Book Diaries 2016

Book Diaries

In the Book Diaries I blog about how each book I read alters my worldview and changes my life.

2016’s theme was ‘20th Century Classics’, and you can read all of that year’s blog posts below.

The Book Diaries Volume 1: A Trip Through Time (the book of the 2015 blog) is now available to buy on Amazon. In addition to the original posts, it features lavish illustrations, and updates that tell you whether I indeed managed to make the changes I promised!


Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Generation X

Title: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
Author: Douglas Coupland
Publication date: 1991

What’s it about?Generation X

The novel focuses on three friends – Andy, Dag and Claire – who have moved to a desolate part of the California desert to reevaluate their lives and, they hope, gain some focus. Feeling that the future is uncertain, they attempt to find themselves in part by telling each other stories. Over the course of the novel we see their own stories develop in unexpected ways.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another birthday present. I’ve now also designated a special bookcase at home for all of my Book Diaries books – which means that I need to get cracking on acquiring some of the titles I don’t possess, so that I can fill it!

What did I learn from it?

I’ve been very conscious this year that a significant number of my book choices have been ‘white and Western’, a large proportion of them being, specifically, American. (This is, indeed, one reason why for the 2017 Book Diaries I’ve chosen the theme of World Literature, to broaden my horizons.)

One thing I’ve noticed about a few of these American books (On the Road is the main one that springs to mind) is the use of ‘driving to Mexico’ as a plot device; we are shown characters who are looking to broaden their own horizons by travelling into the unknown, to see what unfolds. Venturing over the border is symbolic: it is the ultimate gesture in breaking free from convention and expanding one’s worldview.

It is intriguing to read about these journeys in a year when the President-Elect of the United States has talked about building a wall along this very border. The reason for this wall is ostensibly to protect Americans from a dangerous influx of illegal immigrants – but if we see cross-border travel not as a practical trip but as a symbolic gesture, the effect that such a barrier might have on the worldview of American citizens is chilling.

It’s one thing to protect ourselves from dangers (real or perceived) coming in, but do we really want to stop ourselves from even looking out?

How did it make me see the world differently?

In addition to the US presidential election, this has been the year of Brexit: the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union. One of the issues that raised its head during the vote and its aftermath was the feeling of the younger generation that the older generation had screwed them over by voting ‘Leave’. News articles would regularly voice the theme of inter-generational conflict.

It struck me on reading Generation X that, as the old phrase has it, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The Generation X-ers complained that the baby boomers had stolen their future; one character in the novel, Dag, has a habit of vandalising cars that sport bumper stickers he objects to, such as ‘We’re spending our children’s inheritance!’ And now the millennials are complaining that their parents’ generation have stolen their future.

Clashes between the generations are surely a part of life: back in the 1950s the newly minted ‘teenagers’ undoubtedly had their own issues with the fuddy-duddy oldsters who didn’t get the fresh sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Stating your own claim to the world is a natural rite of passage, and rebelling against the views of those who you perceive to be on the way out is equally normal and natural. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the previous generation really did ruin your life – just that the world is changing, and what you thought you were supposed to expect from it has now morphed into something new.

I would encourage everyone, of all ages, to read this book: if you’re part of the younger generation, know that you are not the first to feel like this; if you’re older, spare a thought for the difficulties your children face and try to help where you can.

Me? I’m Generation X, and my future is wide open…

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Although I’m technically Generation X, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the existential dread that seems to afflict the characters in the novel – but I have certainly wondered what my contribution to the world will be.

In the two years since starting this blog challenge, my creativity has opened up in new and surprising ways; and if you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know about my frustrations with the constant flow of ideas and the relative failure to see any of them out into the world. I have such big, specific plans, but they never seem to work out.

So, taking heart from Coupland’s novel, I’m going to use the end of this year to take stock, to (metaphorically if not literally) retreat from society, take a proper Christmas break, and tell myself stories. Yes, I have plans for my writing next year, but I don’t know exactly what will emerge – and I have decided that this is fine. I need to focus on sitting down and putting pen to paper, but I won’t try to force what comes out of the pen.

I will take my own ‘journey into Mexico’ to see what new big adventure awaits me, and I will simply see what unfolds. Who knows: I might surprise myself.

A musical interlude

Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is frequently cited as the song that represents this generation. I have to admit grunge passed me by, or at least was not quite to my taste, but the track is still significant enough for it to be the obvious choice to accompany this book.

Enjoy!

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryTitle: The Wasp Factory
Author: Iain Banks
Publication date: 1984

What’s it about?The Wasp Factory

Teenager Frank Cauldhame (who, by the age of ten, had killed three other children) lives on a remote Scottish island with his father, and indulges in a wide range of violent games. The book follows his story as he waits for news of his brother Eric, who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and is making his way back home. But who will be the most shocked at what they find when Eric arrives?

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was already on my bookshelves. According to the inscription in the front, it was a present for my 25th birthday – and I’d never read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned about the power of storytelling, specifically how an audience is gripped by mysteries, and is driven to keep turning the pages to find out ‘what happened?’, no matter how disturbing the journey. Two chapters are, in fact, entitled ‘What Happened to Eric’ and ‘What Happened to Me’, and they occur near the very end of the novel. We are made aware as the story progresses that unspeakable things happened to both boys, and yet the facts unfold very gradually. The exact truth about Frank only becomes apparent in the last four pages, and once it is revealed, we (along with Frank himself) must question what we thought we had known all along.

