plays into films is about making money, not about making the piece accessible to more people.  It’s the reason that The Hobbit is being strangled to death by a painfully laboured and ridiculously patch-worked adaptation into three epically long films.  Shame on you, Peter Jackson.  Shame on you.

In general, I do approve of adaptations.  I like seeing other people’s ideas of a well-known story shown in new ways, and I enjoy the possibilities of a translation from medium to medium.  I just wish that the motive was always the exploration of worlds, not the expansion of wallets.

Have the most awesome of Fridays.

Lessons from Literary Ladies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a chick lit novel must be in want of a life.

That is absolute nonsense, of course, but it does raise an interesting point about why people (not just women) read romantic novels.  It would be easy to dismiss romantic stories as wish fulfilment for lonely readers, and to a certain extent it is.  HOWEVER (and as you can see from the capitals, this is a massive ‘however’), the wish being fulfilled is NOT necessarily what people think it is, i.e., “Oh, I wish I had a Mr. Darcy!”.   More often it’s “I wish I could be as witty as Lizzie Bennett.”

Good romantic novels (as opposed to whiny claptrap) are the ones that show heroes and heroines behaving the way we would like to behave, not just how we want our prospective partners to behave.  People who get swept up in the story of Pride and Prejudice are just as invested in Lizzie Bennett’s decisions as they are in Fitzwilliam Darcy’s smouldering glances.  (I know.  Fitzwilliam.  Try to make your peace with it; it happened.)

Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a closer look at some literary ladies:

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1) Hermione Granger
I have a huge soft spot for this particular heroine, because like me she has uncontrollable hair and she sometimes loses her temper when men are being a bit thick.   J K Rowling has recently said that she regrets pairing Ron and Hermione as a romantic couple in the last Harry Potter book, which to be honest I think is neither here nor there.  (Also, Rowling, move on.  Seriously.  You’ve made your millions and the story is over.  Stop trying to edit it when it’s been published for years.)  Women like Hermione who are clever, sensitive, loyal and a bit prone to climbing on high horses DO fall in love with funny, grumpy, bloke-ish guys like Ron Weasley.  The best thing about reading the Harry Potter books with Hermione in mind is that you realise that it’s not up to you who you fall in love with.  If the cleverest witch in a generation (who for some reason has been able to conjure up portable fire since the age of eleven) can fall for a fairly clueless chap who takes SEVEN YEARS to do something about his feelings, then it doesn’t make you an idiot if it happens to you.

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2) Bella Swan
A lot of people hate the Twilight series, or at least hate that they love them so much.  Why?  Because you cannot get onside with the heroine.  She is SO ANNOYING.  Yeah ok, her two love interests are a freakishly strong teen werewolf and a bloodthirsty statue with a Byron complex, but nothing she says or does in the novels makes you feel like you can relate to her or feel sympathy for her.  The Twilight series is a bad set of books, not because the romance is so drippy, but because the girl at the centre of this incredibly disturbing love triangle is so fundamentally unlovable.

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3) Margaret Hale
Putting aside my absolute fury that North and South is basically a crap version of Pride and Prejudice,  the heroine is the most irritating creature ever to walk the earth (or page, I suppose).  It’s not entirely her fault, though: Gaskell is one of those writers who doesn’t trust her readers to understand anything about her characters purely by describing what they say and do, so she CONSTANTLY reminds the readers in her descriptions how beautiful and wonderful Miss Hale is.  Every other paragraph, Gaskell essentially says “In case you hadn’t noticed, my heroine is really pretty and popular, so you HAVE TO LOVE HER.”  No, Gaskell, I bloody do not.  If your writing were better, you would be able to SHOW your readers what Margaret Hale is like, rather than ramming it down our throats.  Being told a million times how wonderful somebody is without ever seeing any proof just makes you like them less.

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4) Rose Highly-Robinson
The name doesn’t sound too promising, but this girl is one of my favourite literary heroines.  The protagonist of Michelle Magorian’s beautiful A Little Love Song, Rose is a seventeen year-old evacuee who wants to write, but is being pushed into a scientific education by her over-protective mother and her dead father’s wishes.  Michelle Magorian is the woman who wrote Goodnight Mister Tom, and this story is just as heart-warming (and breaking).  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it to you.  Rose is the kind of girl that makes mistakes, but they are exactly the mistakes that you would have made in her position, and you love her for them.  She gets a happy ending, but she gets it by being a real person who puts up a bit of a fight, not by being swept up by a knight in shining armour (although there is a man involved somewhere.  I’ll stop with the spoilers now).

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5) Katniss Everdeen
Jury’s out on this one: I like the concept of Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but her heroine is a bit off, in my opinion.  I understand how she could appeal to people: a physically strong, independent young woman who provides for her family and protects her little sister at all costs.  These are all good things.  But for me personally, the way she behaves with the two men who love her (WHAT is with the spate of love triangles in young adult fiction, by the way?) is pretty off-putting.  I like the books a lot, but I need to pick and choose which bits of Katniss’ character I aspire to.  I would love to be able to shoot a bow and arrow the way she can, but I’d rather not lead a guy on (on TELEVISION, no less) when I know he has feelings for me.  Also, her name is Katniss.  I just…why?  That’s not a name!

There are a lot of other literary heroines who deserved a mention in this blog, but I picked these five because I think they get my point across most clearly.  I could have written the whole thing based on Austen novels, but I think that there is a much wider tendency in all sorts of novels for readers to want to be the hero/heroine rather than ensnare the love interest.  And I think that that’s a good thing.  I might quite like a Dan Stevens-esque Edward Ferrers to rock up at my door, but I’ve just not got the patience of Elinor Dashwood.

Have a cracking Saturday everyone.