I also realised I’m a lot more squeamish than I thought – or maybe it’s simply that Banks is skilled in conjuring up visual images that stick in the mind, that won’t let go and can’t be unread, no matter how much you try to forget them. There were scenes in this novel (one in particular) that I found more gruesome than anything I’ve ever read or watched before – and yet I kept turning those pages. That’s writing talent at work.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Despite Frank’s psychotic tendencies and the absence of the usual confines of schooling, the description of his life on the island brought back many memories of an ’80s childhood spent playing outside. Where Frank wanders his territory setting bombs, hunting rabbits, collecting live wasps for sacrifice, hoisting animal skulls on poles, and building dams (and blowing them up), I would climb trees, make dens, and – yes – visit the local dump, inventing stories that I would play out with my friends.

This was the era before computer games took hold. Although I do recall titles such as Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, I was never really a computer girl; when I wasn’t reading books, I was outside making up stories for myself and acting them out. True, my adventures would feature secret societies and tracking in the woods rather than explosives and animal torture, but I can still relate to how Frank spends his time: the sheer joy of being out in the open air, exploring the fruits of his imagination.

The book reminded me of how much fun I had in my childhood, and how much of that was, surprisingly for me, spent outside. I’m writing this in a week where, for various reasons, I’ve not been on my usual morning walks, and I’ve realised that this has made me quite twitchy. We don’t always appreciate the great outdoors until we can’t access it any more, and while it’s easy to hunker down cosily inside (especially in the dark winter months), I’ve realised I still need to make time for fresh air – and to see how it sparks my creative mind.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Prompted by my musings above, I’ll renew my efforts to get out into the countryside. In fact, I’ll do more than take up my morning walks again; in the New Year I’m going to try out a local walking group, and see if I can get into the habit of going for a proper hike on Sundays. There’s one I’ve found that seems to offer a variety of routes at different levels of difficulty, so I’ll use the Christmas holiday to gather together all my walking equipment (I need some new boots, for a start), and will contact them in January with a view to setting a new habit!

I’m also going to take yet another prompt to crack on with my own creative writing; and inspired by Banks’s storytelling, I’ve decided to set myself a challenge for 2017. In a similar way to how I approach the Book Diaries, I’m going to set myself the target of writing one piece of fiction each month. This could be anything from a short story to a chapter in my novel; or even something completely different – the aim is to give myself a deadline, so that I actually achieve something rather than just sit and think about it.

If I can get walking and writing again – two things I loved to do when I was younger, but which I’ve let slide over the years – I will be a very happy bunny.

A musical interlude

Dogs feature quite heavily (and not in a good way) in The Wasp Factory, and so they’ve inspired this week’s music track.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Title: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Author: Richard Bach (with photographs by Russell Munson)
Publication date: 1970

What’s it about?Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a bird who desires more from life than just grubbing for food: he wants to become ever more skilled in the art of flight. Cast out from his flock, he perfects his technique and moves into a higher realm with other gulls who share his aims. He finally achieves his dream of bringing all he has learned back to those members of his flock who are now willing to listen.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library – but I will at some point be buying a copy to keep.

What did I learn from it?

I hadn’t expected the book to contain pictures, but the black and white photographs of seagulls in mid-air really added to the vibe of the story. It’s one thing reading about the joys of flight, but quite another to see it in motion, even if through a static rather than a moving picture (although the book was later made into a film). This was a great reminder of the value of illustrations – and not just for children, but for adults too. A well-chosen visual image can greatly complement the visions conjured up by a skilled piece of writing.

I also learned something about the technicalities of a seagull’s flight. The author goes into great detail about wingspan, speed and angles; he has experience in aviation, which explains his interest in flight as a metaphor for life, but the focus on Jonathan’s technique was, again, something I wasn’t expecting. I now have a renewed appreciation for the abilities of other creatures with an anatomy different to my own.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The novella is quite clearly described as a ‘fable’, so it is easy to see the relevance of Jonathan’s experiences to our own human lives. He is not content with the limited life led by the other seagulls, and instead chooses to pursue his own dreams. For this he is exiled from the flock, but accepts this as the price for living life on his own terms; and he uses his new-found freedom to relentlessly pursue perfection.

Anyone who has ever stepped outside the bounds of what society deems a regular life will feel kinship with Jonathan. The definition of a regular life will, of course, differ from culture to culture, but as we are social creatures, we cannot deny the pull of the group, the urge to belong and to continue to be accepted. Difficulties arise when we wish to do something that we know our group will disapprove of, whether that is quitting the 9-5 to become self employed, selling a suburban home to go and live off grid in a yurt, or relocating to the other side of the world to pursue a new skill.

This is a familiar tale – the brave soul who breaks with their group to achieve accomplishment and fulfilment – but the interesting thing about Bach’s story is that he does not pretend the journey is easy. Jonathan endures great pain, suffers many setbacks, and even risks death (indeed, it is possible that he does indeed ‘die’, at least on one plane of existence); every day is a constant hard struggle to reach the heights he so craves. And yet reach them he does.

It is an essential reminder that we can all strive to be much better versions of ourselves, and push ourselves to limits we never thought we could attain – but that we should not expect it to be easy. If we want our lives to be truly amazing, rather than merely average, we should be prepared to work for it.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

After my last post, in which I promised to take things a little easier towards the end of this year, this book seemed to be telling me the opposite! Is life too short to relax and smell the flowers? Should I be pushing myself harder and harder? I felt exhausted just thinking about it – and I eventually decided that my answer was ‘no’.

I know from many years’ experience that if I work myself too hard, I burn out. I try to fit too much stuff into my days, and I crash, wasting more time than if I’d taken it easy in the first place. The key for me, I have realised, is to find focus: to figure out what my time can most valuably be spent doing, rather than running around on a variety of busy tasks that ultimately don’t yield great gains.

I’ve decided that my focus next year is going to be creative writing. I already feel excited at the thought of it, and am sneaking odd hours here and there to develop stories, even though I don’t ‘officially’ have to start until 1 January. It no longer feels like an exhausting struggle, because – probably – it’s the one thing I’ve been wanting to do all along.

And so the challenge I’ve set myself after reading Richard Bach’s fable is to use it as inspiration to write a fable of my own. Something creative, something that ties in with my interests in sci-fi and fantasy, and probably something based around the wonder of books and libraries. I’m hoping that this will be a good way in to writing more lengthy works – and if I can meet my regular three-month target, then maybe by next Spring I’ll have my first piece of creative fiction out there in the world!

A musical interlude

This song came to me almost as soon as I’d chosen the book. It’s not quite the right kind of seabird, but the feel of the track fits perfectly with Bach’s visions of a bird freely in flight across the oceans.

No words are needed.

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1969

What’s it about?Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. He experiences his life in irregular flashes, from his suburban life as an optometrist, to his time spent in Dresden during the Second World War, to his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Throughout the book he muses on what life – and, perhaps more importantly, death – means to him, and to the human race as a whole.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was a birthday present.

I normally include links to WorldCat (for finding the book in a library near you) and Hive (for supporting independent UK bookshops), but, somewhat oddly, I couldn’t find this book listed on either of these two sites. So this time I’m simply going to have to give you a link to Amazon.

What did I learn from it?

I found out a lot about the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and the experiences of the American soldiers billeted to Europe to assist the Allies. Although I studied 20th-century history at school, we ran out of time before we could really get into this period, so my knowledge of it has been limited to what I’ve picked up through national anniversary commemorations and the occasional TV documentary.

The book traces the story of Billy’s journey in war, from manoeuvres in the USA to service as a chaplain’s assistant, subsequent capture as a prisoner of war, survival of the Dresden bombing, and eventual trip back to freedom. It is an unforgettable insight into such painful experiences.

One particular scene (or series of scenes) also reminded me of an earlier Book Diaries book: A Farewell to Arms. In Hemingway’s novel, the main character spends some time in the Italian countryside, attempting to evade capture; in Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim does the same in the German countryside. It’s interesting to hear about war on these ‘fronts’; men did not suffer only in the notorious battles, but also by freezing and starving away from the main action.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Vonnegut’s meditations on life and death, particularly death, seem to be inspired by his experiences of war. The alien Tralfamadorians see life in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time. They can see the whole of life at once: past, present and future as one all-encompassing vision, where everything has already happened and always will. Billy’s experiences with time travel illustrate what this might feel like to a human.

Naturally, this touches on the subject of free will: if the future already exists, how much power do we have to change it? And should we bother trying? This is a key question, particularly, in the discussion of war: it seems that Vonnegut is making the point that we, as humans and not Tralfamadorians, always have the choice of whether we go to war; it is not something that has to happen – we choose to make it happen. This is a fairly damning statement on the human race: that we persist in choosing to do this terrible thing when, actually, we could choose not to.

Vonnegut also quotes – twice – what is known as the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’. The suggestion is that we should try to prevent the worst from happening, but if it happens anyway, we shouldn’t waste our energies trying to fight it but focus instead on the things we can do something about.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

For a long time now I’ve regarded the Serenity Prayer as a means of figuring out my own path through life – i.e. which ‘battles’ to pick – so it was fascinating to see it quoted here. This year has been particularly fraught for me as I’ve navigated and negotiated my way through various practical trials and tribulations (building work), exciting yet tiring times (US road trip), more creative ideas than I can shake a stick at, and lots and lots of work.

It’s been exhausting. I’ve pitched from one challenge to another with barely a chance to draw breath, and I’ve lost the ability to focus: to distinguish between battles that need to be fought and those it’s far better to walk away from. My fight-or-flight instincts have been so churned up I can no longer see straight.

So I need to reboot; to recalibrate. The end of the year seems a particularly appropriate time for this, so I’ve decided that I will give myself a prolonged period ‘off’ when December arrives. I will cut down any freelance work to the bare minimum, and once my last Book Diaries post is published I will give myself permission not to do anything creative or work-related for a whole month – unless I really want to.

I hope that, this way, I will rediscover what battles are really important to me, and set in motion the plans I need to tackle them in the New Year.

A musical interlude

I searched for ages for a song that suited this book. I didn’t want to pick a straight anti-war song, as I felt that wouldn’t reflect the time-travel aspect of the plot. But on a list of protest songs I found Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds, and I knew I’d found my track.

The song quotes heavily from the Bible, and the lyrics suggest that there is a time for all things, both good and bad. For me, this matches Billy Pilgrim’s experiences perfectly.

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarTitle: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publication date: 1963

What’s it about?The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood wins a scholarship to work as an intern on a New York fashion magazine, and hopes to subsequently pursue a career in writing. When this does not take off as hoped, she spirals into depression; the novel then charts her experience of mental illness within the psychiatric hospital system.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library.

What did I learn from it?

Some time earlier in the year I became very aware that a lot of the books I’d picked for 2016’s Book Diaries were written by (predominantly American) men. This came to a head when I read On the Road, which describes the experiences of young men travelling – and what I hadn’t realised was that some of the characters indulge in these road trips during college vacations.

I realised I’d read far more about the college experiences of men than women, and so The Bell Jar was a refreshing change in this respect. In it I got to see more of how women approached this time in their lives – and, specifically, what restrictions they faced that were not placed on men. For example, Esther and her fellow magazine interns live in a women-only hotel: even the (male) doctor who attends them when they become ill after a food poisoning outbreak suggests that he is only permitted to be there because of the urgency of the situation.

Towards the end of the novel, Esther visits a doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, in an attempt to free herself from the limitations that a sexual relationship would otherwise threaten her with (pregnancy, marriage to the wrong man). This was a salutary reminder of the impact birth control had on the lives of women who wanted to be more than just a wife and mother.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Given the above, it is not surprising that I found myself with a renewed appreciation of all the advances that have been made by feminism over the decades. Esther’s experiences are already an improvement on earlier times, but 50+ years on from the publication of the novel I am able to pursue a career of my choosing, I am able to live happily child free, and my bank account is mine to do with as I wish.

This is all the more meaningful as I related quite strongly to Esther’s experiences of mental illness, having suffered from depression for a large part of my life (although the extent of mine was nowhere near as extreme as hers). As she talks about her early academic success, her ability to put on a competent face when inside she is struggling, and her difficulty in finding her place in the world as this period of her life draws to a close, I heard uncanny echoes of my own path through life – with the difference that I, now, have many more options available to me.

That said, we still have a long way to go. I recall going to see a (male) doctor, sometime in my mid-twenties, and telling him I thought I was depressed. (My experiences over subsequent years would come to bear this out.) His response? ‘I think you’ve just got yourself into a bit of a tizzy.’

The Bell Jar is a reminder of the importance of fighting for our rights, if we are to make the most of the lives we have been given and not waste our valuable gifts. It is a tragedy that Sylvia Plath did not survive to share more of her gifts with the world.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I put off starting this book as I thought it would be incredibly depressing; however, I have been reminded yet again not to make pre-judgements about books, as in the end I absolutely loved it! For a novel about depression and death it is remarkably full of life and vitality; Plath’s wit sparkles through, and it is the first book I’ve read since Fahrenheit 451 that I found genuinely un-put-down-able.

I’d decided to get it out of the library rather than buy it for myself, as I didn’t want to spend money on something I assumed I would find a struggle. However, I’m now determined to buy a copy to keep – and this made me realise that this would be a fitting tribute to pay to all the books I’ve read for this blog.

This year has been about trying to support the local libraries, but the idea of having an entire bookshelf (or bookcase) dedicated to my Book Diaries collection is very enticing. I will therefore go through my list and note down which books I’m not in possession of – and make an effort to acquire them.

A musical interlude

Although the Police’s Can’t Stand Losing You was the first track to come to mind for this book, I didn’t feel it had quite the right vibe; it seemed to oversimplify and even misrepresent Esther’s situation. I then started to think about the broader themes of the book rather than merely her suicide attempt, and came up with this number by James Brown.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Publication date: 1966

What’s it about?Wide Sargasso Sea

The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and imagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester: the ‘madwoman in the attic’. It traces her story from her childhood in the Caribbean through to her marriage, its deterioration and her subsequent experiences in England.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was a birthday present.

I’ve also made the decision that, from next year, I won’t continue to list the source of my books, as I’m not sure this necessarily adds to the value of the blog posts. They’re either from the university library or the public library, are a present or already on my bookshelves, or I’ve had to buy them especially. I’m not sure there’s much more to say!

What did I learn from it?

Having never read Jane Eyre, I obviously picked up intriguing hints about it from this account of the first Mrs Rochester. I guess most people coming to Wide Sargasso Sea will have read Bronte’s novel previously, and will perhaps see Antoinette’s story from an alternative perspective; but this is my first encounter with her, and so when I come to read Jane Eyre (as I will inevitably have to do at some point), I imagine I’ll view the characters of Jane and Rochester rather differently.

In factual terms, I also learned a certain amount (as always!) about the historical period in which the book is set: that is, shortly after the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire. We see the effect the Slavery Abolition Act had on Caribbean inhabitants of all races, mainly through the eyes of a Creole woman but also through those of an ‘outsider’, Rochester.

Funnily enough, the book I picked up to read after this one was Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair: totally by chance, I promise, unless my subconscious was having a laugh. And it’s thanks to Jean Rhys’s novel that I was able to recognise one of the chapter headings, ‘Thornfield Hall’, as Rochester’s home in England. I’m sure more connections will strike me as I read on.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It reminded me of the reactions I’d had to key characters in two previous Book Diaries reads: the first Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you’ve read those two posts, you’ll recall that I didn’t particularly like either of those characters. At the time I thought this was perhaps because I am an introverted book lover and they are both extroverted party girls; it’s natural that I should stick up for the quiet and the downtrodden against the wild, loud, confident ones who seem to rule the Earth.

However, this novel challenged those feelings. I felt hugely sympathetic towards Antoinette Cosway – and yet at the end I realised that, in the story of Jane Eyre, she must play the part of the wild first wife in much the same way as Rebecca does in du Maurier’s novel. (At least, I have to assume so.) Why, then did I feel so much understanding towards her when I couldn’t towards the other?

The most obvious explanation is that, in Wide Sargasso Sea, we are being told the story from her own perspective, not that of a man or a (biased) successor. Rochester (who is unnamed in this novel) does take up the narration in Part Two, but this is only after we have heard Antoinette describe her own experiences, and seen at first hand how she has been affected and treated by those around her. Rather than feel sympathy for Rochester, therefore, we may view his attitude to her as a further exacerbation of her troubles; although he does appear to have been deceived by his family and friends regarding the marriage, this does not absolve him of all responsibility for the situation.

I’ve been reminded of the valuable lesson that we should not judge another person until we have heard their story from their own lips.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

As I read the novel, I found myself utterly absorbed by the gorgeous verbal pictures Rhys paints of the Caribbean. The vast majority of the book is set in either Jamaica or Dominica, and as the islands are Antoinette’s home, and she feels a strong attachment to them, the overwhelming impression I receive is one of joy, beauty and belonging. The heat, the aromas, the landscape… all contribute to an image of a place that I find myself thinking it would be a delight to visit.

And so I’ve found a potential focus for my next big holiday. Having just come back from a three-week road trip, it’s going to be some time before we can afford to go off on another long-haul jaunt – but the Caribbean has just found its way to the top of my list for when we do make those plans.

Given that I need to write an update in three months’ time to say whether or not I achieved this change (which clearly isn’t going to be possible), I will commit to at least starting up a holiday fund: putting away a certain amount of money each month towards this specific goal. It may be small, but it’s a step in the right direction: and that’s really what the Book Diaries are all about.

A musical interlude

I’m not entirely happy with this song choice, as it captures Rochester’s view of Antoinette rather than her true nature. However, the vibe of the track fits the overall mood of the book – hot and sultry – so I’m sticking with it.

It’s Black Magic Woman by Santana.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeTitle: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Publication date: 1962

A Clockwork OrangeWhat’s it about?

Teenage Alex lives in a dystopian society and regularly indulges in bouts of ‘ultra-violence’ with his three ‘droogs’, or friends. Arrested and imprisoned for murder, he undergoes a psychological conditioning technique that is almost as vicious as his own behaviour. He is released back into the world, but finding his place – and establishing his identity – within it is not as easy as it once was.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was on my bookshelves; I ‘borrowed’ it from my parents some years ago, but this is the first time I’ve read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that ‘nadsat’, the teenage slang spoken by Alex and his friends, is based largely on Russian. This was very interesting, as I studied Russian at school, and so a lot of the terminology in the novel was familiar to me. I don’t know whether this is why I didn’t find the book particularly difficult to read, despite significant chunks of it being written in nadsat; or whether it is simply that the invented language makes sense in its own context.

As I mentioned last year in my post on The Lord of the Rings, languages were my best subject at school and I’ve always been interested in how language can be used to convey meaning and nuance. Reading this book, and realising that I can figure out what Burgess’s made-up words mean purely from the context in which they are used, is fascinating – and a reminder that we don’t need to be able to speak the same language to understand one another.

Think of international road signs, which use symbols and colour to convey important information to a variety of linguistic groups. Think of sign language, which uses gesture and expression. Although our species has evolved to a point where many different word systems are used around the globe to communicate increasingly nuanced messages, it is testament to something deeper in the human spirit that we can still connect even when our words make no sense.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This novel deals to a large extent with the issue of free will, and poses the question: is it better to live in a world where everyone is forced to be good, or to permit human freedom and accept that some may use this freedom for evil?

Alex is conditioned, while in prison, to suffer extreme pain and sickness when he contemplates violent acts; this is designed to force him to adopt more socially acceptable behaviours. This clearly touches on the issue of how far a governing authority may intrude upon the life of an individual for the benefit of society as a whole. Of couse, there is no one right answer, and as such this is a popular theme for science fiction writers: for other takes on it, see The Minority Report by Philip K Dick and the episode ‘Charmageddon‘ from the TV series Charmed.

This topic is a key one for human life and development generally, as we make greater and greater discoveries in the sciences and ask ourselves, ‘just how far should we go?’ Any scientific advance, from nuclear fusion to stem cell research to the internet, has the potential to be used either for good or for evil. Do we refrain from developing a technique that could improve or even save lives, simply out of fear that it could be turned against us? Or do we go for it and trust to our mutual humanity to protect us from the worst possible outcomes?

A Clockwork Orange has reminded me that these are questions we all face every day, even those of us who are not government scientists. Any word we speak or act we commit could be misinterpreted and used to cause harm – but is that a reason to remain silent and passive? I don’t think so. I think the key may be greater mindfulness – but even as I write, I know the answer isn’t as simple as that. Yet even if I don’t have the answers, I certainly feel that this book has given me a greater awareness of the questions.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’ve been reminded of my love for languages; specifically, my interest in clever word-play and new worlds and systems dreamed up by imaginative writers. One of those authors, mentioned above, is JRR Tolkien, and there is a huge pile of Tolkien-related research out there just waiting to be read, digested and mulled over by geeky types such as myself.

A little while ago I purchased two volumes of conference proceedings from this field of study, which a Tolkien society was disposing of for a small fee. I’ve not yet made time to read any of the papers, as this random interest has never quite made its way to the top of my priority list; but when I come back from holiday, I am going to make a serious effort to dig out some of the research into Tolkien’s language building and get stuck in.

I can’t promise that I won’t get distracted by other Tolkien topics along the way, but the point is that I will actively make time for a fun project that usually gets discarded – but which I will hugely regret if I never indulge myself.

A musical interlude

This song sprang to mind almost instantly, despite my not thinking it had any particular connection with the novel other than the general vibe. But then I read on Wikipedia that the ‘themes and imagery in the band’s songs were often influenced by futuristic, dystopian or post-apocalyptic films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Terminator, Blade Runner and the Mad Max trilogy’ – and it suddenly all made sense.

I should also admit that I remember seeing this on Top of the Pops when I was growing up, so there is a definite element of nostalgia playing out here… It’s Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill A MockingbirdTitle: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publication date: 1960

What’s it about?To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout Finch and her brother Jem live with their father Atticus, a lawyer, in a quiet Southern US town. Against a backdrop of childhood summers spent inventing games and being fascinated by local recluse Boo Radley, Scout narrates the tale of her father’s most controversial case: one destined to bring out the worst – and also the best – in their friends and neighbours.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library… again… But rest assured some new sources will come into play from next month onwards!

What did I learn from it?

You know how you can suddenly experience a flash of insight, which, when you think about it, you realise is actually something you’ve always known? That’s kind of what happened here.

I was mulling over the character of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, and how refreshing it was to see a ‘weirdo’ not portrayed as ultimately bad or untrustworthy, but in fact genuinely nice and kind (if a little eccentric). No evil villain with captive damsels in his basement or terrifying plans to run amok with a firearm – just a timid guy who prefers to keep himself to himself.

It struck me that if anyone is going to appreciate the quirks of the loner, it is likely to be a writer. While some writers may be the life and soul of the party, writing itself is a solitary pursuit, one that is undertaken at a time and in a manner peculiar to each individual. So it should not come as a surprise that a fictional oddball should receive a sympathetic rather than a judgemental treatment from the person wielding the pen.

In our modern world of social media, where every innermost thought is expected to be turned into a post, a meme or a humorous image, and where the introverted, the unconventional and the idiosyncratic are increasingly regarded with suspicion, it makes a refreshing change to see one of the great recluses of literature turn out to be, in his own way, as much of a hero as Atticus Finch.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The joy of To Kill A Mockingbird lies in the childlike perspective of Scout, the narrator. We watch the unfolding of events in her town through a child’s eyes, which naturally do not see as much of the world’s ugliness as those of the adults around her – and yet perhaps they see more clearly than those that have grown tainted with racial and other prejudice.

Scout and Jem, although gradually exposed to the unpleasantness surrounding them (and being personally involved in the final climactic showdown), are essentially kept at arm’s length from the worst of the troubles – and I think this is largely due to the protection they receive from their father. Although we, as adults, are aware of the challenges Atticus must be facing in his work, we read about them with a casual lightheartedness that can only come from a child who is sheltered from the true horrors of what grown-ups are capable of doing to each other.

This reminds me that there are several ways in which even we adults may be protected from the more troublesome elements of life; and how this is so important for finding the strength to go on.

Whether it’s a boss who protects us from the frustrating vagaries of an organisation that it’s not our job to have to negotiate; a parent or spouse who takes care of complicated family relations to smooth the way for us; or a writer who holds our hand through new experiences, so that we get a feel for what is out there without having to walk through the fire ourselves… all these people make it easier for us to navigate the world, to venture on to fresh paths with some of the danger and uncertainty removed, and to have the confidence to strike out in ways we may have been too fearful to attempt before.

This book has given me a renewed appreciation for all the people throughout my life, from childhood to adulthood, who have protected me from things that might have stopped me from becoming who I am now. I am here because of them, and I will not forget this.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things!

  1. Bearing in mind my above comments about how writing can help us figure out a path through life, I’ve determined that next year will not just be the year I write my novel: it will also be the year I get some short stories down on paper. I’ve had several ideas for ‘what if?’-style speculative fiction, and I’d like to think these ideas will encourage my readers to look anew at a familiar subject and consider how the world could be different, and (who knows?) better – and then go and make it so.
  2. I frequently take walks out in the country, and often use this time to work through issues, generate ideas and solve problems. However, I’m very aware that in doing this I’m missing out on the sheer enjoyment of being in nature for itself alone. And so I’m going to take a lesson from the children in To Kill A Mockingbird and attempt to savour the moment. I won’t necessarily be making up games as I walk, but I’ll definitely try to put aside some of my adult cares and appreciate what I’ve got while I’ve got it.

A musical interlude

Totally off at a tangent, this one – and yet at the same time, completely obvious. It’s Wake Up Boo! by the Boo Radleys.

It’s also quite appropriate, as Wikipedia describes it as being a ‘song about the change from summer to autumn’ – which, as I’m writing this on the first day of September, is precisely where we are.

Naked Lunch

Naked LunchTitle: Naked Lunch
Author: William S Burroughs
Publication date: 1959

Note

It’s become increasingly difficult to pinpoint genres for the books I’m reading this year, as several of them seem to be best served by the description ‘general fiction’. As Naked Lunch kind of defies categorisation altogether (unless it is ‘Beat fiction’), I’m therefore going to stop including this element in my posts from now on. I will, however, continue to tag them with suitable keywords.

What’s it about?Naked Lunch

The novel is a loosely connected series of vignettes, which (according to the author) can be read in any order. They tell the story of a junkie, his travels around America and the wider world, and the people he encounters along the way. It is incredibly surreal.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library again! What would I do without this place?

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I should never make assumptions about a book before reading it!

I fondly imagined last year, when I successfully turned over the final page of Ulysses, that the most difficult reading experience of my life was behind me. Not so. I opened Naked Lunch with the vague awareness that it was (a) about a junkie and (b) a bit surreal. However, at no point had I expected it to be quite as weird as it was.

I’d seen the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (by Hunter S Thompson) and had got it into my head that Naked Lunch would be similar. And it is, in a way. Both are stories of travels and increasingly bizarre events experienced through a drug-induced haze. However, the film felt more cohesive – probably because films have to be, to attract funding and gain/retain audiences – whereas when I’d finished Naked Lunch, I wasn’t at all sure that I hadn’t just come round to the beginning again (or the middle, or somewhere else entirely). But I guess that’s how Burroughs intended it.

So I really, really struggled with this one. Instead of a slightly odd tale of junkies and other colourful characters, I found a writhing mass of weird, sometimes brutal, sometimes pornographic imagery that conjured up blurred, fantastical snapshots of a world that was totally alien to me, even if I could figure out what was going on (which, a great deal of the time, I couldn’t).

I don’t think I dare make any assumptions about the remaining books on this year’s list…

How did it make me see the world differently?

It gave me an insight into what it might be like to be a drug addict – but then made me realise that, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, there are some life experiences I will never even begin to understand.

Reading books and talking to people from different backgrounds are often suggested (by myself as much as anyone) as ways of getting to know the world outside your front door; of gaining understanding of – and therefore empathy for – those in unrelated and unfamiliar circumstances. If we cannot live a myriad of lives, we can at least talk to those who do live them; and if we can’t meet the people, we can at least read about them.

However, Naked Lunch brought it sharply home to me that, no matter how much I read about the experiences, feelings and thought processes of those addicted to various hard drugs, a true understanding of what it must be like to experience this every day simply eludes me. The flights of fancy in the novel are partly due to Burroughs’ writing style, but also to the life he has lived – which is far beyond anything I have ever encountered.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books to learn about the world. I’m certainly not so desperate to know what life is like for others that I’ll undergo their own trials and tribulations to find out. But it certainly doesn’t do any harm to remember that, whatever we think we know of people from the stories told about them (or that they tell about themselves), we can never, ever, really know what it is like to be them.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

While I was getting to grips with figuring out what on earth was going on here, the one thing that kept me going was the author’s use of language and imagery. Even though I didn’t understand half of the situations and events that were being rolled out in front of me, I could still tag along by letting the visual pictures wash over me and carry me forward with them. In this way it was similar to Ulysses, where I also gave up any attempt to make linear sense of the action and just went with the flow – and ultimately got the gist.

This is seriously inspiring stuff for any writer. I’m very conscious that these blog posts are essentially quite prosaic: I want to get my message across as simply and directly as possible; and also, with one post to write every fortnight, I don’t feel there’s much time in my schedule for working on my style. There’s normally so much going on inside my head that merely unravelling the threads and getting a blog post published feels like an achievement.

However, this book has caused me to see things differently. I need to practise my writing for its own sake, to go beyond a basic attempt to translate the contents of my head into something less resembling Klingon to the average reader, and to create a work of art in and of itself.

I can’t promise I will manage this with these posts; it may be that I simply step up my plans to do more creative writing and liberate my own flights of fancy that way. My novel is pencilled in for next year, and also a few short stories if I can really get into gear. Let’s see what kind of style emerges…

A musical interlude

I nearly didn’t pick the song I’ve opted for this week, because I’d already chosen a track by the same artist for a recent post. However, it struck me that the book in the other post was from the same era and same ‘school’ of writing as Naked Lunch, so I thought that it might be rather appropriate after all.

The previous book is On the Road, another Beat novel, and the song accompanying the post was The Passenger by Iggy Pop. Can you guess which track came instantly to mind for Naked Lunch? It’s probably most well known for its use in a seminal film about heroin users in Scotland: Trainspotting.

Yes, you guessed it. It’s Lust For Life.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany'sTitle: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Author: Truman Capote
Publication date: 1958
Genre: Novella

What’s it about?Breakfast at Tiffany's

The narrator moves into an apartment in New York City and meets fellow tenant Holly Golightly, a ‘girl about town’. Holly treads very lightly in the world; she hosts regular parties, courts a number of mysterious gentlemen friends, and seems not to want to get tied down – yet. The narrator gets to know her – and finds out more about her background and upbringing – before Holly disappears as quickly and elusively as she has come.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library again. Due to a system upgrade they’re running at the moment, I get to keep it for longer than normal, so I might even dip into the other short stories included in this volume.

What did I learn from it?

I was reminded of the wonders of serendipity that the Book Diaries have brought me over the past year and a half, and the strange connections I’ve made between seemingly unconnected books.

Do you remember the Two Ronnies’ ‘Mastermind’ sketch, where Ronnie Corbett’s specialist subject is ‘Answering the Question Before Last’? I feel as though something similar has been happening with the last few books I’ve been reading.

When I read Lolita, the one thing I took away from it was, perhaps surprisingly, the road trips that the two protagonists go on. Fast forward to my next book, On the Road, and… well, you can see the link.

What did I take away from On the Road? The sense that I felt a little apart from everyone else around me, that I wanted to tread lightly on the world, not make too many commitments, and would run away the minute someone tried to pin me down. Fast forward to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that’s not a million miles away from a description of Holly Golightly herself.

I doubt this will continue. You can read what I’m going to take away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s further down the page – but I’d be very surprised if it had any connection whatsoever with my next book: Naked Lunch. Although you never know… Time will tell!

How did it make me see the world differently?

I was expecting to love the book and the character of Holly, probably because so many people have expressed such fond opinions of Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of her in the film version (which I haven’t seen). So I was surprised when, actually, I didn’t.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the book – I did. And I certainly warmed to Holly a little more towards the end, as we discover more of her story and understand (perhaps) why she is the way she is. It’s also very peculiar to admit to not being keen on someone who I recognise is very like me in several ways (see above). In fact, it’s not just peculiar – it’s downright disturbing.

But I can’t escape the fact that when I first met the character, I really didn’t like her at all. Whether it was the shallowness, the using of people for her own ends, the value she places on monetary acquisitions… I’m not sure, but it did bring me up quite sharply as I questioned why I was reacting like this.

I guess Holly was a product of her background and the time she grew up in, when women didn’t have the freedoms they have now, and had to depend more on men (and specifically men with money) to scrape together a life of their own. But something still grated. Oddly, as my teeth were grinding, I recalled my reaction to the title character in another of my Book Diaries books: Rebecca.

Back then I was aware that we were probably meant to relate more to the feisty dead first wife than to her mousy replacement – but I didn’t. I did wonder at the time whether I was somehow ripping up every advance feminism had ever made, with my desire for a quiet life, and to hell with the parties and the staking of claims and the loud assertions of my rightful place in the world.

And it’s happened again with Breakfast at Tiffany’s: that disturbing feeling that I’ve somehow let down womankind by wrinkling my nose at this model of desire and attraction, whom everyone in the world apart from me seems to love. But this time there is a difference. Rebecca was written by a woman – Daphne du Maurier – and Holly Golightly has been written by a man: Truman Capote. And I started to wonder whether Holly is a male fantasy; in other words, she appeals more to men than to women.

I really don’t know, and unless I embark on a serious study of the characters and themes and psychosocial explorations in these two books, I probably never will. But I did become more acutely aware that most of the books I’ve read for the Book Diaries have been written by what might disparagingly be called ‘old white men’. And this has given me a fresh kick up the behind for selecting my theme for next year.

I’m not going to reveal it just yet, but I’ve settled on my choice and will be announcing it in due course. And I’ll likely need input from others when it comes to picking my 24 books… so keep your eyes peeled and you could really help me out!

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

This is going to seem fairly prosaic after the above insights into my soul, but the one image that I can’t shake from my mind after reading this book is that of a giant bird cage. The narrator sees it in the window of an antique shop, and Holly buys it for him as a gift. This (rather embarrassingly, given my earlier comments about monetary acquisitiveness) reminds me of an ornamental bird cage that I saw in a shop a couple of months ago and failed to buy for myself – and now keep wishing I had. (It was designed for candles rather than birds, but still…)

So the thing I’m going to do, to turn this less-than-admirable hankering into something good, is to focus instead on the presents I buy for other people. As I don’t live near my family, I’m guilty of not getting them gifts at the time of their birthday, instead saying ‘I’ll get you something I can bring you in person, and I’ll come and visit’ – and then never visiting. There must be all sorts of things that I could buy and put in the post – but I always end up delaying, and then having to ‘double up’ at Christmas to make up for it.

This is a terrible habit, so I’m going to promise, here and now, that I will change. I will buy presents for my family at the time of their birthday, and will either post the gifts on time or make a real effort to visit.

A musical interlude

This song by Kirsty MacColl popped into my head as I was mulling over my reaction to Holly Golightly. The interesting thing about a literary character is that you don’t know what happens to them after the events of the book – but this describes the kind of life I can imagine her having in her later, less attractive years.